The big Russian life of Anna Chapman, ex-spy

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Anna Chapman in Times Square. ()
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It has been nearly a year and a half since the Federal Bureau of Investigation seized Anna Chapman, the Russian spy who had been working undercover in Manhattan real estate. Her arrest along with nine other Russians broke up the largest foreign intelligence network discovered on American soil since the Cold War.

The Illegals, as they were called inside the Department of Justice, had infiltrated American society, nearly all of them going by Anglicized names, passing themselves off as white-collar professionals.

But, long afterward, it's difficult to see what the spies ever learned or did of any real importance while stationed stateside on Vladimir Putin’s orders. Equally difficult to uncover is just how these agents could have fooled anyone, pretending to be American-born while speaking such heavily accented English.

The Illegals incident proved so inconsequential that Washington and the Kremlin arranged a brush-pass of prisoners along a stretch of Viennese airport tarmac and quickly retreated to their neutral corners, never to mention this inconvenience again.

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But in the press the episode lived on largely due to the appeal of 29-year-old Chapman, this scandal, like many others, making a pseudo-somebody out of a total nobody. Chapman’s fake red hair and very real body lit up on the web. Her ex-husband, a feeble Englishman who allowed himself to be hoodwinked into marrying the former Anna Kushchenko so that she could get a U.K. passport, sold off a selection of marriage-bed photos, his revenge only making her more famous. The pictures were not great, but they were plenty revealing. Here was a real live Russian honeypot, squirming in the surprise camera flash.

Chapman has been back in Russia since the prisoner exchange, and hardly incognito. She's a national celebrity, one I've managed to meet with several times, watching her navigate her new life as a big Russian name.

In one of those meetings, on an evening in December 2010, I joined Chapman at the Soho Rooms, a Moscow nightclub that is terribly difficult to enter, the doormen protecting the many beautiful women inside from the men who cannot afford them. Chapman handed me a white T-shirt silk-screened with a version of the iconic image of Che Guevara in a beret, with Chapman’s face in the place of Guevara's. The bottom of the shirt read, “Cha.” It was a gift for me. Chapman was enjoying her fame. At one point in the evening she leaned in close against the blaring music and asked me if I knew who I was. I nodded and said that I did.

“I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said, flashing her green eyes.

RUSSIA HAS A NUMBER OF NATIONAL EXPORTS. THERE is oil and there is gas and there are hockey players. Then there are women, without lapse looking their best, engaging in accelerated courtship with the rest of the world. No Russian woman was ever coy. The innocent culture of the West has no defense against the cultural weapon of forthright sexuality. I wasn’t falling for it, though I could see how others might.

I met one of Chapman’s Manhattan boyfriends at the Subway Inn on East 60th Street last January. He was an ex-Marine with some existing level of security clearance, and he was still feeling duped by Chapman, uneasy about what he might have let slip in order to get something from her.

Bill Staniford was instantly recognizable by the red Marines hat he wore. The music coming out of the jukebox was loud. Red and green lights put the room at a Christmas ease. A long touchdown run stretched across the TV.

Staniford and I took seats across from one another in a red vinyl booth.

“I met Anna the second day after she arrived,” he said. “And I hung out with her until she was busted.”

A Marine buddy of Staniford’s had just died in combat in Afghanistan, and he was taking it hard.

“Death is the worst bite,” he said, taking a slug from his Jack and Coke.

Sitting next to Staniford was an attractive young woman of Surinamian descent, Diena Ganesh, whom Staniford said off-handedly was “handling my P.R.”

I later learned that she was an undergraduate student. Ganesh glanced nervously around the bar. “Interesting crowd,” she said.

Staniford said, “It’s a place where people go when they don’t want to be heard.” He looked over his shoulder, then leaned in close to explain his association with Anna Chapman.

