WASHINGTON – Federal officials on Monday charged 11 people on the East Coast as secret agents of Russia in a multiyear investigation that turned up allegations of a vast undercover network designed to collect fresh information for Moscow, including new U.S. nuclear weapons research.
The alleged spy ring’s members were given the single, primary goal of becoming “sufficiently ‘Americanized’ ” to gain access to the U.S. government’s planning and policy apparatus, the FBI said in documents supporting the charges.
To dramatize that point, U.S. officials said they decrypted a 2009 message sent to two of the alleged co-conspirators.
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip,” the intercepted message read. “Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. – all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in U.S. and send intels (intelligence reports) to C.”
“C” was identified as the Russian foreign intelligence headquarters in Moscow, also known as “Moscow Center.”
Some of the material collected and transmitted by the accused spies dealt with U.S. research on nuclear “bunker buster” bombs, according to the federal document charging the members of the ring. They also sought information on Pentagon planning, U.S. policy toward Central Asia and research on terrorists gaining access to the Internet.
The charges also state that one of the defendants had “established contact” with a former high-ranking U.S. national security official who was unidentified.
Former President George W. Bush’s administration once proposed a nuclear bunker-buster bomb, but only a non-nuclear version of the weapon has been pursued.
Ten of the suspects were arrested in Virginia, New York, New Jersey and Boston and charged with federal offenses ranging from conspiring to act as unlawful foreign agents to conspiracy to commit money laundering. An 11th suspect remained at large Monday.
Appearing in federal courts along the East Coast, they face prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years, if convicted.
Authorities said the conspiracy began as far back as the 1990s and ended Saturday when FBI agents and Justice Department counterespionage officials closed in on the suspects. Two of the accused conspiracy principals, Mikhail Semenko and Anna Chapman, were confronted by U.S. undercover operatives who posed as their Russian government handlers.
Unlike other individual Soviet Union spy cases broken up in the United States, this one appears more remarkable in that so many operatives were arrested in one fell swoop, and so long after the end of the Cold War.
In a lengthy affidavit, FBI Special Agent Amit Kachhia-Patel said the spy operation was a “deep cover” assignment filled with false identities, secret rendezvous, such old-school spycraft techniques as “invisible writing” and a “cover profession” to blend into American society.
The defendants also set up a special covert communication system to report back to Russia, using a private wireless network through linked laptop computers, authorities said. It allowed them to exchange data with each other and with Moscow Center, much of it encrypted.
The end-game in the case came when U.S. officials used their own undercover operatives in a sting on both Chapman and Semenko.