Members of an apparently half-baked Russian spy ring arrested in the U.S. at the weekend used Irish names and false Irish passports, it has emerged.
On Sunday the FBI arrested 10 people who are alleged to have been on “deep cover assignment” to infiltrate “policymaking circles” in the U.S. and report back to Moscow.
But the dramatic arrests at the weekend caused as much laughter as surprise, due to how inept the group seemed, and how apparently unsuccessful. To date the ten have not even been charged with espionage, only with not registering as agents, or representatives, of a foreign government and with money laundering.
For Ireland’s foreign ministry though, the revelations about the possible use of Irish passports were no laughing matter. On Tuesday the ministry announced they were looking into reports that the alleged Russian spy ring may have travelled on forged Irish documents.
“We will be seeking to obtain further information in relation to these reports. The firm position of the government in regard to the fraudulent use of Irish passports is a matter of public record,” a spokesperson said.
The Irish government was angered recently by the use by Israelis of fake Irish passports in the killing of a Hamas official in Dubai. Earlier this month it called on Israel to withdraw a staffer at its Dublin embassy over the use of the fake passports in the assassination of a Hamas commander. These new documents indicate the Russians may now use the same ploy.
According to papers just released by the FBI members of the alleged Russian spy ring had coded conversations that made them sound like fictional spies from 1980’s espionage films. Modern day Russian spies sound just like movie ones it seems.
“You will meet this guy,” one spy at a Sunnyside, New York restaurant told another, according to an FBI bug. “Tell him Uncle Paul loves him. He will know. It is wonderful to be Santa Claus in May.”
One alleged spy operating with the undercover alias of Richard Murphy traveled in February this year to Rome to collect an Irish passport which bore the name Eunan Gerard Doherty and which had been issued in Dublin in July 2001. In order to get the Irish passport in Rome Murphy had to act like he was starring in a Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie, attending ridiculous sounding meetings with other covert agents.
One example of the kind of Cold War shenanigans the Feds monitored was when Murphy was told to approach a Russian operative and ask, “Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?” “Yes indeed,” came the reply. “I was in La Valetta, but in 2000.” According to Moscow’s instructions, the stranger then slipped Murphy a false Irish passport, for travel on to Russia.
Three of the alleged agents arrested used Irish names, Richard and Cynthia Murphy and Tracey Foley. They worked undercover for the SVR the Russian Republic’s successor to the notorious intelligence agency the KGB. The captured documents also detail ambitious, long-term effort by the S.V.R. to plant Russian spies in the United States to collect information.
For the U.S. however the most eyebrow raising aspect of the case is that the Russian intelligence agency should be engaged in this kind of endeavor at all, as if the U.S. in 2010 were still it’s sworn enemy.
Some of the alleged Russian agents have been living incognito in the U.S. since the 1990’s and seem to have hardly done anything. In fact, records show that Moscow believed several agents were settling in much too comfortably.
On Tuesday the FBI said the alleged spies were paired off in Russia to live together and work together in the host country, under the guise of married couples. Spies placed together to cohabit in the country to which they are assigned will often have children together, the FBI noted.
Richard and Cynthia Murphy appeared to be just such a couple, living a typical American middle class life in Montclair, New Jersey a New York suburb. The Murphy family arrived less than two years ago and was quickly liked by the neighbors. However their real purpose according to the FBI was very different.
On Tuesday however most U.S. columnists asserted that if this group was the best that the Russians can come up with, it did not say much about their level of penetration of the U.S. government. These supposed agents did not even dare to work for the U.S. government itself, afraid that their cover stories would not stand up to scrutiny.