This week the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York filed criminal complaints against ten alleged Russian sleeper agents in the U.S. Although the cases concern U.S. national security, the sleepers were not indicted for espionage but rather for lesser charges of money laundering related felonies and for failure to register as foreign agents, under a law primarily intended for lobbyists representing foreign countries. With the indictment arises a natural question: What was the Russian agents' purpose in the U.S.?
SVR, the Russian intelligence service, successor to the KGB, spelled out their mission in a 2009 message to two of the defendants. The message was intercepted and decrypted by the FBI and reads, in part, as follows: 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 policymaking circles in US and send intels [intelligence reports] to C[enter].
The sleepers' assignment was - if the intercepted message is credible and not a Russian disinformation decoy - to become "agents of influence," serving the interests of a foreign country, as directed by its intelligence services. These agents, directly or indirectly spread propaganda or disinformation to contacts in rival intelligence agencies, to the general public through the media or to an unwitting highly placed - often political - contact, who would then be manipulated to take actions that advance foreign interests. But were they trained to influence or recruit influencers? Hardly.
According to the FBI, the sleepers were trained to conduct agent-to-agent communications, to use brush-passes (a clandestine, hand-to-hand delivery of money or documents when one person walks past another in a "flash meeting" in a public place), to run short-wave radio operations and to use invisible writing and codes and ciphers. The training also covered Morse code, the creation and use of a cover profession, counter-surveillance measures, concealment and destruction of equipment and materials used in connection with clandestine work and the avoidance of detection. The FBI further asserts that defendants used steganography to hide data in images. Steganographic software that is not commercially available allowed the SVR and sleepers to communicate by embedding encrypted, invisible data in images that are located on publicly accessible websites; the data is of course detectable and decipherable with the right software. The sleepers also used radiograms, coded bursts of data sent by a radio transmitter that can be picked up by a radio receiver set to the proper frequency. As they are being transmitted, radiograms generally sound like the transmission of Morse code.
This is quintessential espionage training. Period.
Indeed, according to the FBI, the sleepers were performing traditional intelligence-gathering work, such as collecting information on small yield, high penetration nuclear warheads and data about Central Intelligence Agency job applicants.
The FBI concedes that the sleepers were under surveillance for several years, but the Department of Justice fell short of accusing them of espionage, which carries a life sentence. Why the lighter charge? Likely the evidence gathered thus far has been deemed insufficient to substantiate espionage.
The discrepancy between the content of the 2009 encrypted message and the alleged activity of the sleepers could mean that their assignment was a mixed bag of espionage and simultaneous preparations to become deeply rooted in American society until they could be effective agents of influence. If this assumption is accurate, the Russians have broken a basic intelligence rule that separates the gatherers from the influencers. Agents of influence are simply more likely to be influential when they assume a purportedly legit, visible and traditionally influential cover/profession, instead of the deeper covers used for intelligence-gathering purposes.
It is also possible that the sleepers - while "sleeping" - were kept busy with intelligence assignments from their Russian handlers, until they became ready to recruit assets for the influence job. There have been cases in which sleepers had little or no contact with their handlers and liked their new country so much, that they decided to remain asleep, living comfortably and hoping that their handlers would ultimately forget about them.
Professionals or amateurs? According to the FBI, at least one of the sleepers was rather clumsy. Anna Chapman believed an undercover FBI agent posing as a Russian Consulate employee and agreed to receive operating instructions from him. She even gave him her spy-tooled laptop for repair. The laptop was used, according to the FBI, to radio-exchange data with another laptop carried by a Russian official from a short distance. The FBI does not disclose how the undercover FBI agent managed to gain Chapman's trust, but it appears that Chapman acted as a complete amateur when she fell for the FBI's brilliant maneuver. Undercover operatives on a clandestine assignment in a foreign country are trained to avoid unsolicited contacts made by anyone, unless their handler has alerted them to the new contact's identity, and the contact has confirmed the pre-determined code sentences (usually more than one) or other identification process, to guarantee his legitimacy. According to the FBI, all Chapman said initially was, "I just need to get some more information about you before I can talk." And when the undercover FBI agent replied, "I work in the same department as you, but I work here in the consulate. Okay. My name is Roman. My name is Roman, I work in the consulate." This exchange seems to have satisfied Chapman.
Incredibly, Chapman received (and followed) from the same undercover FBI agent instructions to approach another woman for the purpose of delivering a false passport. The instructions were: [The other woman] "will tell you... 'Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?' And you will say to her, 'No, I think it was the Hamptons.'" Chapman asked, "The Hamptons?" and the FBI agent said, "The Hamptons and that is it. That is how you know and you just exchange, just give her the document [the fraudulent passport]." Didn't it occur to Chapman that she failed to observe a similar identification procedure, before she exposed herself as a clandestine operative to a complete stranger who turned out to be an FBI agent?
In contrast, another defendant maintained the in-agent contact identification procedure with an undercover FBI agent before he agreed to perform a clandestine job. Neither the FBI affidavits nor the Complaint disclose how the FBI discovered the code sentences that would allow the two to discuss business openly.
In Intel speak, a "legal" operative is often a foreign diplomat stationed in a foreign country, also engaging in an illegal activity such as espionage. If caught, his diplomatic or consular immunity will save him from trial, and all the host country can do is declare him a PNG - persona non grata - and deport him. An "illegal" agent is a spy provided with a new, false identity along with a cover story - a legend. Usually his fraudulent documents give the illegal the identity of a legitimate citizen or legal resident of a country other than the sending country. "Illegals" are instructed to have a normal lifestyle, maintain innocuous employment and join relevant professional associations; sometimes, "illegals" operate in pairs and live and work together in the host country under the guise of a married couple and even have children.
It appears that the Russians have broken a covert work rule: never allow contacts between "legals" and "illegals." If one of them is under counterintelligence surveillance - most probably the "legal," then his encounter with the "illegal" would immediately contaminate and expose the "illegal." Nonetheless, Russian officials in the U.S. met with the sleepers. "Elementary, my dear Watson," Sherlock Holmes would have probably declared.
Did the sleepers pose a genuine risk to the U.S.'s national security? Sleeper cells tend to wake up when orders are given to carry out a mission. It could be collecting intelligence or recruiting assets, but there are also more ominous and heinous tasks than just gathering information or influencing politicians. Until the sleepers' full story is revealed, it will be unclear why the Russians spent the effort and money, and took a significant political risk, to place the ring in the U.S.