Anna Chapman's gig offered potential secrets
The answer is not as obvious as you might think.
Many people have scoffed that the “cover jobs” held by the accused Russian spies -- real estate agent, financial planner, international management consultant, travel agent and reporter -- could have provided access to any government secrets.
On one level, they’re right. The federal charges unsealed Monday suggest that they didn’t get any sensitive information at all.
More about that later. But in the spy business, there are different kinds of cover. And although it’s not readily apparent to the untrained eye, most of the jobs the accused spies held actually had pretty good potential for giving their spy masters in Moscow valuable information.
As Michelle Van Cleave, a former chief of the National Counterintelligence Executive, put it: “They weren't posing as hermits or cloistered monks, were they? These illegals held jobs that supplied a wealth of innocuous reasons to blend in, move about, travel abroad, facilitate personal interactions, and meet interesting, diverse and well placed people -- all essential to espionage operations.”
But that’s just for starters.
Take, for example, Anna Chapman. The self-promoting seductress was evidently working hard to establish herself in Manhattan’s tough-as-nails real estate business.
What could Moscow hope to gain from that? Plenty.
Chapman’s spy handlers would have expected that she would develop clients among New York’s business and political elite, perhaps a Wall Street insider with access to top officials in Washington.
Just the gossip that Chapman might pick up from cocktail parties, weekends in the Hamptons -- or, well, other encounters -- about the doings of influential people would be valuable to Russian intelligence chiefs.
Indeed, another of the accused Russian spies, known as Cynthia Murphy, had a big-time investor and Democratic Party fundraiser, Alan Patricof, as a client in her cover job as a financial advisor.
Patricof told The Washington Post's Jason Horowitz that he and Murphy, an attractive 35-year-old, "never discussed anything but paying the bills and taxes in normal phone calls or meetings" during the three years he was her client.
But people like to brag about the high and mighty they know. What if Patricof let slip something embarrassing about a top Democrat in Washington? Moscow would like to hear that.
Or what if Cynthia Murphy discovered information in Patricof’s financial papers that he’d rather keep under wraps?
Moscow would really like to hear that.
There’s not the slightest hint that anything like that transpired between Murphy and Patricof, much less that Patricof had anything derogatory in his background that Moscow could find enticing.
But Russia’s SVR, just like any other intelligence service, including the CIA, won’t hesitate to use blackmail to squeeze information out of people or recruit them.
Two of the other accused Russian spies, Tracey Ann Foley and Donald Heathfield, lived as a married couple in Cambridge, Mass., home to Harvard and MIT, ground zero for America’s military-academic complex. Present, former and future national security officials and scientists congregate there by the thousands. All of them are potential marks for foreign spies.
Heathfield graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School and worked as a global management consultant, with connections in Singapore and Brazil. His membership in the Harvard China Group alone, just one of about 30 professional associations he joined, would have given him access to scores of influential government and business officials, from whom he could elicit insider information -- and perhaps even pitch.
Like Murphy and Chapman in New York, moreover, his wife’s job as a real estate agent in Cambridge had to have given her access to at least some influential clients’ sensitive -- and potentially exploitable -- personal and financial information.
Another accused spy, Mikhail Semenko, worked at Travel All Russia, a travel agency in Arlington, Va., which is home to the Pentagon and many offices of U.S. intelligence.
Travel agencies are used by intelligence services the world over. Why? They give employees reasons to gather and store sensitive travel itineraries, shipping information and access to airlines for the clandestine movement of goods and personnel.
Semenko had also been an intern at the World Affairs Council, a potential recruitment pool of government officials.
Another accused spy worked as a columnist and reporter for El Diario, a Spanish-language newspaper in New York. Vicky Pelaez, 55, thus had good cover for asking questions and gathering information, of course, perhaps from among Spanish-speaking diplomats at the United Nations.
What all these meticulously planned cover jobs and expensive assignments produced, of course, remains an open question.
But the answer so far is not much, by the looks of the government’s charges.
Old CIA and FBI hands are snickering that if these Russians were sleeper agents, they played it to the hilt: They stayed asleep, content to enjoy American life.
In fact, to date they’re not even being charged with espionage, but the far lesser charge of failing to register as foreign agent -- a maximum five-year term. Evidently the government can’t find any stolen government documents to charge them with the real thing.
“It appears the Russians had high hopes that maybe they could [recruit] yet another Kim Philby—the British intelligence office who during the cold war was a double agent for the Soviet Union,” said James Wedick, who won decorations for his covert overseas missions with the FBI and CIA during a 34-year career.
“Unlike Philby, however, the individuals arrested this week seem more like white-collar fraudsters who convinced their Russian handlers that U.S. secrets were just around the corner.”
Moscow Center probably just threw a bunch of agents against the wall in hopes that one would stick, avers retired senior CIA official Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.
“The Russians aren't stupid. You can wind up a dozen illegals and set them forth to penetrate U.S. society,” he said.
“Maybe one of them develops a serious opportunity to access the U.S. policy apparat," he added, "and [he or she] pays for all the others.”
See video of Jeff Stein discussing spies' "cover jobs."
| June 30, 2010; 9:30 PM ET
Categories: Financial/business, Intelligence, Justice/FBI | Tags: Anna Chapman, Cynthia Murphy, Donald Heathfield, James Wedick, Mikhail Semenko, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Tracey Ann Fole
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