Russian Spy Case: Why Now, and What It's About

The FBI investigation has been going on for years—maybe as long as a decade, according to law-enforcement officials. So why did federal agents move now to take down 10 alleged deep-cover U.S.-based spies for Russia's foreign-intelligence service, only a few days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's U.S. visit, during which he and President Obama proclaimed a new era of warm relations between their countries?

Several of the reasons remain classified, U.S. officials say, but one contributing factor has now been disclosed: at least one of the suspects was about to leave the country. "These arrests had to be carried out Sunday for several critical law-enforcement and operational reasons," Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd tells Declassified. "Among these reasons was the fact that one of the suspects was scheduled to depart the United States and had to be arrested before departure. These operational considerations were the only factors that dictated the timing of the arrests.

As we previously reported, charges issued so far against the alleged "illegal" long-term Russian penetration agents do not accuse them directly of espionage—stealing or attempting to steal U.S. intelligence or defense secrets. Instead, court documents portray them as talent spotters, alleging that they were assigned to identify and ingratiate themselves with influential Americans who had access to U.S. policymakers or government secrets, the idea being that those individuals could then be targeted for more aggressive recruitment by other Russian spies.

According to court papers, the individuals who were targeted included a former high-ranking U.S. national-security official; an American working on nuclear-weapons research; and someone described by the FBI as a "prominent New York–based financier" who was "prominent in politics," "an active fundraiser" for a U.S. political party, and "a personal friend" of a person described as "a current cabinet official." The documents omit the targets' names or any further identifying information, and the "current cabinet official" is likewise unnamed, but the court papers do cite a Feb. 3, 2009, e-mail message between New Jersey–based members of the alleged spy network, saying the financier apparently met on more than one occasion with the accused Russian agent who used the name Cynthia Murphy. A U.S. official familiar with the case, requesting anonymity when discussing sensitive information, says indications are that the cabinet official was a member of the Obama administration, which took office in January of that year.

The 10 arrested suspects are to be brought into various federal courts on the East Coast over the next few days, a government official says. Defendants using the names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley are scheduled for a detention hearing at noon on Thursday in Boston. Defendants using the names Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills, and Mikhail Semenko are scheduled for their hearings on Thursday afternoon in federal court in Alexandria, Va. Defendants "Richard Murphy," "Cynthia Murphy," "Juan Lazaro," and Vicky Pelaez are scheduled for theirs at 4 p.m. in Manhattan. The defendant known as Anna Chapman argued against detention at her initial court appearance in Manhattan on Monday, but her request to be released on bail was denied. The Associated Press has reported that none of the accused is known to have entered a plea so far.