Newly unveiled videos give a comprehensive look at how a group of Russian infiltrators collected and traded information – and how they were trailed by watchful U.S. counterspies during their long trail of deception. One video released by the FBI shows former spy and current celebrity Anna Chapman sitting in a New York City coffee shop, discussing laptop repairs with, unbeknownst to her, an undercover U.S. agent.
A Freedom of Information Act request led the FBI to open their coffers. What emerged was a veritable trove – a heavily redacted one, of course – of spy footage. And it’s incredible how Hollywood truly does imitate real life. We know we’ve seen some of these maneuvers in Breach or Bourne Identity.
While most of the videos showed the spies doing rather mundane activities (talking in coffee shops, or strolling around Columbus Circle in New York City), the “covert” handoffs of money or equipment between agents prove that espionage is still very much rooted in personal contact and old-school techniques, including buried information drops and the “brush pass” to trade information. But the Russian operatives, including redhead “femme fatale” Chapman, were equipped with the latest technologies: encrypted transmitters and wireless computers. The spies “were very tech-savvy, very intellectual,” said Frank Figliuzzi, FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.
A 2004 FBI surveillance video shows alleged spy Christopher Metsos’ brush pass with a Russian official at a train station
The busted Russian spy ring, dubbed Operation Ghost Stories, sent a clear message to U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian espionage was still alive and well, decades after the death of Cold War hostilities. The fact remains that the United States holds a wealth of knowledge that espionage endeavors the world over hope to infiltrate. “As long as [the U.S. has] policy information, technology and research that the rest of the world wants, and as long as foreign intel services want to gain a strategic advantage against us, we’ll continue to be the target of that kind of spying,” Figliuzzi told CNN.
The Ghost Stories intel was released, coincidentally, on Halloween, but the name refers to the spies’ goal of blending seamlessly into American society. Chapman took cover as a New York City real estate agent who has since become a Russian celebrity and TV host after she, along with nine other operatives, was sent back to Russia in a July 2010 spy swap. But without a doubt their covert techniques remain alive and well.