By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
FBI agents arrested 10 people on charges that they spent years in the United States as spies for Russia, taking on fake identities and trying to ferret out intelligence about U.S. policy and secrets by making connections to think tanks and government officials, the Justice Department said Monday.
The arrests Sunday capped an almost surreal investigation that extended to the Clinton administration and involved video surveillance, hidden microphones and surreptitious FBI searches of homes along the East Coast. It climaxed Saturday with a fake “drop” in a park in Arlington County, when one of the suspects left $5,000 in an envelope inside a folded newspaper, which was recovered by the FBI.
Three of those arrested lived in Arlington, and court documents depict a trail of covert meetings between the suspects and undercover agents just blocks from the White House and in midtown Manhattan. At one point, agents videotaped an alleged conspirator brushing past his Russian handler and surreptitiously exchanging bags to be paid.
The operation, referred to by U.S. investigators as “the Illegals program,” was aimed at placing spies in nongovernmental jobs, such as at think tanks, where they could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.
Whether it succeeded was unclear Monday. Federal law enforcement officials portrayed their operation as a spectacular counterintelligence success that uncovered a group of spies capable of doing great damage to U.S. national security. “I can’t remember a case where we’ve been able to arrest 10 intelligence officers from a foreign country in one fell swoop,” one official said. “This network in the United States has now been completely compromised.”
But other officials said the Russian network appears to have accomplished little, if any, of its espionage aims, even though some of the suspects had lived in this country for up to two decades.
“These are people trying to get inside the tent that you would expect to see more charges on if they had succeeded in doing so,” said one U.S. official familiar with the investigation, who added, “It certainly is a wake-up call” for those on the alert for Russian spying.
Eleven people face charges in federal court in Manhattan that include conspiring to act as unauthorized foreign agents and conspiracy to commit money laundering. They were not charged with espionage. Ten of the suspects were arrested Sunday in raids in Arlington, New York, New Jersey and Boston; the 11th remains at large.
All of those arrested appeared in federal courts Monday and were ordered held without bond. All will be moved to Manhattan for trial.
Prosecutors said in court that additional search warrants are being executed nationwide.
No one answered the telephone late Monday afternoon at the news media office for the Russian Embassy. A State Department spokesman referred questions on the case’s potential diplomatic sensitivities to the Justice Department.
The defendants, eight of whom are married couples, held jobs in fields such as finance and media. One, Vicky Pelaez, was a reporter for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York, officials said. Mikhail Semenko, who was arrested at his residence in Arlington, worked in New York in 2008 and last year for the Conference Board, which provides economic data, the organization said.
Semenko, who is fluent in Russian, English, Mandarin and Spanish, has worked at the Travel All Russia travel agency in Arlington for more than a year, said Slava Shirokov, a co-owner. He said Semenko was known as a smart, hard-working and polite employee who helped Chinese and Hispanic travelers plan trips.
“It’s straight from a movie. I would never think of anything like this happening to Mikhail,” he said. “It still seems quite surreal.”
Attorneys for several of the defendants did not return calls seeking comment. The names of attorneys for other defendants could not be determined Monday.
Court documents contain hints, often byzantine, about the nature of the information that the suspects might have obtained. One defendant, whose alias was allegedly “Donald Howard Heathfield,” made contact with a government official at a seminar and discussed “research programs on small yield, high penetration nuclear warheads,” the documents said.
But it is unclear whether the information was passed to the headquarters of Russian foreign intelligence – known as “Moscow Center” – which officials said ran the operation, and there is no indication the data were secret or classified.
Two people arrested in New Jersey, known as “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy,” were instructed to obtain information about the U.S. position on a new strategic arms reduction treaty and Iran’s nuclear program in advance of President Obama’s visit to Russia last year. Citing intercepted communications between the suspects and their Russian handlers, court documents say, “Moscow Center indicated that it needs intels . . . try to single out tidbits unknown publicly, but revealed in private by sources close to State department, government, major think tanks.”
The documents make it clear that the Russians, who officials said began the “Illegals program” in the days of the Cold War, were prepared to wait.
Cynthia Murphy last year was assigned the account of a New York-based financier described as a fundraiser “for a major political party” who is “a personal friend” of a Cabinet member’s.
“Try to build up little by little relations with him moving beyond just (work) framework,” said an intercepted communication from “Moscow Center.”