updated 7/12/2010 12:34:53 PM ET 2010-07-12T16:34:53

NEW YORK — The arrest and speedy deportation of ten suspected Russian spies in U.S. suburbs has raised concerns about relations between Moscow and Washington, and prompted speculation about methods associated with 21st century spy craft.

Five former members of the U.S. intelligence community offer insight into lessons learned from one of the largest cases of espionage to surface on U.S. soil with the Council on Foreign Relations Greg Bruno.

Eric M. O'Neill, a former undercover operative for the FBI who helped bring down Russian spy Robert Hanssen in 2001, believes that in this most recent case, "Russia took a large risk of political embarrassment" by embedding illegal agents, but thought it would pay off.

Burton L. Gerber, a former CIA chief of station during the Cold War, notes this is because human intelligence sources are still absolutely vital for a country like Russia seeking "to understand the full scope of a competing nation's goals/intentions/capabilities."

Jack Devine, a former CIA deputy director of operations, adds that the details of the case – as cloaked in mystery as they are – suggest a major Russian operation.

And Mark Stout, an intelligence community veteran and historian at the International Spy Museum, says this incident underscores the fact that for many countries, open sources of information will never replace human assets, a point Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, concurs with.

Eric M. O'Neill, Partner, the Georgetown Group
The world is growing smaller. Extraordinary advances in information sharing have made distances irrelevant. As the virtual world shrinks, difficulties arise in protecting information. Entire lives are posted on social networking sites. Companies lose trade secrets to regulatory requests, accidental publishing on web pages, and to "dumpster divers" who sort through discarded trash. What we don't volunteer may still fall into the public eye through cybercrime, fraud, and espionage.

The ten Russian "illegal" spies recently arrested and swapped in a historic exchange emphasize that foreign intelligence services continue to rely on human intelligence to feed their voracious need for information. The best spies are people, not machines. To both spy and catch a spy, a person must be able to rely on instinct, experience, and luck, often making decisions based on a gut feeling, something a mechanical device cannot emulate.

The FBI's investigation into the Russian illegal spy network relied on human fieldwork and professional counterintelligence. The ten-year operation to dismantle the spy network suggests a level of severity that is not balanced by the purposefully brief indictment. Numerous experts have cited the lack of an espionage charge to label the illegal spies ineffective amateurs that passed little more than publicly available policy information. Russia took a large risk of political embarrassment by training and embedding illegal agents – a risk that requires more than what is available on Google.

Reading between the lines of the indictment, one finds reference to a more insidious task – recruitment of Americans with access to sensitive policy information. Russia swept the illegals away through a hasty swap only eleven days after the arrest – far too little time for a useful debrief. Time will tell whether the FBI learned enough to truly understand the purpose of the illegal network – perhaps enough to find additional conspirators.

More from CFR.org:
Russia profile: Tinker, tailor, housewife, spy
Obama's summit in Russia: which side 'blinks' first

Burton L. Gerber, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University
When U.S. officials announced the arrest of ten alleged Russian "illegals," much of the media and other commentary seemed to see this as old stuff, inconsistent with the post-Cold War-age and the reset of Russian/American relations. How serious could this be? What kind of access could these Russians have had? What possibly could they have reported?

Nations still need to understand adversaries, real and potential. While much data and insights are available through other means, intelligence operations, using human officers and recruited agents, are still vital to understand the full scope of a competing nation's goals/intentions/capabilities. And for a nation with the history and tradition of Russia, turning to clandestine collection is second nature.

Russian – and earlier Soviet – intelligence, has usually been noted for its patience. The dispatch of "illegal" officers to establish themselves, develop contacts as appropriate, serve as couriers or support agents, or even [deploy] themselves to get into position to collect important information, is consistent with Russian experience and goals. While their exact technical communications capabilities may not yet be known to us outside observers, it appears they had access to devices/systems that go well beyond traditional dead drops and brush contacts. This was a serious Russian program.

American counterintelligence, the FBI, was on to several of the illegals early, perhaps ten years or so ago, and apparently there were some Russian missteps in the course of those years which caused additional illegals to be identified. Using a support agent to service more than one illegal, as was apparently done, is not sound tradecraft.

