Russian spy games

NY Times:

In what law enforcements officials portrayed as an extraordinary takedown of a Russian espionage network, the Justice Department on Monday announced charges against 11 people accused of living for years in the United States as part of a deep-cover program by S.V.R. -- one of the successors to the Soviet-era K.G.B.

Criminal complaints filed in federal court on Monday read like a thriller novel: Secret Russian agents were assigned to live as married couples in the United States, even having children who were apparently unaware of their parents’ true identities. A spy swapped identical bags with a Russian official as they brushed past each other in a train station stairwell. Messages were written with invisible ink, hidden in the data of digital pictures, and encoded in messages sent over shortwave radio.

The complaints followed a multiyear investigation that culminated with Sunday’s arrest of 10 people in Yonkers; Montclair, New Jersey; Boston; and northern Virginia. The documents detailed what authorities called the “Illegals Program,” an S.V.R. effort to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit people able to infiltrate government policy-making circles.

The “Illegals Program” extended to other countries around the world, the charging documents said.

Using fraudulent documents, the complaint said, the spies would “assume identities as citizens or legal residents of the countries to which they are deployed, including the United States. Illegals will sometimes pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment, and join relevant professional associations” to deepen their false identities.

It added: “Illegals often operate in pairs – being placed together by Moscow Center” – the S.V.R. headquarters – “while in Russia, so that they can live together and work together in a host country, under the guise of a married couple. Illegals who are placed together and co-habit in the country to which they are assigned will often have children together,” further establishing their cover.

According the the charges, the agents would communicate back to Moscow using such techniques as steganography – including secret encrypted data in an image that could be posted on a publicly available website but would appear unremarkable to the naked eye; radiograms – coded bursts of data sent by a short-wave radio transmitter; and setting up wireless laptop computer networks in public places.


It sounds like the Russians had some nostalgia for the bad old days. While the alleged spies were doing some of the old clandestine operations, it is not clear what information they were getting of value to Moscow that could not have been gotten by doing web searches on the internet. Perhaps they were onto something, that the FBI does not want to disclose. In recent years the Russian mafia has looked like a bigger threat than the government, but sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.

The NY Post says one of the alleged spies was a red head "femme fatale." They have a photo at the link.


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