A few days after President Barack Obama took Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Ray's Hell Burger for a friendly lunch, undercover agents were back in Arlington, Va., to search a park for signs that an alleged Russian agent had dropped off $5,000 at a secret drop site.
That sting operation helped lead to the arrests Sunday of 10 people who the Justice Department said are Russian intelligence officers who have been serving as illegal agents of the Russian government in the United States.
Those arrested: “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy,” of Montclair, N.J.; Vicky Pelaez and “Juan Lazaro,” of Yonkers, N.Y.; Anna Chapman, of Manhattan; “Michael Zottoli” and “Patricia Mills,” of Arlington, Va.; Mikhail Semenko, also of Arlington; and “Donald Howard Heathfield” and “Tracey Lee Ann Foley,” of Boston.
Officials said a “Christopher R. Metsos” remained at large until Tuesday. Metsos, purporting to be a Canadian citizen, was arrested at the Larnaca airport in Cyprus while trying to fly to Budapest, Hungary, police in the Mediterranean island nation said. He was later released on bail.
Eight of 10 were arrested for allegedly carrying out long-term, deep-cover assignments in the United States on behalf of Russia. Two others were arrested for allegedly participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States.
Each of the 10 was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison on conviction.
Federal law prohibits individuals from acting as agents of foreign governments within the United States without notifying the U.S. attorney general.
Nine of the defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum 20 years in prison on conviction.
The Russians obviously aren't happy about the arrests. Russia's Foreign Ministry said it is a throwback to the Cold War. The ministry said in a statement Tuesday the U.S. actions are unfounded and pursued "unseemly" goals. It voiced regret that the
arrests came even though Obama has moved to "reset" U.S. relations wth Russia.
The court documents read like something straight out of a spy novel or blockbuster Hollywood thriller, complete with steganography, radiograms, envelopes of money and random meetings in the streets of D.C.
On Saturday, an FBI undercover agent, who was posing as an agent of the Russian government, placed a call to Mikhail Semenko, the defendant, at a cellular telephone number used by Semenko, according to court documents. That call was recorded.
At the beginning of the conversation, the undercover agent asked Semenko, "Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?"
Semenko responded, "Yes, we might have, but I believe it was in Harbin."
They then agreed to meet near the intersection of 10th and H streets, NW. When they met, the undercover agent asked Semenko if he remembered "the sign," and Semenko responded that he did, according to court documents. That was in reference to an object he was supposed to carry during any in-person meeting with an operative.
They once again talked about meeting in Beijing, and determined instead that it was Harbin. They then exchanged greetings in Russian and walked to a nearby park and talked for about 30 minutes, the documents showed.
Then, when their meeting was done, the undercover agent allegedly handed Semenko a folded newspaper with an envelope containing $5,000 in cash.
"There is an envelope in there; there is money in it," the undercover agent said, according to court documents. "The money has to go to a park in Arlington tomorrow. It has to be there between 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m."
He then gave him a map to show a particular spot under a bridge that was to be the "drop site." After memorizing it, Semenko gave the map back to be destroyed, according to court documents.