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Posted at 10:15 PM ET, 06/28/2010

Russian spy case reveals old espionage tricks

By Jeff Stein

Moscow Center’s instructions were explicit: For the meeting in Rome, its American spy would approach a stranger and ask, "Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?"

"Yes indeed,” the answer should be. “I was in La Valetta, but in 2000.”

According to Moscow’s instructions, the stranger would then slip the spy a false Irish passport, for travel on to Russia.

The meeting, described in an FBI affidavit, is such a cliché of espionage that it sounds like something out of “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers’ 2008 spy spoof.

But, according to court papers filed Monday in support of the FBI's arrest of 10 alleged “deep cover” Russian spies, it was real.

Moreover, although the 37-page document shows that Moscow Center may have added some Internet technology to its bag of tricks, its main revelation is that Russian intelligence evidently still relies on espionage methods – “tradecraft,” in spy lingo – as old as the Rome hills.

To be sure, according to the FBI, the suspected Russian agents it rounded up sometimes communicated with Moscow via secret messages hidden in Web pages (in a process called steganography).

But for the most part, they contacted each other the old-fashioned way, through furtive exchanges in city parks, or with bags of cash hidden along country roads, and even by radio with Morse code.

Indeed, the FBI’s descriptions conjure up old black and white TV classics like “I Led 3 Lives.”

“The FBI's investigation has revealed that a network of illegals … is now living and operating in the United States in the service of one primary, long-term goal,” the affidavit by Special Agent Maria L. Ricci read, “to become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.”

The FBI’s spy-busting techniques were quaint as well, far more “Dragnet” than “Enemy of the State,” a paranoid fantasy about eavesdropping satellites.

Bureau agents put “microphone-type listening devices in certain of the defendants' residences.” They “surreptitiously entered certain of the defendants' residences; photographed evidence and copied electronic media while inside; and then left the residence in question,” its affidavit said.

Of course, agents' methods also included “monitoring and recording of the phone calls and e-mails...”

But the FBI must have been clapping its collective hands when it discovered the primitive radio techniques the Russians were using: high speed "burst transmissions.” The Cold War-era technique requires the sending party to record a coded Morse code message on a tape, then shoot it through the air in a millisecond.

They were easy picking for the FBI, once it knew where to listen: Bugs in the defendants’ residences picked up “the irregular electronic clicking sounds associated with the receipt of coded radio transmissions,” its affidavit states.

Likewise, you’d think the Russians would have moved beyond buried paper bags to pay their agents. Moscow Center did supply them with ATM cards, according to the FBI’s affidavit. But it also seems stuck with the old ways.

“METSOS secretly buried some of the money in upstate New York,” the FBI affidavit says, referring to one of the defendants, “and two years later, in 2006, the Seattle Conspirators flew to New York and dug it up.”

”ZOTTOLI dug up a package containing money that had been buried in
the ground by METSOS…” the FBI affidavit continues, naming another suspect.

In another, “JUAN LAZARO … in a South American country, received a
package containing money from a representative of the Russian government,” according to the affidavit.

In another, “PELAEZ received a bag from [an unidentified individual] during their meeting … at a public park in the South American Country.”

The affidavit also describes how “Russian Government Official #3 surreptitiously gave cash and a flash memory stick to RICHARD MURPHY," the defendant, during a "brush pass" at a New York-area train station.

Just like it sounds, a “brush pass” of messages and money is executed swiftly, face to face.

Perhaps all of the suspects, the FBI thinks, are Russians expertly groomed for years by Moscow Center to act, think and talk like Americans, right down to water-cooler arguments over who won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1987 Super Bowl. It’s an assignment earned only by Russia’s best.

But the FBI may never find out who they really are, because of another tried and true technique Moscow Center uses, according to the affidavit: obtaining the birth certificates of dead Canadians and Americans, with which they can build a whole new, false “legend” for their spies.

The FBI affidavit turns up several.

That trick, too, is as old as the hills, with an added virtue. Unlike the others, it could well prevent the FBI from ever finding out exactly who all these people really are.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

By Jeff Stein  | June 28, 2010; 10:15 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Justice/FBI  
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Next: Accused Russian spies lived perfect Boston lives


There are many people who still think the fall of the USSR was a ruse to lull us into complacency. They will both cheer this news as vindication yet ignore the sad truth that the Russians just weren't up to the task.

