David Knowles at Politics Daily:
After an FBI investigation spanning several years, ten people were taken into custody on Sunday across the northeastern United States and have been charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. Attorney, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a press release.
According to the D.O.J., eight of the accused were involved in what it termed as “long-term, deep-cover assignments” for the Russian government. Two of the defendants were arrested for participating in the covert Russian operation. Nine of those picked up were charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The defendants, some of whom may go by and assumed alias, include: “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy” of Montclair, N.J., Vicky Plaez and “Juan Lazaro” of Yonkers, N.Y. Anna Chapman of New York City, “Michael Zottoli,” “Patricia Mills,” and Mikhail Smenko of Arlington, Va., and “Tracey Lee Ann Foley” and “Donald Howard Heathfield” of Boston, Ma.
“Christopher R. Mestos” remains at large, the D.O.J. said.
Daniel Foster at The Corner:
This on the heels of President Obama’s happy-go-lucky meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in D.C.
Five years for conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government? What’s going on here — Mr. McCarthy?
The Jawa Report:
The details are still a little fuzzy. It’s not clear if these are Americans who were recruited by the Russians, or if these were Russians living in America, or a mixture of both.
The story seems to indicate that at least some of them were Russian. This may explain why all those hot Russian chicks willing to marry dumpy, balding, middle-aged American men. They’re all Russian spies!
As some of you know, I spent a year studying in Russia under the theory that the Cold War would be back, and when it does — job security, baby! Is it time for Rusty to break out the old resume?
When it comes to human intelligence, the Russian Federation has a leg up on the U.S. in terms of the vestiges of the Cold War great game. The arrest today of 10 Russians for spying is a case in point: none of them were diplomats or had official cover. All of them were what the old Soviet Union used to call “illegals” — regular folks living and doing regular jobs, but serving as cutouts and go-betweens for other case officers and agents.
The CIA still spies on Russia, but/and I’m not exactly revealing secrets here, most of them have some sort of official cover — usually, the more bland sounding title in the embassy, the better.
Russian counterintelligence services have known this for decades. And for decades, the CIA has made efforts to field its version of illegals — NOCs — spies operating under “non official cover,” but fewer than one in ten of its case officers are NOCs, according to current and former officials. This makes the job of a case officer difficult. It’s even more difficult to establish a NOC — a cover story must be provided — a “legend” — that is trackable and verifiable. These days, it’s easy to Google someone and discover whether they are who they say they are, so if a Mr. Leonard Panerta were to become a teacher in Moscow, the Russian FSB, which does counteintelligence, can check pretty quickly.
What type of information is valuable to Russia these days? It’s no longer nuclear weapons information, really, or war plans: it’s proprietary information, trade secrets, technical specifications of satellite and ballistic missile technology…also political intelligence and economic intelligence. The FBI still has squads of counterintelligence (CI) agents that follow Russian embassy officials in Washington, but it does much less CI work than it did before the age of terrorism. The US has much better signals intelligence capabilities than the Russians, but Russia also quietly outsources some of its spying to other countries, including countries that are ostensibly friendly to the U.S.
Noah Shachtman at Dangerroom at Wired:
Moscow communicated with a ring of alleged spies in America by encoding instructions in otherwise innocent-looking images on public websites. It’s a process called steganography. And it’s one of a slew of high-tech and time-tested methods that the deep-cover agents and their Russian handlers used to pass information — from private Wi-Fi networks to buried paper bags.
Steganography is simultaneously one of the oldest methods for secret communications, and one of the more advanced. The process dates back to the fifth century B.C., when the Greek tyrant Histiaeus shaved the head of one of his servants, tattooed a message on his head, and waited for his hair to grow back before sending the messenger out. When the courier arrived, his head was shaved and the missive was read, giving information about upcoming Persian attacks. Later on, secret inks were used on couriers’ backs. Morse code messages were woven into a sweater that was worn by a courier.
