The spies who loved me (and did little else)

The 10-year surveillance of Russian undercover agents in the US is most remarkable for how little it achieved.
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Indy Politics

Some countries never seem to grow up. Russia and the United States, both of whom should be well past the dressing up and pretending stage by now, still, it turns out, like playing goodies and baddies. They've each got a gang, they use passwords, speak in code, write messages to each other in invisible ink and everything. It'll be false moustaches next.

This seems, at the moment, the only rational explanation for the present spy "scandal", which appears to involve no secrets whatsoever and precious little actual treachery. It's true there's been a certain amount of low-level cloak-and-daggery, and there was even some buried treasure to find. But it's all more water pistols than Walther PPKs; more Just William than James Bond. No one got hurt, and everyone got home in time to wash their hands before tea.

If we accept, as we may as well do until something better comes along, the evidence as set out in the detailed indictments prepared by the US Justice Department, the game began nearly 20 years ago. A number of individuals and couples started to arrive in the US and build a life and work there. Blameless, even rather bland, professionals to their neighbours, they were swiftly identified by the FBI as "illegal agents" – people who were on US soil to perform services for a foreign state but had not declared themselves to be such. This remains – some moderate money-laundering apart – the only crime of which the Moscow 11 are accused, it not yet being (as we discovered in the run-up to the Iraq invasion) an indictable offence in the US to feed a government bullshit and claim it as "intelligence".

One by one – as the "illegals" began to settle, put down roots, and, in the case of some of the more civic-minded of them, nice front yards with hydrangea bushes – the Americans kept watch. In fact, they did rather more than keep watch, since they also followed them around, broke into their homes, planted listening devices, eavesdropped on their phone calls, read their emails and copied their hard-drives.

In time, the Americans could draw up a dramatis personae: Christopher Metsos, the bagman, ferrying money to the others. He has now absconded, having been arrested in Cyprus and then, amazingly, given bail by a local judge. Richard and Cynthia Murphy, she a financial planner, he a house-husband, two girls, US residents since the mid-1990s, mostly in the Hoboken area and so known to the FBI as the "New Jersey conspirators". Donald Heathfield, a management consultant, and his wife Tracey Lee Ann Foley, an estate agent, living in Harvard since 1999, known as the "Boston conspirators". Michael Zottoli and wife Patricia Mills (real names Mikhail Kutzik and Natalia Pereverzeva), the "Seattle conspirators", in the US since 2001 and 2003 respectively, two children, recently moved to Arlington, Virginia. Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez, he a Uruguayan photographer, she a Peruvian-born journalist often critical of the US, both resident for more than 20 years, known as the "Yonkers conspirators". Mikhail Semenko, who worked in the Travel All Russia tour agency in Arlington. And last, but by no means least in terms of tabloid coverage, Anna Chapman, the red-haired 28-year-old diplomat's daughter and divorcee.

Were Chapman overweight with a skin problem, the whole story would have received far less attention than it has. But she is undoubtedly pretty, and knows it. Her vanity has led her not only to strike sub-porn-star poses for professional photographers but also to post scores of the resulting pictures on her social networking pages. Thanks to these, and other inquiries, we know she was born Anya Kushchenko, her father was a Russian diplomat (for which read KGB officer), her mother a maths teacher, and her ex-husband Alex Chapman, a public-school-educated 30-year-old who, after several career false starts, now wants to be a psychologist.

He has sold his story, the bottom line of which is that the carefree, beautiful Anna he wed in 2002 had, by 2005, become in his eyes an ambitious, secretive, big name chaser. Immediately prior to her arrest, she had turned herself into the owner of an allegedly successful online property website. After spells in Moscow, she moved to New York, where she lived in a fancy apartment and had a relationship with Michael Bittan, a wealthy American 32 years her senior (a man who, more than most 60-year-old sugar daddies, must now be questioning whether it was really his animal magnetism that drew her to him).

What we also know, from the discrepancy between her CV and reality, is that she is practised at exaggerating, ramping up a few months' junior pen-pushing at a London company into a year's high-flying executive decision-making. There is also a vanity video of her made at a recent New York business conference, in which she talks of her "philosophy" and business in vague, generalised, unconvincing terms. She sounds like a female David Brent, as if she has been coached, and passed the Bluff Your Way in Online Business course with flying (or, at least, airborne) colours.

So what have Anna and her fellow "illegal agents" been up to on the espionage front? The indictments run to 55 and on none of them is there a single instance of what you might call serious spying. One of the 11, Cynthia Murphy, had work that gave her brief contact with Alan Patricof, a financier with links to the Democratic Party. Another, Donald Heathfield, met a "US government employee with regard to nuclear weapons research". But there is no suggestion that they communicated to Moscow anything that might be called a secret. Did the arrests, occasioned by fears Chapman was about to flee, came before these sleepers had time to meet anyone useful or blackmailable? Or, most likely, that they simply did not learn very much and so sent Moscow their own musings on US policy, and home-grown analyses of the gold market – agents licensed not so much to kill, as to blog? One telling example, picked up by a US bug, is this 2002 conversation between Lazaro and his wife:

He: "They [Moscow] tell me my information is of no value because I didn't provide any source ..."

