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Alleged Russian Spy Ring Exposed In US 279

Posted by kdawson
from the bad-enough dept.
Several readers sent in the story of an alleged Russian spy ring busted yesterday by the FBI after a decade-long investigation. The FBI says that Moscow trained and planted long-term "moles" in the US in order to infiltrate the upper echelons of US government and business circles and pass back intelligence to the Russians. Twelve people have been charged; ten were arrested in the US (one is at large) and one in Cyprus. Wired and the New York Post have colorful coverage. Wired's leans on the tradecraft and discusses steganography, while the Post favors the femme fatale angle (alleged spy Anna Chapman). The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the US actions were unfounded and pursued "unseemly" goals. One of many choice quotes from copious coverage: "They couldn't have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas." From the WSJ report: "Officials said no secrets were compromised or revealed in the alleged plot, and the spy operation seems to have yielded little of value given some of the elaborate methods deployed. None of the 11 charged by US prosecutors was accused of accessing any classified or sensitive US government information."
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Alleged Russian Spy Ring Exposed In US

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  • by MarkvW (1037596) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @04:57PM (#32736626)

    I would expect that we get some wonderful counterespionage out of Russia itself nowadays.

    It seems pretty wasteful for Russia to spend so much money on such an elaborate operation when it could be destroyed by one disaffected Russian official who dreams of a CIA payoff.

    Madness!

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Threni (635302)

      Who cares? Let them spy. What are they going to learn?

      • by rwa2 (4391) * on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:22PM (#32737046) Homepage Journal

        I think a lot of the reason behind secrecy is to shroud what we don't have as capabilities. If other countries knew about our failings in pervasive monitoring and command, control, coordination, and communications, and sharks with lasers on their heads or the ability to educate youths and keep old decrepit folks happy and sane, then they'd just have to assume we were awesome at all of those things.

        But until then, we can charge admission for the illusion!

        • Indeed, secrecy is not about hiding how powerful you are, but how weak you are.

          You can even use it to such an advantage that you screw the other country up - look at the cold war, USSR put so much into out-building the US with regard to nukes that they didn't even realise the US had a fraction of the nuclear weapons that were being claimed.

          I'd say this spy ring was actually more interested in business, seeing as how the Russians are now trying to move from being a purely resource backed country to an econom

    • I would expect that we get some wonderful counterespionage out of Russia itself nowadays.

      In Russia... no, no, I just can't do it. Russian intelligence is enough of a joke without resorting to cliches.

  • Did they? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by B5_geek (638928) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:01PM (#32736670)

    If they didn't 'see/steal/copy' anything, was anything actually spied upon?

    The mens rea was the attempt, but if there is no actus rea did they really break the law?

    • Re:Did they? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by elucido (870205) * on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:02PM (#32736692)

      They were acting as "agents of Russia" which is against the law in itself since they aren't registered. Why the FBI chose to arrest them now is the mystery because the FBI knew for over a decade.

      • Re:Did they? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Koby77 (992785) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:16PM (#32736916)
        Last week Obama met with Russian President Medvedev and is going to start pushing for an arms control treaty which will need ratification by the U.S. Senate. The timing of the arrests could have been an FBI signal that they don't trust the Russians in an effort to scuttle the treaty.
        • Re:Did they? (Score:4, Interesting)

          by bsDaemon (87307) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @06:17PM (#32737786)

          Then, that sounds like Eric Holder needs to have words with Obama, rather than letting Mueller have his agents go and arrest people. If Mueller isn't going to play by the rules of the new administration, or if Holder is going to use his position as Attny General to try and affect foreign policy, then we have bigger issues than some half-assed russian "spy" network. It's not as if there isn't pretty short chain of command from the FBI to the President.

        • This is all very weird.

        • Re:Did they? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by darkmeridian (119044) <william@chuang.gmail@com> on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @07:04PM (#32738264) Homepage

          If you believe the FBI, one of the targets under investigation realized that she was compromised. The FBI had become aggressive and had an undercover agent contact her because they pretty much knew how the Russians operated with this woman. I would expect that the FBI was trying to set up a sting operation so they can finally bag these spies for espionage. Unfortunately, they gave away the game. The woman bought a Verizon cell phone under a fake name, threw away the charger, and started to make calls. The FBI realized that she was trying to make an anonymous call (which doesn't work if you're already under constant surveillance) then decided to arrest everyone before they fled. One guy ran away but ten were caught.

      • Re:Did they? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by internewt (640704) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:34PM (#32737230) Journal

        I think I heard them say on Channel 4's news this evening that one or more was going to leave the country, so the FBI acted.