While we cannot be sure of the scope of the illegals' success, we can conclude that their pay-off may have been larger than we first can understand, or that the Russian SVR [Russia's foreign intelligence service] was prepared to invest time and resources in the expectation of greater achievement. American counterintelligence impeded this program. Russia and other countries will likely introduce successive ones.

Jack Devine, President, the Arkin Group LLC
Twenty-five years ago, much of what a country's intelligence agencies knew was collected by operatives abroad. Today, much of that information is available instantaneously to anyone with an Internet connection and access to twenty-four-hour news channels. In addition to the problems around verifying data found on the Internet, it contains only as much as people load onto its networks. There is also a great deal of copycat reporting in the press. It is amazing how quickly the media settles into "conventional wisdom," which is often misplaced.

Web sites and the media provide us with easy access to basic information, but the questions of critical importance to intelligence professionals can rarely if ever be answered online. In this regard, computers are no match for human operators and agents in gleaning insights into the plans, intentions, and psychologies of their targets. The United States, other major powers, and very clearly the Russians understand this. All continue to invest in field collection activities. Recently, we've even seen an uptick in the number of smaller, less developed countries funding and fielding collection efforts abroad, including inside the United States

Instead of questioning the relevance of human agents and operatives in the cyber-era of the 21st century, we should question why the Russians, over the course of ten years, invested so heavily in developing a large network of operatives spanning the American Northeast and Central Atlantic regions. Despite the reported lack of intelligence obtained from the group's operations and their various tradecraft failures, let's not be mistaken about their intended role either; the eleven "illegals" were most likely in the United States to handle American moles. According to what is known publicly, they were to become intermediaries, unconnected from the recruitment process. The Russians either had or anticipated having a large number of American assets to handle and they'd laid in the plumbing for this task with the eleven alleged spies placed strategically outside "hot zones" to avoid detection.

What is baffling is why the SVR would break a cardinal rule of the spy game – always keep your operatives compartmentalized so that the compromise of one doesn't lead to the collapse of the network. Perhaps we should take some satisfaction or comfort from this mystifying oversight, but I remain alarmed by the Russians' optimism about recruiting Americans.

Mark Stout, Historian, International Spy Museum
Americans are so enamored with technology that they often miss the continued relevance of espionage in this age of Google, "Total Information Awareness," signals intelligence, and Predator drones. However, espionage remains an indispensable component of the intelligence capabilities of modern states.

Though their recently thwarted operation may have been feckless, the Russian services – like all serious intelligence services – understand that espionage and other forms of human intelligence can provide nuances that open-source information or technical means often cannot. For instance, an analyst who wanted to know whether Saddam's soldiers would stand and fight would certainly want to have reporting from human sources to provide a feel for morale in the ranks.

As for the vaunted power of open sources, the history of the stealth fighter plane provides a useful cautionary tale. In the early 1980s, everyone knew that the United States Air Force had the first ever stealth fighter, but nobody without a security clearance had ever seen it. However, extensive research in the open sources allowed the Testor model company to sell a 1:48 model of the curvaceous F-19. The models flew off the shelves, and even the impeccably well-informed Tom Clancy was convinced, featuring the F-19 in one of his novels. There was just one problem. There was no F-19. There was an F-117A, but it was angular to the point of ugliness. The open sources were utterly wrong; the real secrets had been kept.

An intelligence service that wishes to have a deep understanding of its adversaries will conduct espionage. Furthermore, an intelligence service which wishes to avoid being deceived will collect intelligence in as many ways as possible. Espionage has been around for thousands of years. It is here to stay. The Russians have been leading practitioners for many years. While this case may well turn out to be an embarrassment for them, other Russian agents could well be stealing serious American secrets right now.

More from CFR.org:
Russia profile: Tinker, tailor, housewife, spy
Obama's summit in Russia: which side 'blinks' first

Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow, Heritage Foundation
In the wake of the recent round of U.S.-Russia spy swaps, people are asking: With all the high-tech intelligence collecting gadgets that exist today – from drones to satellites to cybersnooping – who needs a bunch of James or Jane Bonds running around? [The answer]: We do.

Sure, you can get a lot of intelligence from satellites that can practically read license plates or even from translating open-source journals and newspapers, but the human spy still plays a unique role in getting access to privileged information this country needs for its national security. Who is going to "borrow" the briefing book on a country's illicit nuclear weapons plans and programs that will inform American policymaker decisions? A satellite can't do that.

