Circling the Lion's Den

The spy ring of SVR illegals exposed in the US

On June 27 10 people in Yonkers, Boston and northern Virginia were arrested and accused 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 "policy making circles."

Those arrested were, according to the US government, members of a spy ring that had existed for several years, involving Russian agents adopting civilian identities. All are charged with acting as unlawful agents for Russia, which carries a sentence of a prison term up to five years. Nine were charged with money laundering, a crime that carries a prison term of up to twenty years.

According to the US government, the suspects had been trained by the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service to obtain information about US military policies, including those concerned with nuclear weapons, as well as intelligence about leadership at the CIA and the White House.

The FBI said that to obtain those objectives, the suspects were instructed to live as American citizens under false names, some as married couples. Some suspects were able to achieve ties with prominent US citizens, including a scientist working with nuclear weapons and a New York financier who had ties to officials within the US government.

Communication with Russian authorities was allegedly via several disparate methods, including unique wireless internet connections or pictures posted on the Internet with hidden messages, as well as more traditional methods such as burying messages or swapping bags between agents.

The Russian Foreign Ministry told the AFP that they are investigating the allegations, but say that "there are a lot of contradictions." No further comment has been made.

The spy ring assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the Web. And none of the agents faced charges of espionage, because in all those years they were never caught sending classified information back to Moscow. The 10 in custody were charged with conspiring to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government, and eight were also charged with conspiring to commit money laundering, which was later dropped. An 11th accused member of the ring using the name of Christopher R. Metsos was arrested at an airport in Cyprus while trying to leave for Budapest.

Russian agents were tasked by 'Moscow center' to report about U.S. policy in Central America, U.S. interpretation of Russian foreign policy, problems with U.S. military policy and "United States policy with regard to the use of the Internet by terrorists".

On July 6, 2010, The New York Times reported that federal and local prosecutors were seeking a rapid conclusion to the case, avoiding a trial in which sensitive information relating to information-gathering techniques could be disclosed. The proposed deal would have the defendants deported to Russia after pleading guilty to lesser charges.

Swap deal

News of the spy swap was broken by Reuters Moscow correspondent Guy Faulconbridge who reported on the morning of July 7 that Igor Sutyagin, who had been jailed in 2004 for passing secrets to a British company that Russian prosecutors said was a front for the CIA, was to be swapped as part of a deal with the United States to bring home the Russian agents.

In a hearing held in federal court in Manhattan on July 8, 2010, presided over by Judge Kimba Wood, all 10 defendants pleaded guilty to a single charge each of secretly conspiring to act as agents of the Russian government. While the charge could carry up to five years in prison, The Washington Post described the pleas as a first step in what could be the largest prisoner swap between the United States and Russia since the days of the Cold War. Under the plea agreements, the defendants also disclosed their true identities and all except for Vicky Peláez admitted that they were Russian citizens.

Reuters reported on July 7–8, 2010 that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal under which the 10 individuals arrested in that country as part of the Illegals Program would be deported to Russia in exchange for individuals who had been convicted of espionage by Russia. Shortly before the deal was reached, nuclear specialist Igor Sutyagin, one of the Russian prisoners included in the deal, had been moved to a Moscow prison from a facility near the Arctic Circle, informing his family that he would be flown to Vienna as part of the exchange between the two nations. Alexander Zaporozhsky, Sergei Skripal and Gennadiy Vasilenko were also included in the exchange.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was reported on 8 July 2010 as saying that President Barack Obama had approved the swap deal.[82] An administration official was quoted as saying that Obama had not spoken to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the spy swap but had been "fully briefed and engaged in the matter."

On July 9, 2010, the Russian ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed the exchange of four convicted people for ten Russian citizens citing "humanitarian considerations and constructive partnership development".

On July 9, 2010, all ten suspects were deported on a government-chartered jet from Vision Airlines took off from New York's LaGuardia Airport on July 8, carrying the ten Russian agents to Vienna International Airport via Bangor, Maine for a refuelling and then for the swap around mid-day of July 9, 2010 (local time).