        They also mentioned that even though "spying" is being bandied about, none of them have been charged with espionage.

      • by Khashishi (775369)

        Maybe the FBI preferred to watch them closely for more information while they did their thing.

      • Tradecraft 101 (Score:5, Insightful)

        by TiggertheMad (556308) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @06:29PM (#32737882) Homepage Journal
        Why the FBI chose to arrest them now is the mystery because the FBI knew for over a decade.

        Part of the spy game is not letting on that you know what is going on. By letting them conduct operations in against non-critical assets, you get to see how they operate, who they work with, and who they answer to. You can unravel their network to watch and catch other agents. You can set them up to pass false information. You can collect vast amounts of incriminating evidence to use to force them to become double agents. You can find out what they think you are doing and what they are worried about, and use that to play on their fears.
        • by timeOday (582209)
          That would explain why they weren't arrested for the last 10 years, but not why they were arrested now.
          • The FBI got too arrogant when playing the one spy, she realized she was burned, and attempted to warn the others. They then had to grab everyone. And they still missed someone.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Artifakt (700173)

            The thing is, there's usually something happening every few months between the US and any nation it has trouble with. Publicise a problem with North Korea one month, everyone guesses it relates to missle testing. Wait a month, and it must have something to do with them holding some hikers who supposedly strayed across the border. Wait one more and it has something to do with them arguing with Japan, or South Korea, or China. Either the government never goes public at all, or it goes public when something is

      • Re:Did they? (Score:4, Informative)

        by goodmanj (234846) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @07:59PM (#32738778)

        Why the FBI chose to arrest them now is the mystery because the FBI knew for over a decade.

        It's no mystery, it's all right there in the criminal complaint [nytimes.com], if you read it with attention to dates. It's got nothing to do with global politics and everything to do with the details of the case.

        The FBI had been monitoring one of the spy couples since January 2000 (Lazaro and Pelaez). Over the years, this gradually expanded to include five couples plus Metsos, their money man. It's not clear that all these individuals are linked, but many are. Their every daily move was watched, their houses were bugged 24/7, for years.

        Three days ago (June 26), the FBI decided to go beyond passive monitoring, and engineer a meet-up between an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian operative, and one of the spy couples (Chapman and Semenko). The undercover FBI agent knew the right code phrases, but asked Chapman what I'd consider too many nosy questions. They set up a meeting for the next day, but Chapman was apparently suspicious. An hour later, Chapman bought a disposable cell phone to use as a "burner", and apparently made a call to check on the agent. She apparently figured out her cover was blown, since she didn't make the meeting the next day.

        At this point, the FBI must have realized the jig was up, and they'd better close the net on the whole spy ring now before they could react.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by kevinNCSU (1531307)
      It's illegal to act as the agent of a foreign government on US soil without declaring yourself as such. I believe most of them are being charged for conspiracy to do just that, while some are being charged with money laundering, which humorously enough carries a much longer maximum sentence.
    • Re:Did they? (Score:5, Informative)

      by dreampod (1093343) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:28PM (#32737148)

      They aren't being charged under the typical set of espionage laws (Title 18, 792-798) which cover gathering or disclosing information on defense installations or plans and disclosing classified information. Rather they are being charged with 'Conspiracy to Act as Unregistered Agents of a Foreign Government' (Title 18, 951) which is much broader and covers many otherwise non-criminal activities if performed at the behest of a foreign power.

      In addition there are charges unrelated to actual performance of espionage including falsifying passports and other identity documentation, money laundering, and conspiracy to defraud the US.

      Over all the complaint has a wealth of specific details that make it very clear that there was intent to commit espionage and commision of crimes in furtherance of that. We still file criminal charges against individuals who have been stopped in the attempt to commit a crime even if they did not succeed to do so, though the charges may be slightly reduced (ie no murder charges if bombing is prevented, but still charged for the bombing).

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by nospam007 (722110) *

        Just read as:

        "Nice set of undeclared spies you have there.
        It would be a shame if something bad happened to it."

      • by Dishevel (1105119)
        One of the things I have always hated about US law. I think most other countries laws as well.

        Murder vs Attempted Murder

        Both people are attempting to do exactly the same thing. One is just fucking stupider than the other. So at murder if you are a fucking idiot that fails we will treat you better.

        I just think that is some dumb ass shit is all.

        • Re:Did they? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by dreampod (1093343) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @06:58PM (#32738210)

          As much as it seems foolish there is legitimate reasoning behind it.

          (1) Penalty proportional to the harm done. If you fail to commit a crime the harm done to the victim and/or society is greatly reduced, thus since the US 'justice' system is largely built on retribution (rather than rehabilitation) there is less to take out on the criminal.

