Sleeper Agents


By Joseph C. Goulden – Special to The Washington Times – Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Much of the media, both domestic and foreign, found considerable merriment in the June 2010 announcement of the arrest and expulsion of 10 Russian intelligence agents who were in the United States as “sleeper agents” — that is, spies who would be dormant while they posed as unremarkable civilians and wormed their ways into positions where they could obtain valuable information.

Headline writers gloated about “Spies in the PTA” while self-appointed humorists wondered how much “intelligence” an agent could garner at a shopping center. New York magazine’s headline on an article was, “Russian Spies Too Useless, Sexy to Prosecute.” In London, the Guardian pronounced that “none of the 10 Russians had culled any secrets from their hideouts in U.S. suburbia.” David Cornwell, who writes spy thrillers under the name John le Carre, went so far as to suggest that out-of-control “rightists” in American intelligence agencies were trying to derail the “improvement” (an odd choice of words, given reality) in Russian-American relations.

Particular glee was focused on a redhead named Anna Chapman, a young Russian woman who had acquired an English husband and ostensibly pursued business “careers” in London and New York. Her shapely figure led a London tabloid to dub her “Ms. 90-60-90” — 35-24-35 in inches. The New York Post called her a “flame-haired 007-worthy beauty who flitted from high-profile parties to top secret meetings around Manhattan [with] a fancy Financial District apartment and a Victoria’s Secret body.”

But Edward Lucas, who is fast emerging as the most able nonfiction espionage writer of his generation, argues that Russia’s dispatch of the sleeper agents “is not a laughing matter.” For more than two decades, Mr. Lucas covered Russia and Eastern Europe for the Economist, and he has documented the descent of Vladimir Putin’s regime into a new authoritarianism and its increasing hostility toward the United States. He writes with authority.

In “Deception,” he contends that “the most serious” of the sleeper spies “in terms of intellectual firepower and access to decision-makers in America and elsewhere” was Andrei Bezrukov, who lived in Cambridge, Mass., under the name of “Donald Heathfield,” along with his wife, Yelena.

Bezrukov earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School and worked as a management consultant. He associated with the movers and shakers in the many think tanks that monitor global change. One of his prime targets was Leon Fuerth, a research professor at George Washington University and a former national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore.

As Mr. Fuerth told Mr. Lucas, he met with Bezrukov “whenever — as he claimed — he was in Washington on business.” Bezrukov urged Mr. Fuerth’s students to use computer software he designed for their studies.

Why the software? As another futurist told Mr. Lucas, people who do research in “contingencies” — be they population trends or terrorist acts — routinely exchange information. “The advantage for a spy of having a proprietary program installed on important people’s computers in places ranging from Iran to Beijing barely need stating. Even if the software is initially innocuous, an ‘update’ can deliver a piece of malware [malign code] that can copy emails, search a computer or a network for key-words, upload files to a remote server, or steal [a] password.”

Mr. Lucas states, “But the most tempting target could have been the think-tank world: the soft under-belly of the American security and intelligence community, where retired officials, those looking for jobs, and those taking a break from government mix and mingle with outsiders. (Mr. Fuerth, incidentally, decided that Bezrukov exaggerated his importance; he broke off relations.)

Another Russian sleeper, who posed as “Cynthia Murphy,” acquired an MBA from Columbia Business School and secured a job with a specialist tax firm “dealing with the rich and famous.” Her task was to befriend “wealthy Americans with political connections, including Alan Patricof, a hefty contributor to Democrat politics and “a close friend of Hillary [Rodham] Clinton.”

According to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Department of Justice (apparently based on FBI intercepts), Murphy’s Moscow handlers called Mr. Patricof “a very interesting target. Try to build up little by little relations with him. Maybe he can provide [Murphy] with remarks on US foreign policy, ‘roumors’ [sic] about White House internal ‘kitchen,’ invite her to major political party HQ in NYC, for instance.”

As Mr. Lucas writes, “Imagine yourself to be an influential American — perhaps a senior partner in a professional-services firm with a client list that includes government agencies and big companies. How suspicious would you be of an intelligent and attractive woman assigned to help with your taxes, who shows a flattering interest in your political connections?”

Now, back to the flashy redhead of tabloid fame, “Anna Chapman.” In reality, she was Anna Kushchenko, daughter of a KGB officer. Her marriage of convenience to a young Englishman ended soon after she reached London. She proceeded to New York, where she quickly caught the attention of the FBI because of meetings with a Russian “diplomat” who was known as an intelligence officer. A social tiger, she held a series of low-key financial and jobs, apparently as she built her cover. But her lack of tradecraft skills led to her arrest.

Celebrity came once she was back in Russia, with a warm welcome from Mr. Putin, her own TV show (briefly) and naughty photo spreads (including topless beach photos taken by the former husband). Her trivialization seemed intended to divert attention from the fact that she was an intended spy, however incompetent. As Mr. Lucas concludes, “[T]he revelation that a young Russian woman has not only breasts but a sex life is news only by the standards of the popular press.” She and the other sleepers were traded back to Moscow in return for the release of dissidents.

Joseph C. Goulden’s latest book is “The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak Into English” (Dover Publications, 2012).


Tagged , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: