The allegations are shocking: four couples living in the U.S. under assumed false identities while secretly working as covert Russian spies on long-term, "deep-cover" assignments to obtain information on nuclear weapons.
They are part of a clandestine network that used a series of cold war tactics such as encrypted Morse code messages, brush passes and invisible writing to send intelligence back to the Russian government, the FBI said today as it announced the results of a multi-year investigation into the alleged spy ring.
Charged are Richard and Cynthia Murphy of New Jersey, Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley of Boston, Massachusetts, Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills of Arlington, Virginia, and Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez of Yonkers, New York.
Also charged is Christopher Metsos, who remains at large and is alleged to be one of the main facilitators for the group and a trained agent living outside the U.S. According to the complaint, Metsos purports to be a Canadian citizen and regularly traveled to U.S. locations to meet with the other defendants, including numerous meetings in New York City in places such as coffee shops and book stores.
Two additional defendants, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, were also arrested Sunday for allegedly aiding in the same suspected Russian spy ring.
The arrests come just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met President Barack Obama in Washington, DC and shared hamburgers and French fries at a Virginia restaurant, not far from where Zottoli and Mills were living.
The couples are charged with conspiring to act as unregistered agents of Russia and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Alleged Russian Spy Ring
The court documents read like a 1960's cold war spy novel: The accused spies allegedly used steganography, hiding secretive data in an image, and radiograms, bursts of data sent by a radio transmitter that resemble the sound of Morse code, as part of their secret communications with the Russian government.
The criminal complaint references buried money in upstate New York and clandestine meetings with the Russian government in South America for payments.
And there are allegations of fabricated birth certificates, Irish and Latino surnames, and fake college diplomas.
The Department of Justice revealed the depths of the multi-year investigation in court documents unsealed today, detailing the covert video and audio recordings inside the alleged spies' homes, monitoring of phone calls and e-mails, and secret searches that were used.
"The FBI has surreptitiously entered certain of the defendant's residences; photographed evidence and copied electronic media while inside; and then left the residence in question," according to one of the complaints.
The defendants allegedly received their directions from the Russian military intelligence division known as the "SVR." The complaint alleges that members of the group sought to establish ties with congressional aides and scientists who worked on nuclear weapons development.
According to the complaint, in the spring of 2009, officials at the SVR headquarters known as the "Moscow Center" sought information from the Murphys from individuals who were identified as U.S. foreign policy officials to "try and outline their views and most important Obama's goals which he expects to achieve during summit in July and how does this team plan to do it."
According to the FBI, some of the people the accused spies met with include a former legislative counsel for U.S. Congress, a former high ranking U.S. government national security official, a person working on bunker busting nuclear warheads, and a New York financier who is prominent in politics and a major fundraiser for an un-named political party.
The FBI has referred to the operatives as "The Illegals" who were sent to the U.S. undercover after extensive training to assume false identities.
In one message that was decrypted by the FBI the message allegedly sent to Chapman and Semenko said, "You were sent to USA for long term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house ect… -all these serve one goal: fulfil your main mission, i.e to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US to send intel [intelligence reports] to C. [center]"
The criminal complaint in this case alleges contacts with officials operating out of the Russian mission at the United Nations and the Russian embassy in Washington, DC.
The complaint charging Chapman alleges that on 10 occasions between Jan. 2010 and June 2010, Chapman was observed on FBI surveillance communicating covertly via a private internet wireless network with a Russian government official including a coffee shop at 47th and 8th Ave and other locations around New York City. On Saturday, the day before she was arrested, the FBI used an undercover FBI agent, posing as a Russian Consulate employee to approach Chapman to set up a meeting with her to discuss problems she was having with her computer.
One of the other defendants, Semenko, was allegedly observed by FBI agents on June 5 meeting a Russian government official at a restaurant in Washington DC, who had arrived at the meeting in a car with Russian diplomatic plates.