Connect to share and comment

FBI busts ring of alleged Russian agents

FBI arrests of 10 "Russian spies" reveal a sloppy operation.

Red Square, Russia
Russian fighter jets fly in formation over Red Square and the Kremlin during a military parade dress rehearsal in Moscow May 6, 2010. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

MOSCOW, Russia — From afar, it looks like the spy scandal of the decade — 11 alleged Russian agents busted by the FBI on suspicion of infiltrating American society to feed policy secrets back to their spymasters in Moscow.

The U.S. Justice Department announced the arrest of 10 men and women in New York, New Jersey, Cambridge, Mass., and the Washington, D.C,. area late on Monday. Their alleged boss, known as Christopher Metsos, was arrested the same day in Cyprus and freed on bail. All have been charged with conspiring to act as spies, and nine with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Yet a closer look at the FBI’s investigation shows a sloppy Russian operation that appears to have gathered little in terms of solid information. The FBI tracked the receipt for a mobile phone bought by Anna Chapman, an alleged conspirator caught in New York, the day before her arrest on Sunday. The address she gave Verizon was: “99 Fake Street.”

The FBI had been investigating at least two of the defendants — Peruvian citizen Vicky Pelaez and Peruvian-born Juan Lazaro — as far back as 2000. The FBI file includes a transcript of a conversation between the two at their Yonkers home, with Lazaro distressed that Moscow was unhappy with his work “because I didn’t provide any source.” Pelaez quickly answers: “Put down any politician from here!”

Material worthy of a John le Carre novel it is not.

So the question becomes: why expose the spy ring now?

The announcement came just three days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrapped up what by all accounts was a highly successful visit to the U.S. The trip, to Silicon Valley and D.C., prompted long suspicious observers to announce that the Obama administration’s hope of a “reset” in relations was finally coming into its own.

The visit was light on substance, but high on symbolism. Medvedev ate burgers with President Barack Obama and traded “Terminator” quotes with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He visited Twitter headquarters and opened an account. He smiled his way through a joint press conference at the White House.

Russians responded in kind. A poll released Monday by VTsIOM, a Russian pollster, showed that the percentage of Russians that held a positive attitude towards the U.S. had grown from 46 percent to 59 percent in the last year.

The spy scandal now threatens to derail that.

Moscow reacted angrily to the charges, with the Foreign Ministry issuing a statement that condemned the move as being "in the spirit of the 'spy mania' of the Cold War era."

“In our view, such actions are completely unfounded and serve unseemly goals,” it said. “It is deeply unfortunate that all this is happening against the background of the reset in Russian-American relations announced by the U.S. administration itself."

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took it one step further, telling reporters during a visit to Israel that “the choice of timing was particularly graceful.”

In Moscow, Nikolai Kovalyov, a former head of the Federal Security Service, a successor organization of the disbanded KGB, said “someone is trying to put a virus into the reset program,” Interfax reported.

The rumor mill is running wild. Some analysts blame U.S. hardliners who are weary of the Obama administration’s overtures to Russia, a country rife with corruption and human rights abuses and clouded in the mistrust of the Cold War era.