How did 11 people, seemingly living normal lives, start Saturday at the little league game and end up surrounded by the fluoro-yellow letters: FBI?

Crikey intern Michael Carter clarifies the tale that is stranger than Mikhail Gorbachev’s port-wine stain.

What happened?

The revelation that 11 people in the US (including five couples — some with children) have been charged with failing to register as foreign agents gave Neighbourhood Watch a whole new meaning.

The seven-year investigation has culminated in the arrests of the group in Yonkers (New York State), Boston (Massachusetts) and Arlington (Virginia). Some of the ring were the picture of suburbia and were found deep behind “allied” lines. Others were more suave and urbane. But all have been caught in the same tangled web.

And what a tangled web they weaved.

Reaction by the FBI has been swift (well, as swift as you can be following seven long years) but the reaction of the neighbours has been one of disbelief, with this quote summing up the modern-day cold war page-turner:

“They couldn’t have been spies,”…”Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

Let’s look behind the rose bush.

Who are they?

  • Richard and Cynthia Murphy (the gifted gardener above) are two of the named suspects from New Jersey. They couple have two young daughters.
  • Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley are another couple from Massachusetts and have two teenage sons.
  • Mikhail Semenko, is another. Apparently he was less inconspicuous: driving around in a Mercedes S-500. Check out what appears to be his Facebook page here.

Details of their respective appearances are sketchy.  Often literally. Yet, Anna Chapman, one of the suspects, has shown up in glamorous form online. Her Facebook page shows a penchant for tequila (that’s not Russian!) and leads on to a South American flavour within the suspects.

Another courtroom sketch depicts two more suspects from Yonkers: Vicky Pelaez and Juan Lazaro. Pelaez is a columnist for El Diario-La Prensa, the Spanish-language newspaper in New York. Lazaro is a lecturer in Latin American and Caribbean politics.

  • Two other suspects, Michael Zotolli and Patricia Mills, an outwardly average married couple with two children, were both arrested in Virginia.

A day after the US arrests were made, the 11th suspect, Christopher R Mitsos, was arrested in Cyprus attempting to board a flight to Budapest.

What were they doing?

The list is long.

Invisible ink, “brush pasts”, legends and radiograms. Check out the spy jargon here.

The ring is accused of, among other things, making contact with a former US national security official and a researcher in nuclear weapons.

But along with traditional spy work such as swapping bags in “brush pasts”, drop-off points and shortwave radio bursts (radiograms, see above), the group didn’t wax nostalgic. They used sophisticated, modern technology to swap information and purportedly send it back to Russia with love. Embedded texts in family snaps on the internet and laptops with advanced linking software.

There are also allegations that the ring used British and Irish passports like the recent Mossad-led assassination in Dubai.

Over a long period, the group is said to have been in constant contact with the Russian Intelligence Service, the SVR — the modern incarnation of the KGB. Yet all the secrecy, ingenuity and subterfuge in the world couldn’t hide their activities.

The seven-year-long sting (that’s a lot of cups of coffee) ended when an undercover FBI agent passed a “Trojan horse” envelope of cash to Mikhail Semenko. Semenko (perhaps in his Mercedes) followed the delivery instructions and the group was duly arrested.

What are they charged with?

For all the espionage talk, the 11 have not actually been charged with espionage. The FBI has laid charges of failing to register as agents of a foreign government; an offence carrying a maximum jail term of five years. Nine of the group have allegedly been charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a heftier maximum term of 20 years.

What now?

The majority of suspects have appeared in courts across the US. The US government is purportedly downplaying the event following a recent visit from Russian President Dimitry Medvedev. Barack Obama is yet to comment on the arrests.

Ian Fleming once wrote a James bond story called 007 in New York. Prophetic? Well, that is For Your Eyes Only.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey