Reuters says that a Russian spy ring operating in the US has been broken up. “Authorities charged 11 individuals with the plot, 10 of whom were arrested on Sunday in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Virginia on charges including conspiracy to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation and money laundering.” Their job was to pass as Americans but spy for Russia.
The arrests are the culmination of a multi-year investigation that used extensive surveillance of communications and wiretaps, including putting listening devices into the homes of the accused individuals. … The individuals were accused of collecting information ranging from research programs on small yield, high penetration nuclear warheads and the global gold market to trying to obtain background information about people who applied for jobs at the Central Intelligence Agency, according to court papers.
CBS reports the agents were working for the SVR (Служба Внешней Разведки Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki ) which is described by Wikipedia as “Russia’s primary external intelligence agency. The SVR is the successor of First Chief Directorate (FCD) of the KGB”. Robert Hansen of the FBI, Aldrich Ames of the CIA and John Walker of the Navy are prominent examples of actual Americans who have been recruited by the Soviets/Russians.
North America has long been an espionage target. CBC reports the Canadian government has “known for years that foreign countries have been trying to win influence over Canadian politicians and public servants. This follows on reports that some of the Russian spies recently arrested by the US posed as Canadians during their operations. Earlier reports of foreign influence into Canada identified China as the controlling hand.
That information comes a day after CSIS director Richard Fadden said he had never warned officials close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that some provincial cabinet ministers may be under the sway of countries like China — even though he told the CBC earlier this week the agency was discussing the issue with the Privy Council Office.
According to the Boston Globe two of the persons arrested were based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “A Cambridge couple were among 10 alleged Russian spies arrested Sunday on charges that they plotted to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation inside the United States. … A couple who went by the names Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley were arrested on Trowbridge Street in busy Harvard Square around 7:30 pm Sunday by a team of FBI agents.” One of them was reported by Wicked Local Cambridge to have donated $50 to State Representative Mary Walz (D) House Chair of the Joint Committee on Education.
I don’t know who she is,” said Foley. “She must be a friend of a friend.” According to state records, Foley had a real estate license.
Yahoo News reports that one of the suspects, Donald Howard Heathfield attended the Harvard Kennedy School in 1999 and ran a consulting company called Future Map. Its mission was to “help governments, enterprises and international organizations better prepare for the future and make better strategic decisions. We create methodologies and software tools that constitute the framework for organizations’ future management systems.”
Future Map’s website claims that the technology for the software was “born as an initiative involving a group of graduates from Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and private-sector specialists in the USA, the UK and France working to support forward-looking decision processes.”
The LinkedIn profile also lists Heathfield as a past partner at Global Partners Inc., a management consulting firm that lists Abbott Labs, Boston Scientific, and GE as clients. Global Partners’ website also lists a Donald Heathfield. When Yahoo! News told Carolyn Quintin, one of Heathfield’s partners at the firm, of his arrest, she replied, “that doesn’t make much sense.”
“I’m in total shock,” she said. “He’s got such good training skills.” Quintin said she believed that Heathfield is a Canadian with U.S. citizenship. She first met him, she recalled, “around 2001,” before she had joined the firm herself. She hired Global Partners Inc. to do training for the American division of Essilor, a French lens manufacturer.
“He was a great facilitator,” she said. “He was great at looking at international cultures and communications.”
The complaint filed by the FBI alleges that “have been operating in the United States since the mid-1990s, and have been under FBI surveillance since at least 2002.” Their job was to get inside the the circle that generated policy ideas. … ‘You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e., to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter].'”
The alleged spies communicated with their handlers by special wireless computer networks set up through their laptops. Through that network, they were able to exchange data without meeting. FBI surveillance of Chapman showed her going to coffee shops and bookstores in New York at the same time that a representative from the Russian consulate was in the immediate vicinity; both would allegedly open their laptops and exchange data without speaking or being in the same room.
But, like all computer programs, the spy software was bug-ridden, and complaints about it helped two undercover FBI agents convince Chapman and Semenko, a D.C. operative, that they were working with the Russians. One undercover agent posing as a Russian met with Chapman and asked how everything was going: “Everything is cool apart from the connection,” she replied. “I am not the technical guy… I don’t know how to fix it,” the agent said. “But if you tell me, I can pass it up.”
The complaint also details the use of steganography, or the practice of embedding encrypted data in innocuous-seeming photos, and radiograms — rapid bursts of encrypted radio information that sound like static — to transmit information to handlers.
Some of the evidence contained in the complaint comes from listening devices stored in the moles’ homes going back as far as 2002, suggesting that once the FBI discovered the network, it decided to spy on it for nearly a decade rather than wrap it up immediately.
From reports in the press it seems that unlike agents recruited to access specific information inside the military or security services, the sleeper’s job was to enter a broader social network. They would have spied from the vantage of the private party, the Little League baseball game, the seminar and the cocktail party.The spies did not necessarily need access to classified data and probably would have avoided it in order not to bring suspicion on themselves. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. Their role was to “make friends and influence” people and if they succeeded, their opinions would have carried weight and would have been placed to detect broad, long term trends in United States policy. They would been situated to spot individuals within US intelligence which the FSB recruiters could target; known who was weak; who needed money; who was disgruntled.
Why did the FBI wrap it up now rather than continue poison the cell’s sources with disinformation? Now was the time to ‘play it back’ and make the Russians dance to their tune. Normally a cell left to run this long would be rolled up for two reasons:
- There was no remaining value to be extracted, which is doubtful;
- The FBI suspected that the cell might be alerted in the near future and escape their grasp so they grabbed it now.
Reason number two seems far more probable, though that is only speculation. The FBI had invested a great deal in of time and effort into letting the cell ripen and the payoff was now within their reach. US intel could turn the tables on the Russian by following the recruiters and scooping up the spies sent by the sleepers to exploit targets. And maybe some of the harvesting had already occurred and some playback had already happened; maybe the Bureau decided to tie things up while they were ahead. Or maybe not. Interesting to see who jumps. The sleepers knew a lot of people.