What Threat Did 11 Russian Spies Pose?

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

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The FBI has arrested 10 alleged Russian spies in the U.S. An additional suspect was seized in Cyprus but release on bail. The suspects, who have lived under false identities for more than a decade in cities across the East Coast, are said to be agents of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service sent to gather information on U.S. politics and policy-making. The members of the espionage ring had come to befriend New York financiers, former U.S. national security officials, and even a nuclear scientist. But the Department of Justice, which has brought charges for "conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the U.S. attorney general," but not for espionage, says the suspects neither sought nor received classified information. How much of a threat to the U.S. does this represent?

  • They Were 'Suburbia Personified' The New York Times' Scott Shane and Charlie Savage profile, "Neighbors in Montclair, N.J., of the couple who called themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy were flabbergasted when a team of F.B.I. agents turned up Sunday night and led the couple away in handcuffs. One person who lives nearby called them 'suburbia personified,' saying that they had asked people for advice about the local schools. Others worried about the Murphys' elementary-age daughters. Jessie Gugig, 15, said she could not believe the charges, especially against Mrs. Murphy. 'They couldn't have been spies,' she said jokingly. 'Look what she did with the hydrangeas.'"
  • Their Missions Were Pretty Boring BBC's Kim Ghattas writes, "Most of what the alleged spies were after seems almost anodyne. ... Before President Barack Obama's trip to Moscow last year, for example, they were tasked with finding out more about US foreign policy on Afghanistan and information about Iran's nuclear programme. This is the kind of above-board information that political officers at most embassies would be gleaning through conversations with policy-makers and government officials, writing up in a report and sending back to headquarters. ... It is worth keeping in mind that some of [the] Russians involved in this apparent spy ring were sent here in the 1990s, when the Cold War had just ended and the level of mistrust was still very high."
  • Could Complicate Obama's 'Reset' CBS News' Dan Farber says of President Obama's recent "burger summit" with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, "Mr. Obama declared that the two had succeeded in resetting the relationship between the countries after years of distrust. The resetting may have become a bit unsettled as 10 alleged Russian spies were arrested by the FBI in the U.S. after a lengthy investigation. ... Will the Russian spy arrests cause the two relatively new Twitter users to unfollow each other or go back to the red phone?" The New York Times adds, "Obama was not happy about the timing, but investigators feared some of their targets might flee, the official said."
  • Why Russia and U.S. Still Spy on One Another The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder explains that both states still spy on one another, but it's changed. "What type of information is valuable to Russia these days? It's no longer nuclear weapons information, really, or war plans: it's proprietary information, trade secrets, technical specifications of satellite and ballistic missile technology...also political intelligence and economic intelligence. The FBI still has squads of counterintelligence (CI) agents that follow Russian embassy officials in Washington, but it does much less CI work than it did before the age of terrorism. The US has much better signals intelligence capabilities than the Russians, but Russia also quietly outsources some of its spying to other countries, including countries that are ostensibly friendly to the U.S. "
  • Spies Used Old-School, Cold War Tricks The Washington Post's Jeff Stein calls the uncovered spy tactics "such a cliché of espionage that it sounds like something out of 'Burn After Reading,' the Coen brothers' 2008 spy spoof. ... 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."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.