Invisible ink and passwords from other side of the white picket fence
Those accused of being Russian spies lived in a world of almost cartoon espionage, writes LARA MARLOWEin Washington
THE RUSSIAN spy ring whose existence was revealed in the Federal District Court in Manhattan on Monday was real cloak-and-dagger stuff.
There were reports written in invisible ink, furtive meetings on park benches, identical carrier bags swapped in a train station, and a packet of cash wrapped in duct tape, buried by a handler to be unearthed two years later by spies who flew across the country to retrieve it.
At the same time, most of the alleged spies – 11 in all – led apparently banal lives, settling in suburban homes, feigning marriage and even raising children, all for the sake of Moscow Centre. “They couldn’t have been spies,” a neighbour of the couple known as Cynthia and Richard Murphy in Montclair New Jersey, told the New York Times. “Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”
Two affidavits filed by FBI agents provide a glimpse into the lives of these agents, all of whom lived under assumed names.
Here is Cynthia Murphy, apparently the brighter half of the couple she formed with Richard, chiding her “husband” for his poor information-collection skills in an FBI wire-tap of the couple’s first apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey, back in 2004.
Richard apparently had delusions of finding employment in the higher echelons of US government. He’d never pass the background test, Cynthia warned him.
“Cynthia Murphy suggested that Richard Murphy should therefore approach people who have access to important venues (the White House, for example) to which he could not reasonably expect to himself gain direct personal access,” the court documents say.
Russian agents were provided with coded messages before they met each other. For example, Richard Murphy was told that the man scheduled to give him a fake Irish passport in the name of Eunan Gerard Doherty in Rome last February would approach him with the words, “Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?” Murphy was instructed to reply: “Yes indeed, I was in La Valetta, but in 2000.” As a further precaution, Murphy was instructed to hold a Timemagazine in such a way that the title could be seen from the outside. If he held it in his left hand, it was a sign of danger.
Moscow Centre sent a message to the Murphys, also identified as the “New Jersey Conspirators” in court documents, exhorting them to “Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State Department, Government, major think tanks.” Cynthia won kudos for cultivating a man whom Moscow Centre called “a very interesting target”, a prominent New York financier who is “prominent in politics” and “an active fundraiser” for a major political party. The spymasters back in Moscow hoped he could “provide . . . remarks re US foreign policy, roumors about White House internal ‘kitchen’ . . . invite her to venues . . .” The FBI has labelled the network “the illegals programme” and defines it as “covert SVR agents who assume false identities, and who are living in the US on long-term, ‘deep-cover’ assignments”. Two of the indicted agents are Latin Americans – Juan Lazaro is said to have moved from Peru to Siberia as a child. The woman known as Tracey Lee Ann Foley carried a fake British passport. Her “husband”, Donald Howard Heathfield, adopted the identity of a dead Canadian.
The false identities created by the agents in the US are called their “legends”. One accused agent, Mikhail Semenko, worked for a travel agency in Arlington Virginia and did not attempt to hide his origins. But it seems amazing most of the others, who were presumably Russian-born, could pass for middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Americans.
“These Russian secret agents work to hide all connections between themselves and Russia,” the court documents say. They are taught “foreign languages; agent-to-agent communications, including the use of brush-passes . . .” The latter are defined as “clandestine, hand-to-hand delivery of items or payments – made as one person walks past another in a public place”. The network had “one primary goal”, the FBI says, “to become sufficiently ‘Americanised’ 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, US policymaking circles.”
The 55 pages of court documents tell us very little about what secrets, if any, the 11 agents actually conveyed to Moscow. Nor is it clear exactly what covers they adopted, though US newspapers report that Vicky Pelaez worked as a correspondent for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York and Anna Chapman ran an online real estate agency. Cynthia Murphy, whose report on the gold market was praised by Moscow, appears to have worked in finance. Her “husband”, like the Heathfield/Foley couple in Boston, may have worked for a university.
The most spy-like message, from Heathfield in 2004, relates his meeting with a person who worked “on issues of strategic planning related to nuclear weapon development”. The name of the research facility is deleted in court documents, but the mention of “conversation . . . about research programmes on small yield high penetration nuclear warheads (nuclear ‘bunker-buster’ warheads)” is tantalising.
For all their technological sophistication, the conspirators repeatedly complained of difficulties with their paired laptop computers. Court documents detail the times and dates of electronic transfers of information, from Anna Chapman in New York, seated first at a mid-town cafe and later in a bookshop in Greenwich Village, to a diplomat from the Russian mission at the UN, in a van outside; and from Mikhail Semenko, working on his laptop in a Washington restaurant and transmitting to a diplomat from the Russian embassy in a parking lot.
The spies sent expense reports to Moscow electronically. In a possible sign that they were “going native”, Cynthia and Richard Murphy asked – unsuccessfully – that the house they purchased in New Jersey be put under their assumed names.
There were also signs of disgruntlement. In a taped conversation between Christopher Metsos (the 11th agent, who was released on bail in Cyprus yesterday) and Richard Murphy, the latter “expressed a series of frustrations about his work” the FBI affidavit says. Metsos responded: “Well I’m so happy I’m not your handler.”