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NEW YORK (AP) — Three men accused in the latest Russian spy case didn't hide behind fake identities and weren't stealing military secrets. The evidence even suggests they were annoyed that their assignment wasn't more like a James Bond film.
Their alleged plot to dig up "economic intelligence" on possible banking penalties and alternative energy sources may not be the stuff of Hollywood movies, but U.S. authorities insist the case is proof that Russian spying is thriving in America more than two decades after the end of the Cold War.
It also shows the time and resources the U.S. still throws at those suspected of being Putin-era spies, using methods developed before many of them were born: listening bugs, hidden cameras and intercepted phone calls.
"Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara warned after the arrests last week. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich countered by accusing U.S. authorities of manufacturing a spy scandal as part of its "anti-Russian campaign."
Annemarie McAvoy, a Fordham Law professor and former federal prosecutor, said the latest case shouldn't be taken lightly.
"We have to be concerned about the economic warfare end of this. That's what worries me," she said, noting the recent crippling cyberattack on Sony Pictures involving the movie "The Interview."
She said the arrests might demonstrate that the spy game has changed as countries seek information to poise themselves to attack businesses and the economy. "It's not looking for military secrets. That's almost passe now," McAvoy said.
The case against Evgeny Buryakov, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy comes less than five years after the arrest of 10 covert agents — a sleeper cell referred to as "The Illegals" by the SVR, the foreign intelligence agency headquartered in Moscow — who led ordinary lives for several years in the United States using aliases. All 10 pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to conspiracy charges and were ordered out of the country as part of a spy swap for four people convicted of betraying Moscow to the West.
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn brought another spy case in 2013, accusing Alexander Fishenko, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Kazakhstan who made millions off his Texas export firm, of being a secret agent for the Russian military. Fishenko, who pleaded not guilty, is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
Not everyone views the latest case as a scary new wrinkle in spy tactics.
"What is interesting about this case, just like the 2010 sleeper spy case, is how little these accused Russian spies are accomplishing. Either the FBI is just getting the low-hanging fruit, or the Russian foreign intelligence agency isn't doing its job very well," said Kimberly Marten, a political scientist at Barnard College, Columbia University.
Prosecutors say the latest investigation exposed espionage by Sporyshev and Podobnyy, who held low-level diplomatic positions, and Buryakov, a Bronx resident with a valid visa, a position in the Manhattan branch of a Russian bank and a LinkedIn profile.
U.S. prosecutors say that under orders from Moscow, Sporyshev's main duty was to give Buryakov assignments to gather intelligence on potential U.S. sanctions against Russian banks and efforts here to develop alternative energy resources. They say Sporyshev and Podobnyy would analyze the information and report back to the SVR behind the walls of a Russian Federation office in New York they thought was secure but apparently was bugged.
In a secretly recorded conversation, Podobnyy let down his guard and complained to Sporyshev that their work was nothing like "movies about James Bond," according to the papers.
"Of course, I wouldn't fly helicopters, but pretend to be someone else at a minimum," he said.
Sporyshev griped that he too thought he "at least would go abroad with a different passport."
The court papers also detail demands on Buryakov from SVR to come up with questions for a Russian "news organization" — believed to be Tass — to ask about the inner workings of the U.S. stock market.
The conversation was an exception to how the pair normally did business, prosecutors said. Typically, they would speak on the phone in code to set up meetings in outdoor settings, with "Buryakov passing a bag, magazine or slip of paper to Sporyshev," court papers said.
Some of the meetings took place near Buryakov's red-brick home on a quiet block in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, not far from a monolithic high-rise used to house Russian diplomats.
Neighbors said 39-year-old Buryakov, his wife and two children largely kept to themselves. They recalled a man sitting in a car on the block for hours at a time — in hindsight, they say, probably surveillance — but were surprised when the FBI raided the home last Monday.
"I got home from work and saw all these cars, about 10 of them, blocking the street. One blocked my driveway," said Damian McShane, who lives across the street. "We didn't know what was happening."
A judge ordered Buryakov held without bail. Podobnyy and Sporyshev, whose diplomatic status gave them immunity, have returned to Russia.
Tass reported that Russian diplomats had visited Buryakov in a federal lockup in lower Manhattan and found conditions of his confinement "satisfactory." A Russian spokesman told the news agency that Buryakov "vehemently denies the alleged offenses."
Associated Press writers Verena Dobnik and Larry Neumeister contributed to this report.
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