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Russian spy case reveals old espionage tricks (EN)

Jeff Stein,

samedi 3 juillet 2010, sélectionné par Spyworld


Moscow Center’s instructions were explicit : For the meeting in Rome, its American spy would approach a stranger and ask, "Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999 ?"

"Yes indeed,” the answer should be. “I was in La Valetta, but in 2000.”

According to Moscow’s instructions, the stranger would then slip the spy a false Irish passport, for travel on to Russia.

The meeting, described in an FBI affidavit, is such a cliché of espionage that it sounds like something out of “Burn After Reading,” the Coen brothers’ 2008 spy spoof.

But, according to court papers filed Monday in support of the FBI’s arrest of 10 alleged “deep cover” Russian spies, it was real.

Moreover, although the 37-page document shows that Moscow Center may have added some Internet technology to its bag of tricks, its main revelation is that Russian intelligence evidently still relies on espionage methods – “tradecraft,” in spy lingo – as old as the Rome hills.

To be sure, according to the FBI, the suspected Russian agents it rounded up sometimes communicated with Moscow via secret messages hidden in Web pages (in a process called steganography).

But for the most part, they contacted each other the old-fashioned way, through furtive exchanges in city parks, or with bags of cash hidden along country roads, and even by radio with Morse code.

Indeed, the FBI’s descriptions conjure up old black and white TV classics like “I Led 3 Lives.

“The FBI’s investigation has revealed that a network of illegals … is now living and operating in the United States in the service of one primary, long-term goal,” the affidavit by Special Agent Maria L. Ricci read, “to become sufficiently ‘Americanized’ such that they can gather information about the United States for Russia, and can successfully recruit sources who are in, or are able to infiltrate, United States policy-making circles.”

The FBI’s spy-busting techniques were quaint as well, far more “Dragnet” than “Enemy of the State,” a paranoid fantasy about eavesdropping satellites.

Bureau agents put “microphone-type listening devices in certain of the defendants’ residences.” They “surreptitiously entered certain of the defendants’ residences ; photographed evidence and copied electronic media while inside ; and then left the residence in question,” its affidavit said.

Of course, agents’ methods also included “monitoring and recording of the phone calls and e-mails...”

But the FBI must have been clapping its collective hands when it discovered the primitive radio techniques the Russians were using : high speed "burst transmissions.” The Cold War-era technique requires the sending party to record a coded Morse code message on a tape, then shoot it through the air in a millisecond.

They were easy picking for the FBI, once it knew where to listen : Bugs in the defendants’ residences picked up “the irregular electronic clicking sounds associated with the receipt of coded radio transmissions,” its affidavit states.

Likewise, you’d think the Russians would have moved beyond buried paper bags to pay their agents. Moscow Center did supply them with ATM cards, according to the FBI’s affidavit. But it also seems stuck with the old ways.

“METSOS secretly buried some of the money in upstate New York,” the FBI affidavit says, referring to one of the defendants, “and two years later, in 2006, the Seattle Conspirators flew to New York and dug it up.”

”ZOTTOLI dug up a package containing money that had been buried in the ground by METSOS…” the FBI affidavit continues, naming another suspect.

In another, “JUAN LAZARO … in a South American country, received a package containing money from a representative of the Russian government,” according to the affidavit.

In another, “PELAEZ received a bag from [an unidentified individual] during their meeting … at a public park in the South American Country.”

The affidavit also describes how “Russian Government Official #3 surreptitiously gave cash and a flash memory stick to RICHARD MURPHY," the defendant, during a "brush pass" at a New York-area train station.

Just like it sounds, a “brush pass” of messages and money is executed swiftly, face to face.

Perhaps all of the suspects, the FBI thinks, are Russians expertly groomed for years by Moscow Center to act, think and talk like Americans, right down to water-cooler arguments over who won the Most Valuable Player award in the 1987 Super Bowl. It’s an assignment earned only by Russia’s best.

But the FBI may never find out who they really are, because of another tried and true technique Moscow Center uses, according to the affidavit : obtaining the birth certificates of dead Canadians and Americans, with which they can build a whole new, false “legend” for their spies.

The FBI affidavit turns up several.

That trick, too, is as old as the hills, with an added virtue. Unlike the others, it could well prevent the FBI from ever finding out exactly who all these people really are.


Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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