Russian Tradecraft Ain’t What It Used To Be

July 1, 2010 6:20 a.m.

By definition, the 11 eleven alleged secret agents arrested this week were clearly not the best that Russian intelligence has to offer: they got caught.

But perhaps the most striking thread running through the two complaints filed by federal prosecutors this week is the sheer incompetence of the alleged espionage operation. It was, in fact, so incompetent that the American government couldn’t even charge the alleged spies with espionage, having to rely solely on charges that the spies acted as unregistered foreign agents and laundered money in order to hold them.Remember, prosecutors claim the spies were planted in the United States on “deep-cover” assignments to fully integrate themselves into American culture, grow close to the American policy-making apparatus and send what they learned back to Moscow.

But the complaints paints a picture of a sad-sack bunch.

Take the case of Anna Chapman, the 28-year-old who ran an online real estate business in Manhattan and has been on the cover of the New York Post for the last few days. The complaint against Chapman describes her agreeing to meet with on undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian consulate official — even though, presumably, none of her actual contacts at the consulate had vouched for the official.

(Sample dialogue: Undercover agent: “Are you ready for this [next] step?” Chapman: “Shit, of course.”)

Chapman complained of technical difficulties with the laptop she used to make contact with actual Russian officials — and then, breaking the cardinal don’t-give-your-secret-agent-computer-to-a-stranger rule of espionage, actually handed over the laptop to the undercover agent for fixing, according to the complaint.

Later on, Chapman went into a Verizon store in Brooklyn and tossed the Verizon bag into the garbage, which was then retrieved by the FBI, according to the complaint. In it they found “a customer agreement for the purchase of a Motorola cellphone. The customer agreement was in the name of ‘Irine Kutsov,’ and indicated a customer address of ’99 Fake Street.’ (That’s right off Apocryphal Drive.)

Then there’s the fact that, as the New York Times observed, the alleged agents apparently didn’t produce any particularly useful information about the U.S. government.

For some reason the SVR (the Russian intel agency) was particularly pleased when defendant Cynthia Murphy, “using contacts she had met in New York, conveyed a number of reports to Center about prospects for the global gold market,” according to the complaint. Moscow dubbed that “v. usefull [sic]” and passed it on to the minister of finance immediately.

At one point in the complaint, it becomes clear that the Americanization process was working a little too well on the alleged spy couple in New Jersey, who become embroiled in bickering with headquarters about whether they should be allowed to own their house in Montclair:

[D]uring the summer of 2009, the New Jersey Conspirators argued with the SVR in a series of encrypted messages about the status of the Montclair House, into which the New Jersey Conspirators had recently moved. The New Jersey Conspirators contended that they should be permitted to own the Montclair House; Moscow Center responded that the Director of the SVR had personally determined that Center would own the Montclair House, but would permit the New Jersey Conspirators to live in it. The New Jersey Conspirators wrote:

In order to preserve positive working relationship, we would not further contest your desire to own this house. . . . We are under an impression that C. views our ownership of the house as a deviation from the original purpose of our mission here. We’d like to assure you that we do remember what it is. From our perspective, purchase of the house was solely a natural progression of our prolonged stay here. It was a convenient way to solve the housing issue, plus to ‘do as the Romans do’ in a society that values home ownership …. [W]e didn’t forget that the house was bought under fictitious names.

So what’s going on here? Julia Ioffe at the Daily Beast proposes that “a rogue element in the Russian secret service needed to launder some stolen cash and stumbled on some starry-eyed American suburban yokels and asked: ‘Hey, wanna be a spy?'” Or else they were just a bunch of entrepreneurial young Russians who got the government to give them money and set them up in America in a way they couldn’t have managed on their own, in exchange for providing information they hardly bothered to obtain between buying houses and going to parties.

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