One message back to Moscow from the defendants focused on turnover at the top level of the CIA and the 2008 U.S. presidential election, prosecutors said. The information was described as having been received in private conversation with, among others, a former legislative counsel for Congress. The court papers deleted the name of the counsel.
In the papers, FBI agents said the defendants communicated with Russian agents using mobile wireless transmissions between laptop computers, which has not previously been described in espionage cases brought in the U.S.: They established a short-range wireless network between laptop computers of the agents and sent encrypted messages between the computers while they were close to each other.
Aside from the Murphys, three other defendants also appeared in federal court in Manhattan — Vicky Pelaez and Juan Lazaro, who were arrested at their Yonkers, N.Y., residence, and Chapman, arrested in Manhattan on Sunday.
Behind the scenes, they were known as "illegals" — short for illegal Russian agents — and were believed to have fake back stories known as "legends."
Aside from fake identities, authorities say, they used Cold War spycraft — invisible ink, coded radio transmissions, encrypted data — to avoid detection. The court papers described a new high-tech spy-to-spy communications system used by the defendants: short-range wireless communications between laptop computers — a modern supplement for the old-style dead drop in a remote area, high-speed burst radio transmission or the hollowed-out nickels used by captured Soviet Col. Rudolf Abel in the 1950s to conceal and deliver microfilm.
The FBI said it intercepted a message from SVR's headquarters, Moscow Center, to two of the 10 defendants describing their main mission as "to search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US." Intercepted messages showed they were asked to learn about a wide range of topics, including nuclear weapons, U.S. arms control positions, Iran, White House rumors, CIA leadership turnover, the last presidential election, Congress and the political parties, prosecutors said.
"The FBI did an extraordinary job in this investigation," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.
On Saturday, an undercover FBI agent in New York and another in Washington, both posing as Russian agents, met with two of the defendants, Anna Chapman at a New York restaurant and Mikhail Semenko on a Washington street corner blocks from the White House, prosecutors said. The FBI undercover agents gave each an espionage-related delivery to make. Court papers indicated Semenko made the delivery as instructed but apparently Chapman didn't.
The timing of the arrests was notable, given the efforts by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev to reset U.S.-Russia relations. The two leaders met last week at the White House after Medvedev visited high-tech firms in California's Silicon Valley, and both attended the G-8 and G-20 meetings over the weekend in Canada.
Oleg Gordievsky, a former deputy head of the KGB in London who defected in 1985, said Medvedev would know the number of so-called illegal operatives in each country.
The 71-year-old ex-double agent told The Associated Press that, based on his experience and career in Russian intelligence, he estimates Moscow likely has about 40 to 50 couples operating under deep cover in the U.S.
The Murphys, Lazaro, Pelaez and Chapman were held without bail but didn't enter a plea. Another hearing was set for Thursday.
Pelaez is a Peruvian-born reporter and editor and worked for several years for El Diario/La Prensa, one of the country's best-known Spanish-language newspapers. She is best known for her opinion columns, which often criticize the U.S. government.
In January 2000, Pelaez was videotaped meeting with a Russian government official at a public park in the South American nation, where she received a bag from the official, according to one complaint.