She was dubbed the Russian spy babe, or the undercover femme fatale. Though Anna Chapman was thrown out of America in July last year and sent back to her native Russia, having been exposed as a spook, she did quite well out of the humiliation – she acquired her own TV chatshow, and appeared as a catwalk model sporting leather trousers and a James Bond gun.
Her life as a Russian spy in reality was probably substantially less glamorous than that. The FBI has just released a trove of documents, videos and pictures relating to its so-called Ghost Stories investigation into the activities of 10 Russian spies who the agency monitored for more than a decade.
You don’t see any Glocks or souped-up Aston Martins in the videos, and there are no cocktails in sight, whether shaken or stirred. But you do see furtive meetings and bag drops, and exchanges of digital information through secret computer networks.
In one, video Chapman, dressed modestly in white T-shirt and jeans, meets up with a man in a Manhattan coffee bar.
The film is poignant because the man is an undercover FBI agent posing as a government official who has lured Chapman to the meeting under the ruse of getting her to pass a fake passport to another “illegal” – a spy who has embedded themselves in America society, outside the protection of the Russian embassy.
One of the documents released by the FBI reveals what happened (see from page 124 of this document). Chapman shows signs of being nervous – she says she needs more information about her interlocutor before she can talk freely, and asks: “You’re positive no one is watching?”
The undercover agent soothes Chapman’s fears, and then tells her how she is to hand over the false passport. “Are you ready for this step?” he asked. “Shit, of course,” Chapman replied.
That’s one of the juicier episodes contained in the new material that was obtained by Associated Press under a freedom of information request and which, it has to be said, promises more than it delivers.
The documents are heavily redacted, sometimes entirely so. Seven of the documents have been completely redacted, leaving us with a blank screen on top of which the word “secret” has been scrubbed out. If that’s the FBI’s idea of a little tease at the expense of journalists poring through this stuff, well, then, I for one am not amused.
But the new cache does provide glimpses into the world of the 10 “illegals”, of whom Chapman became the most famous. They reveal the mission statement that the Russian foreign intelligence service or SVR gave them (see page six of this document).
“You were sent to USA for long-term service trip. Your education, bank accounts, car, house etc – all these serve one goal: fulfill your main mission, ie to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send intels to C [for center, meaning Moscow].”
The agents worked largely in pairs, often marrying each other to deepen their cover, and lived innocuous lives in Boston, New Jersey and New York. Chapman worked as an estate agent in Manhattan. They were all arrested in June last year and deported to Russia as part of a prisoner swap the following month.
The FBI investigation revealed how information was passed from the illegals to their handlers in the Russian embassy. A wireless network would be set up on the illegal’s laptop to which an embassy official was granted access. Information could then be transmitted in coded form between two laptops without the individuals having to meet.
In another video, Chapman is shown languidly browsing around Macy’s department store while at the same time a Russian official is filmed standing on the street outside. There was no contact between them but by eavesdropping the FBI showed that this was a form of electronic communication between them.
She looks faintly bored in the footage, though at least she might have got a new pair of tights out of the arrangement.
Overall, Chapman was surveilled in the vicinity of the same official on about 10 Wednesdays between January and June 2010. On another occasion she sat at the window of a coffee shop in Eighth Avenue in Manhattan while the official was parked nearby in a minivan.
The agents were encouraged to get close to prominent Americans in the world of politics or finance, in the hope of acquiring useful information from them. One of the agents who travelled under the false name Cynthia Murphy had several work-related meetings with a prominent New York-based financier. The FBI document says that the financier was “prominent in politics” and an “active fundraiser for a major political party” and a “personal friend of a current cabinet official”.
That’s another tease from the FBI. The name of the financier, the party and the cabinet official have all been ommitted. Yet you don’t have to be a sleuth with knowledge of the dark arts of international espionage to be able to use Google.
The briefest search reveals that Murphy was in touch with Alan Patricof, a New York financier and top Democratic party funder who was head of finance for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run on the White House.