A Russian spy, who posed as a banker in New York City, today pleaded guilty to espionage-related charges after court documents revealed Russia's top intelligence service waltzed into an FBI "trap".
In a case that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said sounds "like a plotline from a Cold War-era movie," Evgeny Buryakov was arrested last year and accused of working as a "non-official cover" officer for Russia's foreign intelligence service, known as SVR, at a Russian bank in midtown Manhattan.
A “non-official cover” agent generally refers to an espionage agent working in a foreign nation as a private citizen -- without the protection of diplomatic immunity they would enjoy if they were hiding behind another government job. As described by the Department of Justice, "SVR agents operating under such non-official cover -- sometimes referred to as 'NOCs' -- typically are subject to less scrutiny by the host government, and, in many cases, are never identified as intelligence agents by the host government. As a result, a NOC is an extremely valuable intelligence asset for the SVR."
The FBI was able to uncover Buryakov, along with two alleged accomplices, by employing an undercover agent of its own and allowing the Russians to "recruit" their spy, according to a release by the Department of Justice. The "dangle," as the agent is known in espionage parlance, had posed as an analyst for a "New York-based energy company."
From then on, the FBI was able to gather information through the undercover agent, including by planting listening devices in "binders containing purported industry analysis" that were taken inside the SVR's offices, the DOJ said.
The FBI recorded conversations between two of Buryakov's colleagues in the SVR as the colleagues discussed attempts to recruit New York City residents and what kinds of intelligence Buryakov was to collect, the DOJ said. The SVR in Moscow allegedly ordered its field agents to gather information on potential U.S. sanctions against Russian banks and U.S. efforts to "develop alternative energy resources."
The DOJ said some of the recordings were made in Spring 2013, but the FBI pushed it further in 2014 by having two undercover agents meet with Buryakov about a "casino development project" in Russia. One of Buryakov's colleagues smelled a potential "trap" but told the spy to go ahead anyway so he could "make a better assessment." Months later, Buryakov was in handcuffs.
U.S. federal officials announced Buryakov's arrest in January 2015. His two colleagues, who were working under protective diplomatic cover, fled the country. A Russian news report published shortly after Buryakov's arrest was announced said that the "banker" denied the charges against him.
According to the plea deal, prosecutors will recommend Buryakov serve just 30 months in prison -- as opposed to the five year maximum for "conspiracy to act in the United States as an agent of a foreign govenrment" -- and pay a fine of up to $100,000.
"More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, Russian spies still seek to operate in our midst under the cover of secrecy," U.S. Attorney Bharara said. "But in New York, thanks to the work of the FBI and the prosecutors in my office, attempts to conduct unlawful espionage will not be overlooked. They will be investigated and prosecuted."