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Spying on spies: Chapman shops, contacts ‘handler’

In this photo taken on Sunday, April 3, 2011, Anna Chapman, who was deported from the U.S. on charges of espionage, displays a creation by Russian designers Shiyan & Rudkovskaya during a Fashion Week in Moscow, Russia. A year and a half after the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, its Russian protagonists completely vanished in the 12-million city of Moscow, leaving no trace of their past, except for compulsive socialite Anna Chaman. (AP Photo /Luba Sheme)

In this photo taken on Sunday, April 3, 2011, Anna Chapman, who was deported from the U.S. on charges of espionage, displays a creation by Russian designers Shiyan & Rudkovskaya during a Fashion Week in Moscow, Russia. A year and a half after the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, its Russian protagonists completely vanished in the 12-million city of Moscow, leaving no trace of their past, except for compulsive socialite Anna Chaman. (AP Photo /Luba Sheme)

In this Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010 photo, Anna Chapman, left, a Russian national who was deported from the U.S.for alleged spying for Russia, is seen with an unidentified security man at the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. A year and a half after the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, its Russian protagonists completely vanished in the 12-million city of Moscow, leaving no trace of their past, except for compulsive socialite Anna Chaman. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

In this photo taken on Sunday, April 3, 2011, Anna Chapman, left, who was deported from the U.S. on charges of espionage, and Russian pop singer and Eurovision 2008 contest winner Dima Bilan display a creation by Russian designers Shiyan & Rudkovskaya during a Fashion Week in Moscow, Russia. A year and a half after the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, its Russian protagonists completely vanished in the 12-million city of Moscow, leaving no trace of their past, except for compulsive socialite Anna Chaman. (AP Photo/Dmitry Korobeynikov)

In this Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010 photo, Anna Chapman, who was recently deported from US on charges of espionage, attends a meeting of the commission on economic modernization and technological development of the Russian economy, at the Skolkovo innovation centre outside Moscow. A year and a half after the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, its Russian protagonists completely vanished in the 12-million city of Moscow, leaving no trace of their past, except for compulsive socialite Anna Chaman. (AP Photo/Natalia Kolesnikova, pool)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Unaware the FBI has her under surveillance, Russian spy Anna Chapman buys leggings and tries on hats at a Macy’s department store. A few months later, cameras watch her in a New York coffee shop where she meets with someone she thinks is her Russian handler. It is really an undercover FBI agent.

Tapes, documents and photos released Monday describe and sometimes show how Chapman, now a celebrity back in Russia, and other members of a ring of sleeper spies passed instructions, information and cash. The ring was shut down in June 2010 after a decade-long counterintelligence probe that led to the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.

The FBI released the material to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The investigation was code-named “Ghost Stories,” the release of documents on Halloween a coincidence.

While the deep-cover agents did not steal any secrets, an FBI counterintelligence official told the AP they were making progress.

They “were getting very close to penetrating U.S. policymaking circles” through a friend of a U.S. Cabinet official, said C. Frank Figliuzzi, FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.

He did not name names, but Russian spy Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, New Jersey, provided financial planning for venture capitalist Alan Patricof, a political fundraiser with close ties to Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The linchpin in cracking the case, apparently, was Col. Alexander Poteyev, a highly placed U.S. mole in Russian foreign intelligence, who betrayed the spy ring even as he ran it.

He abruptly fled Moscow just days before the FBI rolled up the operation. Poteyev’s role emerged when a Russian military court convicted him in absentia for high treason and desertion.

The materials released Monday show Chapman and the other members of Moscow’s 11-member ring of sleeper spies — deep-cover agents assigned to blend into American society — shopping in New York City, sightseeing, hanging around coffee shops or apparently just out for a stroll. While she shops at one department store, a Russian diplomat waits outside.

The FBI says seemingly mundane pursuits often served as cover for the exchange of encrypted messages or the transfer of cash, all with the long-range goal of penetrating the highest levels of U.S. policymaking.

What appears to be a family photo of one spy, Donald Heathfield of Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows him graduating from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2000. The school revoked the degree a month after the FBI rolled up the spy ring.

Other spies are seen in video and photos meeting at various locations in New York.

Called “illegals” because they took civilian jobs instead of operating with diplomatic immunity inside Russian embassies and military missions, the spies settled into quiet lives in middle-class neighborhoods and set about trying to network their way into the worlds of finance, technology and government.

The operation’s codename, Ghost Stories, stems from a number of the spies using a technique known among counter-intelligence investigators as “dead doubles” — taking the identities of people who have died. Tracey Lee Ann Foley, Michael Zottoli, Donald Heathfield and Patricia Mills all used the technique, Figliuzzi said.

The U.S. traded the 10 “Ghost Stories” spies arrested by federal agents for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West at a remote corner of a Vienna airport on July 9 in a scene reminiscent of the carefully choreographed exchange of spies at Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge during the Cold War.

While freed Soviet spies typically have kept a low profile after their return to Moscow, Chapman became a model, corporate spokeswoman and television personality. Heathfield, whose real name is Andrey Bezrukov, lists himself as an adviser to the president of a major Russian oil company on his LinkedIn account.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev awarded the 10 freed spies Russia’s highest honors at a Kremlin ceremony.

The case was brought to a swift conclusion before it could complicate U.S. President Obama’s campaign to “reset” American relations with the Kremlin, strained by years of tensions over U.S. foreign policy and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. All 10 of the captured spies were charged with failing to register as foreign agents.

An 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, who claimed to be a Canadian citizen and was accused of delivering money and equipment to the sleeper agents, vanished after a court in Cyprus freed him on bail. The FBI released surveillance photos of Metsos on Monday.

Figliuzzi said Metsos traveled into the U.S. solely for the purpose of providing the other illegals with money. Security measures after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks meant he could no longer risk carrying large amounts of cash, prompting the Russians to send officials already in the U.S. to meet with the illegals and pay them.

That could have made them more vulnerable to discovery.

He said Chapman and another illegal, Mikhail Semenko, who worked in a D.C.-area travel agency, represented a “new breed” of illegals operating in the U.S. under their own names.

Chapman and Semenko “were very tech savvy, very intellectual and bright,” he said, adding that Semenko is fluent in five languages including Chinese.

Both of the new-breed operatives used state-of-the-art wireless computer communications, but the others fell back on techniques that have been used for centuries. With the two different approaches, “the Russians were experimenting,” said Figliuzzi.

The FBI official said that Chapman’s ring was the largest network of illegals ever seen in the U.S. By working on the case for so long, he said, the FBI penetrated the ring’s communications network to the point where FBI officials were playing the part of Russian handlers. “So in a sense we began to own their communications and we became the Russians,” Figliuzzi said.

But former Soviet intelligence officials now living in the West scratched their heads over what Russia hoped to gain from its ring.

“In my view this whole operation was a waste of human resources, money and just put Russia in a ridiculous situation,” said Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB major general who spied against the U.S. during the Soviet era, in an interview earlier this year. He now lives near Washington.

Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer and journalist who has written extensively about Soviet spying in America, said the illegals were supposed to act as talent spotters and scouts, identifying Americans in positions of power who might be recruited to spill secrets for financial reasons or through blackmail.

Spies with the protection of diplomatic credentials would handle the more delicate task of recruiting and handling the agents.

Moscow’s ultimate aim, Vassiliev said, was probably to cultivate a source who could provide day-by-day intelligence on what the president’s inner circle was thinking and planning in response to the latest international crisis. But he said there was no evidence the Kremlin made any progress toward that goal.

“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, said Vassiliev, who now lives in London.

Associated Press

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