Returning from Vienna were four Russian prisoners – Igor Sutyagin, Alexander Zaporozhsky, Sergei Skripal, Gennady Vasilenko. The aircraft landed at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, England to drop two of the exchanged Russian nationals, Sutyagin and Skripal, and then proceeded to Washington Dulles International Airport on the afternoon of July 9, 2010. The Russian government Yakovlev Yak-42 jet returned to Moscow's Domodedovo airport.

Profiles of the agents detained by the FBI on June 27, 2010

Vicky Peláez, a Peruvian national and U.S. citizen, and Mikhail Anatolyevich Vasenkov, alias Juan Lazaro, a Russian citizen, were arrested at their home in Yonkers, New York. Both admitted being Russian agents. The couple have a son together, and Peláez also has a son from a previous marriage.

According to a file kept by the Peruvian Interior Ministry that The WSJ cited, Vasenkov flew on March 13, 1976, from Madrid to Lima on a Uruguayan passport in the name of Juan Jose Lazaro Fuentes; he bore a letter on a Spanish tobacco company's stationery saying he had been hired for a market survey in Peru; two years later, he submitted copies of the passport and a 1943 Uruguayan birth certificate with a letter asking Peru's military dictator Francisco Morales Bermúdez (the country was then run by a Moscow-friendly junta) for Peruvian citizenship which was granted in 1979.

"Juan Lazaro" was described as a "journalist and anthropologist" in the book Women and Revolution: Global Expression, for which he was a contributing author.Vasenkov had studied at the New School for Social Research and taught a class on Latin American and Caribbean Politics at Baruch College for one semester during the 2008-2009 school year as an adjunct professor.According to The New York Times June 29, 2010, report, Vasenkov had been a vocal opponent of American foreign policy in class: "He maintained that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a money-making ploy for corporate America. He praised President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and disparaged President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia as a pawn for paramilitary groups that have broad control over drug trafficking." At least one student complained about Vasenkov's teaching and he was let go at the end of the semester. The department chairman reported that Vasenkov's instruction was not up to standard resulting in his teaching for only one semester but that he recalled no controversy over any anti-American views.

In 1983, "Juan Lazaro" married Vicky Peláez; two years later they moved to New York with her son from a previous relationship.

Peláez had been a television reporter in Peru and a columnist at El Diario La Prensa in New York City. In her writings, Peláez was often critical of U.S. policy in Latin America and had supported liberation movements in those countries. In 1984, she had been kidnapped by the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement who demanded that a video of their views be broadcast on television in exchange for her release, though a cameraman who was also kidnapped claimed that Peláez had been a willing participant in the kidnapping. Vasenkov wrote a 1990 article for a European publication that spoke "glowingly" of the Shining Path guerrilla movement.

U.S. officials reported that on June 27, 2010, Vasenkov confessed to being a spy and that "Juan Lazaro" was not his real name, though he declined to give his true identity. He additionally stated he was not originally born in Uruguay, and that Peláez had delivered letters to Russian authorities on his behalf.

On August 7, 2010, The Wall Street Journal cited Vasenkov's American lawyer, Genesis Peduto, as saying that his client had indicated to her on the phone that he wanted to leave Moscow for Peru: "He doesn't want to stay in Russia. He says he's Juan Lazaro and he's not from Russia and doesn't speak Russian. He wants to be where his wife is going, to her native country, where it will be easier for Juan Jr. to visit. His family comes first."

Andrey Bezrukov, alias Donald Howard Heathfield, and Yelena Vavilova, alias Tracey Lee Ann Foley, admitted being both Russian citizens and Russian agents.Theys have two sons, aged 16 and 20 at the time of their parents' arrest. Bezrukov and his cover wife Yelena Vavilova had a home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Heathfield had earned an M.P.A.degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he was described as a "joiner". Heathfield claimed to have been the son of a Canadian diplomat and to have studied at a school in the Czech Republic. A fellow graduate of the Kennedy School noted that Heathfield kept careful track of his nearly 200 classmates, who included President of Mexico Felipe Calderón. But it turned out that in fact Donald Howard Heathfield was a Canadian infant who died in 1962. The Russian assumed the dead baby’s identity. The late Donald Heathfield is buried with his grandparents at a cemetery in Montreal, where the Russian SVR agent disguised as Paul Hampel had lived, leaving open the possibility he found the name during a visit to the graveyard.

