The Russian Spy Ring of 2010, The use of Ciphers and Radio Messages

 by Māris Goldmanis on January 30th, 2015

Handwritten checker board code on graph paper used by Juan Lazaro to encrypt messages to SVR Center


On January 26th, 2015 the FBI announced to the public that they have uncovered three Russian spies. Evgeny Buryakov (aka “Zhenya”) who posed as banker in New York of a unnamed Russian bank was arrested. The FBI stated he was in “deep cover” and working for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) to gather information and transmit it back to Moscow.[1]  The other two, identified as Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy, had worked in the U.S. before on behalf of Russia and were protected by diplomatic immunity. Sporyshev worked as a Trade Representative for Russia in New York until late last year and Podobnyy was an attaché to Russia’s Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, the complaint says.[2]  These two men managed to leave the US before the arrest.

So far the official documents from the FBI are scarce considering the “freshness” of this case. One document called :Evegny Buryakov’s complaint” is available to the public so far,[3] but it does not give much detail about what the means of transmitting intelligence back to Moscow were. However, the famous 2010 Russian Illegal’s case that involved 10 Russian spies including Anna Chapman has been published on the FBI vault under the section Ghost Stories: Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Illegals.[4]  These documents albeit still containing crossed out data reveals that some members of this ring used ciphered messages, radiograms and shortwave radio. The present case is so far compared to the 2010 case as former CIA analyst Mark Stout said “This is really a classic case of espionage, I think, in terms of how it was conducted both on the Russian side as well as on the FBI side”. Stout also said, “The FBI is very good at this. I would not run up against the FBI trying to run an espionage operation in the United States.”[5]  So we could be in for surprises as this case develops, but now let’s take a look at the 2010 Russian spy ring as it was told by the FBI documents.

The original soviet KGB – the Committee for State Security, after the fall of the Soviet Union was divided in two parts, the FSB – the Federal Security Service and SVR, the Foreign Intelligence Service. Also the military intelligence service GRU continued its work. One could think that after the end of the Cold War, Russia would cease to send spies into United States, but for Russia the Cold War was far from being over. So they developed a new “Illegal’s program” within the US. An Illegal is an undercover spy with a fake identity and are responsible for gathering intelligence and secretly transmitting to their masters at the HQ in Moscow. In contrary the resident spy operates under legal cover in a known agency “station”, as for the CIA or “rezidentura” as for Russia. While the legal resident has diplomatic cover, his status often prevents him from gathering more covert info. That is where the illegal’s are needed, but they are at risk of getting caught and prosecuted as it happened with the 2010 spy ring.

The FBI described an “illegal” as person who received extensive training from the SVR before coming to the United States. The training includes foreign languages, agent to agent communications, including the shortwave and cipher operation, and sending encoded Morse code messages.[6]  Going further into details, this spy ring used communications that the FBI stated were used by the first spies, which was stenographic software that is not commercially available. The software data allows the SVR to clandestinely insert encrypted data in images that are stored in the public websites without the data being visible to a naked eye. The data can only be removed by a software called “Stenography”. As it was found by numerous FBI searches the password protected disks contained the software and the data. In the New Jersey search in 2005, the FBI found a photographed piece with writing “alt”, “control”,  and “e” and set forth of string 27 characters. The 27 characters turned out to be a password allowing  accessing  the protected disks and they found the “Stenography software”.[6]

However, these “21st century tricks” were not enough. Also the radios were used, and the FBI stated that the spies used “radiograms”, a coded burst of data sent by a radio transmitter and received on the other end by a known frequency. As they were transmitted, the radiograms sound like the transmission of Morse code. The 2006 Boston Search recovered electronic messages, five of them describe the sending and receiving a “RG” – radiogram. The New Jersey conspirator testimonies show that they received radiograms from Moscow containing the message “Pls, make sure your radio equipment for RG rcptn is in order. We plan to send a couple of test Rgs”. Furthermore, in the 2006 Seattle search, the agents entered an apartment and observed a radio that can be used for receiving shortwave transmissions. In addition agents observed and photographed spiral notebooks, some pages which apparently contained random columns of numbers. Also in 2003, the law enforcement agents intercepted radio communications in the Russian agent Yonkers house.[6]  On at least five occasions in 2003, the aural surveillance revealed an irregular electronic clicking associated with the receipt of coded radio transmissions.  Those evidence leads strongly to the use of the numbers stations used by the SVR illegals.

Furthermore, a handwritten checker board code on graph paper was used by Juan Lazaro to encrypt messages to SVR Center is displayed in the FBI vault image section.[7]  Juan Lazaro or Mikhail A. Vasenkov was arrested with his partner spy Vicky Peláez. The real Juan Lazaro died in Uruguay in 1947 at the age of 3 and Vasenkov took his birth certificate and used his identity.  He confessed he was an SVR spy and not Lazaro on June 27th, 2010 but declined to reveal his true identity. Later he was revealed as Mikhail Vasenkov.[8]  Presumably he now lives in Moscow.
A page from Richard Murphy’s notebook which contains a covert communication system.[9]

The two spies in the Seattle apartment who received coded radio messages and had spiral notebooks of number codes were Mikhail Kutsik (alias Michael Zottoli), and Patricia Mills (alias Nataliya Pereverzeva). The New Jersey couple receiving radio grams were Vladimir Guryev (alias Richard Murphy), and Lidiya Guryeva (alias Cynthia Murphy).

As for Anna Vasilyevna Kuschenko or “Anna Chapman”, the famous member of the spy ring, she was not using radio communications. She was said to have a private wifi network to communicate with the SVR officials. On one occasion he drove past the coffee shop where Chapman was sitting and sent a burst transmission to her laptop. Another occasion was in the library while passing by her, on a third occasion she discovered that she was being watched and aborted the mission. This method is called “a brush pass” in the FBI documents.

The FBI counter intelligence agent then posed as an SVR official that needed to meet her. He succeeded in convincing her that he is “Ilya Fabrichenkov” a code name previously given to her from the SVR in Moscow. The FBI already had found what phrases and credentials the SVR uses. She discussed the technical issues she was having with her laptop and wanted to get it repaired, and also agreed for a second meeting to get a fake passport to pass for another female illegal. After she asked “Haven’t we met in California?”, she received the answer “No, I think it was in the Hamptons”, which would confirm her contact is from the SVR and she handed over the broken laptop. Two days later, despite having serious hunch she was hunted, the FBI arrested the daughter of an old KGB officer and a Cossack.[10]  Her glamorous looks were soon employed by the Russian propaganda machine as she returned to Russia and started to work as a TV host on Russian channels.

A good spy is one who never gets caught, but we probably will never know much about such a spy. The new 2015 illegal’s case is just taking its pace and we shall see more evidence of the methods the Russian spies used. One is for sure, the 2010 case shows that Russian spies used number stations for their operations within the United States. As this case is still “fresh”, and not all documents from the FBI have been released to further elaborate the use of the coded shortwave radio broadcasts. The Russian archives will be closed to this for a long time too, but as for now it’s just another example of the use of the coded radio messaging by the Russian spies.