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Ghost Stories

The arrests of 10 Russian spies in 2010 provided a chilling reminder that espionage on US soil did not disappear when the Cold War ended. The highly publicized case also offered a rare glimpse into the sensitive world of counterintelligence and the FBI’s efforts to safeguard the nation from those who would steal vital secrets. The case against the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) operatives—dubbed Operation Ghost Stories—went on for more than a decade.

Although the SVR “illegals,” as they were called, never got their hands on any classified documents, their intent from the start was serious, well-funded by the SVR, and far-ranging. “The Russian government spent significant funds and many years training and deploying these operatives,” said one of the FBI counterintelligence agents who worked on the case. “No government does that without expecting a return on its investment.”

FBI agents and analysts watched the deep-cover operatives as they established themselves in the U.S. (some by using stolen identities) and went about leading seemingly normal lives—getting married, buying homes, raising children, and assimilating into American society. Using surveillance and sophisticated techniques, aided by support from intelligence analysts, investigators gathered information to understand the threat posed by the spies as well as their methods, or tradecraft.

The deep-cover Russian spies may not have achieved their objective, but they were not idle. They collected information and transmitted it back to Russia, and they were actively engaged in what is known in the spy business as “spotting and assessing.” They identified colleagues, friends, and others who might be vulnerable targets, and it is possible they were seeking to co-opt people they encountered in the academic environment who might one day hold positions of power and influence. Perhaps the most famous example of this tactic—the Cambridge Five—took place in Great Britain. Soviet intelligence “talent spotters” were able to recruit Cambridge University students in the 1930s—including future spy Kim Philby—who would later rise to power in the British government and become Soviet operatives during World War II and into the 1950s.

The SVR was in it for the long haul. The illegals were content to wait decades to obtain their objective, which was to develop sources of information in U.S. policymaking circles. Although they didn’t achieve that objective, an FBI agent said, “without us there to stop them, given enough time they would have eventually become successful.”

Eight individuals were arrested 27 June 2010 for allegedly carrying out long-term, “deep-cover” assignments in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation, the Justice Department announced 28 JUne 2010. Two additional defendants were also arrested for allegedly participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States. In total, 11 defendants, including the 10 arrested, were charged in two separate criminal complaints with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States. Federal law prohibits individuals from acting as agents of foreign governments within the United States without prior notification to the U.S. Attorney General. Nine of the defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The defendants known as “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy” were arrested 27 June 2010 by FBI agents at their residence in Montclair, N.J., and appeared in federal court in Manhattan. Vicky Pelaez and the defendant known as “Juan Lazaro” were arrested at their residence in Yonkers, N.Y., and appeared in federal court in Manhattan. Anna Chapman was arrested in Manhattan yesterday and appeared in federal court in Manhattan.

The defendants known as “Michael Zottoli” and “Patricia Mills” were arrested at their residence in Arlington, Va., and appeared in federal court in Alexandria, Va. Defendant Mikhail Semenko was arrested at his residence in Arlington and appeared in federal court in Alexandria. In addition, the defendants known as “Donald Howard Heathfield” and “Tracey Lee Ann Foley” were arrested at their residence in Boston and appeared in federal court in Boston. The defendant known as “Christopher R. Metsos” remained at large.

The charges were filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The charge of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. Attorney General carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison. All the defendants were charged with this violation. The charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. All the defendants except Chapman and Semenko were charged with this violation.

This case was the result of a multi-year investigation conducted by the FBI; the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York; and the Counterespionage Section and the Office of Intelligence within the Justice Department’s National Security Division. The prosecution was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Farbiarz, Glen Kopp and Jason Smith of the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and Trial Attorneys Kathleen Kedian and Richard Scott of the Counterespionage Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Ten individuals pleaded guilty July 08, 2010 in Manhattan federal court to conspiring to serve as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States and will be immediately expelled from the United States, the Justice Department announced today. In hearings today before Judge Kimba M. Wood in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, each of the 10 defendants arrested on June 27, 2010, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government within the United States without notifying the U.S. Attorney General. Under their plea agreements, the defendants were required to disclose their true identities in court today and to forfeit certain assets attributable to the criminal offenses.

