Russian spy case 'right out of a John le Carré novel'

The FBI arrested 11 people last week in a Russian spy case, according to court documents unsealed Monday. The alleged spies were on 'long-term deep-cover assignments,' the documents say.

Elizabeth Williams/AP
In this courtroom sketch, Anna Chapman, left, Vicky Pelaez, second from left, the defendant known as 'Richard Murphy,' center, the defendant known as 'Cynthia Murphy,' second from right, and the defendant known as 'Juan Lazaro' are seen in Manhattan federal court in New York, Monday. The Murphys, Lazaro, and Pelaez are among the 10 people the FBI arrested Monday for allegedly serving for years as Russian spies, with the goal of penetrating US government policymaking circles.

At just about the same time President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were chowing down at Ray’s Hell Burger in Washington Thursday, FBI agents were closing in a Russian spy ring.

With one of the alleged spies about ready to leave the country Sunday, the FBI closed in, arresting 10 people – some of who had been in the US sending intelligence back to Moscow for a long time, according to court papers unsealed Monday.

The court papers offer details on their lives and activities: Many of those arrested were couples sent to the US with fake identification, using American names like Murphy and Heathfield and Foley. Some names were picked from deceased individuals. And some raised families to an attempt to blend in.

In addition, the spy ring told handlers back in Moscow that they had gotten information from a former US legislative counsel to Congress on turnover at the head of the CIA, made contact with an individual who works for a US research facility that works on small yield, high penetration nuclear warheads, and planned to start to build a network of students in Washington. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misstated the agency where high-level turnover is said to have occurred.]

From the court papers it does not appear that any of the spies provided the same sort of information as former FBI agent Robert Hanssen who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2002 for spying for the Soviet Union and Russia for two decades. His spying played a role in the deaths of at least three US spies.

“It’s right out of a John le Carré novel,” says Stan Twardy, a former US attorney for the state of Connecticut and now a partner at Day Pitney LLP in Stamford, Conn. “It will interesting to see how it plays out next couple of days and weeks from an international point of view and law enforcement point of view.”

What's next for the accused

From a law enforcement point of view, the US is expected to convene a grand jury to issue an indictment.

On Friday, the US issued a complaint. According to a Justice Department spokesman, Dean Boyd, an indictment sometimes follows a criminal complaint within 30 days. The complaint charges the 10 people – an eleventh person is still being sought – with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian federation. Nine of the individuals are also charged with money laundering.

It’s not clear if Mr. Obama knew about the spy ring as he was meeting with Mr. Medvedev. But Mr. Twardy says it would be normal to brief people in the White House and State Department.

The Justice Department is opposed to any bail for the individuals, the Justice Department's Mr. Boyd says.

The court papers say the accused individuals were on “long-term deep-cover assignments.”

It’s fairly clear the FBI was on to this group for some time. The FBI monitored conversations within their homes, listened to their short-wave radio broadcasts, and watched group members make secret exchanges with members of the Russian delegation.

It does not appear any of the accused individuals ever got a job in the US government that would give them access to top secret information. The court papers say they were concerned that their fake identities would be discovered in a background check. So, instead, they tried to insinuate themselves into the company of high level policymakers.

The life of an alleged spy

One of the papers details how one of the defendants, “Cynthia Murphy,” had several work-related personal meetings with a prominent New York financier who was active in fundraising and was a personal friend of an unnamed cabinet official.

Moscow Center checked out the financier and called him “a very interesting target.” The spies handlers in Moscow advised "Ms. Murphy" to “try to build up a little by little relations with him moving beyond just (work) framework. Maybe he can provide (Murphy) with remarks re US foreign policy, roumors (stet) about White House internal kitchen, invite her to venues (to major political party HQ in NYC, for instance,…etc. In short consider carefully all options in regard to (financier).”

The documents also show the stresses and strains on the individuals. In one exchange, the “Murphys” tell Moscow they would like to purchase the house where they are living in Montclair, N.J. However, the Russians want it to be owned by Moscow Center. The Murphys remind them owning a house is considered a symbol of status in the US, but they accede to Moscow’s wishes.

In another exchange, one of the alleged spies, “Juan Lazaro,” is complaining to his female companion, “Vicky Pelaez,” that Moscow does not like his information because it does not have any sources named in it. Ms. Pelaez then yells at him, “Put down any politician from here!” And, Mr. Lazaro apparently agrees, adding, “I’m going to give them what they want. But, I’m going to continue what I’m telling them.”


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