A US court has refused to grant bail to ten people arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia.
Five of them have appeared before a judge to hear charges, including “conspiracy to act as agents of a foreign government” and “money laundering”.
Eight of the ten were arrested on June 27 for allegedly carrying out long-term assignments for the Russian government in the US. The two others were arrested the same day for allegedly participating in the same intelligence collecting operation.
If convicted, they could face a maximum of five years in prison for spying and up to 20 years in prison for money laundering.
Also, US investigators say, some of them were living under false identities.
The individuals were arrested in New York, New Jersey, Boston and northern Virginia.
An eleventh spy suspect has been detained in Cyprus, but currently released on bail.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is investigating reports of an alleged spy-ring in the US, but calls the information it is getting contradictory.
The story – which includes invisible ink, sending encrypted messages and the exchange of identical bags – is reminiscent of a bad spy movie and does not sound serious. Also, although accused of allegedly spying for a foreign government, the defendants have not been charged as spies.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is in Israel, but has found time to comment on the matter.
“They haven't explained what they mean. I hope they will do so. The only thing I can say is that it's perfect timing,” Lavrov said.
It is unclear what kind of information or materials the accused were passing, if any. The US Justice Department said this was a multiyear investigation in three US cities: New York, Boston, and Washington DC.
The criminal complaint alleged “brush contact” pass offs between one of the accused and a member of the Russian mission at the UN. The complaint also cites email communications via WiFi on Mac computers that were being surveilled by the FBI.
The individuals have been charged with conspiring to act as unlawful agents, as opposed to spying.
“This is kind of a grey area, because we do have the Foreign Agents Registration Act in the United States. We have many lobbyists in Washington, DC who act as agents for foreign governments. Now, if that’s what these individuals were doing it’s going to be very hard to pin espionage,” said investigative journalist and former NSA analyst Wayne Madsen.
Madsen, however, is more surprised by all the hype. The terms, ‘alleged secret agents’ used by the Justice Department was not used during the Cold War.
“It sounds like this is something out of Hollywood,” he said. “It sounds like its right out of a James Bond thing.”
The Russian intelligence service is considered by the US to be aggressive, but not as hostile as the Cold War Soviet KGB and GRU were. It is not even considered to be as aggressive as the Chinese or Israeli intelligence services.
Spies or operatives caught in the US working for friendly foreign governments are usually quietly sent back to their home nations without the big press coverage.
“There is an opportunity here for the FBI to show that they are still in business,” said Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst.
McGovern argued that the difference here is the opportunity for the FBI to show they can do the job of catching people.
“They haven’t done real well on terrorists, which is the primary target these days. Spies have been sort of put behind terrorists. So, if they can’t catch a bunch of terrorists and they can catch 10 Russian spies that’s really good for budget, it’s good for the image of the FBI,” said McGovern.
Investigative journalist Webster Tarpley believes the seriousness of the situation is being overblown by the US.
“They are not charged with espionage. They are charged with conspiracy to be agents of a foreign power and money laundering – these are weak charges,” Tarpley points out, because they are not government officials and cannot be recruited to pay off with state secrets. Actually, they are accused of developing ties and friendships in policy circles and sending back reports – something otherwise known as journalism and scholarship, Tarpley said.meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington.
The decision to arrest the alleged spies was only possible with the clear consent of the White House, which probably postponed the action till the end of Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the US – which is “a good thing at least“, believes Andrey Kortunov, president of the Moscow–based New Eurasia Foundation think tank.
“However, opponents to Mr. Obama would definitely like to use this incident,” Kortunov acknowledged.
“It seems to me that special services act as if they were dissatisfied with the change of attitude of American politicians towards Russia. That is what an influential American said in an unofficial conversation. They think that Obama is now being strongly criticized for destroying [the] attitude towards Russia and the Russian politics that has been developed through the years,” Gudkov said.
McGovern argued that the timing is key; the story was released to avoid having great impact and embarrassment. Had the story been released just before or during Medvedev’s visit it would have been far more embarrassing. However, it can now run its course. It will be out of the media before the congressional START Treaty hearings and votes.
Obama and his team knew in advance and made sure the release of information was timed precisely, argued McGovern. The story was released to help the image of the FBI and the Justice Department. He argued that they likely wanted to release it earlier to help their images, but that it was held for strategic reasons.
There is currently a vocal push by Russia and the Obama administration to bring Russia into the WTO. Some in the US congress may use these events as an excuse to hinder moving forward.
“The hawks, if you will, are going to point to this and say you see it’s not time for Russia to become a member of this community. Unfortunately this will be used politically by people like Joe Lieberman,” said Madsen.
McGovern argued it will become a political tool; however, he believes that it will not be long lasting.
“I don’t think they will have much success. These issues transcend picking up spies; even 10 spies. What will happen immediately is a tit-for-tat,” said McGovern.
US-Russia relations moving forward are not likely to be hindered. McGovern argued that issues of state are much bigger and will not be impacted in the long term.
Madsen however argued that some members of congress, such as Sen. John McCain, may still hang onto old Cold War tensions.
Political analyst and editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based Slovo newspaper, Viktor Linnik, sees the timing of the arrests as very significant.
“The news couldn't have been made public without the acknowledgement of the White House. And it happened right at the heels of the very successful visit by Russian President Medvedev to Washington,” Linnik told RT.
RT's military analyst Evgeny Khrushchev also rules out the spy story being released "without explicit authorization from the White House."