Posted by: terry-the-censor | June 29, 2010 12:51 AM | Report abuse

It's weirdly hilarious, in a way, isn't it? It seems like this spy gang, particularly the NY suburbia couple, the "Murphys" -the wife so excellent in her gardening-her neighbors praise the wife for her lovely hydrangeas- were really more interested in just living a normal life in the US, kicking back, raising their children, holding down American jobs, living in nice suburban houses or apartments. Oh, for sure they were being dutiful agents in that they reported in regularly, made, picked up drops, sent secret messages that said effectively nothing sensitive or contained info. that could be of any real utility to the Russians, BUT the fact remains that they sure weren't doing any active solicitation of classified materials, nor of getting into the inner circles of "policy-making" whatever that was supposed to mean-whatsoever! That strikes me as rather hilarious-yeah yeah, we'll get around to when we're 70 and ready to retire on our American pension benefits! Too funny!

I should add, the Russian Embassy here in DC are my neighbors-and I like them. Of course, the Embassy folk live all around me...hmmm, wonder about that family that lives just down from me, always so nice and polite-and that Russian man who walks his dog in the neighborhood-and sits on our park bench talking in Russian on his cellphone-think they could be spies?

Well if they are, I really don't give a dam-can't exactly see them as a national security threat, now can I? I like my Russian Embassy neighbors-spies or no spies!

Posted by: Spring_Rain | June 29, 2010 1:36 AM | Report abuse

P.S. There is no "La Valletta" -the capital city of Malta is simply "Valletta"

Posted by: Spring_Rain | June 29, 2010 1:44 AM | Report abuse

In America it is easily to become a spy. Once upon a time a friend of mine, cab driver, found in his taxi a bag with laptop computer, diskettes and papers everything with the mark "Us Top Secret". He did not know what to do so, as could not remember who forgot the bag and called me for advice. When I look what information is contained in papers and the laptop I advised him to destroy everything and do not speak about it. There was important technical military information and I think it was too dangerous to return the bag and then to be under suspect as we are Russians and we know some thing what we do not have to know. By the way that bag no one was looking for, looks like this guy decided to shut up too. I can speak about now because enough time has left.
So my dear Americans "be watchful" like great writer and anti Nazi Mr. Julius Foochek said.
Yours Alex.

Posted by: bavardom | June 29, 2010 6:18 AM | Report abuse

Some is left Mysterious, Listening Device si Telephone In Home. Agents whom speak English are Germans, Since WW ALL People In American Zone Are taught English In School & Come Here With Vengence.

Legend Idenity is Social Security aAccount that suddenly pays wrong person, Original birth Certificate Holder long worked to Death & Gone, Converted to New Paying Account. Social Security Encourages that & Dislikes actual Payments to Disabled. Many people Have Lost etirement Payments by 1 quarter late in application, only to have entire number working sisde by side own, as pay out. age need NOT Even corespond to original, of new payee.

Rason done here is that Espionage IS Possible & Public Naievee, while back in totalitarian society, such events never occur at ALL. No Infastructure. Even Money Is Shunned as Capitalist Device to subjugate.

Main Conversion IS Money, AS actual Property has become too hard to displace, while Numbers entered into computer as additional account on established account, is local event & with cooperating bank, EASY. Theres little likelyhood bank as any way to tell real account from fraudulently created account. Litle likelyhood any higher admisistration of account nor monitoring occurs, although local Sociaiiil /security offices give that impression. If Social Security gets caught Fluffing accounts, Close & reopen as Internal Revenue Service Office. Same Employees & desks & floorplan, so fast action game & almost never get caught, so little likelyhood of actual true claim.

Posted by: thomasxstewart1 | June 29, 2010 6:28 AM | Report abuse

The information being gathered by these "spies" sounds like the sort of stuff which be gleaned from Google in a few minutes. Why is the US media taking this story seriously? With all the fraudsters working the internet doesn't the FBI have anything better to do? Under the definition of "unregistered foreign agents" we have here there must be at least a million people in the US who could be arrested.

Posted by: jimeglrd8 | June 29, 2010 8:07 AM | Report abuse

Should be interesting to watch play out if the media continues to follow. Is it truly newsworthy, most likely not the "spies" don't appear to have been worthy of the title. Based on the earlier postings..ahem spring_rain aka idiot with a platform...this is just fodder for individuals with nothing better to do, or conspiracy theorists...great, just what I need from the news.

@bavardom- give me a break. You saw nothing otherwise you would have had the marking described correctly. Hope you are prepared for a knock on your door late at night after that confession. Destroy it you say....don't talk about it ever you say? Sounds like delusions of grandeur from one seeking fame. Next time make sure you have the "markings" described correctly if you wish to be taken seriously.