You might respond that you can get that briefing book by hacking into a ministry's computer system and stealing the files. Fair enough, but a drone can't plant the "bug" in the ministry's conference room to listen— live – to discussion on that topic.

Or how about finding the terrorist who doesn't use a cell phone or a computer and who travels around at night concealed in the back of a truck or ambulance? Maybe the spy who has penetrated that terrorist's inner circle can. Good luck recruiting that spy from a laptop.

The list goes on and on of examples of what the human spy can do that the electronic spy can't, ranging from espionage's ridiculous to the sublime. Unfortunately, the world's second oldest profession can be wrought with danger or even national embarrassment under certain circumstances. [But] there is still a robust need for the human spy in the cloak and dagger game.

This story, "What the Russian spy case reveals," was originally published on the CFR.org's web site.

Copyright 2013 by Council on Foreign Relations

Video: U.S. got better deal in spy swap, analysts say

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. got better deal in spy swap, analysts say

    >>> good evening. i'm lester holt in for brian. there was such fan a fair just two weeks ago are back in moscow tonight in a scene straight out of the pages of a novel, the ten who had been living here posing as americans were swamped on an airfield for four russian citizens. two of them arrived in washington just a short time ago. now apparently free men, but nonetheless pawns in an east-west game most of us thought was of a bygone era. we have more on this story. martin, good evening.

    >> yes, sir, good evening. it was the quickest spy swap experts could remember. quickly ending an embarrassing spy scandal between the united states and russia . the scene straight from the cold war today, two planes nose to tail in a remote corner of a european airfield. a spy swap. ten russian spies for if four men who worked for american british intelligence. last night the russians deported from america after pleading guilty to acting as unregistered foreign agents. didn't have the drama of berlin's bridge, once known as the bridge of spies seen in so many dramatic swaps. vienna, 11:15 this morning. a bus shuttles between two planes. quickly the ten enter the russian plane. among them, vladimir and glydia, richard and cynthia, their daughters age 7 and 11 are expected to join them in russia . and anna became the face of the spy ring . within 90 minutes they return east. the four russians return west. there's no clear winner in the swap.

    >> the american es and russians want the story to go away. they get their assets back. they get the spies they already acquired information from. at the same time the americans want more cooperation from the russians for iran for nuclear proliferation. both sides win. both sides lose.

    >>> among them soviet ex-colonel believed to have named robert hanson , an american the spies the russia whose secrets led to the deaths of top american agents. also free igor sutyagin . after dropping off two of the men in london, they landed late this afternoon at dallas airport outside washington. it's believed they'll be debriefed and helped to set up new lives. it's too early for details and officials told nbc news it's all happened quickly.

    >> martin fletcher in london, thank you.

Timeline: Spy swaps in history

Major Russia-U.S. spy swaps since the Cold War

Associated Press, Reuters, msnbc.com | Link |

Explainer: ‘Such a nice couple’: The spies next door

  • Image: US-RUSSIA-SPY-ARREST
    SHIRELEY SHEPARD  /  AFP - Getty Images
    This drawing dated June 28, 2010 shows five of the 10 arrested Russian spy suspects in a New York courtroom.
    It’s a tabloid editor’s dream come true: Ten people are accused of being undercover Russian spies, and one of them is even photogenic enough to deserve her own slideshow (see The New York Post’s tribute to what they are calling "Sexy Russian Spy Anna Chapman" here).

    But for the neighbors of the 10 people arrested throughout the Northeast, it's more of a nightmare. Who are these people who they had come to trust as a professor, a newspaper columnist, and an architect, among other well-respected professions? Video: FBI arrests 10 in alleged Russian spy ring


    “They’re such a nice couple,” Susan Coke, a real estate agent who sold a home in Montclair, N.J. to two of the suspects — who called themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy — told The New Jersey Star-Ledger. “I just hope the FBI got it wrong.”

    You can read the the court filing about the alleged spy program here, and the Department of Justice's court complaint against two of the suspects, Mikhael Semenko and Anna Chapman, here.

    Information compiled by msnbc.com's Elizabeth Chuck and Ryan McCartney.