          (2) It encourages going through with a crime when faced with discovery. If you are faced with an identical penalty whether you succeed or not, there is no motivation to back down if confronted by police (ie kill your target vs surrender) because there will be no lessened punishment. It is similar to the argument used for why making forcible child-rape a capital crime is counter productive (the penalty for killing the kid after is the same so why risk them being able to identify you if caught).

          (3) Easier to prove. Despite the fact that the law does not allow for it, it remains much easier to get convictions for offences with lesser penalties. If the penalties were normalized than the standard of evidence required for something like attempted murder would correspondingly rise. *Note: This is probably a good thing, but would fundamentally alter the judicial system.*

    • Same way as it is illegal to try and murder someone, but fail. It isn't the same crime, or the same punishment, but it is still illegal.

      So actually giving classified secrets to a foreign power is a very serious crime. It is the kind of thing that can earn life in prison, or even death if it is done during war time. Working as an agent for a foreign government and trying to get classified data is also illegal, though less so.

    • Here [justice.gov] is the official document detailing what they did, and what they're being charged with. A very interesting read, though be warned, you'll feel like laughing out loud at times.

    • Reading the reports it doesn't seem like they accomplished anything of substance. One foolish guy working on bunker buster bombs talked too much and I'm sure he's got his resume polished up by now. It seems the strongest case against them is for money laundering and tax evasion will probably be thrown in as well.

  • Typical (Score:4, Insightful)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:03PM (#32736698)

    "Officials said no secrets were compromised or revealed in the alleged plot, and the spy operation seems to have yielded little of value given some of the elaborate methods deployed. None of the 11 charged by US prosecutors was accused of accessing any classified or sensitive US government information."

    This is typical of Russian intelligence activity. The book The Sword and the Shield: Mitrokhin Archive details most of the Soviet operations up until the mid 80s. This sounds like more of the same techniques: Attempting to attract young, impressionable, college-educated people to their cause and then trying to guide them into positions where they can gain intel. Unfortunately, the Russians still do not really understand american culture and so they find it difficult to penetrate deeply into any establishment domestically.

    Historically, their most successful intelligence gathering operations were either through signals intelligence or from defectors who wanted monentary compensation. Their recruiting efforts have been laughably under-planned. This is just another example. Their resources would be better spent in open source intelligence to identify vulnerable individuals who could be blackmailed than attempting to sway them on idealistic grounds. Communism just isn't that sexy. Sadly for them, I don't think they have the resources anymore to do much more than the French -- industrial espionage is as far as they get too. But at least the French make money on their intelligence operations...

    • Re:Typical (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:22PM (#32737036)

      Russia is no longer a communist state.

      • by fm6 (162816)

        That true, and also important. But needs amplification:

        When The Sword and the Shield was written, the conflict between the two superpowers was perceived by most people as a struggle between ideologies: socialism versus the free market, utopianism versus pragmatism, etc. Not entirely true, but it gave Soviet operatives many opportunities to convince disaffected or idealistic people that they were the good guys.

        Nowadays, the conflict between the surviving superpower and the heirs of the late USSR is mostly ec

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Wyatt Earp (1029)

      This is correct, the Russians always have bad luck with Russian agents placed in the West, but did really good with politically sympathetic people in power or greedy ones looking for the money.

    • Communism just isn't that sexy.

      I think that I could be persuaded otherwise [nypost.com]...

    • Communism isn't that sexy; fortunately for them, they realised that some of their agents are...
    • Re:Typical (Score:5, Informative)

      by schwaang (667808) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:39PM (#32737306)

      Yeah, the Ruskis are laughable at penetrating US institutions!

      Signed, Your BFFs,
      Aldrich Ames [wikipedia.org] and
      Robert Hanssen [wikipedia.org].

      • Re:Typical (Score:5, Insightful)

        by girlintraining (1395911) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @06:46PM (#32738078)

        Yeah, the Ruskis are laughable at penetrating US institutions!

        Wiki quotes:
        "By 1985, Aldrich was heavily in debt. He owed money because of the divorce, and Maria was spending freely. After exceeding his credit limit on different credit cards, Aldrich considered robbing a bank. Realising he had no experience in performing such a caper, he instead decided to pursue the less hazardous option of selling information to the Soviets."

        "Hanssen never indicated any political or ideological motive for his activities, telling the FBI after he was caught that his only motivation was the money." ... Rather proves my point: They both approached the KGB, not the other way around.

        • Re:Typical (Score:5, Insightful)

          by schwaang (667808) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @10:48PM (#32739928)

          From your OP:

          Unfortunately, the Russians still do not really understand american culture and so they find it difficult to penetrate deeply into any establishment domestically.

