By Arun Kumar
Washington, Jun 29 (IANS): Less than a week after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and President Barack Obama signalled the end of the Cold War with a burger lunch in Washington, the United States picked up ten people on charges of working as Russian spies. The arrests Sunday capped an almost surreal investigation that extended to the Clinton administration and involved video surveillance, hidden microphones and surreptitious FBI searches of homes along the East Coast.
In what looked like a plot straight out of a John le Carré novel in the Cold War days, the Justice Department Monday accused the ten of taking on fake identities and trying to ferret out intelligence about US policy and secrets by making connections to think tanks and government officials.
Five of the arrested suspects appeared in a New York courtroom Monday. Four of the five, including a longtime US-based columnist for the Spanish-language "El Diario" newspaper, were advised of their rights and ordered held due to flight risk, with their next hearing scheduled for July 1.
It climaxed Saturday with a fake "drop" in a park in Arlington County, when one of the suspects left $5,000 in an envelope inside a folded newspaper, which was recovered by the FBI.
Court documents depict a trail of covert meetings between the suspects and undercover agents just blocks from the White House and in midtown Manhattan. At one point, agents videotaped an alleged conspirator brushing past his Russian handler and surreptitiously exchanging bags to be paid.
The operation, referred to by US investigators as "the Illegals programme," was aimed at placing spies in nongovernmental jobs, such as at think tanks, where they could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.
According to the court documents, some of the suspects adopted phony identities, including those of dead Americans, and posed as married couples.
The suspects engaged in secret communications including exchanges of bags, money drops and use of invisible ink, as well as more modern touches such as private wireless computer networks between specific laptops, the documents said.
A decrypted message from Moscow to two of the suspects said they were sent to the United States for "long-term service," one of the documents said.
"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 (intelligence reports)," it said.