  • Anna Chapman, New York, N.Y.:

    Image: Anna Chapman
    AP
    Anna Chapman
    Dubbed the “femme fatale” of the Russian spy ring, Chapman, 28, said she was the founder of an online real estate company worth $2 million. The daughter of a Russian diplomat (whom her ex-husband dubbed "scary"), she said she had a master's in economics, was divorced and lived a socialite’s life in Manhattan’s Financial District. According to the New York Daily News, Chapman is the one who figured out the spy network was being monitored on Saturday, prompting the FBI to make the arrests Monday. Photographs and videos of her have popped all over the Internet (See a wrap-up on The Washington Post).

    Sources: New York Daily News, New York Post

  • Mikhail Vasenkov (a.k.a. 'Juan Lazaro') and Vicky Pelaez, Yonkers, N.Y.:

    Image: Vicky Pelaez
    AFP - Getty Images
    Vicky Pelaez

    Lazaro, 66, told people for decades that he was born in Uruguay and was a Peruvian citizen, but he is actually Russian and his real name is Mikhail Vasenkov. Lazaro admitted that he sent letters to the Russian intelligence service and that the Russian government paid for his house. He said that although he loved his son, he would not violate loyalty to the "Service," even for his child.

    Neighbors said they knew Lazaro to be an economics professor at a college in New Jersey. An agent for Russia for years, Lazaro brought his wife, Vicky Pelaez, into the conspiracy by having her pass letters to the Russian intelligence service on his behalf.

    Pelaez worked as a columnist for one of the United States' best-known Spanish-language newspapers, El Diario La Prensa. She had come to the U.S. after being briefly kidnapped by a leftist guerrilla group in Peru in 1984.

    Pelaez, 55, lived under her real name and was an American citizen, but now plans to return to Peru after a brief stay in Russia, according to her attorney.

    The couple has two sons: Waldomar Mariscal, 38 (Pelaez's son, Lazaro's stepson), and Juan Jose Lazaro, Jr., 17.

    Both sons told reporters shortly after the arrests that they didn't believe the allegations.

    "This looks like an Alfred Hitchcock movie with all this stuff from the 1960s. This is preposterous," Mariscal said. Of the charges, he said, "They're all inflated little pieces in the mosaic of unbelievable things."

    Source: New York Daily News, The Associated Press, The New York Times

  • Vladimir and Lydia Guryev (a.k.a. 'Richard and Cynthia Murphy'), Montclair, N.J.:

    Image: Alleged Russian Spies Live "Regular" Life In Suburban America
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    Richard and Cynthia Murphy

    Richard was an architect, a neighbor told The New Jersey Star-Ledger, and Cynthia had just gotten an MBA. Richard said he was from Philadelphia; Cynthia said she was from New York.

    The couple lived with two young daughters, Katie, 11, and Lisa, 7, in a home on Marquette Road in Montclair that they purchased for $481,000 in the fall of 2008. The two had come to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, first living in an apartment in Hoboken, N.J.

    Cynthia, 39, earned $135,000 a year as a vice president at a Manhattan firm, Morea Financial Services. Alan Patricof, a client of the firm and friend of the Clintons', told The Washington Post he believes he may have been targeted by the ring. Prosecutors said one of her assignments had been to network with Columbia University students.  Her real name is Lydia Guryev.

    Richard, 43, mostly stayed home with the children, neighbors said. His real name is Vladimir Guryev.

    Sources: Star-Ledger, New York Daily News, Politico, The Washington Post

  • Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva (a.k.a. 'Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills'), Arlington, Va.:

    Image: A view of River House Apartments, where suspected Russian spies Michael Zottoli and his wife Patricia Mills lived in Arlington
    Molly Riley  /  Reuters
    River House Apartments, where Zottoli and Mills lived in Arlington, Va.

    The husband-and-wife pair lived in Seattle before they moved to Arlington, Va. in October 2009. Zottoli, 41, said he was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and Mills, 36, said she was a Canadian citizen. Records show the two moved around several times between 2002 and 2009. Zottoli was an accountant who constantly took personal calls at work, co-workers told the Seattle Times. Mills was a stay-at-home mom for the couple’s toddler, Kenny. There are reports they also have a 1-year-old.

    “They were the nicest people,” said John Evans, the couple's former apartment manager. “In fact, I wish they had stayed on as tenants. They were really good tenants.”

