The Spy-Movie Tactics of the Russian Espionage Agents

Wanna know what it's like to spy for Russia? Court papers spelling out accusations against the 10 people arrested as Russian agents on Monday detail some very movie-like espionage techniques, including code words, "brush passes" and fake IDs.

According the U.S. government, the accused spies were part of a program called "the illegals"—an ultimately not-very-successful attempt at infiltrating influential policymaking circles. Most reports indicate that no sensitive or classified material was ever passed along to the Russian government, and in fact may never have been the target of the operation.

But that doesn't mean these guys didn't act like spies! The BBC lays out some of the spy tactics the Russian agents—who supposedly reported to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR—are alleged to have used, like:

  • Surreptitious wireless networks. One suspect, Anna Chapman, is said to have set up a private wireless network with her Macbook while in a bookstore. A Russian official stood across the street with a briefcase for about 20 minutes, theoretically connected to Chapman's network.

  • Codes and passwords. The documents detail a number of hilarious-sounding passwords for spies who met up to pass along money and fake IDs, such as: "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last year?" (Response: "No, I think it was the Hamptons.") and "Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999?" directed at someone holding Time magazine in a specific way.

  • Hidden messages and radio transmissions. According to the feds, some of the alleged agents transmitted messages by concealing data in images (a process called "steganography") and posting the images on public sites. Never trust anyone putting up that lolcat macro again! The "illegals" apparently also sent shortwave radio messages and carried "spiral notebooks, some pages of which contain apparently random columns of numbers."

  • The "brush-pass" and money transfers. Some agents swapped identical-looking bags via "brush-passes" on a stairway in Queens and a train station in White Plains. Money was buried near a "partially buried brown beer bottle" used as a marker. One alleged spy, Juan Lazaro, met with a Russian official in an unnamed Latin American country and received a shopping bag—when he returned to the U.S., he paid off $8,000 in taxes.

  • False IDs. The government says it found improper birth certificates and false passports. Which, I mean, no good spy would be caught without those.

I know this is a sort-of serious national security story, or whatever, but how hard is it not get all, you know, "SPIES!" about this stuff? I'm going to go add Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to my Netflix queue.

[BBC; The Smoking Gun]