Russian Spy Ring: What You Need to Know
The accusations, the major players—and the swap heard ‘round the world. The Daily Beast breaks down the unraveling case.
It’s a case that has all the makings of a blockbuster espionage thriller (screenwriters, commence story-boarding). In late June, 11 people residing in the U.S. were arrested on suspicion of spying on behalf of Russia. The agents went by the names Richard Murphy, Cynthia Murphy, Vicky Pelaez, Juan Lazaro, Anna Chapman, Mikhail Semenko, Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills, Donald Howard Heathfield, Christopher R. Metsos, and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, and were arrested across Boston, New York City, New Jersey, and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The Russian bombshell Anna Chapman quickly became the face of the spy ring, racking up numerous tabloid covers—and Scott Beauchamp wrote about the time she interviewed him for a marketing job.
Members of the alleged ring—known as the “illegals program”—were accused of participating in a “deep cover” assignment for SVR, Russia's version of the CIA and the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
• Full coverage of the spy ring• Philip Shenon: The Spy Swap’s Mystery ManRussia denied allegations that it was running a long-term spy ring in the U.S., and said the claims will damage the newly “reset” relations between Moscow and Washington. Russian officials called the arrest of the 11 suspected spies “groundless” and “unseemly,” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hinted at a conspiracy theory and that someone in the U.S. government was attempting to undermine U.S.-Russian relations.
The alleged Russian spy ring was news to everyone but the FBI. The bureau spent nearly a decade monitoring it, with several of the suspects’ homes searched and bugged four years ago. But officials waited to make an arrest in order to gather information about how Russian espionage works.
So, how does it work? The operatives were dispatched to reside in the U.S. as married couples, and some (in what essentially amounts to spy Method acting) went so far as to have children together, as was stipulated in their duties. Some had lived in America since the early 1990s, many settling in well-to-do suburbs from Seattle to Cambridge, forging what appeared to be ordinary lives. Their methodology included stealthily swapping identical bags as they passed one another in a stairwell, hiding money in the countryside, and utilizing invisible writing. Various agents assumed the identities of dead Americans and, according to the charging documents, they were expected to "pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations, all in the pursuit of becoming ‘sufficiently Americanized.’"
But for all the hubbub over the discovery of the spy ring, it seems that the agents were remarkably unsuccessful at their task. U.S. officials report that though the group was monitored for several years by the FBI, they were never caught sending any classified information back to Russia, and were mostly compiling briefs of well-known political gossip and economic issues. “The effort is out of proportion to the alleged benefits,” one baffled former CIA boss told The New York Times. “I just don’t understand what they expected.”
The spy-ring tale came to an all but dramatic conclusion. The U.S. and Russia decided to swap spies, with the U.S. deporting 10 suspected agents in exchange for four Russians jailed for illegal contacts with the West. U.S. officials saw no point in keeping the 10 spies stateside, as their network had been unraveled and their not-so-dirty secrets revealed. The actual exchange took place in Vienna. American officials began deliberating a spy swap with Moscow almost a month ago, well before the actual swap took place.