Bezrukov was a professional member of the World Future Society, described by the Boston Herald as "a think tank on future technologies that holds conferences featuring top government scientists". Bezrukov was Chief executive of Future Map, a Cambridge consulting company involved in government and corporate preparedness systems. Bezrukov's cover wife, Yelena Vavilova, worked for Redfin, a real estate firm in Somerville, Massachusetts.

On July 16, 2010, Harvard University revoked Bezrukov's degree in public administration on the grounds of misrepresentation of the identity in his application.

Vladimir Guryev, alias Richard Murphy, and Lidiya Guriyeva, alias Cynthia Murphy, were Russian agents in New Jersey.

Lidiya Guryeva had attended school in the United States receiving two undergraduate degrees from New York University and an MBA from Columbia Business School. In 2009, Cynthia Murphy developed contacts in New York City financial circles as a means to obtain details about the global gold market. Lidiya had been trying to cultivate a relationship with Alan Patricof, a venture capitalist who co-chaired Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid, with her handlers telling her to "to try to build up little by little relations". Lidiya Guriyev was Vice president of Morea Financial Services in New York. Validmir Guryev supplied money and equipment to Kutsik in a 2004 meeting in Columbus Circle, New York and 2009, where $150,000 and a flash drive was given. When the computer program was inoperative, Guriyev supplied Kutsik with a laptop computer that Guriyev brought from Moscow.

Vladimir and Lidiya Guryev were arrested at their home in Montclair, New Jersey. The couple have two young daughters, aged 11 and 9 at the time of their parents' arrest. Vladimir Guriyev used a false birth certificate that claimed he had been born inPhiladelphia, while his wife said that she had been born in New York City as "Cynthia A. Hopkins". The two had earlier lived in an apartment in Hoboken since arriving in the United States in the mid-1990s. They then purchased a suburban Montclair home for $481,000 in 2008. When they purchased it, the couple argued with their handlers as to who would officially own the house, with the ultimate decision being that it would be owned by "Moscow Center". Professor Nina Khrushcheva, who had served as Vladimir's faculty adviser at The New School for three years starting in 2002, said in July 2010 that she had found it difficult to figure out a purported Philadelphia native: "I was always puzzled by the inconsistency between a completely American name and a completely Russian behaviour <...> He had a thick Russian accent and an incredibly unhappy Russian personality."

Vladimir Guryev was criticized by his wife for his poor information gathering and suggested that he pursue individuals with connections to the White House. The couple had also been tasked with obtaining information about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the nuclear program of Iran and the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty talks.

Mikhail Kutsik, alias Michael Zottoli, and Natalya Pereverzeva, alias Patricia Mills, were agents in Seattle, later Arlington, Virginia. They appear to be in their 40s. Kutsik came to the US in 2001, and Pereverzeva came in 2003, according to the FBI. He claimed to be American but had a thick accent, and she claimed to be Canadian, but neighbors said she sounded Yugoslavian. They lived in the Seattle, Washington, area for about two years, and both attended the University of Washington, Bothell, where they earned bachelor's degrees in business. Zottoli worked for several different jobs over the years including telecom company accountant, car salesman and teleconference firm employee. Pereverzeva was a stay-at-home mom who cared for their toddler son named Kenny, and a second son was born in late 2009. After Kutsik lost his job in 2009, they moved with their children to Arlington, Virginia, later that year. After their parents were arrested, arrangements were made to send the children to Russia.

Kutsik and Pereverzeva pled guilty to "conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country." US authorities allege that they had both been spying for Russia in the US since at least 2004. They received specially coded radio transmissions from their high-rise Seattle apartment, and the FBI secretly entered their home where they found random numbers used to decode the "radiograms". Kutsik received money from Guriyev (Murphy) in Columbus Circle, New York in 2004 while Pereverzeva stood as lookout.

In 2006, the FBI photographed them visiting the area of Wurtsboro, New York, where they dug up a bundle of cash in a field that Metsos had placed there two years earlier. Kutsik visited New York again in 2009, where he evidently received $150,000 in cash and a flash drive from Murphy. Kutsik communicated with the SVR using a laptop that Guriyev brought from Moscow after the computer program supplied to him did not function.

Kutsik and Pereverzeva were arrested on June 27, 2010 at their Arlington, Virginia home.