          Yet the Russians ended up with moles in the CIA and FBI who were placed highly enough to accomplish shamefully *epic* damage to the US. Knock them for style points all you want, but dangling the $$ just plain worked. We got our @sses handed to us.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            Yet the Russians ended up with moles in the CIA and FBI who were placed highly enough to accomplish shamefully *epic* damage to the US. Knock them for style points all you want, but dangling the $$ just plain worked. We got our @sses handed to us.

            Hardly a systemic problem on our part. We've recruited quite a bit more spies than they have, quite a few for idealistic motives or dissatisfaction with their government. They come despite the low pay, dangerous extractions, etc., because frankly the US is a good place to live. We don't pay people who turn coat a lot of money, but what we offer them is a chance to start fresh, anonymously, on a big slab of rock that has the best economy and chance for personal wealth and success anywhere in the world.

            In sho

      • by timeOday (582209)
        No, those were not "young, impressionable, college-educated people to their cause and then trying to guide them into positions where they can gain intel." They were simply sellouts. (Then again, neither were they defectors who wanted money, as the parent claimed...)
    • Communism just isn't that sexy.

      I think you meant to say: Putin just isn't that sexy anymore. Our previous President may have had a huge man-crush on him, but now I think it's fair to say former President George W. Bush is totally over Putin, and has moved on to bigger and better things.

  • I love how when they don't declare themselves it's "spying" but when they do it's simply "lobbying." Brilliant!
  • Shocking! you mean countries spy on each other in this day and age? Expect Russia to expel a few US "aides to diplomats", US to make lots of unhappy noises, and the whole thing to die down again. Heads of respective intelligence agencies nod at each other at the next major summit and agree to go back to business as normal.

    I can imagine a phone has gone off in Moscow: "hi Ivan, it's Bob here from Washington. Sorry about that, the new president needed to see a bit of action. You expel a few of our small guys,

  • And now the bad news (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Locke2005 (849178) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:05PM (#32736732)
    The masterminds of the ring, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, and Fearless Leader, are still at large.
  • Spy? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gestalt_n_pepper (991155) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:05PM (#32736750)

    New job posting! Live in the USA. Get an absurdly high salary. Hobnob with politicians. Raise hydrangeas. Provide nearly useless tidbits of information. Pick your job title from the following list:

    1) Journalist
    2) Spy
    3) Lobbyist
    4) Politician running for office
    5) Lawyer
    6) Wealthy old money parasite
    7) Failed CEO of HP/Compaq, Microsoft, Enron or any Hedge fund.
    8) Oprah (or generic talk show host)

  • This is just to get free press for a new movie.

  • Any slashdotters in the upper echelons of our more secretive government agencies care to fill us in?
    • by wfolta (603698)

      Hidden secrets. Mysterious secrets. Enigmatic secrets.

    • No.
    • by halivar (535827)

      Oh, but of course. See, what the Russian spies REALLY wanted, and almost got, are outlined in secret documents in the Pentagon which I will describe here...

      Hey... wait a second! Damn you, mykos, but you are a clever one... almost got me that time.

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:23PM (#32737056)

      Hardly in the upper echelons but based on the security briefings I've received the answer is tiny, insignificant bits and pieces that you would tell anyone in passing but which can be put together to see the bigger picture. Of course, this was during a briefing about how important it was to keep secret things secret so that might be an exageration to instil a sense that the little things are important but the techniques they warned against backed up their statements. Engineers in particular are apparently susceptible to minor insults against a project they are working on. They will jump to devend it even if it means leaking non-trivial details.

      As an example:
      Spy - "I heard that the Air Force's new radios can't even do X"
      Engineer - "What!? of course it can do X, we can even do X with Y and Z!"

      Where X, Y, and Z are small details that are never the less classified information.

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        So... I shouldn't have bragged about how the subject of my experiments into human psychic abilities had been visited by key members of parliament?

    • Actually, I have it from a reliable source that they're very interested in the most extreme potential consequences of the obesity epidemic. Specifically, as manifested in your mom. :-P

    • Well, if you read the recently published official complaint [justice.gov], SVR gave one of the agents the following order:

      in its January 2010 messages, the SVR also instructed MURPHY to buy certain computer equipment using "all necessary precausions [sic]: no preliminary order, pay cash, destroy receipts, etc.," and to bring that computer equipment to Center.

      and it was carried out:

      A database of sales maintained by the Computer Store reflected that, earlier that day, an individual who identified himself as "David Hiller"

  • Sex Sells (Score:5, Funny)

    by Daetrin (576516) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:15PM (#32736888)
    Okay, raise your hands, how many people got to the bit about "while the Post favors the femme fatale angle (alleged spy Anna Chapman)" and immediately stopped to go do some google searches on this spy in particular?
    • by elucido (870205) * on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:25PM (#32737090)

      Too good looking and too smart.

