Russian spies are accused of stealing Canadian identities in a plot to penetrate the innermost circles of American power. The arrest of 10 alleged secret agents in the United States risks deeply embarrassing Moscow at a time when the former superpower is trying to mend relations with Washington.
At least four of the 11 members of the alleged spy ring claimed to be Canadian and apparently used Canadian documents, according to a detailed criminal complaint in New York federal court.
The spymaster was a Russian who assumed the identity of Christopher Metsos, a Canadian. He's alleged to have run the covert ring that included several pairs of agents living as married couples in the Boston, New York and Washington areas, some of whom also used Canadian identities. He travelled to the United States, doling out money and instructions to the deep-cover agents.
One of the agents used the identity of Donald Howard Heathfield, a Canadian infant who died in the 1960s. The infant's original birth certificate was apparently used, although it isn't clear whether the Canadian government issued real Canadian documents such as a passport - as it did to Ahmed Ressam, the al-Qaeda member who used a birth certificate from a dead Quebec child to build his false identity while in Montreal while he plotted to bomb Los Angeles airport.
In 2006, Canada's spy agency accused a Russian agent calling himself Paul William Hampel of using a fake Ontario birth certificate to obtain passports.
The spy who claimed to be Mr. Heathfield was married to Tracey Lee Ann Foley, another spy who purported to be a naturalized American citizen born in Canada.
Another purported Canadian, Patricia Mills, was one of a pair of spies living as a married couple in New Jersey who dug up a bag buried by Mr. Metsos and containing tens of thousands of dollars to fund the operation.
Mr. Metsos remains at large. The other 10 were arrested in raids in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Virginia. The spy ring, which has been operating for years - although it is not clear from the court documents how long - and had apparently been under close surveillance for some time by American counter-intelligence operatives.
The arrests came days after U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, shared a chummy lunch at a popular Washington burger joint aimed to recast relations as much improved.
Delaying the arrests until after Mr. Medvedev's visit and after the two presidents went to Canada for the G8 and G20 summits may have avoided immediate embarrassment, but the explosive revelations that Russia remains actively engaged in spying on its old Cold War adversary will chill relations.
It may also produce the kind of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats that often accompany the breaking of espionage rings.
Russia's Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or Foreign Intelligence Agency, is the successor to the Soviet Union's vaunted KGB and the counterpart to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. It reports directly to Mr. Medvedev, while Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent with closer personal ties to the spy fraternity.
Intercepted messages - only a handful of which are included in the court filings - indicate the agents were to seek information on a new generation of top-secret nuclear warheads, attempt to learn U.S. arms-control negotiating positions and follow White House rumours. Details of clandestine meetings, ad hoc wireless networks to pass information and old-style spy craft are all set out in the documents.
Although the information in the criminal complaint read like a Cold War spy novel, it is unclear as to whether the espionage ring ever actually stole any secrets of any importance.
The agents were described as carefully selected Russians trained in "foreign languages; agent-to-agent communications, including the use of brush-passes; short-wave radio operation and invisible writing; the use of codes and ciphers, including the use of encrypted Morse code messages; the creation and use of a cover profession; counter-surveillance measures," according to the criminal complaint.
Those arrested are charged with being unlawful agents of a foreign power and conspiracy to commit money-laundering in connection with Russian payments, but were not charged with the more serious offence of espionage.
According to a 2009 message to the accused from Moscow and decrypted by the FBI, "You were sent to U.S.A. for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc. - all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, i.e. to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels to C[enter]"
» Using fraudulent documents, the spies would "assume identities as citizens or legal residents."
» They would communicate back to Moscow via steganography (secret encrypted data in an image that could be posted on a publicly available website but would appear unremarkable to the naked eye) and radiograms (coded bursts of data sent by a short-wave radio transmitter)
» They communicated with each other by passing messages written in "invisible" ink in a public park and via short-range wireless network between laptop computers to send encrypted messages between the computers while in close proximity.
» Intercepted messages showed they were asked to learn about a broad swath of topics including nuclear weapons, U.S. arms control positions, Iran, White House rumours, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, the Congress and political parties.
» According to the investigation some of the accused had "work-related personal meetings with" a man described as a prominent New York-based financier who was active in politics; "conversations" with someone who "works on issues of strategic planning related to nuclear weapon development"; and dealings with a former legislative counsel for Congress.
» The defendants were charged with crimes such as failing to register as an agent of a foreign government and money laundering - not the more serious offence of espionage, and there is no allegation in the court documents that any of the defendants obtained classified materials.
The criminal complaint is filled with richly detailed narratives, saying it was based on years of covert surveillance - including monitoring phones and e-mails, placing secret microphones in the alleged agents' homes, and numerous surreptitious searches dating back years.
Sources: U.S. Department of Justice, The Associated Press, The New York Times