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The idea of undercover Russian spies and deep cover ‘sleeper agents’ has been a source of much intrigue and speculation ever since the height of the Cold War, inspiring countless works of fiction and continuing to maintain a prominent place in our understanding of espionage.
But while TV programs such as long-running FX drama The Americans toyed with the idea of foreign spies hiding in plain sight in the heart of suburbia, in reality the exact same thing was playing out in real-time right under people’s noses.
Recently declassified FBI files have now revealed the existence of a vast network of undercover Russian spies active in the US during the 1990s and 2000s who were trained by the Kremlin to assimilate seamlessly into everyday American life by getting married, obtaining jobs and raising families, all while sending encoded messages back home.
The resultant investigation, dubbed ‘Operation Ghost Stories’, was probably the largest FBI counterintelligence investigation in history," says Alan Kohler, assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division.
Identifying 10 key operatives in the undercover spy ring, FBI officials spent more than decade bugging the spies' homes and following their travels until they cracked their secret communications network.
"They went to school with Americans. They went to July 4th parties with their neighbours," says Kohler. "And never once did anybody suspect they would be Russian spies."
Two such agents were married couple Richard and Cynthia Murphy, who moved to the US in the 90s following years of specialist training at a notorious Russian spy school known as ‘The Institute’ and spent nearly 20 years spying on high-ranking US officials on behalf of Russia, even going as far as to have two children together in order to maintain their cover.
According to court documents, Richard and Cynthia – real names Vladimir and Lidiya Guryev – moved to the US with nothing but a set of fake birth certificates and were forced to build their new lives from scratch.
Richard initially got a job as a computer consultant before eventually moving to become a ‘full-time dad’, whereas breadwinner Cynthia was tasked with collecting information on Columbia University faculty while she studied there as a student - in particular those who expressed interest in working for the CIA.
Following her graduation, Cynthia worked for the Manhattan accounting firm Morea Financial Services, where she earned a six-figure salary.
She also supervised the finances of venture capitalist and philanthropist Alan Patricof, a top fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton.
But in 2010, the FBI moved in to make their arrest.
“Their children have no idea,” said former CIA Director Leon Panetta. “Keeping the children in the dark about what they're doing is a way to make sure that you keep their identity as secure as possible.”
Following their arrest, Richard and Cynthia were swapped by the US along with several other sleeper spies in exchange for double-agent Sergei Skripal and three other Russian nationals who'd been imprisoned, three of them for espionage.
Richard and Cynthia's children were eventually reunited with their parents in Russia, but are free to return and live in America if they choose.
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