A day after the Obama Administration arrested 10 people across the U.S. on charges of being Russian spies, the Russian Foreign Ministry has dismissed the roundup as “completely unfounded,” and alleged that the accusations have been made “in the spirit of cold war spy mania.” There is no doubt that the latter is true, though this does not appear to be the fault of the FBI. The charging documents, filed by the Department of Justice, at times verge on purple prose, with alleged spies recorded talking to each other in dialog that even Hollywood might not accept as credible. If the accusations prove to be true, the biggest lesson from this entire episode may be that real-life spies today act just like fictional spies from the 1980s. Here are eight highlights from the charging documents, as alleged by the FBI:
1. Russian spies talk just like you expect spies to talk. Messages from Moscow Central, the headquarters of the successor to the KGB, ended “destroy the memo after reading.” In face-to-face meetings, the accused used all kinds of funky code words, with conversations so contrived that if you overheard them you would surely suspect something illegal was afoot. “You will meet this guy,” one spy at a Sunnyside, New York, restaurant tells another, according to an FBI bug. “Tell him Uncle Paul loves him . . . he will know . . . It is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May.” Similarly, when greeting contacts for the first time, the spies used wooden language to confirm identities. For example: “ ‘Excuse me, did we meet in Bangkok in April last year?’ Reply: ‘I don’t know about April, but I was in Thailand in May of that year.’ ”
2. Brand matters, and Russian spies apparently see TIME magazine as something like a universal signifier. (This gives an entirely new meaning to the red border, one Henry Luce surely did not intend.) In January of this year, Moscow Center allegedly sent a message to one of its assets, Richard Murphy, to tell him how to meet a contact in Rome, who would deliver a fake Irish passport so Murphy could travel to Moscow. In the message, Murphy was identified as “A.”
A’s recognition sign: “Time” magazine in A’s hands (title to be seen from outside). Sign of danger: “Time” magazine in A’s left hand (title to be seen from outside).
The criminal complaint does not have details of this meeting, though the FBI says Murphy did fly to Rome between February 21, 2010 and March 3, 2010. If he carried a recent issue of TIME, here are the options.
3. The Russian spies allegedly tried to pass information in all kinds of groovy ways, from the old fashion (Morse Code-like radio signals) to the downright Bohemian (syncing Mac computers in a New York bookstore). They also used Steganography—the concealing of messages in images–which should become the word of the week. Don’t be surprised if Steganography shows up on an upcoming episode of Jeopardy, under “Cold War lingo for $600.” The images in question, with hidden messages, were posted on “publicly-available websites.” Happy hunting.
4. The Russian spies tried to assure their minders that they were not being corrupted by the lure of capitalist success. During the summer of 2009, two New Jersey spies sent a message back to Moscow Center after their spymasters decided not to let them own their own home in Montclair. They were apparently worried that Moscow believed they were going native, so they defended themselves in an encrypted note home. “C” stand for Moscow Center.
We are under the impression that C. views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of our mission here. We’d like to assure you that we do remember what it is. From our perspective, purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here. It was a convenient way to solve the housing issue, plus to ‘do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership.
In the end, Moscow Center’s suspicion of Roman excess may have saved the spies some money. Real Estate values have continued to drop in Montclair over the last year.
5. Even for spies, it’s hard to forget the past. One of the accused, who went by the name Tracey Lee Ann Foley and claimed to be Candaian, kept a safe deposit box in Cambridge, Mass., which law enforcement officials searched on January 23, 2001. They found photographic negatives that appeared to show Foley in her 20s. “On all the negatives of the younger Foley save one, the name of the company that produced the film on which the negatives were printed has been excises,” writes an FBI agent in the complaint. “The name on the film is ‘TACMA’; based on law-enforcement research I know that TACMA was a Soviet film company.”
6. The Russian spies were charged with befriending people who worked in U.S. policy circles to acquire intelligence. In 2004, one of the spies reported meeting an employee of a U.S. government research facility and discussing so-called “bunker buster” nuclear weapons, which had recently been approved by Congress. Other U.S. targets, with policy making access, had nicknames like “Farmer,” “Cat,” and “Parrot.” At one point, Center asked the New Jersey-based spies to obtain intelligence about the White House policy views in advance of President Obama’s 2009 visit to Moscow. One of the spies also reported several meetings with a “New York-based financier,” who was “prominent in politics,” and an “active fundraiser.” The financier, who is not named in the complaint, is also listed as a “personal friend” of a current member of President Obama’s cabinet. Moscow Center was apparently cheered by this news. “Try to build up little by little relations with him moving beyond just [work] framework,” the spymasters told their female spy.
7. Just days after President Obama met with Russian President Medvedev, two undercover FBI agents, posing as fellow Russian spies, met with two of the suspected spies. In both cases, the undercover FBI agent tasked the Russian spies with accomplishing a task. In one case, the suspect complied, dropping an envelope with $5,000 in an Arlington Park. In the other case, the suspect never showed up for the task. Instead, law enforcement agents tracked her walking into a CVS, a Rite Aid and a Verizon store in Brooklyn. Apparently in the Verizon store, she purchased a Motorola cellphone under the name Irine Kutsov. She gave a customer address of “99 Fake Street.”
8. The FBI has allegedly been building a case against these Russian agents for more than a decade. The first noted surveillance of the network comes “on or about January 14, 2000,” when “law enforcement agents” conduct video surveillance of one suspect, Vicky Pelaez, meeting with an individual at a public park in a South American country. According to the video, Pelaez “received a bag from the individual during their meeting.” After the meeting, a phone call Paleaz makes to another suspect is intercepted by U.S. authorities. “All went well,” Paleaz reported during the call.