As a number of you have commented, DOJ announced the arrest of 10 alleged Russian spies yesterday (with one person, based in another country, remaining at large). The alleged spies are basically people living under false identities tasked to network with influential Americans to learn specific information.
One of the most interesting questions about the bust is the timing. It’s clear from one of the complaints that the FBI has been tracking some of these alleged spooks for a decade. That suggests the government had been content, up to now, to simply track what Russia was tracking. But then, last week, they decided to roll up these alleged spies.
The timing and content of the two complaints adds to the interest of the question. The complaint describing the long-term surveillance, named Complaint 2 by DOJ, includes the following details from this year (showing the level of activity of the investigation with these longer-term suspects):
- A March 7 intercept from the Boston couple’s townhouse
- A search from the female Boston defendant’s safe deposit box conducted in April (one which implied there had been earlier searches of the box)
- Discussion of the male New Jersey defendant’s travel to Russia in February to pick up a laptop (reflecting intercepts, physical surveillance, and business records)
- Details describing the New Jersey defendant handing off the laptop he picked up in Moscow to the Seattle male defendant in early March
- January intercepts capturing discussions of Russian handlers encouraging the New Jersey female defendant to take a job tied to lobbying
In other words, at least from what appears in this complaint, none of the surveillance on these eight long-term alleged spies was all that recent.
The date on this complaint–named Complaint 2 but reflecting the decade of surveillance these defendants have been under–was Friday, June 25.
Then there’s Complaint 1, which pertains to two additional defendants, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, and which is dated Sunday, June 27. The earliest dates in that complaint date back only to January 2010 (and June 2010 for Semenko), perhaps suggesting the FBI has had these two defendants under surveillance for a much shorter period of time. In addition, unlike the other complaint, this one does not provide details about the cover of the defendants (though there may be a number of reasons why this would be true).
Complaint 1 describes how FBI agents posed as Russian handlers and set up meetings with the two defendants on June 26–that is, the day after the complaint covering the eight other defendants was signed. In Semenko’s case, the FBI agent asked the defendant to carry out a drop which–the complaint explains–he did.
In Chapman’s case, the FBI agent asked her to hand off some money to another person purported to be another member of the same Russian network. Rather than carry out the task, Chapman bought an international cell phone (trying, unsuccessfully, to cover her tracks), suggesting she called overseas for direction. She did not carry out the designated task. All of this suggests, of course, that by late on June 26 (that is, Saturday) the Russians presumably would have known someone pretending to be a Russian agent was onto Chapman.
The way these two complaints work together suggest DOJ decided on or before last Friday to roll up a spy network it had been tracking for a decade. Then, after having set that process into motion, it attempted to implicate two additional members of the network (Chapman and Semenko) in the following days. Doing so with Chapman probably alerted the Russians to FBI pursuit on Saturday.
After the Chapman call, FBI probably had to roll up the network. But the FBI had already made the decision to arrest the others. So why did DOJ decide to roll up this spy network now? Why not continue tracking what the Russians are tracking?
I can think of three potential reasons:
- To disrupt US-Russian relations
- Because the Russians had detected US (or third party) sabotage
- Because of other changes in DOJ personnel