MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- One hobnobbed with academics and entrepreneurs who shared his interest in cutting-edge science. Another spoke five languages, went to embassy parties and was fascinated by global politics. A third held herself out to be a venture capitalist and hit the networking circuit, looking for investment opportunities.
The 11 people arrested and accused of being members of a Russian spy ring operating under deep cover in America's suburbs appear to have been part of a slow and patient plan by Moscow to cultivate contacts in the U.S. who could yield vital competitive information -- not necessarily on weapons or U.S. strategic planning, but on finance, business and technology, intelligence experts say.
"This is a long-term investment by an intelligence service to lead those individuals there, give them general assignments and see what they can pick up," said John Slattery, a retired deputy assistant director of counterintelligence at the FBI who is now an executive with BAE Systems Intelligence and Security.
"Although they aren't trained intelligence professionals, they are available and on call for assignments such as: Can you go attend this meeting? Can you go attend this trade show? Can you contact this person? Could you maybe enroll in this university? And then elevate the access as they go."
Ten members of the alleged ring were arrested across the Northeast and charged Monday with failing to register as foreign agents, a crime that is less serious than espionage and carries up to five years in prison. Some also face money laundering charges. An 11th suspect was arrested in Cyprus, accused of passing money to the spies over several years.
Prosecutors said several of the defendants were Russians living in the U.S. under assumed names and posing as Canadian or American citizens. It was unclear how and where they were recruited, but court papers said the operation went back as far as the 1990s. Exactly what sort of information the alleged agents provided to their Russian handlers -- and how valuable it may have been -- was not disclosed.
The FBI finally moved in to break up the ring because one of the suspects -- apparently a woman who called herself Anna Chapman, who was bound for Moscow, according to court papers -- was going to leave the country, the Justice Department said.
The arrests flabbergasted many of the defendants' neighbors. In a case that seemed to come straight out of a Cold War spy novel or a Hitchcock thriller, many of the defendants lived what seemed to be utterly ordinary suburban lives -- saying goodbye to their kids at the bus stop, taking pride in their well-kept lawns, making small talk with the neighbors, even holding Fourth of July parties.