NEW YORK (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ US agents shattered an alleged Russian spy ring after a decade-long probe, announcing the arrest of 10 “deep-cover” suspects accused of infiltrating policymaking and reporting back to Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov swiftly demanded an explanation of the charges, which read like the synopsis of a Cold War thriller with encrypted messages, false identities, and tales of buried money and hidden video cameras.
The FBI secretly monitored the mission for more than 10 years and authorities said an 11th suspect remained at large Tuesday, one day after they announced the detentions.
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip,” read a message decrypted by the FBI and said to be from Moscow Center, the headquarters of the SVR intelligence service, a successor to the Cold War-era KGB.
“Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intel to C (Moscow Center).”
They are charged with acting as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a maximum of five years’ jail. Nine were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years prison.
The charge sheet unveiled by the Justice Department said one message from Moscow asked for “info on current international affairs” that was vital for Russia.
“Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State Department, government, major think tanks,” it said.
Other requests included information on the latest US policy on Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear program, and a new weapons treaty between US and Russia, and even “prospects on the global gold market.”
One alleged spy met with an unnamed US nuclear scientist seeking information on US research into nuclear “bunker buster” bombs — explosives proposed under president George W. Bush, but never built — the charge sheet read.
The arrests Sunday in four northeastern US states came only three days after President Barack Obama described his visiting Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev as a “solid and reliable partner” at a cozy White House summit.
“They did not explain what the matter is about. I hope they will,” Russia’s Lavrov was quoted by Russian news agencies Tuesday as saying during a visit to Jerusalem.
“The moment when it was done has been chosen with a special finesse,” he said with apparent sarcasm.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov told AFP there were a “lot of contradictions” in the information about the case.
There was no White House comment on the arrests or their possible impact on efforts to “reset” the vital US-Russia relationship.
Some of the suspects were apparently Russian citizens and the lengths they went to were staggering, using false identities to manufacture the trappings of ordinary American lives and blend unnoticed into society.
Two allegedly pretended to be a married couple called Richard and Cynthia Murphy from Philadelphia; another pair purported to be Peruvians living in Yonkers and were known as Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez, while another purported to be Tracy Lee Ann Foley, a native of Canada but a naturalized US citizen.
Judge James Cott ordered five suspects that appeared Monday in a New York courtroom to remain in prison until a preliminary hearing set for July 27. A bail hearing was set for Thursday.
The other suspects are set to appear before courts in Virginia and Massachusetts.
All suspects were charged in two separate criminal complaints with spying for the SVR, eight of them allegedly on “deep-cover assignments.” Nine also faced charges of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Some were said to be operating in the United States since the early 1990s.
The suspects allegedly used encrypted data in images on public websites and coded “radiograms” set at special frequencies to communicate with Moscow Center.
For more than 10 years the FBI gathered information by covertly placing microphones at the homes of the suspects, and in hotel rooms, and by monitoring and recording their phone calls and emails.
A key suspect, named as Christopher Metsos who is at large, was under surveillance in Queens in New York in May 2004 when he received a bag containing money from an official associated with Russia’s UN mission, the complaint alleges.
Two more suspects were followed in June 2006 to Wurstboro, New York, where they dug up a package of money buried there by Metsos.
Other “brush-pass” encounters, in which a suspect receives a handoff of money or information from another person in a public place, are described in the indictment.
The arrests were made in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and in northern Virginia, just outside the US capital Washington.
Obama quipped on Thursday that it was time to cut off Cold War-era emergency hotlines at a cordial Washington summit with Medvedev where he praised the Russian leader as a “solid and reliable partner.”