Spying for Russia can be a hard life. The feds are on your trail, always trying to find out who you’re meeting with and talking to. That’s why it’s best to make sure your secret agent gear is top quality and working properly. Otherwise, the FBI’s IT department may end up “fixing” it for you.
That’s one of the many things you can see in a series of videos released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday. The FBI released a cache of cover surveillance videos, along with a handful photos and heavily redacted documents from “Operation Ghost Stories,” the FBI’s years-long investigation of the infamous Russian sleeper spy ring. We’ve known for a while that the Russians were felled in part because of their technical goofs, but the videos show more clearly just how the network unraveled.
Tech problems loomed large for the sleeper network, leading the FBI to secretly record the Russian intelligence version of Geek Squad. Their laptops, modified at Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Moscow, created private wireless networks designed to only communicate with the computers of other spy ring members when in close proximity. They also used steganography software to hide messages in image files. Unfortunately for the spooks, their equipment wasn’t always up to snuff.
In one surveillance video from the spring of 2010, FBI agents sidled up next to spy ring members Richard Murphy and Michael Zottoli at a Brooklyn coffee shop. Their camera catches Murphy handing a laptop recently brought back from SVR headquarters in Moscow over to Zottoli. According to the criminal complaint against the sleeper network, the new gear was intended for later delivery to spy ring members in Seattle. The spies had a ”hanging/freezing” with their communications software, which the new computer was supposed to address.
The now infamous spy babe Anna Chapman often used the same Media Access Control address for her private wireless network, allowing the FBI to sniff out when she was communicating with her boss at Russia’s United Nations Mission. When her communications software eventually went on the fritz, the FBI moved in for the kill.
A video from June 2010 shows a Russian-speaking undercover FBI agent pwning Chapman at a New York Starbucks. The agent convinces her he’s a fellow spy from the Russian consulate there to help her with her laptop’s “connection” problems. Anna buys the hoax and is seen on tape willfully handing over her computer to the FBI for it to be “fixed” back at the consulate. She was arrested a few weeks later.
Even functioning spy gear is useless if you don’t use it right. And the sleeper network’s misuse of their communications technology made them easy prey for the FBI. Richard Murphy had a 27 character-long password to access his steganography software, which he left written on a sheet of paper at home in classic infosec blunder. When agents broke in for a clandestine search, they found the key to unlock a stash of secret messages.
The tapes also show the flow of cash from Russian spies under diplomatic cover to the network, connecting it firmly to the Russian government.
A May 2004 surveillance tape shows a Russian spy under the cover as a Second Secretary at Russia’s United Nations Permanent Mission exchanging a shopping bag filled with cash to Christopher Metsos, a member of the sleeper ring. Metsos later buried part of the money in a surreptitiously-marked hole — a “dead drop,” in espionage parlance — in a park near Wurtsboro, New York.
Unbeknownst to Metsos, the FBI had secretly installed a GPS tracker onto his car. The GPS data showing his extended stop in the park triggered the feds curiosity, ultimately betraying his preferred drop site. Two years later, when Metsos’s spy ring pals Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills flew in from Seattle to retrieve the cash, the FBI was waiting for them. Video from a camera installed a tree above the dead drop captures Zottoli locating the site, marked by an upturned beer bottle, and digging up the cash.
In another videotaped exchange, a Russian spy from the country’s U.N. Mission meets with spy ring member Richard Murphy for a “brush pass” at a White Plains, New York train station during the summer of 2009. The Russian official is seen dumping a bag containing cash and a flash drive into Murphy’s shopping bag in. An intercepted message from the SVR to the spy ring following the pass shows just how unaware the Russians were of the cameras during the exchange. “Flash meeting: well done, A, good job. Thank you. R. and our tech. people in NY didn’t notice anything suspicious[.]”
The videos provide just a small glimpse of the FBI’s pervasive surveillance of the often bumbling sleeper network. The spooks never managed to steal any secrets, but the FBI isn’t willing to concede the Russians were completely incompetent. They claim the spy ring was in the United States primarily for “spotting and assessing,” the early stages on recruitment cycle to develop in-the-know or professionally upward-moving targets for eventual recruitment. The FBI’s release quotes an agent who claims, left to their own devices, the Russian network would have dug up something or someone — one of these days.
“[W]ithout us there to stop them, given enough time they would have eventually become successful.”