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Alleged Russian spy ring seen as 'throwback to Cold War'

WASHINGTON — The roll-up of an alleged network of Russian spies has provided new evidence that the era of Cold War espionage never completely ended, exposing what U.S. intelligence experts described as Moscow's fondness for spycraft techniques that haven't advanced since the KGB was dissolved.

Current and former U.S. intelligence officials marveled at the targets and methods used in the alleged operation, which involved secret documents embedded in websites and high-tech transmissions between laptops — but also buried stashes of money, "brush passes" on sidewalks and messages written in invisible ink.

"I think it's nutty," said Frederick Hitz, former inspector general of the CIA. "It looks as if it got going at the end of the Soviet era and just continued, even though it wasn't clear what the immediate goals of these people were."

Court records portray the suspects as plants sent to the United States more than a decade ago to blend into American society and pursue information on topics ranging from leadership changes at the CIA to developments in nuclear science.

"What a feckless operation," said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. "So many of the things they seemed to be after you can find out by listening to the right radio station or reading the right newspaper. … It doesn't say a lot about the smarts of the SVR." The letters refer to Russia's foreign intelligence service, one of the successor agencies to the KGB.

U.S. authorities have charged 11 suspects in the case. The 11th, "Christopher Metsos," detained in Cyprus and released on bail, has vanished, officials there said.

Some information on those arrested:

"Anna Chapman" Social networking sites and others are rife with images of the striking, redheaded Russian — mixing with businessmen at a conference, posing in front the Statue of Liberty, talking about how to make it in New York. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz has called evidence against Chapman, 28, "devastating." She is "someone who has extraordinary training, who is a sophisticated agent of Russia," he said.

"Donald Heathfield" The FBI says a man accused of being a Russian agent assumed the identity of Heathfield, who died at 6 weeks of age in Montreal in 1963. Heathfield worked for a management consulting firm and lived in Cambridge, Mass. — home to Harvard and MIT. Prosecutors say in 2004 Heathfield met with an employee of the U.S. government to discuss nuclear weapons research. Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley," who were based in Boston, reportedly filed regular expense reports to Moscow Center, headquarters for Russia's foreign intelligence agency, according to court documents.

"Mikhail Semenko" His employer knew Semenko liked to frequent embassy functions and didn't want to work at his small travel agency forever. Semenko received graduate degrees from Seton Hall University, and worked for roughly a year at the Arlington, Va., office of Travel All Russia. His office was on the second story of a building that also houses a U.S. military recruitment center. Semenko spoke five languages, according to Slava Shirokov, co-owner of Travel All Russia. "He was always interested in languages, global politics and other cultures," said Shirokov.

"Michael Zottoli" and "Patricia Mills" Neighbors describe them as a smiling, attractive couple raising a young son and toddler. According to court documents, Zottoli claims to be a U.S. citizen, born in Yonkers, N.Y., and is married to Mills, a purported Canadian citizen. Both graduated from the Bothell campus of the University of Washington in 2006 with degrees in business administration. He is 40, she is 31.

"Cynthia" and "Richard Murphy" of Montclair, N.J., repeatedly argued with their alleged handlers in Moscow Center in encrypted computer messages last summer about who should legally own their $400,000 house — they or the Russian spy service. She took the commuter bus to Manhattan; he was the stay-at-home dad. The Murphys appeared devoted to their towheaded, blue-eyed daughters, Katy, 11, and Elizabeth, 9, their neighbors say.

According to the FBI, defendant Vicky Pelaez worked as both a print and television journalist for decades. She had risen to become a columnist for the prominent New York Spanish-language newspaper, El Diario/La Prensa. In her column, she voiced strong criticism of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America in weekly pieces. Pelaez was arrested with her husband, Juan Lazaro, 65, a retired political science professor.

This report contains information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.

Alleged Russian spy ring seen as 'throwback to Cold War' 06/30/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 10:45pm]
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