Staniford was the C.E.O. of a firm called PropertyShark when Chapman walked into his office in January of 2010. In New York, she fronted an online real-estate listings aggregator, PropertyFinder. She and Staniford ultimately did no business together, their relations instead becoming intimate. He took her to Las Vegas. They spent time at his rambling apartment on the Upper East Side, and at her place downtown, where she had hung pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra on the walls. They went to nightclubs and restaurants in Manhattan, playing the relationship carefree.

The F.B.I. monitored it all. The Bureau claims to have surveilled Chapman since the moment she arrived in the U.S., focusing particularly on the weekly communications that she sent to the second secretary of the Russian mission to the United Nations. According to F.B.I. documents, Chapman visited various Manhattan locations—Starbucks, Barnes & Noble—where she would establish a local wireless network between her laptop and that of the U.N. official, who was parked in a van nearby. Robert Baum, Chapman’s New York attorney, concedes these facts.

On June 26 of 2010, an undercover F.B.I. agent, posing as a Russian operative, contacted Chapman by phone, and the two arranged to meet at a coffee shop downtown. The F.B.I. agent, who called himself Roman, recorded their conversation. He handed Chapman a fake U.S. passport, telling her that she was to deliver the document to another of the Illegals.

“Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?” Chapman was to say before she handed over the passport, waiting for the confirming answer, “No, I think it was the Hamptons.”

“Are you ready for this step?” Roman asked Chapman. She replied, “Shit, of course,” displaying the heedlessness that caused her to accept the passport, and perhaps even the entire American assignment itself.

Fraudulent document in hand, Chapman left the coffee shop and went to Brooklyn, where she bought a cell phone under the name Irine Kutsov. She carelessly tossed her phone contract into a trash can, from which the F.B.I. retrieved it. Chapman called her father, who now holds a position in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and he presumably advised her how to handle the curious situation in which she found herself.

The following day, Chapman entered the 1st Precinct in Lower Manhattan and handed the passport to police. F.B.I. agents soon arrived, and the Illegals arrests began. Within days, three representatives of the Russian government visited the Metropolitan Detention Center, where they instructed Chapman to accept the deal that Justice was offering.

When Bill Staniford read details of the F.B.I. dragnet, he panicked. It wasn’t only his acquaintance with Chapman that concerned him. Another of the Illegals, Lydia Guryeva, alias Cynthia Murphy, had been his accountant since 2000, the year he mustered out of the Marines. At the time of her arrest, Guryeva was cultivating a relationship with Alan Patricof, who had co-chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Guryeva lived in sleepy Montclair, N.J., with her husband, Vladimir Guryev (alias Richard Murphy), also an Illegal, eliciting a neighbor’s oft-published remark: “They couldn't be spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

Staniford clutched a fresh drink, the bar’s lights coloring his glass.

“Obviously I was a target,” he said. “My best guess is that they thought I was going C.I.A.”

In the Marines, Staniford had been a linguistic cryptologist, focusing on Cuba, Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala. His cousin, Gifford Miller, to whom he says is close, was the speaker of the New York City Council and a candidate for mayor in 2010. What made Staniford valuable to the Russian foreign intelligence service? When the F.B.I. called him in for questioning, the agents who spoke with him didn’t know the level of his security clearance, and he wasn’t about to tell them. Throughout our conversation, Staniford made vague allusions and insinuations. “Anna could never have gotten anything out of me because there was nothing to get,” he said. “And you know I’m lying.”

The prevailing wisdom concerning the Illegals case holds that, for all of their efforts, for all of the years that many of them had spent in the U.S., the spies had provided Moscow with nothing of utility. The operation had been a gross waste of resources, a relic of Cold War gamesmanship. However, a counterintelligence probe at the National Security Agency, disclosed by Bill Gertz in The Washington Times, suggests otherwise. The investigation hinges on the assertion that the Russian foreign intelligence service (the S.V.R.) used the Illegals network to support one or more Russian moles who have infiltrated Fort Meade, Md., N.S.A. headquarters.

» Chapman's 'very precious moment' in a Brooklyn jail