It was a high-octane tale of secrets and lies; of dangerous Russian agents who had infiltrated the heart of the America; of buried pots of money; of clandestine meetings in parks; there was even a flame-haired femme-fatale.
The geopolitical consequences, we were told, were incendiary — reminiscent of the dark days of the Cold War.
But despite the breathless accounts, the real story had more than an element of bathos. The prosecution have yet to produce any evidence of deep intelligence being passed by the “spy ring” to their Moscow handlers. In fact the Russian agents were not even successful enough to face espionage-related charges, being accused, instead, of failing to register with the US authorities as representatives of a foreign power, and omitting to declare income for tax purposes.
“The government's case essentially suggests that they successfully infiltrated neighbourhoods, cocktail parties and the Parents and Teachers Association,” said Peter B Krupp, the lawyer for Donald Heathfield, after studying FBI affidavits. “It is all a bit confusing.”
According to US officials, the real purpose of the “sleeper cells” was to win the confidence of influential political circles, find out their thinking about Russia, and get inside knowledge of Barack Obama's tactics in last year's Moscow summit.
The FBI were keen to stress that the spies were trying their utmost to carry out their work in secret. One example they gave was of Anna Chapman, the ‘Mata-Hari’ who, according to one American tabloid, had “Sexy Red agent's locks to die for”.
Ms Chapman's seeming lack of spying acumen is particularly surprising given that her father, Vasily Kushchenko, was supposed to have been a “high-ranking officer in the Russian security forces”.
Alex Chapman, a 30-year-old trainee psychologist, married Anna Kushchenko in Moscow in 2002, five months after they met.
The marriage did not last, but Mr Chapman decided to sell his story to the newspapers after his wife appeared in the news. He said he was “not surprised” to discover that Anna had been arrested for spying: “Towards the end of our marriage she became very secretive, going for meetings on her own with ‘Russian friends', and I guess it might have been because she was in contact with the Russian government.”