Spy ring: what Obama and Medvedev knew at lunch

Dmitry Medvedev  Barack Obama burger diplomacy

When the two presidents ate burgers last week, both were aware of the spies. Only one knew they had been rumbled...

BY Jack Bremer LAST UPDATED AT 09:02 ON Tue 29 Jun 2010

The arrest of 11 'deep cover' Russian agents, alleged to have infiltrated themselves into suburban American life in order to spy for Moscow, has shocked the United States. According to the FBI, the accused agents - 'illegals' in Moscow spy jargon - had succeeded in getting close to a scientist working with 'bunker-buster' nuclear bombs and a New York financier with powerful political ties.

The information they were looking for ranged from gold market predictions to personnel changes at the CIA. But their overall goal was to recruit others to infiltrate policy-making circles in Washington.

Some of the agents had been paired together by their spy-masters so they could pose as married couples. They had even had children who have grown up as Americans quite unaware that their parents are Russian.

As the American media are reporting, the case appears to come straight from a Cold War thriller. But the degree of subterfuge has surprised even an old warrior like Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general why spied for the Soviets in the US in the 1960s and 1970s and is now an American citizen.

"The magnitude, and the fact that so many illegals were involved, was a shock to me," Kalugin told the New York Times. "Even in the worst years of the Cold War, I think there were no more than 10 illegals in the US, probably fewer."

However, the biggest puzzle is that the arrests have come within days of President Barack Obama and President Dmitiry Medvedev putting on a big show of "burger diplomacy", suggesting the Cold War was dead and buried, during the Russian's visit to Washington ahead of the G20 summit.

The Obama administration went to considerable trouble last week to lay on a photo op that would show the warm relationship between the two men (above). They travelled in a motorcade from the White House to the DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia to eat lunch at the Rays Hell Burger restaurant. They each had a burger and shared a portion of fries.

Speaking to the press that day, Obama said the two men had succeeded in resetting the relationship between the two countries after years of distrust. The US President even joked that because both of them now had Twitter accounts, "we may be able to finally throw away those red phones that have been sitting around for so long".

Yet throughout this PR exercise, we now know that Obama must have been aware that the arrests were imminent. Indeed, one couple, Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, would be picked up at an apartment block just down the road in Arlington.

There are two alternative explanations for the meal going ahead. One is that Obama hopes the arrests need have no long-term effect on his relationship with the Russians. (Some are already predicting that American spies will soon be discovered operating in Moscow.) An unnamed White House official has said the President was "not happy about the timing" but was persuaded that the FBI could not delay the arrests, for fear of one or more of their targets might flee.

The second theory is that Obama was persuaded to go ahead with the meal in order not to raise any suspicions among the Russians that their agents had been rumbled.

Whatever the truth, if the FBI have their facts straight then both men sharing the banquette at the Rays Hell Burger joint that day knew about the spy ring. The 10 arrested - plus an eleventh held in Cyprus today - are all accused of working for the SVR, the Russian version of the CIA. The SVR's director, Mikhail Fradkov, reports directly to Medvedev.

The FBI says the agents were fully trained in foreign languages and spy craft, including short-wave radio operation, invisible writing and the use of codes and ciphers. To pass on information, they used techniques straight out of a John Le Carre novel – ‘dead drops’ and ‘brush passes’.

Most important, the FBI claims all of the alleged agents were masterful at fitting in to American suburban life. When one of the couples, identified as Richard and Cynthia Murphy, were picked up at their home in Montclair, New Jersey, on Sunday, their neighbours could not believe the couple had been planted in the midst by Moscow.

"They couldn't have been spies," said one. "Look what she did with the hydrangeas." · 

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