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Monday, June 28, 2010

Now THAT'S a Reset Button!

by Paul E. Richardson
"Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?"
"No, I think it was the Hamptons."

Life is always stranger than fiction, or, in this case, it may have been imitating [bad] fiction. Th above was a coded exchange which one Anna Chapman, an alleged Russian sleeper agent ("illegal") was to use to verify the identity of a person to whom she was to give off a fake passport.

Chapman (not her real name, we assume) is one of nearly a dozen Russian sleeper agents rounded up by the FBI today in a multi-state arrest of illegal agents.

The criminal complaints read not so much like a Le Carre spy novel as something Dave Barry might have written. There are meetings in CVS pharmacies and Russian restaurants, malfunctioning private wireless networks, messages encrypted in photographs [aka steganography], invisible writing, brush switches of bags, trips to South America, envelopes of cash hidden at dead drops, and, yes, an apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. It has to be read to be believed.

Another identity verification with one Mikhail Semenko:

"Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?" 
"Yes, we might have, but I believe it was in Harbin." 

Apparently, these spies were not trained to introduce variety to their spycraft.

Today's arrests are apparently the culmination of a years-long investigation into the SVR's (Russian foreign intelligence) illegals program, which the FBI asserts was set up to train deep cover agents that would blend in in the US, either individiually or as a married couple, have children, buy a house, have cover jobs, etc., all with the express purpose of "becoming sufficiently Americanized" so as to infiltrate, gathering intelligence on and recruiting other agents in policy making bodies. The main NYT article offers some of the more hilarious exchanges between Moscow Center and the agents, the choicest being two agents arguing with Center about who would own a new house they would be purchasing in New Jersey.

Based on the criminal complaints, it is clear that these characters are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier (someone wrote down a 27-character password for accessing encrypted data on a sheet of paper and left it lying around), and they are going to race to be the first to cut a deal. So I would expect we will soon learn all of the juicy details of this spy ring, perhaps soon to be known as The Gang Which Couldn't Spy Straight.

I am guessing some people on Lubyanka Square are not going to get a lot of sleep the next few days.

p.s. Meanwhile, in a curious twist of fate, our current issue of Russian Life, which mailed last Friday, has a long story on the little-known private life and history of Russia's most famous illegal in the U.S., William Fisher, aka Rudolph Abel.