The US Government claimed last night to have broken up a spy ring of mainly Russian "illegals" – deep-cover agents whose job it was to make political contacts in America and send back information to Moscow.
According to the Justice Department, 10 people living in the north-east of the country were arrested in the swoop – an operation with echoes of Cold War espionage carried out by the former rival superpowers.
Eight of the suspects were detained on Sunday for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments for the Russian intelligence agencies. Two others were arrested in connection with the alleged spying scheme. According to court papers released yesterday, their job was "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in the United States".
All 10, plus another member of the ring who is still at large, were charged in a federal court in southern New York state with conspiracy to act as agents of a foreign government.
Although all the accused listed in the indictment have American-sounding names, officials said most of them appeared to be of Russian origin and may have infiltrated into the US, assumed American identities and blended into society. Outwardly, they seemed to have no links with Russia whatsoever.
It was not immediately clear what information was allegedly passed to Moscow, and no one was available for comment at the Russian embassy last night. However, the fact that none of those arrested were charged with espionage, and that the maximum penalty for their alleged offence is only five years, suggests that little damage was done.
By contrast, major Soviet or Russian spies such as Aldrich Ames, a mole within the CIA who was arrested in 1994, or Robert Hanssen, a rogue FBI agent who was caught in 2001, have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Russian diplomats or trade officials accused of spying have routinely been expelled. As "illegals", those arrested in the latest operation were working without any such cover.
According to US officials, the arrests followed a two-year investigation focused on Boston, New York, New Jersey and Virginia, which involved wire-tapping and the installation of bugging devices in the homes of the accused.
The break in the case appears to have come when the FBI intercepted and decoded a message sent from the Moscow headquarters of Russia's primary external intelligence agency, the SVR, to two of those charged, named as Richard and Cynthia Murphy.
"You were sent to US for long-term service trip," the message said. "Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc – all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and sent intels."
One member of the ring still being sought was named as Christopher Metsos. According to the court papers, he received money from the Russians and made payments to the others. He is said to have collected the money during a "brush-pass" with a Russian official who worked with Moscow's delegation to the United Nations at its headquarters in New York.
Nine of the 10 individuals arrested were also accused of money laundering – an offence which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail. Under US law, it is a crime to act as an agent of a foreign government without registering as such with American authorities.
Even though the case seems to have caused no great harm to US interests, it is a sign that even though the Cold War is over and Russian-American relations are on the mend, Moscow's appetite for Western – and, in particular, American – secrets is undiminished.
The two countries have signed a nuclear arms reduction pact, and President Dmitry Medvedev has just held a very friendly US summit with his opposite number, Barack Obama.