The FBI on Monday released a trove of declassified documents, videos and pictures featuring Russia’s undercover femme fatale Anna Chapman and other members of a Russian spy ring busted last year.
The FBI said it had collected the materials during its decade-long Ghost Stories investigation into the activities of 10 Russian spooks who were arrested in June 2010 and within a month deported home in what became the biggest Russian-U.S. spy swap deal since the end of the Cold War.
In one video, a modestly dressed Chapman, now a TV host, a senior member of the ruling United Russia party, and sometimes a lingerie model in Russia, meets up with an undercover FBI agent posing as a government official in a New York coffee shop.
Another video shows Chapman browsing around a department store while a Russian government official is filmed waiting for her on the street outside. By eavesdropping, the FBI showed that there was a kind of electronic communication between them.
The agency said it released the materials in response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the Associated Press. “The arrests of 10 Russian spies last year provided a chilling reminder that espionage on U.S. soil did not disappear when the Cold War ended,” the FBI said in an accompanying statement.
“Although the SVR ‘illegals,’ as they were called, never got their hands on any classified documents, their intent from the start was serious, well-funded… and far-ranging," the FBI said, referring to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.
The deputy head of the Russian State Duma’s Security Committee and a former KGB official, Gennady Gudkov, downplayed the importance of the release, saying the surveillance videos released by the FBI and the reported activities of the Russian ring of sleeper agents resemble “drills” rather than anything else.
“There is nothing new or important in these pictures, videos or documents,” Gudkov went on. “The FBI is now just showing the old story in pictures, this lies within the American national culture.”
The FBI’s comment seems to support this argument: “The highly publicized case also offered a rare glimpse into the sensitive world of counterintelligence and the FBI’s efforts to safeguard the nation from those who would steal our vital secrets.”
Such releases of previously classified information by intelligence services are quite rare, former agents say, adding that there is a tacit code of face-saving between them. However, such informational salvos are made sometimes as parts of broader political rivalries between the countries. Amid the diplomatic flare-up between Russia and Great Britain following the deadly poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2005, the Russian Federal Security Service released a video suggesting that British officials, said to be spying in Russia, used a fake rock to hide spy gear in Moscow.
Gudkov largely dismissed political motivations behind the release of Chapman’s videos by the FBI.
“Perhaps, this material was released randomly, with no special reasons behind the move, such things also happen,” Gudkov continued, suggesting though that the publication may also have been a part of the U.S. covert political struggle ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. “Anyway, I believe the release is unlikely to substantially affect Russia-U.S. ties,” he concluded.
His position was echoed by Nikolai Kovalyov, chair of the State Duma Veterans Committee and former head of the Federal Security Service: “The U.S. intelligence services are just demonstrating their ‘active’ work ahead of the presidential elections.”
“The release of documents is more about PR than anything else,” security services analyst Andrei Soldatov added.
On their arrival back home, all ten agents were awarded with the country’s highest honor by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Vicky Pelaez, a Peruvian-born journalist married to a Russian national, and is now a contributor for RIA Novosti’s Spanish site and the Moscow News in English.
The Russian Foreign Intelligence operatives worked mainly in pairs, often marrying each other to strengthen their cover, and lived regular lives in Boston, New Jersey and New York. Chapman, now 29, worked as an estate agent in Manhattan.
She grabbed most of the media spotlight in the scandal, which only got heated after her nude photos and racy details of her previous marriage were released by her British ex-husband to international tabloids.
Chapman has at one moment captured so much media attention that American TV host Jay Leno, interviewing Vice President Joe Biden, asked: "Do we have any spies that hot?"
Biden replied: "It was not my idea to send her back."
A new scandal involving Chapman unfolded in Russia on Monday. Bloggers discovered that an article about Russian romantic-era poet Alexander Pushkin that the ex-spy contributed to the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid is almost a copy-paste piece from scandalous Russian spin doctor Oleg Matveichev’s book Sovereignty of Spirit (not officially translated into English).