Alleged Russian Spy Saga Fuels Intrigue

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Eleven people have been accused of spying for Russia. Most allegedly had "deep-cover" assignments and were supposed to blend in inside the United States and report back to their handlers inside the Russian intelligence service. One of them was a woman named Vicky Pelaez of Yonkers, N.Y., a columnist at a Spanish-language newspaper.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. And now a story that could well be called "Moscow on the Hudson." As we've been reporting, the FBI has arrested 11 people it says were under deep cover for the Russians. Among those they arrested were a South American couple from Yonkers, New York.

People who knew Vicki Pelaez and Juan Lazaro say they can't believe the two were spies, but those who understand clandestine operations say no one should be surprised that there are still secret agents among us.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Anyone who picked up a copy of El Diario La Prensa, New York's largest Spanish-language daily, would have heard of Vicki Pelaez. She'd been a reporter and columnist at the paper for 20 years.

So imagine the reaction of her colleagues when they found out that she and her husband were arrested this week as Russian agents.

Mr. GERSON BORRERO (Columnist, El Diario La Prensa): Shocked, surprised, incredulous. I just felt that there's got to be something wrong here.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gerson Borrero, her former editor at El Diario La Prensa and a columnist at the paper.

Mr. BORRERO: I thought it was a joke. I started - quite frankly, there was a reaction, a part of me started at some point laughing. She's just like any other journalist. She happens to be writing in Spanish but nothing out of the norm, nothing that would indicate to me that she was a part of this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But according to the criminal complaint, Palaez and her husband, John Lazaro, were part of an operation known as the illegals. Their assignment, allegedly, was to blend in and then gather tidbits of information, the kind of intelligence you might get from an offhand remark from officials or policymakers at a dinner party in Washington or New York.

U.S. officials got court permission to bug their conversations. Allegedly, the couple talked about money they got from their Russian handlers. Authorities picked up electronic clicking sounds the FBI says are associated with coded radio transmissions. Lazaro allegedly talked about writing messages in invisible ink.

If all this sounds like outdate tradecraft, there's a reason. Kimberly Marten, a Russian intelligence expert at Barnard College, says that Vicki Palaez and her husband were holdover spies from a bygone era.

Ms. KIMBERLY MARTEN (Russian Intelligence Expert, Barnard College): Bureaucracies have a tendency to replicate themselves, and I would guess based on what we know that this was not a very high-level operation. It was probably something that the Russian state had essentially forgotten about, and so that meant that it would just cook along on its normal path until somebody decided to stop it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The FBI apparently did put a stop to it. It charged the people in the case with money laundering and failing to register as agents of a foreign government, not espionage because according to Marten they clearly weren't very effective.

Ms. MARTEN: For all of the money and all of the time that they put into this, they really didn't get close to getting access to any classified information.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Initially, right after the arrest, the Russian government denied the group were its operatives. Today, Russia amended its position. It insisted those arrested did nothing to hurt U.S. interests, and the incident shouldn't harm U.S.-Russian relations.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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