FBI Arrests 10 Alleged Russian Secret Agents

The Justice Department says 10 people have been arrested as possible "secret agents" for Russia. They allegedly had "deep cover" assignments and were supposed to infiltrate American policy-making circles. There is no indication yet that any important information was compromised.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Now to a story that sounds like a spy novel from an earlier era. The FBI has arrested 10 people who were allegedly Russian spies carrying out deep-cover assignments in the U.S. They were supposed to blend into the fabric of American life in order to eventually deliver secrets to Russian intelligence. This morning, Russia's foreign ministry called the allegations baseless. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is here with us to tell us the latest.

Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, this does sound like something straight out of the Cold War. I mean, who were these people, and how much did they seem to be suburban Americans?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, according to the criminal complaint, they are described as purported to be American, or naturalized Americans. I mean, in some cases, you know, they'd been here for decades. Some were married; some were single.

The FBI got a warrant and searched a safety deposit box of one of the suspects, and they found a birth certificate inside. And it was supposed to be for someone born in Philadelphia. But when they checked the birth certificate number, that person didn't exist. So that's why officials think these people were probably originally of Russian descent and aren't Americans, as their documents purport them to be.

MONTAGNE: Well, they were here, as you say, a long time, but did they indeed pass along any secrets?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, intelligence sources tell me that these people never infiltrated. In other words, they never got the critical information passed along to the Russians. Apparently, they weren't even assigned to get classified information. Instead, they were supposed to get little tidbits of information, the kind of stuff that you hear at dinner parties with officials. They tried to get things like background information about people who applied for jobs at the CIA, or the U.S. position on the new strategic arms treaty. And they were supposed to make friends with people who could get them into policymaking circles.

And because of that, they weren't charged with espionage. They've been charged with something much less - which is acting as an agent for a foreign government without notifying the proper authorities, which carries a five-year sentence. And by law, you have to register if you're actually acting for a foreign country. They've been charged, also, with money laundering because they accepted money to do this project allegedly, and money laundering carries a 20-year sentence.

MONTAGNE: But how would they have been in touch with these policymakers? I mean, it's hard for me to be in touch with policymakers. What were they doing that would give them that sort of access?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it's actually a lot of the same thing that we do as journalists. You know, you call someone. You have lunch with them. You make friends with them through mutual friends. And I think the idea was that they'd sort of be sitting across the table from one of these policymakers, who may be a former policymaker, and pick up some little tidbit of information that could be used for Russian intelligence.

MONTAGNE: But their jobs were purporting to be professors or some likely person who could make a phone call like that?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. One of them was actually a journalist for a Spanish-language paper here in the New York area. So, you know, their covers were things that conceivably, they could be running with these kinds of people. But I'm not really sure what kind of big piece of information they really expected to get.

MONTAGNE: Although, from what I understand, there appear to be a few, you know, like, old-fashioned - you know, dropping a bag, you know, and it being picked up - very, very traditional methodology that was going on.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And invisible ink. And then there was sort of a high-tech part of this as well, which apparently, they would take private networks from one computer to another, and sort of pass by each other and with special, encrypted software, drop messages off to each other.

I mean, what's really unclear is what these messages really said, because they clearly haven't been charged with espionage, so you have to wonder what the details were.

What's so remarkable about this is that these people, these alleged spies, looked like typical suburban people living in Boston and suburban Washington and in Yonkers, New York. And no one suspected - in the least - that there might be something like this going on.

MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks very much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.

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