Washington: The FBI on Monday released surveillance tapes, photos and hundreds of pages of documents that shed new light on operation "Ghost Stories", the bureau`s investigation of a ring of Russian sleeper agents that ended after more than a decade in the biggest spy swap since the Cold War.
Called illegals because they took civilian jobs instead of operating inside Russian embassies and military missions, the spies, including New York real estate agent Anna Chapman, mostly settled into quiet lives in middle-class neighbourhoods.
Their long-range assignment from Moscow: burrow deep into US society and cultivate contacts with academics, entrepreneurs and government policymakers on subjects from defence to finance.
The heavily-edited files provide a glimpse into the intensive surveillance the deep cover agents were under, in some cases for almost a decade, showing the middle-class spies with their children, shopping or in one case attending a graduation ceremony.
The code name Ghost Stories appears to refer to the ring`s efforts to blend invisibly into the fabric of American society. An FBI spokesman said the decision to release the material on Halloween was coincidental.
FBI videos of the Russian agents show Chapman, whose role in the spy saga turned her into an international celebrity, and the other illegals surreptitiously passing information and money as part of their operations, which included the use of spy tools as old as invisible ink and as modern as cryptographic software that hides messages in digital images posted on the internet.
The linchpin in the case was Col Alexander Poteyev, a highly placed US mole in Russian foreign intelligence, who betrayed the spy ring even as he ran it. He abruptly fled Moscow just days before the FBI rolled up the deep cover operation on June 27, 2010. Poteyev`s role in exposing the illegals program only emerged last June when a Russian military court convicted him in absentia for high treason and desertion.
The US swapped the 10 deep cover agents for four Russians imprisoned for spying for the West at a remote corner of a Vienna airport on July 9, in a scene reminiscent of the carefully-choreographed exchange of spies at Berlin`s Glienicke Bridge during the Cold War.
While freed Soviet spies typically kept a low profile after their return to Moscow, Chapman became a lingerie model, corporate spokeswoman and television personality. Donald Heathfield, whose real name is Andrey Bezrukov, lists himself as an adviser to the president of a major Russian oil company on his LinkedIn account. President Dmitry Medvedev awarded all 10 of the freed deep-cover operatives Russia`s highest honours at a Kremlin ceremony.
The swap was Washington`s idea, raised when U.S. law enforcement officials told President Barack Obama it was time to start planning the arrests. Agents launched a series of raids across the northeast after a decade of intensive surveillance of the ring, which officials say never managed to steal any secrets.
The case was brought to a swift conclusion before it could complicate the president`s campaign to "reset" US relations with Russia, strained by years of tensions over US foreign policy and the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. All 10 of the captured spies were charged with failing to register as foreign agents.
An 11th defendant, Christopher Metsos, who claimed to be a Canadian citizen and delivered money and equipment to the sleeper agents, vanished after a court in Cyprus freed him on bail.