WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Justice Department says it has arrested eight people for allegedly carrying out "long-term, deep-cover" assignments in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation, and two additional individuals for participating in the same Russian intelligence program within the United States.
In total, the Justice Department says 11 defendants -- including the 10 arrested and one person still at large -- have been charged in two separate criminal complaints with conspiring to act as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation within the United States.
Federal law prohibits individuals from acting as agents of foreign governments within the United States without prior notification to the U.S. attorney general.
The arrests took place June 27 in Montclair, New Jersey; Yonkers, New York; and Arlington, Virginia.
All 10 suspects were charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The Foreign Agents Representation Act (FARA) requires that anyone who represents or works for a foreign government has to register with the United States.
Nine of the defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The Justice Department said the arrests are a result of a multiyear investigation conducted by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, and the Counterespionage Section and the Office of Intelligence within the Justice Department's National Security Division.
According to The Associated Press, the government intercepted a message from Russian intelligence headquarters in Moscow to two of the defendants, identified as Richard and Cynthia Murphy.
The message allegedly said: ''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, i.e. to search and develop ties in policy-making circles in US and send intels."
In 2005, senior U.S. intelligence officials estimated that more than 100 Russian spies were operating under official cover in the United States.
No Diplomatic Immunity
The size of the group arrested is "surprising" to Harvey Klehr, a longtime expert on Soviet and Russian espionage in America. Klehr is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University and a co-author of "Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America" and "Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America."
"I think everybody assumes that foreign countries -- especially foreign countries with complicated relations with the United States -- make efforts to gather intelligence. But this certainly seems like a pretty large operation. So that's surprising," Klehr told RFE/RL.
He said the fact that the Justice Department identifies the suspects with names it says they are "known as" suggests that the individuals are people "for whom identities have been constructed."
That suggests "a pretty elaborate operation," Klehr said. But he added that the Justice Department doesn't say they were arrested for espionage, which is a difficult charge to prove.
There's nothing surprising or new about foreign agents working under official cover in a host country: a CIA agent posing as a foreign service officer in a U.S. embassy, or a GRU agent doing the same in a Russian embassy. If their cover is blown, these official agents are protected by official immunity and usually just expelled from the host country.
In 2001, former President George W. Bush expelled some 50 Russian agents working under official cover as retaliation for American Robert Hanssen's Russian espionage activities. Hanssen, a former FBI agent, is currently serving a life sentence in a maximum security prison.
But the fact that there have been arrests in this case means the suspects have no immunity and, as the Justice Department's statement says, were carrying out operations "under deep cover."
"These people have no diplomatic immunity," Klehr said. "These people are what within the trade is called 'illegal' -- that is, they have no diplomatic protection. So they're much more exposed, they're under much greater risk, and presumably they're expected to produce much greater intelligence."
Russia's Foreign Ministry says information about the alleged Russian spy ring in the United States is contradictory. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said on June 29 that Russia was studying the U.S. allegations but added that the information about the arrests was "full of contradictions."
Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) said it was not commenting on the allegations.