On Monday, the FBI made public its surveillance of a ring of 10 Russian spies involved in the spy swap with Russia in July 2010. The FBI describes the surveillance tapes as a "rare glimpse" into the world of intelligence.
The Washington Post reports that the release of documents and surveillance tapes was in response to requests by Associated Press and other news outlets, in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.
The spies operated as deep-cover agents, working outside Russian embassies and military operations in civilian jobs which gave them opportunity to cultivate contacts with members of civil society, including academics, entrepreneurs, government policy makers and other people holding key and sensitive positions in defense and finance.
The surveillance covered a period of almost a decade and was codenamed "Ghost Stories." Surveillance video footage showed the spies living normal lives as ordinary members of society. One of the spies Anna Chapman, lived and worked as real estate agent. A footage showed her, on January 2010, passing coded message to a Russian official in a coffee shop in New York after she had bought leggings and tried on hats at the New York department store Macy's. Though the video is without audio, The Washington Post reports that FBI sources say at a point in the coffee shop encounter, Chapman asked the Russian official: “You’re positive no one is watching?” The official replied: “You know how long it took me to get here? Three hours. So here I am comfortable. But when you go, you know, be careful.” In another scene, Chapman is shown trying to pass information on a laptop.
Other scenes showed spies living normal middle-class American lives, doing the things normal people do on daily basis, such as spending time with the children and attending graduation ceremonies. The videos showed the spies using 007-type espionage tools such as invisible ink and cryptographic software that conceals messages in images posted on internet.
A footage shows another of the spies Michael Zottoli, recovering a package, while another shows one of the spies passing information to a Russian official, in what FBI officials described as a "brush pass." Another footage shows one of the spies Andrey Bezrukov, alias Donald Heathfield of Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a graduation ceremony. CBS News reports Heathfield received a degree from Harvard's John F. Kennedy school of Government in 2000. The school revoked the degree after revelation of his spy activity.
The ring of Russian spies, according to Time, was uncovered by Colonel Alexander Poteyev, a highly ranking official in the Russian foreign intelligence who spied for the U.S. and also supervised the group. Poteyev's role in uncovering the spy ring was revealed last June after a Russian military court convicted him of high treason in absentia. Poteyev had fled Russia before the FBI rounded up its investigation of the spy ring in June, 2010.
Time reports the decision to arrest the spies was made, after a decade of surveillance, because one of the spies was planning to leave the U.S.
The spies were arrested in a series of raids. The arrests occurred at a time U.S. was working to ease strained relations with Russia resulting from the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. The U.S. government was, therefore, anxious to bring the case to an end as quickly as possible without any complications. The U.S. offered the Russians an exchange deal which they accepted.
In the swap which followed in July 2010, the U.S. exchanged the 10 Russian spies for four Russians imprisoned in their country on charges that they were spying for the West. The exchange took place in a Vienna airport on July 9, 2010. The Russian government treated the spies to heroes' welcome. President Dmitry Medvedev awarded them Russia's highest honors in an elaborate Kremlin ceremony.
Time reports former Soviet intelligence officials now living in the U.S. have wondered at the long-term motive behind planting deep-cover spies in the United States. Former Soviet spy and high ranking KGB official Oleg Kalugin, speculates:
"In my view this whole operation was a waste of human resources, money and just put Russia in a ridiculous situation."
Another former KGB official Alexander Vassilev, expressed the view that the deep-cover spies were probably planted to identify Americans in sensitive positions who could be induced to give sensitive information. Vassilev speculates that the long-term goal was probably to secure a source of intelligence on goings-on in the U.S. president's inner circle. But Vassilev wonders:
"How are you going to recruit someone like that, on what basis? That's quite a successful person. Why should he spy for the Russians? I can't see any reason."
FBI agents claim the 10 spies never passed to the Russians any sensitive intelligence. They lived in the U.S. as "illegals," that is, without diplomatic immunity. Time reports that Anna Chapman, the best known of the 10 Russian spies, who became a celebrity after her role became known internationally, is now a lingerie model, corporate spokeswoman and television personality. Another of the spies Andrey Bezrukov, who lived in the U.S. as Donald Heathfield, claims to be adviser to the president of a major Russian oil company.