FBI agents arrested 10 people on charges that they spent years in the United States as spies for Russia, taking on fake identities and trying to ferret out intelligence about US policy and secrets by making connections to think tanks and government officials, the Justice Department said Monday.
The arrests Sunday capped an almost surreal investigation that extended to the Clinton administration and involved video surveillance, hidden microphones and surreptitious FBI searches of homes along the East Coast.
It climaxed Saturday with a fake "drop" in a park in Arlington County, when one of the suspects left $5,000 in an envelope inside a folded newspaper, which was recovered by the FBI.
Three of those arrested lived in Arlington, and court documents depict a trail of covert meetings between the suspects and undercover agents just blocks from the White House and in midtown Manhattan. At one point, agents videotaped an alleged conspirator brushing past his Russian handler and surreptitiously exchanging bags to be paid.
The operation, referred to by US investigators as "the Illegals program," was aimed at placing spies in nongovernmental jobs, such as at think tanks, where they could glean information from policymakers and Washington-connected insiders without attracting attention.
Whether it succeeded was unclear Monday.
Federal law enforcement officials portrayed their operation as a spectacular counterintelligence success that uncovered a group of spies capable of doing great damage to US national security.
"I can't remember a case where we've been able to arrest 10 intelligence officers from a foreign country in one fell swoop," one official said. "This network in the United States has now been completely compromised."
Russia denies charges
The suspects arrested for alleged spying in the United States have committed no kind of activity directed against US interests, the Russian foreign ministry said Tuesday.
"We are talking about Russian citizens who came to the United States at different times," the ministry said in its latest statement on the scandal.
Suspect arrested in spy case
A man suspected of being the 11th member of a US spy ring allegedly working for Russia has been arrested and released on bail in Cyprus, police said on Tuesday.
Robert Christopher Metsos, 55, was arrested at Cyprus's Larnaca airport as he tried to leave the island for Budapest early on Tuesday, police said.
(In Exclusive Partnership with The Washington Post)