Posted by: devilsadvocate3 | June 29, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

Hey 'devilsadvocate3" aka IDIOT WHO CAN'T READ-I love it when people like you try to wax superior in your posts-wow, you've got it ALL figured out don't you? Nitwit!

Posted by: Spring_Rain | June 29, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

As someone who retired from the intelligence community, I see the same game being played by the the two sides as in the Cold War but now there really is nothing of real value involved except the players themselves. The SVR takes a huge risk by putting actual Russians in the field (a rare event for either side as spies are almost always 3rd party nationals or arrest-proof diplomats) in order to please the old KGB school-kid interrogator Putin.

We can see from the charges that there was no value in these assets--no espionage charges because they obtained nothing but pubically available info. Unfortunately, this is very serious for Russia because we are talking about 11 almost certain Russian citizens (the exception being perhaps the Peruvian). Yes, Russia is unhappy when we arrest an american spy for Russia (as has happened many times) but these are really deeply deployed Russian handlers, its a whole different league of embarrassment for Russia. They will obviously respond with arrests of Americans in Russia. They may actually have one or two already in mind from among those they are watching today, but 11!! They will take some desparate measures to put such a large number of Americans in Russia in the same position. In the end, they will need to simply arrest even those they know are innocent but how else can they hold us hostage to freeing Putin's beloved SVR personnel. In any case, its pathetic that Russia risked so much for so little. In my time, this could often be said as those secret tapes passed in the middle of the night rarely had much real value in the information but the early information on this network offers a whole new example of wasted effort.

Posted by: RPeacock | June 29, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Slanting this story so it appears the Russian espionage efforts are old-fashioned, ineffective, and impotent is just what the leftists and progressives want their useful-idiot supporters to think. These are the 10 the FBI caught after they did an unknown amount of damage. How many more do you think are still out there, wise guys - zero?

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | June 29, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Rpeacock-I agree with your assessment wholeheartedly-the end result is-no value in these assets, so why? Invisible ink? Drops in an Arlington park a la Ames and Hanson?

I think someone in the Kremlin LIKES these Cold War spy tactics gleaned from books and movies-an example of life imitating art, maybe?

The real spygame is being played out in the cyber realm of course-so so SO OLD SCHOOL, RUSSIA! THIS HAS PUTIN'S HANDS ALL OVER IT-HE IS NOTHING IF NOT OLD SCHOOL!

But I STILL like my Russian Embassy neighbors-I mean, I'm living right next to Russian territory, aren't I? Washington DC IS funny like that, ja?

Posted by: Spring_Rain | June 29, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

RE: To @jimeglrd8
Well ... all was true, what ever you think, I do not care, but if someone in US, Russia or another country, who got assailment with national interests, should be alert and do not drink during a flight.

Posted by: bavardom | June 29, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

P.S. And if ANYONE who lives in the immediate area does not think that Washington DC is not CRAWLING, and I mean CRAWLING WITH SPIES FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD-then they are-unconscious and most unaware-the fact that most Washingtonians are so self-absorbed and full of themselves, noticing nothing and being utterly unaware of what is going on around them (because it doesn't involve them or their ever so important world) makes a PERFECT cover for these spies, too, I might add!

Posted by: Spring_Rain | June 29, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

The document from the FBI has some curious anomalies: (1) after the steganography images were processed, why did they remain posted?; (2) why were the agents not trained in radiograms and steganography prior to coming to the US?; (3) Why did the agents keep the paper record of the 27 character password for the steganography software, when it should have been memorized or burned immediately?; (4) why would the UN diplomat meet directly with the agent in Brooklyn, instead of using a cut-out?; (5) why were the meetings in the South American country including the hand-over of cash conducted in broad daylight in a public park?
Illegals are expensive long-term investments, but this batch didn't seem to have been managed well, at least that is the impression from reading the FBI documents.
One thing is sure - there are many others out there, and not only from Russia.

Posted by: eroche | June 29, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

If the Russians placed 11 deep cover spies, these spies only obtained public but not confidential information and U.S. intelligence had them fully monitored, why arrest them? Russia will only replace them with others who may be more successfully placed so that their activites will not be under the scrutiny of U.S. intelligence.

What is the point? The U.S. will now have to use taxpayer funds to prosecute, convict and incarcerate these suspects only to wind up exchanging the Russian spies for American spies the Russians will arrest.

