Marytyn McLaughlin: Cliches of a Cold War thriller come to life in 21st century US

THEY are the spies who came in from the suburbs, who when not tending to their flowerbeds, would be burying bags of money beneath them.

The alleged espionage network arrested by the US government employed a series of tactics - 'tradecraft' in spy lingo - seemingly consigned to Cold War history.

Papers served in court reveal members of the "illegals" group - whose members were based in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, and Boston - made use of mundane methods, contacting handlers on cafes, book shops and street corners.

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Charged with infiltrating the influential echelons of American life, they adopted false identities - one used a fake British passport - and resorted to digging up money stashed in public parks, using passwords for surreptitious rendevous, exchanging messages in invisible ink, and good old-fashioned bag switches in busy rail terminals.

Indeed, the details laid out by prosecutors would be rejected by any self-respecting thriller author as hoary cliches.

Among the codes used by the members to exhange money and

fake IDs were exchanges such as: "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last year?" "No, I think it was the Hamptons."

Another loaded question - "Excuse me, could we have met in Malta in 1999? - was to have been directed at someone holding a copy of Time magazine in a specific way.

So too, one agent is said to have carried out a "brush pass" with a Russian government official, with the two men swapping seemingly identical orange bags - one contained money - on a stairway at a rail station in Queens, New York.

On another occasion, an envelope containing $5,000 was passed over in a folded newspaper.

Elsewhere, the court papers acknowledge that more modern technology was employed.

One suspect, Anna Chapman, is said to have set up a private wireless network with her Macbook while in a bookstore, as a Russian official outside the store transferred the data.

Some of the suspects are accused of using steganography - a method of concealing data in an image using special software - to pass information to Moscow Centre - the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service - by posting pictures on public websites. The FBI said one image was protected by a 27-character password, which once broken into, contained readable text.

Using data and a 27-character password gained by searching a New Jersey property in 2005, US agents accessed a steganography programme that led them to websites where they found certain images, the court documents say.

Other suspects are accused of using short-wave radios to send and receive radiograms - coded bursts of data - to Moscow Centre, with searches of a Seattle apartment turning up radio equipment, along with spiral notebooks containing apparently random columns of numbers.