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'Ghost stories': what was the largest exposure of the Russian spy network in the United States

The American TV channel CBS showed a documentary film revealing the details of the operation of the US counterintelligence service to capture a network of Russian spies in 2010. This scandal is considered one of the most high-profile in modern intelligence history. with the BBC tells what new details became known from interviews with former and current FBI officers, who had been collecting information about Russian intelligence officers for many years.

Photo: Shutterstock

The operation, which the FBI dubbed "Ghost Stories," began in 2000. It involved dozens of officers from several divisions.

“This was probably the largest counterintelligence investigation in the entire history of the FBI,” notes Alan Kohler, deputy chief of the counterintelligence division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The end of the operation was the arrest of 10 people, eight of whom, according to the FBI, were especially valuable cadres - illegal spies. These people were thrown by the USSR and Russia to other countries with fake documents for long-term autonomous work.

“Illegals” pretend to be born and raised in this or another friendly country, they are trying to obtain classified information, usually available only to the local political or military elite.

Awesome Agents and Morse code

“They were amazing agents. I constantly thought: do we all know, did we miss something? Maybe they know those who know people with access to classified information? The risks of this operation were astronomical! ” - notes FBI special agent Maria Ricci. She was prosecuting Russian spies operating in New York State.

The first in the field of view of the FBI in 2000 were Juan Lazaro (according to US counterintelligence, his real name is Mikhail Vasenkov) and Vicky Pilares. Having established surveillance for the couple, the intelligence service soon noticed that Lazaro on weekends periodically drove out of town by car along the same route. He did not stop by and, after a while, he returned home. The FBI was able to establish that in those days Lazaro turned on the shortwave radio located in the car and transmitted messages to Russian intelligence. Moreover, the encryptions went in the old fashioned way - in Morse code.

The film does not say more about Lazaro (Vasenkov). It is believed that he was the most experienced and valuable of the Russians detained in the United States. In 2020, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service declassified Vasenkov and admitted that he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, and was also awarded the Orders of Lenin, the Red Banner and the Red Star for successfully completing Moscow's assignments.

“Modern Russian intelligence officers are no longer hunting for military maps or information that is technically classified as secret. They are interested in everything that can give their country a competitive advantage, ”said FBI special agent Tide Shelton.

The ring expands

According to FBI officers, in 2004 they began monitoring several more married couples, suspecting them of working for Russian intelligence.

Cynthia Murphy and her husband Richard (according to the United States, their real names are Lydia and Vladimir Gurievs) attracted special attention of counterintelligence. According to FBI officers, Cynthia was the soloist in this pair. She received her MBA from the prestigious Columbia University and took a job in a financial institution.

“Working in the financial services industry gave Cynthia the opportunity to gain information valuable to economists in Russia,” notes the FBI agent.

But most of all, US counterintelligence became concerned when a woman tried to make friends with people who were going to get a job with the CIA (a US intelligence service specializing in operations abroad).

Cynthia's husband Richard paid a lot of attention to raising two daughters. In addition, he managed to occasionally secretly meet with representatives of the Russian embassy and other Russian "illegal immigrants." For example, according to the FBI, at one of these meetings, Richard received $ 175 for his operations, as well as $ 60 with a separate instruction.

Over time, Richard first securely wrapped this wad of money with bags and duct tape, and then buried it in the woods near New York. The FBI installed a camera in this place, and two years later (in 2006) saw how this money was successfully dug up by a man named Michael Zottoli (the FBI believes that his real name is Mikhail Kutsik).

Since 2004, another married couple, who were “under the hood” of the FBI, have shown increased activity. These are Donald Heathfield and Tracy Foley (according to the FBI, their real names are Andrei Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova). Donald received his degree from Harvard University and often attended alumni meetings of this university in order, according to the FBI, "to gain access to people who may eventually be in power."

Donald, among other things, developed a computer program that could be used for strategic forecasting.

“This gave him access to many people who had valuable information for Russia. For example, a person who worked in the US government and had access to information related to nuclear technology. We also knew that Heathfield was collecting information on how to join the US State Department, ”says Officer Shelton.

The FBI had to work hard to keep Donald from getting close to a nuclear expert. According to the FBI officers, sometimes for this they had to arrange, as it were, random acquaintances of Heathfield with some supposedly interesting people, or come up with other tricks so that the meetings would break down.

On the subject: Declassified data: how Soviet spies worked in different countries of the world

Breakthrough and important silence

The film mentions that the FBI managed to make a real breakthrough after 2006, when they carried out a successful search of the house of Cynthia and Richard Murphy (the Gurievs). Counterintelligence officers found notepads with ciphers and a pack of old floppy disks. At first glance, the floppy disks appeared to be empty. But by inserting a floppy disk into a computer and entering a certain 27-digit password, FBI operatives were able to open the messaging system between the “illegal immigrants” and Moscow.

“It totally changed the whole game. Now we could read every message sent by Richard and Cynthia Murphy to the Center [as the SVR headquarters in Moscow is called in intelligence jargon. - Note. BBC], and every message the Center sent to Richard and Cynthia, ”says FBI special agent Ricci.