She: "Really?"

He: "Yes, they say that..."

She (interrupting): "Put down any politician from here!"

The main indictment, against all but Chapman and Semenko, lists nine overt acts committed by the agents in nine years. Two are vague references to gathering information, one is Heathfield and Foley discussing how to send secret messages, and the rest concern the receipt, or passing on, of sums of money ranging from a few thousand dollars to $300,000. This, indeed, seems to have been their major preoccupation, involving meeting each other and Russian embassy officials, brushing past them in the street or encountering them in subway stations where bags would be exchanged. The most adventurous instance was in 2004, when Metsos wrapped a large sum in duct tape and buried it at a remote spot in upstate New York which he then marked by a part-buried beer bottle. US officials later unearthed it, photographed it, and re-interred it and the bottle. Two years later, the "Seattle conspirators" flew across the country, drove up to Wurtsboro, found the bottle and, watched by FBI cameras, retrieved the cash. Western Union would have been simpler.

The messages from Moscow to their agents sometimes specified "information tasks" such as the 2006 request to learn about CIA staff changes and the 2008 election that was sent to Heathfield and Foley, who were in Massachusetts and so not best placed to hear Washington's hot gossip. And, in 2009, Moscow messaged Richard and Cynthia Murphy: "You were sent to the USA for long-term service trip ... your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C [Centre]." It seems odd that trained agents needed a reminder of the reason why they were there – a bit like having to send a dentist a memo telling him not to forget to look in the patient's mouth. Like so much of what passed between the Moscow and the 11 (the codes, hiding messages in image files, invisible inks and the passwords), it suggests people playing at spies rather than being the genuine, threatening article. Most had false identities and went to great lengths to hide their Russian roots and infiltrate normal American life, up to and including helping at the PTA. But a Russian George Osborne might question whether the state was getting value for all the money it was wrapping in duct tape and burying.

The lack of any secrets being passed was not for the want of time spent. Elements of the Moscow 11 had been operational for 10 years or more, and so it might have gone on had not Anna Chapman come to town late last year. Under surveillance apparently from the moment she first took her credit card for a walk down Fifth Avenue, she was soon observed on a Wednesday sitting in a café at the corner of 47th and 8th, tapping at her laptop and communicating, via a private wireless network, with a Russian government official. What, if anything, she passed on is not known. She was seen repeating this venture in March at a TriBeCa book store. The one "overt act" she is accused of is receiving a fraudulent passport – but this was something she was pressed to do by an undercover US officer posing as a Russian official and acting as what we used to call an agent provocateur.

They met last Saturday at a Manhattan coffee shop. Mr Undercover introduced himself as "Roman", working in the Russian consulate. Chapman took him at his word, discussed the Wednesday wireless sessions, and even gave him her laptop – none of them actions of the sophisticated femme fatale she has been called. "Roman" then asked her to courier a fraudulent passport to an unnamed woman. (Her security check would be: "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?", to which Chapman would reply: "No, I think it was the Hamptons.") They made arrangements to meet the next day, but Chapman, belatedly suspicious about the encounter, then bought a Motorola mobile (using the name Irine Kutsov of 99 Fake Street) and used it to call her usual Russian contacts. She failed to meet "Roman" the next day and, fearing she was about to disappear, the FBI applied for warrants and 10 of the Moscow 11 were arrested. The game was up.

Of course, some claim the "illegal agents" were edging towards people who might know something, and that one day a moment of indiscretion would net the Russians some crumb of information. And, if Anna had learnt her new trade better, who knows what high-up might have fallen for her pout? But, as one US commentator pointed out, if these were what is known in the spying trade as "sleepers" (those who bide their time, possibly for decades, before producing any worthwhile goods) they were, for all their time in the US, remarkably sleepy – small-time players in an out-dated game. Moscow secret services has a generous budget, and they choose to spend some of it on such low-level characters. The service chiefs would assure big bosses in the Kremlin that "we have people all over the States", and, with a tap of the nose and a knowing wink, assure them that valuable background intelligence was being gathered.

Such officials are rarely challenged. In many states, the mysterious and unauthenticated words of intelligence personnel are given great weight. Like priests in Aztec society, they can get away with the most alarming old nonsense simply because they sport the cloak of secrecy. To many governments (and certainly Russia is one), the unseen, unofficial runes have a power that more obvious evidence lacks. It's all part of the conspiracy mindset which holds that information obtained clandestinely must, by its very nature, have greater validity than that from an open source. Thus, your man in Yonkers' assertion he has heard that Obama wants to improve ties with Cuba has force, whereas a headline in The Wall Street Journal two days before to identical effect does not. It is all a game. Time to grow up, guys. It's not 1954 any more.