      Any woman who looks like that and who has a masters degree in economics is almost certainly a spy. No ordinary woman looks that good and is that smart.

      • Somebody better lock up Winnie Cooper [wikipedia.org] before she steals all our secrets then. (Not to mention a host of other beautiful women who just happen to be highly educated).

        • by elucido (870205) *

          Somebody better lock up Winnie Cooper [wikipedia.org] before she steals all our secrets then. (Not to mention a host of other beautiful women who just happen to be highly educated).

          There aren't very many of them. Also the spy woman was over the top, she ran her own business too. How many models are smart and run successful businesses? If it's less than 1% of the people you've met then when you meet one thats probably the spy.

          • Well, you could argue that most actresses essentially run their own business, they have assistants to a greater or lesser extent but in the end they are selling a product. Everyone always assumes that actresses are stupid, the reality is that while they are doubtlessly attractive, even if they're in the top .01% of women that still leaves an awful lot of competition. Look at Pamela Anderson, how much money has she made over the years selling what basically amounts to her personality and appearance? That

            • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

              by elucido (870205) *

              Well, you could argue that most actresses essentially run their own business, they have assistants to a greater or lesser extent but in the end they are selling a product. Everyone always assumes that actresses are stupid, the reality is that while they are doubtlessly attractive, even if they're in the top .01% of women that still leaves an awful lot of competition. Look at Pamela Anderson, how much money has she made over the years selling what basically amounts to her personality and appearance? That does in fact take a kind of intelligence, maybe different from a PHD in economics kind of intelligence, but certainly still intelligence.

              Anyone that hot, that smart and that successful is automatically suspect. Most successful actresses may very well be spies, but the same could be said about most successful actors. They do fit the profile.

            • by mikael_j (106439)

              Ah, but apart from acting skills it's not so much intelligence that's required in the movie/theatre world, it's social skills. And I'm not talking about solid regular social skills but the ability to stab your competitors in the back while they do the same to you and still come out of it smiling and acting like friends. Brown-nosing is a big part of it as well. Really, it's not intelligence, you need to have strong social skills coupled with "management personality" (meaning: willing to climb to the top by

      • by royallthefourth (1564389) <royallthefourth@gmail.com> on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @07:48PM (#32738700)

        Have you invented a time travel device that allows you to post from 1955?

    • by Alsee (515537)

      And here are the photos everyone is looking for. [businessinsider.com]

      Yes, I'd definitely say she's hot.

      -

  • If anyone is interested in a picture of the (totally unrelated) said hydrangeas, I believe these are the ones [nytimes.com]. I guess the lawn could have used a bit more care, though
  • by redelm (54142) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:18PM (#32736956) Homepage

    Normally western counterespionage groups are very reluctant to charge anyone because the trials will leak their methods to their adversaries.

    So the FBI would only bring charges this fluffy for some other reason. What are we being distracted from?

  • by srussia (884021) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:22PM (#32737048)
    "Officials said no secrets were compromised or revealed in the alleged plot."
  • Just because it's not secret doesn't mean it's not valuable and just because it's not valuable doesn't mean it's not secret.

  • Spy ring busts you!

    Holy hell, I think we got a true 'soviet russia' this time!
  • by jc42 (318812) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @05:46PM (#32737412) Homepage Journal

    to infiltrate the upper echelons of US government and business circles and pass back intelligence to the Russians

    If they're looking for intelligence, the past couple of decades of US government and business decisions should be enough to convince anyone with a few ounces of brain that that's not the place to look for it.

  • by peter303 (12292) on Tuesday June 29, 2010 @06:14PM (#32737754)
    Who needs spies anymore when you have google.
  • You've got to be kidding me. Haven't these folks heard of PGP? Or are they just determined to act out a bad spy novel?

  • Have you ever:

    - tasted more than one sausage at the sample counter, but didn't buy any?
    - sampled a grape at the supermarket?
    - picked up a penny at the fountain?
    - walked out of a coffee shop with a newspaper that you weren't sure was free?
    - accidentally kept something in your shopping cart, but didn't bother to return it?
    - borrowed the fire ax from downtown to chop down a tree in your yard?
    - kept shopping carts in your garage?
    - got a refund for your doctor's co-pay via medical supplies?
    - wrote a check to the

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