What Was Operation Ghost Stories? The Saga Behind the Vienna Spy Swap

In the secret world of espionage, reality often surpasses fiction. Such was the case of the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories.

The gripping tale of Russian spies arrested on US soil unfolded like an espionage thriller, reminding the world that the Cold War's echoes still reverberate in the modern era.

It was June 2010 when the news broke - a network of 10 Russian spies, deeply embedded in American society, had been arrested. It was the culmination of an FBI operation that had spanned more than a decade. The spies, referred to as ‘illegals’, were agents of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

In fact, some experts believe there were 15 agents in the spy ring in all, 13 operating in the US and two more arrested in 2011 in Germany. Their paymaster, known as Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus, bailed, and vanished before he could be tried or extradited to the US.

10 Illegals arrested of spying for Russia
Operation Ghost Stories: The arrest of Anna Chapman (top left) and nine others


What Was Operation Ghost Stories? The Saga Behind the Vienna Spy Swap

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In the secret world of espionage, reality often surpasses fiction. Such was the case of the FBI’s Operation Ghost Stories.

The gripping tale of Russian spies arrested on US soil unfolded like an espionage thriller, reminding the world that the Cold War's echoes still reverberate in the modern era.

It was June 2010 when the news broke - a network of 10 Russian spies, deeply embedded in American society, had been arrested. It was the culmination of an FBI operation that had spanned more than a decade. The spies, referred to as ‘illegals’, were agents of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

In fact, some experts believe there were 15 agents in the spy ring in all, 13 operating in the US and two more arrested in 2011 in Germany. Their paymaster, known as Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus, bailed, and vanished before he could be tried or extradited to the US.

10 Illegals arrested of spying for Russia
Operation Ghost Stories: The arrest of Anna Chapman (top left) and nine others


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Operation Ghost Stories

The 10 agents rounded up in the US had not merely adopted American identities; they had meticulously crafted lives, posing as ordinary citizens with marriages, homes, and children. All the while, they were conduits for information, collecting intelligence and transmitting it back to Russia.

The deep-cover agents were engaged in the art of ‘spotting and assessing’, identifying individuals who could potentially be compromised or co-opted for future espionage activities. Posing as ordinary American citizens, they tried to build contacts with academics, industrialists, and policymakers to gain access to intelligence, suggesting an intricate plot to infiltrate US power circles.

The Russian agents were also reportedly tasked by ‘Moscow center’ to report back on US policy in Central America, problems with American military policy, and US policy regarding the use of the Internet by terrorists. As the web tightened, the FBI orchestrated the dramatic arrests on June 27, 2010, the pinnacle of a painstaking effort that involved countless agents, analysts, linguists, and surveillance teams.

The accused spies used aliases including Richard and Cynthia Murphy, Vicky Pelaez, Juan Lazaro, and more. They faced charges of conspiring to serve as unlawful agents of the Russian Federation but were returned to Moscow in a spy swap on the tarmac of the airport in Vienna. In exchange, Moscow released four prisoners including Russian double agent Sergei Skripal who was poisoned in an attempted murder years later in England.

Anna Chapman, one of 10 American illegals spying for Russia
            Anna Chapman has become a media celebrity and fashion model since her arrest


Spies next door

The arrests are believed to have been moved forward for two reasons: some members of the group intended to travel outside the US and Anna Chapman was concerned she’d been exposed. Chapman, who used her real name, called her father one day before her arrest saying she suspected she had been discovered and would travel to Moscow the following month. 

Operation Ghost Stories illuminated the pervasive threat of espionage in the modern world. While Russia took center stage, the threat is not exclusive to one nation. Various foreign services harbor ambitions to acquire vital American secrets including spies from China including suspected honey trap operative Christine Fang. 

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