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Russian spies: High-tech gear, plus old Cold War methods

The accused Russian spies arrested this week used a combination of very advanced methods and equipment as well as old-style spycraft like the 'dead drop.'

By Staff writer / June 29, 2010

FBI agents outside 35B Trowbridge Road in Cambridge, Mass., a residence owned by Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley. Heathfield and Foley were arrested Sunday by the FBI on allegations of being Russian spies.

Richard Stanley/AP



The accused Russian spies arrested by the US on Monday used a wide range of espionage techniques. Some were high tech, such as steganography – communication via encrypted text embedded in website photos. But many were cold-war-era golden oldies, such as brush-passes, in which agents hand off identical bags in crowded places; radiograms, which involve burst transmissions over shortwave transmitters; and that old favorite, the dead drop.

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Why is it called a “dead” drop? Because it involves one person dropping off something at a pre-arranged location, and a second person picking it up after the first has left. If the two meet face-to-face it’s called a live drop.

Anyway, traditional methods were a hallmark of the KGB during the years of the Soviet Union. That appears to have persisted with the SVR, Russia’s intelligence service. Here are some highlights of that long history of tradecraft, as recounted by FBI historians.

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THE HOLLOW NICKEL. In 1953 the FBI obtained a curious artifact – a hollow nickel that contained a microphotograph of 10 columns of typewritten numbers. A newsboy had received the nickel in change while collecting from a customer.

The hollow nickel had been made from two coins with a tiny hole drilled through the “R” in the word “Trust.” For four years, US intelligence tried to decipher the numbers and solve the mystery of the nickel, to no avail.

Finally, in 1957, a key appeared in the person of Reino Hayhanen, a Soviet spy who defected to the US rather than return to the USSR. The KGB had supplied Hayhanen with a hollow Finnish coin for dead drops that was marked by the same tiny hole as the nickel. With this hint, the FBI finally decrypted the message, which turned out to be a welcome-to-the-US letter for Hayhanen from his Moscow superiors.

Hayhanen eventually led agents to one of his spy masters in the US, Col. Rudolf Abel. Convicted of espionage, Colonel Abel was swapped in 1962 for captured US U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

WALKIE-TALKIES AND FAKE BRICKS. In 1970, a Grumman aircraft engineer who lived in the New York area struck up a friendship with a Russian who introduced himself as Sergey Petrov. Petrov claimed to be a translator of scientific documents at the United Nations.

Petrov was quite interested in the engineer’s work on the design of the new F-14 Navy fighter. He asked for any documents related to the plane – and said he’d pay the engineer a stipend if things went well.