How Anna Chapman and the Russian Illegals Almost Stole State Secrets

Anna Chapman arrived in Manhattan in 2009 and nestled in the city that never sleeps as a young real estate boomer. In her mid-20s, the petite, red-haired real estate agent quickly made friends in politically connected circles, using her cheeky charm and wit to gain trust.

But Chapman’s intentions were far more sinister than simply rubbing shoulders with the political elite. The FBI soon discovered that Chapman was a Russian spy, or “illegal” – a title associated with intelligence agents without diplomatic immunity – sent to New York on a secret mission to penetrate the cliques that influenced foreign policy decisions.

And the FBI had the evidence to prove it.

For about a year, the FBI had been monitoring Chapman’s activities as part of a decade-long investigation called Operation Ghost Stories, a code name chosen after the FBI realized that six of the 10 alleged spies had taken the identity of dead Americans. Members of this spy ring lived normal middle-class lives. They got married, had children, went to college and higher education, and got jobs while doing covert missions to collect government secrets for Russian foreign intelligence.

These deep cover missions, which later inspired the TV series Americans, were not just a spin-off experiment, but a bold and committed effort that had already seen success across Europe. The so-called Cambridge Five had successfully infiltrated Britain’s MI6 and MI5, the equivalent of the CIA and FBI, between World War II and at least the 1950s. The most notorious of the Cambridge Five, Kim Philby, even been appointed head of the anti-Soviet section of MI6 while working as a double agent for the KGB.

The laptop that spy Anna Chapman used to create a private wireless network to communicate with a Russian government official. FBI photo.

As Soviet intelligence circles celebrated their “Great Illegals” program of years past, the FBI was able to link Chapman to the Modern Illegals Operation in New York to solve the case.

Undercover FBI agents followed Chapman to in-person meetings at busy cafes and cafes. Surveillance tape captured Chapman transmitting messages from a department store to his contact outside, while surveillance teams even intercepted encrypted messages from his specially adapted laptop.

“We were able to wirelessly capture the communications between her and her handler,” Frank Figliuzzi, then FBI deputy director of counterintelligence, told ABC News in 2011, adding that Chapman was transmitting from at least six locations. “She transmits and receives messages from the official who is nearby but not visibly close to her… she transmits an encrypted code that the FBI may have cracked.”

After the FBI broke the code, they managed to plant an informant in the spy ring. The FBI hacked into Chapman’s computer to cause technical problems, then asked the informant to meet with Chapman to offer to fix the “problem”. The FBI discovered that Chapman had used the laptop to create a private wireless network to communicate with a Russian government official.

Anna Chapman Russian FBI spy coffee or die
Some 12 years after being traded in a spy trade with Russia, Anna Chapman remains in the limelight, even using her social media accounts to comment on the news. For example, she referenced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a post promoting her clothing line on Instagram. Photos courtesy of Anna Chapman/Instagram.

“We were dealing with the most sophisticated executives the Russians could put here,” Figliuzzi said. “What we have learned here is the absolute determination of a foreign intelligence service to penetrate the circles of American foreign policy.”

Figliuzzi added that Chapman and members of the spy ring were the “crème de la crème” selected by Russia’s SVR intelligence academy. Although the FBI claims the spies never got their hands on classified documents, an unnamed FBI agent handling the case said, “Without us to stop them, given enough time, they would have finally succeeded” .

The FBI arrested the stowaways on June 27, 2010, after years of gathering intelligence and identifying everyone involved. The spies pleaded guilty to conspiring to serve as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation in the United States only 11 days later. But they were never convicted of espionage.

On July 8, 2010, the United States transferred the 10 spies into Russian custody in exchange for four prisoners allegedly linked to Western intelligence agencies.

“The Russian government has spent significant funds and many years to train and deploy these agents,” said one of the FBI counterintelligence agents who worked on the case, according to the FBI website. “No government does this without expecting a return on its investment.”

Chapman, now 40, has remained in the public spotlight ever since as a high-profile social media influencer, fashion designer, model and political operative.

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