Spy of the month icon

Russian Illegals

On June 28, 2010, ten people were arrested in Massachusetts and Virginia accused of being part of a Russian espionage ring.  The individuals were considered “illegal agents” because they were in the United States under non-official cover – being unregistered foreign agents – a violation of Title 18 USC Section 951.  Some of the illegal agents moved to the United States in the 1990s, while others (such as Anna Chapman) did not arrive until 2009.  Most of the illegal agents were provided with fake identities and even fake childhood photos and cover stories (part of what would be called a “legend”) in order to establish themselves in the United State under “deep cover.”  The Russian foreign intelligence service (SVR) allegedly provided them with bank accounts, homes, cars and regular payments in order to facilitate “long-term service” where, according to the FBI criminal complaint, the individuals were supposed to “search [for] and develop ties in policymaking circles” in the United States.  The criminal complaint provides evidence indicating that most of the operatives were being run out of the SVR residence at the U.N. mission.



According to the FBI, the Russian illegal agents were under heavy surveillance by U.S. counterintelligence agents for ten years. Working out of Boston, New York, and Washington, the FBI employed its Special Surveillance Group to track suspects in person; place video and audio recorders in their homes and at meeting places to record communications; search their homes and safe-deposit boxes; intercept e-mail and electronic communications; and deploy undercover agents to entrap the suspects.
Counterintelligence operations don’t just materialize out of thin air. There has to be a tip or a clue that puts investigators on the trail of a suspected spy. Somebody must have seen or experienced something suspicious and alerted the FBI. All we know for sure is that someone said something. 


See something?
Say something!

  • Attempts to obtain information without a need-to-know

  • Undue curiosity

  • Unexplained affluence or excessive debt

  • Poor work performance

  • Strange work schedule

  • Unexplained changes in behavior

  • Personal problems

  • “Rules don’t apply to me” attitude

  • Egotistical

  • Unusual foreign travel patterns

  • Unreported contacts with persons from sensitive countries

  • Criminal or immoral conduct

We may never know how successful the illegal agents were in finding and developing ties in U.S. policymaking circles.  The criminal complaint relates that they sent everything from information on the gold market from a financier in New York to seeking out potential college graduates headed for jobs at the CIA.  The illegal agents were allegedly instructed by their handlers in the United States and Russia to not pursue high-level government jobs, since their legends were not strong enough to withstand a significant background investigation.  But they were encouraged to make contact with high-level government officials, in order to have a finger on the pulse of policymaking in Washington.



The criminal complaint alleges that the illegal agents used traditional spy tradecraft to communicate with each other and send reports to their handlers.  The illegal agents allegedly transmitted messages to Moscow containing their reports encrypted in “radiograms” (short-burst radio transmissions that appear as Morse code) or written in invisible ink, and met in neutral countries for payments and briefings.  They are also said to have used “brush passes” (the quick and discreet exchange of materials between one person and another) to transfer information, equipment and money.  The criminal complaint also gives examples of the operatives using coded phrases with each other and with their operators to confirm each others’ identities.

An eleventh person was arrested in Cyprus but skipped bail after his arrest. A twelfth person, a Russian National, who had worked for Microsoft was also apprehended and deported on July 13, 2010.

In addition to the traditional tradecraft described in the criminal complaint, there are also new operational twists.  Some of the illegal agents allegedly used e-mail to set up electronic dead drops to transmit encrypted intelligence reports to Moscow, and several operatives were said to have used steganography (embedding information in seemingly innocuous images) to hide messages.  Chapman and Semenko allegedly employed private wireless networks (Wi-Fi) hosted by a laptop programmed to communicate only with another specific laptop.  The FBI claims to have identified their ad-hoc wireless network that had been temporarily set up when the suspect was in proximity to a known Russian diplomat.  These electronic meetings occurred frequently, according to the FBI, and allowed operatives and their operators to communicate covertly without actually being seen together.

It is important to note that the accused individuals were not charged with espionage; the charge of acting as an undeclared agent of a foreign state is less serious.  The criminal complaint never alleges that classifie information was received or transmitted.  This doesn’t mean that the suspects weren’t committing espionage.  According to the criminal complaint, their original guidance from Moscow was to establish deep cover.  This meanthat they would have been tasked with positioning themselves over time in order gain access to valuable information (it is important to point out that “valuable” is not synonymous with “classified”) through their established occupations or social lives.  This allows agents to gain access to what they want without running unnecessary security risks.

In July 2010, an agreement was reached with the Russian Federation under which the ten Russian illegal agents would be deported to Russia in exchange for four individuals who had been convicted of espionage in Russia.  The agreement led the Russian agents to all quickly plead guilty of being unregistered foreign agents, allowing the United States government to avoid a series of protracted trials in which sensitive information about intelligence and surveillance techniques could be exposed.  All four persons the United States received in the swap had served a considerable time in Russian prisons; at least 3 of the jailed individuals in Russia had beenconvicted of spying for either the United Kingdom or the United States.