Sunday 21 January 2018

Life in slow lane helped hide ring's web of lies

The Russian spies used a variety of methods to cover up their activities

Sex appeal: Anna Chapman has added a touch of glamour to the murky tale
Sex appeal: Anna Chapman has added a touch of glamour to the murky tale

Robert Mendick and Toby Harnden in NEW JERSEY

THE first to be arrested was Mikhail Semenko. Last Sunday, at about 8am, the Russian-born travel agent was led out of his shabby apartment in a suburb of Washington DC by federal agents who had handcuffed him before bundling him into the back of a van and speeding off.

Within 12 hours, another nine alleged spies had been rounded up and placed in US custody.

Two decades on from the end of the Cold War, American authorities were claiming to have smashed a Russian spy ring whose tentacles spread across the US and even reached out as far as Europe and Latin America.

The circle of 'spies' included Tracey Lee Ann Foley, who travelled on a fake British passport, and Anna Chapman, the glamorous daughter of a KGB agent who had married an Englishman and become a familiar face on the London party scene.

Chapman, 28, had been under FBI surveillance since her arrival in New York at the start of the year. By that stage, agents had already compiled thousands of hours of covert video surveillance and carried out hundreds of wire taps over the course of 10 years.

The investigation began in a public park in an as-yet unnamed country in South America on January 14, 2000. Vicky Pelaez, a well-regarded, left-wing journalist, was meeting a Russian official while US agents watched from a discreet distance.

Following her secret rendezvous, Pelaez then telephoned her husband Juan Lazaro, with whom she lived in Yonkers in New York, greeting him with three simple words: "All went well."

From that brief meeting, agents began to piece together the other members of the sleeper cells. The wider picture, according to US authorities, shows a spy ring made up of Russian agents who used false identities to embed themselves undetected for years in American cities.

Three of the couples had even had children who were unaware of their parents' true lives. A week on from the arrests, the true identities of several of the alleged spies are, incredibly, still not known.

Their goal -- using such well-worn spy techniques as invisible ink, secret codes and embedding data in digital images -- was to infiltrate political and financial circles and pass valuable information back to their paymasters in Moscow.

Their spymaster seems to have been Christopher Metsos, described in one account as "the most mysterious figure in the story".

Aged 54 or 55, he was picked up by police in Cyprus as he tried to board a flight to Budapest on Tuesday.

Astonishingly, he was granted bail at a cost of £21,000 (€25,000) and promptly fled to Cyprus. Now, according to the country's justice minister, he has "almost certainly" left the island.

Metsos, who claims to be Canadian, was already familiar to US agents as an undercover operative for the SVR, the Moscow-based foreign intelligence service and successor to the KGB, when he was recorded meeting Richard Murphy at a restaurant in the New York borough of Queens in February 2001.

Murphy and his wife Cynthia, 'sleeper spies' living humdrum lives in Montclair, New Jersey, had unwittingly come under the FBI radar.

A month earlier, Tracey Foley and her husband Donald Heathfield, who lived not far from Harvard University near Boston, had also had their cover blown.

The FBI obtained permission to search their bank safe deposit box and discovered photographs of Tracey taken in her 20s. The name of the film company was Tacma -- a Soviet-era film manufacturer.

Heathfield and Foley, both believed to be 48, ran a technology think tank, while Foley is also listed as an estate agent. Heathfield, who had received a Master's degree from Harvard, had stolen his identity from a dead man in Canada, while Foley had travelled on a fake British passport.

They are accused of essentially gathering information on US policy on such subjects as central Asia, the CIA and the presidential elections.

The third suburban couple were Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, who had lived in Seattle on America's west coast but moved closer to the seat of US power last year, to Arlington, Virginia. Zottoli worked for an investment company while his wife was a "stay-at-home mom", looking after their two small children. Only last week while in custody did Zottoli, 40, admit he was actually Mikhail Kutzik, and that Mills was in reality Natalia Pereverzeva.

Ostensibly a house-husband, Murphy worked full time for Moscow once he had taken his two children Kate, 11, and Lisa, nine, to the school bus. Meanwhile Cynthia Murphy enjoyed a high-powered job at Morea Financial Services, a firm in lower Manhattan that offered tax advice.

She was praised by her Moscow controllers -- referred to in secret messages as "C" -- for a report on the global gold market, and was told to spy on teachers and students, reporting on "their detailed personal data and character traits w(ith) preliminary conclusions about their potential (vulnerability) to be recruited by Service". Especially valuable, she was told, was information on students who were applying for, or had been accepted by, the CIA.

Least suburban of all is Anna Chapman, who like Semenko, made no attempt to hide her nationality or true identity and who also arrived on the scene much later than the others. Also like Semenko, who spoke five languages, we know little about what she was supposed to be spying on.

Typecast as "a flame-haired temptress", she is the alleged agent who adds sex appeal to the saga, and whose story has dominated the media.

Her father, Vasily Kushchenko, is a high-ranking Russian diplomat and thought to be a former KGB agent.

The endgame for her was prompted by an FBI sting in which she was enticed to meet an undercover federal agent posing as a Russian consulate employee. During the meeting last Saturday, she handed over a broken laptop while he asked her to deliver a false passport. After the meeting, Mrs Chapman travelled to Brooklyn, ducked in and out of a series of shops, bought a new mobile in the name of Irine Kutsov, giving the address "99 Fake Street", and then threw the new charger in the bin. She failed to appear at an appointed rendezvous last Sunday, but instead telephoned her father for advice.

He told her to go to a local police station and hand in the passport.

Mrs Chapman was promptly arrested, charged with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, and promptly thrown in jail.

To her friends and former lovers, her alleged involvement is baffling.

Most are disbelieving. Her lawyer Robert Baum said yesterday: "I believe that the evidence against Mrs Chapman is very thin. Her circumstances are very different from the others arrested."

Mrs Chapman took her English surname after marrying Alex Chapman in Moscow in 2002.

In 2007, she moved into a flat off the King's Road in Chelsea with Laurent Tailleur, 31, a French playboy.

For the time being, Chapman -- like her other alleged co-conspirators -- languishes in jail. Quite what secrets the Russian "illegals" supplied have yet to be fully explained. At least in the case of the Murphys and the other families, the skilfulness of their suburban subterfuge has been hard to fault.

Sunday Independent

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