In this courtroom sketch, some of the defendants are seen in Manhattan federal court in New York on Monday. They are among 11 people the FBI has arrested for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia's intelligence agency, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles.
In this courtroom sketch, some of the defendants are seen in Manhattan federal court in New York on Monday. They are among 11 people the FBI has arrested for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia's intelligence agency, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles. Elizabeth Williams/AP
The Justice Department complaints against 11 Russians accused of acting as unregistered foreign agents are filled with spy novel elements such as bag drops and encoded messages.
But the real question is why the Russian foreign intelligence agency, the SVR, used undercover agents to seek information about U.S. policy and technology that was, for the most part, easily available.
Prosecutors said the alleged Russian agents were focused on gathering intelligence about the Obama administration's foreign policy, particularly toward Russia.
The type of facts the alleged agents sought could be gathered by graduate students, suggests Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. "What they were after is very common," he says. "You can go to conferences or read the papers."
So why go to the trouble and expense to set up fake identities over a period of years? The suspects, whose number include four married couples, worked in fields such as finance and media. Some had lived in the U.S. for two decades. Ten were arrested Monday in the New York area, Boston and Virginia, while police in Cyprus arrested the 11th suspect Tuesday.
Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that the whole exercise was a hangover of the Cold War — both in terms of treating the United States as an adversary and in demonstrating the bureaucratic spy mind-set at play.
"This reflected the mentality of the institution that is willing to spend millions and millions of dollars to get readily available information," Cohen says. "Moreover, it reflects the mentality in Russia that only what is gained by agents, by spies, is valid, not what the much more sophisticated civilian analysts can offer."
Russia denounced the U.S. arrests and also evoked the Cold War comparison. "These actions are unfounded and pursue unseemly goals," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We don't understand the reasons which prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to make a public statement in the spirit of Cold War-era spy stories."
Trying To Fit In
The 11 Russians did their best to blend into American society. Their neighbors have told reporters that they couldn't believe they were spies, because of how nicely they grew hydrangeas or because two of the alleged spies have a teenage son "who is actually a very talented pianist."
Although the Russians may have gone to unusual lengths in posing as ordinary Americans, this is not a new idea. Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy who passed along coded messages stuffed into hollow coins during the 1950s, posed for years as a photographer in Brooklyn.
During the Cold War, such agents were called moles or spies. Today, what the Russians call "illegals," the U.S. calls NOCs – spies with nonofficial covers.
An official cover might be a day job at an embassy. Such spies are still common and offer certain advantages NOCs do not. It's easier to communicate with them and if and when they are caught they enjoy diplomatic immunity.
But the problem with relying on spies with official cover, says Mark Lowenthal, a former State Department intelligence official, is that it's too obvious. "Everybody assumes if you work at the embassy you're a spy," he says.
The United States is "turning more and more to NOCs for the type of information we want," says Lowenthal, who is now president of the Intelligence & Security Academy, a training and consulting firm. "If you're there under cover that shows no apparent connection with the embassy, you're more likely to make the type of contacts we need now," to infiltrate terrorist organizations, for example.
The only rules, he says, is that you aren't allowed to pose as clergy or a Peace Corps volunteer.
Spying By Lobbying
The curious thing about the Russian spy ring is not that they were operating outside of official channels, but that they were seeking information that was fairly open. "For they type of stuff they were after, I wouldn't send a spy," Lowenthal says. "If I want to know U.S. policy in Iran, I could read a newspaper."
That's what makes the case unusual. Rather than hunting traditional types of information about a subject like weapons through industrial spying, the Russians allegedly sought to understand policymaking — the interaction between Congress and think tanks and the rest of the influence industry.
They acted at times more like lobbyists than traditional spies, trying to gain access to people who have access to people with power.
According to a Justice Department complaint, Cynthia Murphy, part of the contingent of Russian suspects based in New Jersey, had several meetings with an unnamed New York financier.
"The message accurately described the financier as 'prominent in politics,' 'an active fundraiser for [a major political party, name omitted],' and 'a personal friend of [a current Cabinet official, name omitted],' " according to the complaint.
Still, Aron, the AEI Russian studies scholar, calls the use of deep undercover activities to glean information about policy and the relationships between power players "bizarre."
"Giving deep cover, with strangely nonlethal or non-hard intelligence goals, is what puzzles me," he says. "We don't know at this point why it was done this way."