WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities said on Monday they have broken up a spy ring that carried out deep-cover work in the United States to recruit political sources and gather information for the Russian government.
Authorities charged 11 individuals with the plot, 10 of whom were arrested on Sunday in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Virginia on charges including conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation and money laundering.
The group, dubbed the “Illegals,” was accused of being tasked by the Russian intelligence agency SVR to enter the United States, assume false identities and become “deep-cover” Americans, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Their goal was to “become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they could gather information about the United States for Russia and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles,” according to criminal complaints filed in U.S. federal court.
However, they were not assigned to collect classified, secret information, a Justice Department official said. Most are believed to be originally from Russia and trained to secretly infiltrate the United States.
News of the bust comes just days after President Barack Obama met with Russian Dmitry Medvedev to continue repairing a relationship between the two nations that has been fractured over diverging foreign policies and business matters.
An attempt to reach a representative at the Russian embassy in Washington was not immediately successful. U.S. law bars individuals from acting on behalf of foreign states without notifying the U.S. government.
Almost like reading straight from a spy novel, the criminal complaints said the individuals in the “Illegals” program received extensive training in coded communications, how to make brush passes and how to evade detection.
One was accused of sending back information about leadership changes at the Central Intelligence Agency.
The arrests are the culmination of a multi-year investigation that used extensive surveillance of communications and wiretaps, including putting listening devices into the homes of the accused individuals.
Those charged include: Christopher Metsos, Richard Murphy, Cynthia Murphy, Donald Heathfield, Tracey Lee Ann Foley, Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills, Juan Lazaro, Vicky Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko. All but Metsos were arrested on Sunday.
The FBI decrypted a coded message in 2009 sent to two of the individuals accused of being part of the ring. The message instructed them to “search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels” back to Moscow, according to court papers.
The individuals were accused of collecting information ranging from research programs on small yield, high penetration nuclear warheads and the global gold market to trying to obtain background information about people who applied for jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency, according to court papers.
One of the individuals charged, Metsos who is still at large, was accused of receiving and doling out money to the group, including getting payments during a brush-pass with a Russian government official who was affiliated with the Russian Mission to the United Nations in New York, according to the Justice Department.
Metsos also buried some money in rural New York that was later recovered about two years later by two others in the group who had traveled from Seattle.
Nine of the individuals were accused of conspiracy to commit money laundering related to their activities.
In another instance, one defendant was accused of receiving $80,000 for some of the group from a representative of the Russian government while in an unnamed South American country, according the criminal complaints.
While some of the activities dated back to 2000, one of the complaints said that undercover FBI agents met two of the accused individuals on Saturday, Mikhail Semenko and Anna Chapman. She had apparently been planning to go to Moscow in two weeks, according to one of the criminal complaints.
Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Anthony Boadle