Information released by the FBI about the bust of an alleged Russian spy ring reads like a bad spy novel -- false identities, secret communications, money and document handoffs just blocks from the White House.
One of the suspected spies lived in an apartment building on North Quinn Street in Arlington, Va. Neighbors said they learned something was up Sunday night when undercover agents raided No. 15
Mikhail Semenko, 28, was arrested and charged along with 10 others with spying for Russia. He worked at the Travel All Russia as a travel specialist in New York and later transferred to the Arlington office, where employees said they were shocked by the news.
The co-owner of the travel agency told the Associated Press Semenko "was always interested in languages, global politics and other cultures." Slava Shirokov said a colleague got a call from Semenko's girlfriend saying he couldn't go to work Monday because of "personal problems."
Semenko was "clumsy" and "quirky," but highly intelligent, Shirokov said. He spoke five languages and lived a frugal lifestyle that included walking to work.
The arrests should shock no one, NBC Security Analyst Roger Cressey said.
"During the Cold War, the United States and Russia spied on each other all of the time … and what this just reminds us is that kind of espionage hasn’t ended," he said. "We may not be in a cold war, but we have competing foreign policy interests and competing economic interests, and each country is trying to get a leg up on the other."
Also arrested were Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, a couple that lived in an Arlington high rise with their two children under assumed identities. Because of the many international residents in the area, the couple was able to blend in well, neighbors said.
Federal agents believe the spy network was trying to obtain information on nuclear weapons. Charging documents said they met undercover FBI agents in such places as 10th and H streets in northwest D.C. and in Arlington parks and were given a clear mission by Russian handlers: to search and develop ties in U.S. policy circles and report to Moscow.
Alexey Zoob, an instructor at Metaphor Russian Language School in Dunn Loring, Va., told the AP he hopes the arrests won't tarnish the image of other Russian immigrants living in the Washington area, noting that Russian immigrants work at places like NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Standards. He described them as people with integrity doing their best for the American economy.
Alex Martinkov, a Russian-born father who was picking up a child Tuesday afternoon from the Metaphor Russian Language School, said he wasn't overly concerned. He said he was sure there are many American spies in Russia and many Russian spies here.
Russian authorities said the allegations are baseless but have not denied the suspects are Russian agents.
Zottoli, Mills and Semenko are scheduled to have a detention hearing in Alexandria Federal Court Thursday.