    When their Seattle apartment was searched in February 2006, FBI agents reportedly found password-protected computer disks that contained a “stenography program employed by the SVR.”

    His real name is Mikhail Kutsik. Her real name is Natalia Pereverzeva.

    Sources: KOMO-TV, Washington Post, The Seattle Times

  • Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova (a.k.a. 'Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley'), Cambridge, Mass.:

    Image:Residence owned by Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who were arrested Sunday by the FBI on allegations of being Russian spies.
    Russell Contreras  /  AP
    Heathfield and Foley's home

    The “Boston Conspirators,” as the FBI dubbed them, identified themselves as French-Canadian when they came to the U.S. in 1999.

    Heathfield, 49, received a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000 and worked as a consultant for a Cambridge-based consulting firm called Global Partners Inc — a job that allegedly enabled him to contact a former high-ranking U.S. government national security official. He also had his own consulting company, Future Map Strategic Advisory Services LLC. His real name is Andrey Bezrukov.

    Foley, 47, was a real estate agent who showed houses in the Boston area. She worked on a contract basis for the real estate brokerage Redfin. Her real name is Elena Vavilova.

    They spoke to their two sons, ages 20 and 16, in French when they appeared in court in Boston following the arrests.

    Craig Sandler, a former classmate of Heathfield, told The Boston Globe the Russian spy was friendly and intelligent. Other classmates told The New York Times he had a taste for Scotch and described him as a “flavorful conversationalist” who was smart and funny.

    “It never crossed my mind that he might be a spy,” Sandler said. “But it’s not completely flabbergasting. He seems like a guy who would make a pretty good spy.”

    Sources: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, New York Times

  • Mikhael Semenko, Arlington, Va.:

    Mikhael Semenko, 28, was a travel specialist at Travel All Russia LLC’s in Arlington, Va. He joined the company in 2009 and was described as a friendly and diligent worker who spoke Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, in addition to Russian and English, according to a statement released by the company after his arrest. Semenko’s LinkedIn profile indicates he was particularly interested in non-profits, think tanks, public policy and educational institutions.

    Semenko also has a Twitter account, a Facebook profile, and a blog called “Chinese Economy Today.

    Semenko graduated from Seton Hall University with a degree in international relations in 2008, according to his LinkedIn profile.

    Arrested at his home in Arlington, he was accused of using sophisticated communications equipment and making incriminating statements to an undercover agent posing as a Russian official. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, FBI officials met Semenko just blocks from the White House, at the intersection of 10th and H Street. “Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?” the undercover agent asked. “Yes, we might have but I believe it was in Harbin,” Semenko reportedly replied.

    See below for other code words and phrases the suspects used.

    Sources: Daily Telegraph, LinkedIn, Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press

  • Christopher R. Metsos, arrested in Cyprus:

    Image: Photo of Robert Christopher Metsos Russian spy
    Cyprus Police / Handout  /  EPA
    Christopher Metsos

    Very little is known about Metsos’ background or current whereabouts.

    Officials said he arrived in the coastal town of Larnaca in Cyprus on June 17 and was arrested June 29 on an Interpol warrant while he was waiting to board a flight to Hungary. A Cyprus judge decided to release Metsos on $33,000 bail. Metsos failed to show up to a required meeting with Larnaca police following his release, initiating a manhunt for the final member of the group of Russian spies.

    Officials fear Metsos could flee to northern Cyprus, which the AP described as a “diplomatic no-mans-land.”

    Metsos, age 54 or 55, carries a Canadian passport and is what U.S. prosecutors called the “money man” of the group. He is accused of receiving and distributing money to the group and of conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to the U.S. Justice Department, he was given payments by a Russian official affiliated with Moscow's mission to the United Nations in a spy novel style "brush-pass" handoff and buried money in rural New York that was recovered two years later by another suspect.

    Sources: The Associated Press

  • Code words, phrases suspects used

    Following are among the phrases used by the alleged agents, their handlers and, deceptively, by U.S. counter-espionage officials in exchanges designed to verify a contact's identity.

    "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?"

    "No, I think it was the Hamptons."

    "Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?"

    "Yes, we might have, but I believe it was in Harbin"

    "Excuse me, did we meet in Bangkok in April last year?."

    "I don't know about April, but I was in Thailand in May of that year."

    Source: Reuters

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