The defendants known as “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy” admitted they were Russian citizens named Vladimir Guryev and Lydia Guryev and were agents of the Russian Federation. Defendants “Michael Zottoli” and “Patrica Mills” admitted they were Russian citizens named Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva, and were agents of the Russian Federation. Defendants “Donald Howard Heathfield” and “Tracey Lee Ann Foley” admitted they were Russian citizens named Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, and were agents of the Russian Federation. “Juan Lazaro” admitted that he is a Russian citizen named Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov and is an agent of the Russian Federation.

The defendants Vicky Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, who operated in this country under their true names, admitted that they were agents of the Russian Federation; and Chapman and Semenko admitted they were Russian citizens.

The United States has agreed to transfer these individuals to the custody of the Russian Federation. In exchange, the Russian Federation has agreed to release four individuals who were incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies. “This was an extraordinary case, developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers, and prosecutors, and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests,” Attorney General Eric Holder said. “Counterintelligence is a top FBI investigative priority, and this case in particular represents the dedicated efforts of the men and women who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to counter the efforts of those who would steal our nation's vital secrets,” said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller.

This case was the result of a multi-year investigation conducted by the FBI and other elements of the U.S. intelligence community; the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York; and the Counterespionage Section and the Office of Intelligence within the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

The prosecution was handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Farbiarz, Glen Kopp, and Jason Smith of the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and Trial Attorneys Kathleen Kedian and Richard Scott of the Counterespionage Section of the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

Chapman's return to Russia didn't thwart her star power. In October 2010 she became the face of a Moscow bank and in January 2011 she appeared in Playboy. Chapman came close to snaring a member of President Obama's inner circle in a honey trap, a top U.S. intelligence official has claimed. In a documentary broadcast 02 April 2012, FBI counter-intelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi claimed the glamorous Russian agent got close enough to 'disturb' U.S. spy catchers. He said the fear that Miss Chapman was close to seducing a sitting member of the Obama administration spurred agents to swoop on the 10-strong spy ring of which she was a part.

Citing anonymous sources including “current and former U.S. officials”, “people familiar with the long-running investigation” and “U.S. counterintelligence officials”, Devlin Barret at the Wall Street Journal published a story on 26 July 2012 making the wild claim that members of the Russian espionage team that was burned in the U.S. by Former SVR colonel and director of directorate “S” Alexander Vasilevich Sherbakov and assistant director Alexander Poteev, were grooming their children to be spies.

One allegation was that Tim Foley’s parents told him that they were deep cover illegal Russian agents (illegal is the term for an agent operating under deep cover with a false identity and no diplomatic cover job), now who in their right mind, living decades to support their legend, would tell their teenage kid they were spies? The risk of capture or even death for the entire family would logically make such an “opening of the soul” unadvisable to put it lightly.

Another claim the article makes is that all of the arrested “ring” members were “trained agents of the SVR”, this is also false as some had been recruited by their agent controller and had never had any official spy training. The author also cites “Moscow Center”, giving away the fact that he reads too many spy books which often use the term to refer to Moscow’s spy headquarters.

Chapman, 29, instantly became a target for jokes in Western media, who likened her to Bond girls inHollywood spy movies like The Spy Who Loved Me or From Russia With Love. The flame-haired spy was seized, alongside nine other Russian agents, in the US in 2010 and became a world-wide sensation after her photos were leaked to the web.The spies, many of whom had been working for years undercover in the country as sleeper agents, returned to Russia in a Cold War-style spy swap. Since then, Chapman worked as a model, edited a magazine, given lectures and then ran a foundation.

In July 2013 Anna Chapman tweeted a marriage proposal to Edward Snowden, who had been on the run for leaking highly sensitive information about US intelligence operations to the media. The dazzling Russian femme fatale was quite laconic in her proposal, offering the fugitive leaker to tie the knot in a short tweet that read: “Snowden, will you marry me?” The proposal came just as the world began wondering if the former NSA contractor was still holed up in her native country, Russia, and lingered in Moscow airport’s transit zone -- or whether he had sneaked out aboard the flight of Bolivian President Evo Morales headed for South America.

Being an illegal is one of the most (if not the most) difficult jobs in the world. You give up your life and your very identity for your country and live for years under the intense pressure of being undercover, never being able to trust anyone, always having to live in fear for your life, giving your all and ready to make the ultimate sacrifice at any moment, it is not something everyone has the psychological fortitude to withstand and it is a life few would likely want for their children, especially someone who has been through it.



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