What exactly did the Russian 11 do?

June 29, 2010 4:57:20 PM PDT
The criminal complaints read like a cold war spy novel. Eleven Russians "assuming false identities" with "deep-cover assignments" and a mission to "develop ties in policymaking circles."

Their apparent goal: to steal America's valuable secrets.

"America has technology, economic and foreign policy info as a world super-power, other countries want what we have, so they spy," Eric O'neill, former FBI operative, said.

But the Russian 11 seemed more Keystone Kops than cunning spy masters. There's little evidence that their undercover lives in the suburbs of New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. yielded any significant intelligence.

"They may in their own minds been a serious espionage ring," Prof. Kimberly Marten, Columbia University Russian expert, said.

Marten says with the exception of their use of wireless laptops, most of the operation, from the money drops to the use of invisible ink, seemed out-dated and out-of-touch.

"A lack of familiarity with the kind of open society we have in the U.S. because there's really a bright line between classified information and everything else, and these days just about everything else is available on the internet," Marten said.

None of them was charged with espionage. Instead, they're accused of being "unregistered agents of a foreign government." While they worked undercover for a decade, the closest they got to any secrets was a conversation with a former U.S. national security official.

Another spy had attended a seminar and talked with a technician about his work on weapons programs like the nuclear "bunker buster."

A simple Google search yields endless amounts of information, diagrams and pictures of the bunker buster, some of it courtesy of the Defense Department:

"The Russians put all of this time and effort and money into a program that didn't seem to accomplish anything, they didn't seem to get close to any classified information," Marten said.

The court documents also describe meetings between one of the female Russian agents and a New York financier.

A former KGB agent who defected to England says Russia probably has about 60 deep-cover spies in the U.S.

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