Mikhail Semenko (the real name) is reported to have studied for a one year at the Harbin Institute of Technology. He also attended school and received graduate degrees in the United States at Seton Hall University, one of the degrees being from the Whitehead School of Diplomacy. He is fluent in English, Russian, Mandarin and Spanish. He had later worked for the Conference Board in New York City in 2009, and for 2009-2010 reportedly worked at Travel All Russia, an Arlington, Virginia, travel agency focused on Russian travel. He appears to be in his early 20s and his neighbors say that he is a stylish man who drives a Mercedes S500 sports car and speaks Russian to his girlfriend. Semenko was first noted by the FBI on June 5 when he used a computer in a restaurant to send encrypted messages presumably to a car parked in the restaurant lot that had Russian diplomatic plates and was parked for about 20 minutes, driven by a Russian official who was known to have transferred money to other Russian sleeper agents in 2004.

On or about June 26, 2010, Semenko met with an undercover FBI agent purporting to be a Russian agent and accepted $5,000, which he delivered to a drop site in Arlington, Virginia park. The drop was made at 11:06 a.m. and Semenko was arrested at his residence in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC later that day.

Anna Chapman, maiden name Anna Vasil'evna Kushchenko, is a Volgograd native (was born in Ukraine, according to some reports). Her father was employed in the Russian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. She received her master's in economics degree from the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia in Moscow. She later worked in London at NetJets, Barclays Bank and allegedly at a few other companies for brief periods. In 2001, at an underground rave party in London's Docklands, she met Alex Chapman, the son of a British business executive, whom she married shortly thereafter in Moscow; they divorced in 2006. On July 2, 2010, Alex Chapman's revelations were made public; among other things, he claimed that he was not surprised by her arrest and that his ex-wife had "held secret meetings with Russian 'friends'."

Chapman's prior meetings with her Russian handlers had been on Wednesdays, not face to face, solely to pass information via encrypted private computer networks[9] at Barnes & Noble or at Starbucks.[25] Thus her suspicion was aroused when an FBI informant, posing as a Russian consular officer named "Roman", on Saturday, June 26, asked her to come to New York from Connecticut, where she was spending the weekend.[9] Her suspicions increased when "Roman" was a different person than she knew. The task of a face-to-face transfer of a U.S. passport to another Russian agent was beyond the tasks that Moscow Center had previously assigned to her. After the meeting with "Roman", Chapman bought a new cell phone and two telephone cards.[9] She called her father in Moscow and another individual in New York, both advising her not to transfer the passport; the calls were monitored by the FBI.[9] many former agents have publicly said that some of the slip-ups exposed by the FBI were downright humiliating. In perhaps the most famous example, Chapman registered the cellphone using a fictitious name and address (99 Fake Street) and the FBI retrieved the receipt, which Chapman had thrown away in a public garbage bin. This error was cited by the intelligence community as humiliating.

Chapman turned in the passport to the 1st Precinct police station in New York but was questioned by the FBI and arrested.

Christopher Metsos was alleged to be the money man and main go-between behind the Illegals Program and the SVR. The real name of Metsos, who assumed the identity of a deceased boy, is unknown. On June 29, 2010, acting on an Interpol notice, police arrested the 55-year old man at the Larnaca International Airport as he was about to board a jet for Budapest. He was released after posting 27,000 euros (equivalent to US$33,777) bail and told to report to a police station thereafter, but skipped out and is thought to have fled the country.

According to US authorities, Metsos, who had traveled on a Canadian passport and claimed to be Canadian, regularly travelled to the US to deliver money to his fellow Russian spies; he would typically drop off money at New York City area locations including a coffee shop, restaurant and subway station.  According to his Cyprus lawyer, 'Metsos' had no discernible Russian accent and described himself as a Canadian resident who had divorced 15 years prior and had a son living in Paris.

On July 26, 2010, it was reported by the media that Passport Canada, upon conducting a review, had revoked the travel document issued to Christopher Metsos.

Sources:

  • Wikipedia
  • The New York Times 09.07.2010 "Russian Spy Ring 2010"
  • The Guardian 30.06.2010 "Russian spy ring: who's who"
  • The New York Times 07.10.2010 "Swap Idea Emerged Early in Case of Russia Agents"