WORLD

'Ghost Stories' reveals Russian agents were 'very intellectual'

Comment
Decrease Increase Text size

He abruptly fled Moscow just days before the FBI rolled up the operation. Poteyev's role emerged when a Russian military court convicted him in absentia for high treason and desertion. The FBI did not comment on the Poteyev case.

Former Russian spy Anna Chapman was caught on camera doing everyday tasks, like shopping. (Photo: Associated Press)

Called "illegals" because they took civilian jobs instead of operating with diplomatic immunity inside Russian embassies and military missions, the spies settled into quiet lives in middle-class neighborhoods and set about trying to network their way into the worlds of finance, technology and government.

What appears to be a family photo of one spy, Donald Heathfield of Cambridge, Mass., shows him graduating from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2000. The school revoked the degree a month after the FBI rolled up the spy ring.

The operation's codename, Ghost Stories, stems from a number of the spies using a technique known among counter-intelligence investigators as "dead doubles" — taking the identities of people who have died. Tracey Lee Ann Foley, Michael Zottoli, Donald Heathfield and Patricia Mills all used the technique, Figliuzzi said.

The U.S. traded the 10 Ghost Stories spies arrested by federal agents for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West at a remote corner of a Vienna airport on July 9, in a scene reminiscent of the carefully choreographed exchange of spies at Berlin's Glienicke Bridge during the Cold War.

While freed Soviet spies typically have kept a low profile after their return to Moscow, Chapman became a model, corporate spokeswoman and television personality. Heathfield, whose real name is Andrey Bezrukov, lists himself as an adviser to the president of a major Russian oil company on his LinkedIn account.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev awarded the 10 freed spies Russia's highest honors at a Kremlin ceremony.

The case was brought to a swift conclusion before it could complicate President Barack Obama's campaign to "reset" American relations with the Kremlin, strained by years of tensions over U.S. foreign policy and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. All 10 of the captured spies were charged with failing to register as foreign agents.

An 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, who claimed to be a Canadian citizen and was accused of delivering money and equipment to the sleeper agents, vanished after a court in Cyprus freed him on bail. The FBI released surveillance photos of Metsos on Monday.

Figliuzzi said Metsos traveled into the U.S. to provide the other illegals with money. Security measures after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks meant he could no longer risk carrying large amounts of cash, prompting the Russians to send officials already in the U.S. to meet with the illegals and pay them.

That could have made the spies more vulnerable to discovery, since governments generally keep a close eye on the movements of foreign diplomats.

But former Soviet intelligence officials now living in the West scratched their heads over what Russia hoped to gain from the sleeper ring.

"In my view this whole operation was a waste of human resources, money and just put Russia in a ridiculous situation," said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB major general who spied against the U.S. during the Soviet era, in an interview earlier this year. He now lives near Washington.

Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer and journalist who has written extensively about Soviet spying in America, said the illegals were supposed to act as talent spotters and scouts, identifying Americans in positions of power who might be recruited to spill secrets for financial reasons or through blackmail.

Spies with the protection of diplomatic credentials would handle the more delicate task of recruiting and handling the agents.

Moscow's ultimate aim, Vassiliev said, was probably to cultivate a source who could provide day-by-day intelligence on what the president's inner circle was thinking and planning in response to the latest international crisis. But he said there was no evidence the Kremlin made any progress toward that goal.

"How are you going to recruit someone like that, on what basis? That's quite a successful person. Why should he spy for the Russians? I can't see any reason," said Vassiliev, who now lives in London.

In addition to Chapman, the Russian illegals were:

—Vicky Pelaez and Juan Lazaro of Yonkers, N.Y. Lazaro briefly taught a class on Latin American and Caribbean politics at Baruch College. Pelaez wrote pieces highly critical of U.S. policy in Latin America as a columnist for one of the United States' best-known Spanish-language newspapers, El Diario La Prensa.

—Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills of Arlington, Va. He worked at a telecommunications firm. The couple raised a young son and toddler in their high-rise apartment.

—Cynthia Murphy and her husband, Richard, of Montclair, N.J. He mostly stayed home with their two pre-teen children while she worked for a lower Manhattan-based accounting firm that offered tax advice.

—Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley of Cambridge, Mass. He worked in sales for an international management consulting firm and peddled strategic planning software to U.S. corporations. She was a real estate agent.

—Semenko of Arlington, Va., who spoke Russian, English, Spanish, Chinese and Portuguese. He worked at the Travel All Russia agency, where co-workers described him as "clumsy" and "quirky." But the FBI described him as linguistically and technically skilled.

  1. «
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. »

Would you like to contribute to this story? Join the discussion.

Recommended For You
comments powered by Disqus