The Spy Who Came Out to the Suburbs

A ring of Russian agents who look and sound like ordinary Americans! Suburban spies with orders to infiltrate United States “policy-making circles” and report to Moscow! So, the cold war is back?

No, not really. For the intelligence agencies on both sides — the F.B.I. and the K.G.B.’s successor, the S.V.R. — it never ended.

The Russians love to dispatch “illegals” — spies who usually adopt the identities of real (or dead) Americans — as opposed to the traditional cold war custom of posing as diplomats. Since the illegals act like the family next door, complete with backyard barbecues and unruly teenagers, they can be impossible to detect. Unless, as some of the 11 spies arrested this week did, they communicate with Russian intelligence officers at the United Nations mission or the consulate in Manhattan. Then the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence agents, always keeping an eye on Russian officials, may sniff them out.

What is new about the network of illegals rolled up by the F.B.I. this week is the hi-tech methods they used to communicate with Yasenevo, the supersecret S.V.R. headquarters on the Moscow ring road. Old-fashioned dead drops — leaving documents in a drainpipe or under footbridges, as the American spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen did for their Soviet paymasters — are passé. These illegals used laptops and set up private wireless networks to communicate with Russian officials parked in a van near a coffee shop on Eighth Avenue, a bookstore in Tribeca, a restaurant in Washington.

They also used steganography, the technique of using highly secret software to insert coded messages into images on ordinary Web sites. The messages could be read only by S.V.R. experts in Moscow using the same software. As it turns out, today’s spies, like everybody else, use the Internet.

All of this was an expensive business for the Russians, who had to train and support their operatives here, and for the F.B.I., which spent years trailing them. To what avail? None of the illegals was charged with espionage, which means that none was caught accepting documents from government officials. Instead they were charged with failing to register as foreign agents — take that, James Bond — and money laundering.

And how many secrets from the White House, the Pentagon or the C.I.A. could a Russian spy living in Yonkers or Montclair, N.J., acquire? Unless some future bombshells are disclosed, it sounds as though the S.V.R. did not get much for its investment.

Conspiracy theorists are already asking, why did the arrests come just days after President Obama’s friendly cheeseburger summit with Russian President Dimitri A. Medvedev? Was the White House sending a message, or the F.B.I. trying to sandbag détente?

Most likely neither. The criminal complaint reveals that on Saturday, a Russian-speaking F.B.I. undercover agent met with Anna Chapman, one of the illegals, and instructed her to hand a fake passport to another supposed illegal the next day, using this password exchange: “Excuse me, but haven’t we met in California last summer?”; “No, I think it was the Hamptons.” (The Hamptons!)

But Anna Chapman, it seems, smelled a rat. She bought a cell phone that could not be traced to her and may have called Moscow to find out what was going on. She never showed up for her meeting on Sunday. The F.B.I., fearing the game was up, moved in and arrested her and nine others. The bureau, like the S.V.R., ends up with little to show for its decade of hard work. But its agents can take heart: cold wars come and go, but Russian spies are here forever.

David Wise, who is writing a book on Chinese espionage against the United States.