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Some lived in U.S. for years and had jobs, kids.

New York Times

WASHINGTON - They had lived for more than a decade in U.S. cities and suburbs from Seattle to New York, where they seemed to be ordinary couples working ordinary jobs, chatting to the neighbors about gardening and schools, apologizing for noisy teenagers.

On Monday, though, federal prosecutors accused 11 people of being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a patient scheme to penetrate what one coded message called American "policymaking circles."

An FBI investigation that began at least seven years ago culminated with the arrest Sunday of 10 people in Yonkers, Boston and northern Virginia. The documents detailed what the authorities called the "Illegals Program," an ambitious, long-term effort by the SVR, the successor to the Soviet KGB, to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit more agents.

The charges did not include espionage, and it was unclear what secrets the suspected spy ring - which included five couples - actually managed to collect or what prompted U.S. authorities to finally shut it down.

Criminal complaints filed in U.S. district court Monday read like an old-fashioned cold war thriller: Spies swapping identical orange bags as they brushed past one another in a train station stairwell; an identity borrowed from a dead Canadian, forged passports of several countries, letters sent by shortwave burst transmission or in invisible ink; a money cache buried for years in a field in upstate New York.

But the network of so-called illegals - spies operating under false names outside of the usual diplomatic cover - also used cyber-age technology, according to the charges. They embedded coded texts in ordinary-looking images posted on the Internet, and they communicated by having two agents with laptops containing special software pass casually as messages flashed between them.

Montclair, N.J., neighbors of the couple who called themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy were flabbergasted when a team of FBI agents turned up Sunday night and led the couple away in handcuffs. One person who lives nearby called them "suburbia personified." Others worried about the Murphys' elementary-age daughters, who were driven away by a family friend.

Jessie Gugigi, 15, said she could not believe the charges, especially against Cynthia Murphy, who was an accomplished gardener.

"They couldn't have been spies," Gugigi said. "Look what she did with the hydrangeas."

The authorities tracked one set of agents based in Yonkers on trips to an unidentified South American country, where they were videotaped receiving bags of cash and passing messages written in invisible ink to Russian handlers in a public park, according to the charges.

Prosecutors said the "Illegals Program" extended to other countries around the world. Using fraudulent documents, the charges said, the spies would "assume identities as citizens or legal residents of the countries to which they are deployed, including the United States. Illegals will sometimes pursue degrees at target-country universities, obtain employment and join relevant professional associations" to deepen their false identities.

One message from bosses in Moscow, in awkward English, gave the most revealing account of the agents' assignment.

"You were sent to USA for long-term service trip," it said. "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 and send intels (intelligence reports) to Center."

It was not clear what the intelligence reports were about. Some of the material collected and transmitted by the suspects dealt with U.S. research on nuclear "bunker buster" bombs. Intelligence on Obama's foreign policy positions, particularly toward Russia, appears to have been a priority for the ring as well. The defendants were charged with conspiracy, not to commit espionage but to launder money and to fail to register as agents of a foreign government, crimes carrying potential sentences of five to 20 years. They are not accused of obtaining classified materials.

There were also hints that Russian spy bosses feared their agents might be losing track of their official purpose. Agents in Boston submitted an expense report with such vague items as "trip to meeting" for $1,125 and "education," $3,600. In Montclair, when the Murphys wanted to buy a house under their names, "Moscow Center," or "C.," the SVR headquarters, objected.

"We are under an impression that C. views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of our mission here," the New Jersey couple wrote in a coded message. "From our perspective purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here. It was a convenient way to solving the housing issue, plus 'to do as the Romans do' in a society that values home ownership."

The arrests made a splash in neighborhoods around the country, as FBI teams spent all Sunday night hunting through houses and cars, shining flashlights and carting away evidence.

In Cambridge, Mass., the couple known as Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who appeared to be in their 40s and had two teenage sons, lived in an apartment building on a residential street where some Harvard professors and students live.

"She was very courteous; she was very nice," Montse Monne-Corbero, who lives in the apartment next door, said of Tracey Foley, who she said spoke with a foreign accent and was "pretty" with short blond hair.

Information from McClatchy-Tribune News Service and Associated Press was used in this report.