Alleged Russian spy ring charged

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

Federal prosecutors have charged eleven people with being part of a Russian espionage ring. The accused lived in New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Northern Virginia. Prosecutors say the alleged agents were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran and Congressional politics. Their mission: blend in. The World's Jason Margolis begins our coverage on today's show.

DAVID BARON: I'm David Baron and this is The World. Federal prosecutors have charged 11 people with being part of a Russian espionage ring. The accused live in New York, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Northern Virginia. Prosecutors say the agents were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran and Congressional politics. Their mission: blend in. The World's Jason Margolis begins our coverage.

JASON MARGOLIS: The rap sheet reads like a Cold War thriller. The accused spies exchanged identical bags in stairwells of train stations. They allegedly communicated with invisible ink and embedded codes and images posted on the internet. They're accused of burying money for years in a field in upstate New York. The alleged spies lived in the suburbs, raised children and held normal jobs, yet the FBI was monitoring their activities for at least seven years. Neighbors and co-workers were startled by the FBI's allegations. But to insiders, the news isn't all that shocking.

KEVIN RYAN: Russian spying in America and American spying in Russia did not end at the end of the Cold War.

MARGOLIS: Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Kevin Ryan is now with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

RYAN: The reason that spying did not end is that neither of our countries fully trusts the other one.

MARGOLIS: Spying did not end, but the objective has certainly changed. That's according to John Pike, Director of the web site globalsecurity.org.

JOHN PIKE: Russians over the last decade or two have mainly been looking for trade secrets for technological information for the sort of data, technology and so forth that could help Russian industry. During the Cold War, early Cold War, they were mainly looking for military secrets, but even before the Cold War ended, it mainly shifted towards industrial espionage.

MARGOLIS: The alleged Russian spies are not being charged with espionage. They're charged with failing to register with the U.S. Attorney General as agents of a foreign government. That carries a maximum sentence of five years. Nine of the eleven suspects were also accused of conspiracy to commit money laundering. That carries a maximum penalty of 20 years. Retired Brigadier General Kevin Ryan says the charges make sense.

RYAN: This is a bit like arresting Al Capone for tax evasion. It's the thing that we know that they did, that we can get them on right away and hold them on. But we know that they've done more and we will hopefully get to that now that we've got them arrested and we're able to go through their personal belongings and then maybe build a case toward more serious charges.

MARGOLIS: There is one other surprise to the arrests, the timing. They came just days after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Washington. Lawrence Korb at the Center for American Progress says the arrests were delayed so as not to undermine Medvedev's visit.

LAWRENCE KORB: The way we work in this country and with the very good media, it's hard to keep these things quiet. I think it was remarkable that they were able to keep it quiet until after the Russian president left because obviously they've been ready to go for some time now to pick up these folks.

MARGOLIS: But the view has been quite different in Russia. For The World, I'm Jason Margolis in Boston.