Were the Russian Spies a Threat to National Security?

The Montclair, N.J. house where "Richard Murphy" and "Cynthia Murphy" were arrested by the FBI on Sunday is shown Monday, June 28, 2010. The couple is among the 10 people the FBI arrested Monday for allegedly serving for years as secret agents of Russia's intelligence organ, the SVR, with the goal of penetrating U.S. government policymaking circles.
AP Photo/Rich Schultz
The Montclair, N.J. house where alleged Russian spies "Richard Murphy" and "Cynthia Murphy" were arrested by the FBI on Sunday is shown Monday, June 28, 2010.
AP Photo/Rich Schultz

On Monday, ten people who have lived for years in various neighborhoods around New York, Washington, and Boston, were rounded up and charged as Russian spies.  Another alleged agent was detained on Tuesday in Cyprus

Criminal charges unsealed Monday say the ten are part of a network of Russian agents trained and sent to the United States with instructions "...to search and develop ties in policymaking circles...and send intels (intelligence reports)..." back to Moscow.

However, it's not clear exactly what the alleged Russian agents stole, or if any of the information was sensitive or important. 

All of the suspects face charges of acting as unlawful and unregistered agents of a foreign government, a crime punishable by five years in prison. Eight of them also face more serious money laundering changes which carry potential 20 year prison terms. But, they are not charged with more serious espionage violations, a sign their efforts did not compromise classified or national security information.

The alleged agents, who were operating covertly for several years, were instructed to become "Americanized," to establish roots in U.S. communities, take jobs, and mingle with the powerful and the policy makers. The court documents are vague, but say one of the suspects met with a former high-ranking U.S. national security official and another made contact with an official who worked on nuclear weapon development. And a third alleged operative was told to collect information of university students who may be applying for jobs with the Central Intelligence Agency.

The alleged spies used both high-tech and low-tech tradecraft in their caper. The charges say the suspects used encrypted messages hidden inside pictures on publicly available websites, coded radio transmissions, and sometimes memos written with invisible ink to pass information.

Messages and money were often exchanged in face-to-face meetings in public places like train stations and parks, but occasionally cash was left at drop sites. Prosecutors say a suspect buried a wad of cash in upstate New York that was dug up and retrieved two years later by other alleged agents.

Russian officials, calling the allegations "baseless", are upset that the arrests played out just days afterPresident Obama hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a hamburger summit aimed at "resetting relations." Justice Department officials and the FBI have not explained the timing of the arrests, but it's clear from the court papers the investigation stretches back more than a decade.

Nikolai Kovalyov, the former chief of  the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, described some of the allegations as resembling a "bad spy novel."

Justice Department officials say it is an important case and a stark reminder that 20 years after The Cold War ended Russian snooping remains robust. In this case, the snoopers did not appear to be a serious threat national security when they were arrested.