MONTCLAIR, N.J. — The 11 people arrested and accused of being members of a Russian spy ring operating under deep cover in America's suburbs appear to have been part of a slow and patient plan by Moscow to cultivate contacts in the U.S. who could yield vital competitive information on finance, business and technology, intelligence experts say.
"Although they aren't trained intelligence professionals, they are available and on call for assignments such as: Can you go attend this meeting? Can you go attend this trade show? Can you contact this person? Could you maybe enroll in this university?" said John Slattery, a deputy assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI who retired in 2008 and is now an executive with BAE Systems Intelligence and Security.
Ten members of the alleged ring were arrested across the Northeast and charged Monday with failing to register as foreign agents, a crime that is less serious than espionage and carries up to five years in prison. Some also face money laundering charges. An 11th suspect was arrested in Cyprus on Tuesday, accused of passing money to the spies over several years.
Prosecutors said several of the defendants were Russians living in the U.S. under assumed names and posing as Canadian or American citizens. Court papers said the operation went back as far as the 1990s.
The FBI finally moved in to break up the ring because one of the suspects — A woman who called herself Anna Chapman and was bound for Moscow, according to court papers — was going to leave the country, the Justice Department said.
The White House response was restrained. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the arrests were a law enforcement matter.
Gibbs said President Barack Obama was aware of the investigation before he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House on Thursday. The two leaders did not discuss the issue, Gibbs said.
Russia's Foreign Ministry acknowledged Tuesday that some of the people arrested are Russian citizens, but insisted they did nothing to hurt U.S. interests.
The ministry statement said Russia is counting on the U.S. "to show proper understanding, taking into account the positive character of the current stage of development of Russian-American relations."
Officials in both countries left the impression that spy rings remain a common way of doing business.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, during a meeting at his country residence with former President Bill Clinton, referred to the arrests.
"I understand that back home police are putting people in prison," Putin said, drawing a laugh from Clinton. "That's their job. I'm counting on the fact that the positive trend seen in the relationship will not be harmed by these events."
Clinton was in Moscow to speak at an investment conference.
Oleg Gordievsky, a former deputy head of the KGB in London who defected in 1985, said Russia probably has about 50 deep-cover couples spying inside the United States, as well as about 400 declared Russian intelligence officers.
Gordievsky, 71, said he spent nine years working in the KGB directorate in charge of illegal spy teams. The deep cover spies, he said, often fail to deliver better intelligence than their colleagues who work in the open.
"They are supposed to be the vanguard of Russian intelligence," Gordievsky said. "But what they are really doing is nothing, they just sit at home in Britain, France and the U.S."