10 Alleged Russian Secret Agents Arrested In U.S.

The Justice Department has arrested 10 people it says worked as secret agents inside the United States. They are alleged to have worked to obtain information for Russia — part of an espionage program in which they had long-term "deep cover" assignments inside the U.S. None, however, has been charged with espionage but instead face lesser penalties. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston talks to Melissa Block about the case.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And now to a story that sounds like a spy novel from John Le Carre. Ten people have been arrested in four states and charged with spying for Russia. Eight of them were allegedly carrying out long-term deep cover assignments in the U.S. on behalf of Russia. Two others were allegedly trained in a Russian intelligence program here in the U.S.

And NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us to talk about this.

Dina, what specifically have these people been charged with?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, interestingly, they haven't been charged with espionage. What this looks like is the FBI cracked a secret agent ring in the U.S. that they'd been tracking for some time. So these 10 people have been charged with acting as agents of a foreign government without notifying the Justice Department, and that's required by law.

So in other words, if you're working for Russia as a member of the consulate or the embassy, you need to register as an agent. And these people apparently were gathering information for the Russians, so they were agents that hadn't registered, and that carries a maximum penalty of five years.

BLOCK: Just looking through the criminal complaint, Dina, the names, Richard Murphy, Cynthia Murphy, Donald Heathfield, they - the complaint says they purport to be U.S. citizens. Do you know more about who these folks are?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It's very unclear. For example, one of the things that the complaint says is that they got a search warrant to get into a safety deposit box. And in that safety deposit box was a birth certificate for one of these purported Americans. They took that birth certificate number and checked it against records in Philadelphia, where apparently it had been issued, and that person didn't exist. So it's very unclear whether or not these are actually Americans.

BLOCK: Do you know, Dina, if sensitive information was, in fact, passed to the Russians?

TEMPLE-RASTON: It seems like it hasn't been. Intelligence sources told me that there was no, what they call, infiltration, but apparently these people were moving in that direction. And that was the problem. I mean, you're talking about 10 people in four different states. There were agents in Boston, others in New Jersey and New York, another in Washington. So this is quite broad-based.

BLOCK: And what access would they have had to information that the Russians may have wanted?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Very unclear. I mean, they were supposed to be under, what they call, deep cover. So basically, they were supposed to infiltrate, you know, policymakers is what they were supposed to be doing, whatever that means. I mean, does that mean going to Brookings Institute and listening to lectures? Very unclear.

But they were supposed to seem like regular Americans, that was the idea. And then theoretically, they would get some sort of information that would be passed along to the Russians. But according to my sources, nothing sensitive ever changed hands.

BLOCK: And once the FBI discovered this alleged spy ring, what happened to lead them to these defendants?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, I think they have been following them for some time. Apparently, the FBI calls this The Illegals Program. They decrypted a message from something called the Moscow Center, which sounds just like out of a spy novel, but essentially this was the heart of a Russian intelligence center.

And I'll read you a section from what apparently this message said. It said: You were sent to the USA for a long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house, et cetera, all of these serve one goal - fulfilling your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circle in U.S., send intels to C, which means send intelligence reports to the center.

BLOCK: And, Dina, beyond these 10 folks arrested, is the investigation continuing to assume there would be other defendants that might be part of this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, apparently, there's one other person who is at large that they're searching for, and they don't know if he's in this country or not. I think this is just the beginning. They have not actually answered the charges. And I think we'll learn more in the coming days.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

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