Ten people have been arrested for allegedly serving as secret agents of the Russian government in the United States, the Justice Department said Monday.
Eight of the 10 were arrested Sunday for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments in the U.S. on behalf of Russia. Two others were arrested for allegedly participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States.
Their job, according to court papers in the case, was "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles" in the United States.
Each of the 10 was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison on conviction. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston notes that none of the 10 was charged with espionage.
The cases were filed in U.S. District Court for the southern district of New York.
Federal law prohibits individuals from acting as agents of foreign governments within the United States without notifying the U.S. attorney general.
Nine of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum 20 years in prison on conviction.
FBI agents arrested the defendants known as Richard Murphy and Cynthia Murphy at their residence in Montclair, N.J., and they were appearing Monday in federal court in Manhattan.
Three other defendants also were being taken to federal court in Manhattan — Vicky Pelaez and a defendant known as "Juan Lazaro," who were arrested at their residence in Yonkers, N.Y.; and Anna Chapman, who was arrested in Manhattan on Sunday.
Two other defendants known as Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills were arrested at their residence in Arlington, Va., and were appearing in federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Monday.
Also being taken to federal court in Alexandria was Mikhail Semenko, who was arrested Sunday at his residence in Arlington.
Two defendants known as Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley were arrested at their residence in Boston on Sunday and were appearing in federal court in Boston on Monday.
The Justice Department said that a defendant known as Christopher R. Metsos was not in custody.
Temple-Raston tells NPR's Melissa Block that investigators got a search warrant to get into a safety deposit box, in which they found a birth certificate for one of those arrested.
"They took that birth certificate number and checked it against records in Philadelphia where it had been issued," she said. "And that person apparently did not exist. So it's very unclear whether or not these are actually Americans."
The arrests were the result of a multiyear FBI investigation into an alleged network of U.S.-based agents who concealed all connections between themselves and Russia.
The U.S. government intercepted a message from Russian intelligence headquarters in Moscow to two of the defendants, Richard and Cynthia Murphy.
The message states that their main mission is "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US" and send intelligence reports.
The court papers cited numerous examples of communications intercepted by U.S. investigators that spelled out what the 10 allegedly were trying to do.
One message back to Moscow from the defendants focused on turnover at the top level of the CIA and the 2008 U.S. presidential election.
The information was described as having been received in private conversation with, among others, a former legislative counsel for Congress. The court papers deleted the name of the counsel.
Another intercepted message said one of the defendants living in New Jersey, Cynthia Murphy, "had several work-related personal meetings" with a man the court papers describe as a prominent New York-based financier who was active in politics.
In response, intelligence headquarters in Moscow described the man as a very interesting target and urged the defendants to "try to build up little by little relations."
The court papers described the defendants communicating with purported Russian agents using a method not previously described in espionage cases here: by establishing a short-range wireless network between laptop computers of the agents and sending encrypted messages between the computers while they were near each other.
The papers also said that on Saturday an undercover FBI agent in New York and another in Washington, both posing as Russian agents, met with two of the defendants, Chapman at a New York restaurant and Semenko on a Washington street corner blocks from the White House.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report