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The sleeper cell giving espionage a bad name

It was a high-octane tale of secrets and lies, of dangerous Russian agents who had infiltrated the heart of America, of buried pots of money, of clandestine meetings in parks. There was even a flame-haired femme fatale.

The geopolitical consequences, we were told, were incendiary -- reminiscent of the dark days of the Cold War.

But despite the breathless accounts, the real story had more than an element of bathos.

The prosecution have yet to produce any evidence of deep intelligence being passed by the "spy ring" to their Moscow handlers.

In fact, the Russian agents were not even successful enough to face espionage-related charges, being accused, instead, of failing to register with the US authorities as representatives of a foreign power and omitting to declare income for tax purposes.

"The Government's case essentially suggests they successfully infiltrated neighbourhoods, cocktail parties and the Parents and Teachers Association," said Peter B Krupp, the lawyer for Donald Heathfield, after studying FBI affidavits.

Mr Heathfield, one of the defendants, was charged with his wife, Tracey Lee Foley.

According to US officials, the real purpose of the "sleeper cells" was to win the confidence of influential political circles, find out their thinking about Russia and get inside knowledge of Barack Obama's tactics in last year's Moscow summit.

Yet they were in no position to gain any of this information in the shopping malls where they spent much of their alleged spying money, or the parks where they met.

This was clear from a dialogue taped by the FBI in which two of the agents, husband and wife Juan Lazaro and Vicky Pelaez, talked about the lack of appreciation shown towards them by Moscow.

"They tell me that my information is of no value because I didn't provide any source. They say that without a source, without saying who tells you all of this, it's of no use to them."

Ms Pelaez tried to soothe him, saying: "Just put down any politician from here."

Ms Pelaez could have gathered views about Russia from politicians through her job as a journalist.

But she had chosen an unusual method of blending into mainstream US media: her column in a Spanish language newspaper, El Diario, was viewed as extremely left-wing, containing regular homages to Fidel Castro and castigating US policies.

The FBI stressed that the spies were trying their utmost to carry out their work in secret. One example they gave was of Anna Chapman, the 'Mata Hari' who, according to one American tabloid, had "Sexy Red Agent's Locks to Die For".

Ms Chapman would go to a coffee shop in Manhattan and set up her laptop. Then, using a standard Wi-Fi chip, she "probably" communicated with a minivan which would be seen with suspicious regularity in the neighbourhood.

Glenn Fleishman, who edits the Wi-Fi News blog in the US, maintained that the standard Wi-Fi link used by Ms Chapman was "pretty amateurish and laughingly easy to sniff out".

Old Russian intelligence hands are embarrassed by the ineptitude of the secret American cell.

Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the State Duma's security committee, said: "In the best times of Soviet history, the organisers and controllers of such a sloppy operation would have ended in prison. And at the worst times, they would have been shot."