I suspect a political motive behind all of this. Obama's ratings are sinking in the polls so he has decided to use these arrests as a method of waving the flag and rattling the clunking chains of patriotism.

James Carville where are you when your nation still needs you. Please tell the President;"It is still the economy, stupid!"

Posted by: lch123 | June 29, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

RE. To Whom who undersand Russian.
Россия и США всегда будут противостоять друг-другу в геополитическом плане. Мне искрене жаль Российских разведчиков, "бойцов невидемого фронта", образованных, положительных людей, которые как могли выполняли свою работу по заданию руководства России. Теперь им светит до 25 лет тюрьмы или совсем другая судьба если они начнут сотрудничать с ЦРУ и ФБР. Я думаю, что провал агентуры связан с предательством в службе внешней разведки РФ и успешной реализацией операции ФБР. В России наверное нет таких глубоко законспирированных и подготовленных груп нелегальных разведчиков из США, я думаю у нас тут всё проще. Из-за корупции и за большие деньги политики и бизнесмены сливают гораздо более ценую информацию чем добывали наши арестованные нелегалы. В общем обижаться не на что, разведовательная работа между нашими странами как шла так и идёт. Но мы должны быть гуманны к исполнителям, разведчиков не надо судить, их надо любыми способами отправлять на родину на заслуженный отдых и выплачивать хорошие пенсии. Мы не стреляем друг в друга.

Posted by: bavardom | June 29, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

People lived.
Do not work for the US government.
Who was killed? What was stolen? :)
Very strange "spies"
Perhaps this "spies" were recruited by the CIA 10 years ago. To be able to organize anti-Russian hysteria in the media - at the right time.
That explains it.
The British was killed one small man - for the same purpose.
There is a point of view :) that the MI-6 has poisoned (forget)... Litvinenko - for the same purpose. By American polonium. :)

Kick Russia in the Media.
America needs it, too.

Posted by: LuckyBarker | June 29, 2010 2:14 PM | Report abuse

Man, that Russian chick is hot.
She is so hot that Bill Clinton, Mark Sanders and John Edwards would give up all Top Secrets, just to talk to her.

Posted by: BOBSTERII | June 29, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

This quaint spy tale is amusing. But what is less amusing is that we (the US taxpayers) have been paying how many FBI/CIA types to investigate this silliness for SEVEN years? Really? The one going to jail is the one who has been supervising this waste of our resources.

Posted by: rlevine2 | June 29, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

Recommending watching for tonight: "Burn After Reading" followed by a healthy dose of the greatest espionage flick of all time... "Spies Like Us".

Posted by: electronsponge | June 29, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

Sad events.

The most devastating aspect of this story is those individuals who have immigrated to America with a good heart and mind - now are also placed under scrutiny because deep cover operatives are the quality of these 11 individuals.

This means "anyone" affiliated with the Russian Federation could be a deep cover operative.

Are we okay to meet, embrace, date, include with family life, or marry the immigrant who becomes an American. Our choice of partnership will allude to educated individuals that this class of spy would be comprised from.

We can never be certain that the person we love who sits across the table from us isn't a deep cover operative.

In all three cities (DC, NYC, Boston) everyday people and their families are often integrated into secure positions where even the most innocent information shares over dinner could be monumental. Just the knowledge of a flight path adjustment due to a stomach ache or some other seemingly benign reality could be an info-share that leads to ramifications at the end of the an intelligence day.

Still - I fell in love with a Ukrainian | Russian | American, a former Soviet Military Office and Special Operations person who really exuded every Capitalistic premise known to man. The FBI not only had him watched for six months, they tapped our telephones, recorded our e-mails, etc. and we worked in a cleared facility where I felt the Government had done their homework - ensuring this was a relationship I wouldn't have to question. I believed we would marry one another.

The FBI told me to continue dating him and asked if I'd talk with them more about him if necessary. Of course, liking our nation and the bureau I agreed, but we stopped dating.

I will always love my Ukrainian-American friend and was sorry to see him disappear into the sunset.

So the saddest thing about this "bust" is - we build relationships that are true and earnest and loving with these folks. So it hurts more than just a news story that will fade. I haven't been the same since I was told by two Special Agents that they had us followed for six months as well as foreign nationals doing the same thing.

The man of my dreams and a 2.5 hour interrogation - hurt.

Donna L. Quesinberry

Posted by: DonnaInk | June 30, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

Russians spies using fake British passports??? I am sure the London Rezident will be expelled, right?

Posted by: soferet | July 2, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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