As information went digital, steganography changed. Messages could be hidden in the 1s and 0s of electronic files — pictures, audio, video, executables, whatever. The hidden communications could even be slowly dribbled into the torrent of IP traffic. Compression schemes — like JPEG for images or MP3 for audio — introduce errors into the files, making a message even easier to hide. New colors or tones can be subtly added or removed, to cover up for the changes. According to the FBI, the image above contains a hidden map of the Burlington, Vermont, airport.
Both before and after Sept. 11, there were rumors in the media that al-Qaida had begun hiding messages in digital porn. That speculation was never confirmed, as far as I can tell.
The accused Russian spy network started using steganography as early as 2005, according to the Justice Department’s criminal complaint against the conspirators, unsealed yesterday in Manhattan. In 2005, law enforcement agents raided the home of one of the alleged spies. There, they found a set of password-protected disks and a piece of paper, marked with “alt,” “control,” “e,” and a string of 27 characters. When they used that as a password, the G-Men found a program that allowed the spies “to encrypt data, and then clandestinely to embed the data in images on publicly available websites.”
The G-Men also found a hard drive. On it was an address book with website URLs, as well as the user’s web traffic history. “These addresses, in turn, had links to other websites,” the complaint notes. “Law-enforcement agents visited some of the referenced websites, and many others as well, and have downloaded images from them. These images appear wholly unremarkable to the naked eye. But these images (and others) have been analyzed using the Steganography Program. As a result of this analysis, some of the images have been revealed as containing readable text files.”
These messages were used to arrange meetings, cash drops, deliveries of laptops and further information exchanges. One of the steganographically hidden messages also directed the conspirators to use radiograms — a decades-old method to pass information, long discredited in spooky circles.
Jen Doll at Village Voice:
The FBI obtained the following decrypted message from Russia’s intelligence headquarters in Moscow:
Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. — all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels to the Moscow center.
CBS News reports that agents would have been highly trained in “foreign languages; agent-to-agent communications, including the use of brush-passes (covert hand-offs of secret information); short-wave radio operation and invisible writing; the use of codes and ciphers, including the use of encrypted Morse code messages; the creation and use of a cover profession; counter-surveillance measures” and more.
This is creepy, but we’re suddenly less afraid of spies because we knew they did all of that stuff already! Really, short-wave radio? Invisible writing? Morse Code? Guys, that went out with magic decoder rings and camera cigarette lighters. Come on, even China is onto the hacking game.
Still, maybe in some small way, it’s nice to hear that Russia still considers us worthy of being spied on. And it’s good to know the FBI is on this shit. Let’s not go getting all Cold War or anything.
John Hinderaker at Powerline:
News accounts don’t make clear when Russia first placed these agents. But from today’s perspective we can say: what a waste! The Russians thought they needed spies with “ties in policymaking circles” to gain intelligence about American policy, or, best case, possibly even influence it in a direction adverse to American interests. Those were the good old days. In today’s America, our “policymaking circles” are as antipathetic to American interests as the Russians could possibly have hoped to make them through spycraft.
Jim Newell at Gawker:
Hooray, the Cold War is back and awesome.
There are many things that confuse me in life — Manhattan parking rituals, the proliferation of rotaries in Massachusetts, the appeal of most reality television, and so forth. I think I’m going to have to add the Russian spy ring to this list.
Less than a week after Russian President Dmitri Medevedev’s burger date with U.S. President Barack Obama, the U.S. Justice Department has busted eight Russkies in an espionage ring so heinous, they’ve been charged with…. “conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government.”
Um…. so, in other words, the Russians are accused of some combination of illegal immigration and impersonating Jack Abramoff?
Seriously, this story is the most bizarre foreign policy/international relations episode I’ve seen since the Sandy-Berger-let’s-stuff–classified-documents-down-my-pants episode.
UPDATE: Daniel Drezner and Megan McArdle at Bloggingheads
UPDATE #2: Marc Ambinder
Benjamin Weiser, Colin Moynihan and Ellen Barry at NYT
UPDATE #3: Bruce Bartlett