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The man known as Don Heathfield, who was arrested as an alleged undercover Russian spy, is seen here during his May, 2010, class reunion for graduates of the Kennedy School of Governance at Harvard University.

A pair of married Russian spies who built part of their cover story in Canada before moving to the United States were grooming their son for espionage, according to published reports.

The revelation came two years after the arrests of 11 people in the largest espionage-related bust since the end of the Cold War. All eventually pleaded guilty to working for Russia and were expelled.

In spite of the size of the bust, U.S. officials at the time presented the group's spying activity as largely ineffectual. But a new report from the Wall Street Journal offers a more sophisticated picture of their activities. And it contains the allegation, denied by a lawyer, that at least two of the spies recruited their own son.

In 1999, people using the names Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley moved to the United States from Canada, where he had graduated from York University and she claimed to have studied at McGill University. Their son, identified as Tim, was a child when they left Canada and a 20-year-old student at George Washington University in the U.S. capital at the time of his parents' arrest. By then he is alleged to have known of their covert activity.

"His parents revealed their double life to him well before their arrest, according to current and former officials, whose knowledge of the discussion was based on surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that included bugging suspects' homes," reporter Devlin Barrett wrote in WSJ.

"The officials said the parents also told their son they wanted him to follow in their footsteps. He agreed, said the officials. At the end of the discussion with his parents, according to one person familiar with the surveillance, the young man stood up and saluted 'Mother Russia.' He also agreed to travel to Russia to begin formal espionage training, officials said."

The paper was unable to find evidence indicating whether the young man, who is said now to be in Russia, actually pursued the training. And a lawyer who had represented Mr. Heathfield dismissed the report in strong terms.

Peter Krupp said it would have been too risky for the parents to reveal the operation to their son. He called the account given to the paper "crap."

Instances of children joining parents in spying are rare but not unknown. In one case, American Nathan Nicholson was spared prison in 2010 after pleading guilty to helping his father, CIA turncoat Jim Nicholson, continue to pass information to the Russians after being jailed.

It's unclear when Mr. Heathfield and Ms. Foley arrived in Canada. Their first confirmed presence can be traced to 1995, when Mr. Heathfield got an economics degree from York. The spy, who seems to have lifted his identity from a deceased Canadian, has been described as an impressive intellect. He went on to launch several French and American business ventures, patented a computer program for "mapping future events" and studied at Harvard's Kennedy School of Governance.

But there were errors along the way. A 2005 death notice in a Toronto newspaper for Howard Heathfield noted that his son, Don, had predeceased him. And a 2001 FBI check of a safety deposit box kept by the couple turned up a photo of Ms. Foley, the negative stamped with the name of a Soviet film company.

It has not been established whether Ms. Foley actually attended McGill University, as an online profile claimed. She worked as a real estate agent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her accent sometimes raised eyebrows as not sounding properly French-Canadian.

Regardless, said Redfin Realty president Glenn Kelman, "she was a darn good field agent."