The film is silent about how the counterintelligence officers were able to find a 27-digit password in a heap of papers and belongings of the Murphy family. The authors also do not tell how the FBI managed to reach the network of Russian "illegal immigrants", although the answer to this question has long been known. The failure of such a number of spies was the result of Alexander Poteyev, a senior officer of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, who went over to the side of the United States.

According to the Russian investigation, the Americans recruited Poteyev in 1999. As deputy head of the 4th department of the "C" department, Poteev was in charge of Russian "illegal immigrants" throughout North America. Moreover, as stated in the verdict of the Moscow Garrison Military Court, Poteev personally knew each of the scouts he had surrendered. By a court decision, the former SVR colonel was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in prison, stripped of his military rank and awards. In 2016, it was reported that Poteev, who was living in the United States by that time, suddenly died. However, in 2018, BBC and Buzzfeed reporters were able to establish that he was alive.

The trap slams

In 2009, FBI officers learned that two more people who could be Russian intelligence officers arrived in the United States: Mikhail Semenko and Anna Chapman. They were representatives of a younger generation (about 30 years old) and did not hide their Russian origin. According to the FBI, Semenko and Chapman posed a threat to US security because they had a new communication system with Moscow. This meant that the counterintelligence officers could no longer intercept their messages.

According to the FBI officers, Chapman's laptop, stuffed with special equipment and additional programs, could transmit messages to the curator's laptop even when it was turned off. The FBI recorded how Chapman simply walked down the street with a computer in his bag at a distance of several tens of meters from the Russian diplomat, who was also walking with a laptop in his briefcase. Counterintelligence agents claim that during this walk they were able to record a short exchange of messages between two "sleeping" laptops.

It was decided to bring “Ghost Story” to arrest and trial in 2010. In the film, this is explained by the fact that spies have already got too close to US state secrets. But there is another version, according to which Colonel Poteev, who collaborated with the Americans, felt that he would soon be uncovered and asked to be evacuated from Russia.

“The last few days before the arrest of [the suspects] have been sheer madness. All staff officers involved in the operation worked around the clock, seven days a week. We had planes in the sky to watch [the suspects], ”said Alan Kohler, deputy chief of the FBI's counterintelligence department.

“We used almost all of our surveillance personnel for this operation,” adds Ed Foley, who was in charge of FBI surveillance in New York State.

The situation was complicated by the fact that there were enough materials to arrest four married couples. But on the recently arrived Chapman and Semenko there was practically nothing for which they could be brought to criminal responsibility. Then the FBI decided to carry out the so-called false flag operation as soon as possible. The film does not specify exactly how the counterintelligence officers were able to contact the newly arrived Russians. Most likely, Colonel Poteev informed them of the password and recall necessary in such cases for a meeting with deeply conspiratorial spies.

Depicting people sent from the SVR, the FBI took turns meeting with Chapman and Semenko and giving them assignments. Anna was asked to give someone a fake passport, and Mikhail was asked to hide a wad of money in the park under the bridge, allegedly for another scout. According to FBI agents, both Russians agreed to carry out their assigned tasks.

The next day, the FBI arrested 10 people in the United States that were being followed by Operation Ghost Stories, including Chapman and Semenko. The United States asked to arrest two more suspects in Europe, but they eventually managed to escape.

The neighbors of the arrested married couples could not believe that spies lived and worked next to them.

“If you had told me that they were Martians, I would have believed it more,” one of the arrested neighbors remarked incredulously.

On the subject: Familiar with Nixon and Brezhnev, interrogated a Russian spy: the boring story of the legendary Russian-speaking American

"A unique opportunity to talk to the enemy"

Immediately after the arrest, negotiations began between Washington and Moscow.

“I called my Russian colleague Fradkov [in 2010 Mikhail Fradkov headed the SVR] and told him:“ We took ten people, these are your people. ” He replied: "Yes, these are our people." In an instant on the face of everyone who was with me in the office, one could read: “Wow! They admit they are spies. ” So negotiations began, ”says former CIA director Leon Panetta.

Soon it was decided to exchange ten detainees in the United States for four people detained in Russian prisons on charges of spying for Western intelligence. Among them was a former GRU officer Sergei Skripal, who was poisoned in 2018 in the UK.

Interestingly, the spies detained in the United States flew for the exchange with the FBI agents who had been following them for years.

“In many ways, I think I knew these people better than some of my family members!” - says Officer Ricci.

Some of the Russians looked very gloomy during the flight, others were philosophical about everything, say the FBI officers accompanying the Russians.

“When you investigate an agent, you see him only through the prism of work, you see him as a bad guy. But when you meet him in person, everything is different, ”says the counterintelligence officer Kohler.

FBI officers recall that it was not easy for them to see how all these events affected the children of the arrested spies. For 10 years, counterintelligence officers watched as babies, many of whom were born in the United States, grew up before their eyes. Soon after the exchange, three out of four families were able to reunite. Only the son of Mikhail Vasenkov, Juan Lazaro Jr., decided to stay in the United States. Now he continues his career there as a pianist.

Officer Sheldon recounted an impressive conversation with Michael Zoloti (by then he had already admitted to being Russian): “We asked him how long would he stay in the US? And he replied that he would stay forever, because he really liked the States, and they had a great life. A counterintelligence agent rarely has the opportunity to speak directly to his opponent. And it was a surreal experience. "

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