Material West was too tempting for Russian spy ring

THEY were sent to a foreign superpower to unearth its most sensitive secrets. In the end, however, the abundant temptations of the enemy's way of life conspired to quell their curiosity.

• Richard and Cynthia Murphy, pictured with their children, were arrested at their home in Montclair, New Jersey. Picture: Getty Images

As extraordinary new details continued to emerge of the alleged Russian espionage ring uncovered in the heartlands of America, the picture is one of incompetence and complacency.

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Tasked with gleaning information on the likes of nuclear weapons, Iran, White House rumours and the CIA, the network of deep cover "illegals" were instead seduced by the lures of home ownership, fast cars, and fat expense accounts.

Nowhere is this more evident that in the court papers served against the so-called agents; none of the accused faces a single charge of espionage, only with failing to register as representatives of a foreign government, and money laundering.

Having failed to send a single nugget of classified information back to Moscow, it appears the network's members – some of whom had been living incognito in the US since the 1990s - were concerned with more everyday matters of suburbia.

Two of them, Richard and Cynthia Murphy, also known as the "New Jersey Conspirators", certainly appeared comfortable in their new homeland.

In encrypted messages sent to Moscow Centre – the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) – they made plain their desire to follow in the footsteps of all aspiring Americans and purchase their home, a modest three-bedroom property sporting maroon shutters and a wrap-around porch.

They pointed out to their superiors in the east that the US was a society "that values home ownership" and that when in Rome "do as the Romans do." Moscow suspected that they were taking advantage, but the Murphys, who grew lettuce in their back garden, protested that they had not "deviated" from their mission.

Another couple, Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, the "Boston Conspirators", appeared to be living an equally charmed life. An FBI affidavit discloses $64,000 (42,500) expense claims met by the SVR, including $1,250 (830) for meals and gifts.

Mikhail Semenko, who lived in the Washington suburbs, drove a Mercedes-Benz, had pictures of himself in front of the White House, and sometimes woke up the neighbours with his parties.

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So sloppy was the spycraft, some experts have even speculated that the network may not be the work of the Russians.

Mikhail Lyubimov, a former KGB officer who worked in Britain during the Cold War, said: "Who knows? It might be a real Russian government espionage operation. But if that is the case, then it is a laughable one, because where is the espionage?"

Even among those agents who appeared more concerned with the Russian cause than their own, there existed an embarrassing lack of guile, reminiscent of the hapless Jim Wormold in Graham Greene's 'Our Man In Havana', who made up agents and information and passed off sketches of the vacuum cleaners he sold as secret weapons.

In a clandestine raid on the Murphy residence, the FBI was able to crack a 27-letter code to a computer disc containing hidden steganography messages. How? The password had been written on a sheet of paper.

Evidence compiled on Anna Chapman, meanwhile, details a record of her conversation with an FBI official posing as a Russian agent in a New York coffee shop. Trusting of her contact, she asked him: "You're positive no-one is watching?"

Elsewhere, other agents complained vigorously about IT problems. One even handed over her operational laptop to an FBI undercover agent.

"It's just bad tradecraft. If they were good we wouldn't know about them," said Harry Ferguson, a former MI6 agent and author of 'Operation Kronstadt'.

"Only bad spies get caught. They were either forced to act in haste or they just didn't think."

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For those experienced in the dark arts of espionage, it comes as no surprise that the alleged network appeared less than committed.

Burton Gerber, a former chief of the CIA's Soviet division, suggested the group appeared to have become accustomed to the comforts of life in the US. Such a development is not new – after the collapse of communism, several Czech sleeper agents in the US refused to return home.

"What's their life like, and particularly if it goes on for years," Mr Gerber said. "At some stage, do you begin to think of yourself more as American than Russian? Without feeling a sense of betraying Russia, they may just want to lead quiet lives."

Indeed, questions are now being asked as to why Russia saw fit to invest in such a long-term deep cover operation, given the increased power now enjoyed by political lobbying groups compared to the heyday of the Cold War. In the eyes of many, it was an altogether fruitless exercise.

"What in the world do they think they were going to get out of this, in this day and age?" asked Richard Stolz, a former head of CIA espionage operations and Moscow bureau chief. "The effort is out of proportion to the alleged benefits. I don't understand what they expected."

Yulia Latynina, an independent Russian political analyst and journalist, suggested the activities of her country's intelligentsia were useless, but carried out to make Russia's leaders feel powerful.

She said: "Russia has spies in America as an imitation of imperialism. You don't need spies to find out what Obama wants from Russia. It's all on the Internet, PR, press conferences.

"Do Russia's leaders really think that someone will pull their spies aside and tell them something that Obama didn't say in his briefing?"

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But others are convinced the spy game will continue. Alexei Zudin of the Centre for Political Technologies, one of the oldest think tanks in Russia, claims espionage is part of a country's national life.

"Nations conduct exploration activities" not only with spies but with diplomats and journalists, he said. "It was so always and it will be so always."

Femme fatale from a Cold War thriller … or is it all just makebelieve?

007 himself would have felt at home in the spy scandal

SHE is the redhead who has become the face - some say pin-up - of the alleged Russian spy ring.

Anna Chapman, whose story has attracted thousands of tweets and blogs over the past 24 hours, appeared to live the femme fatale lifestyle found in a racy Cold War thriller.

When not liaising with her Russian handlers, the 28-year-old could be found living a well-heeled life in an apartment within walking distance of Wall Street, New York.

An economics graduate, she ran an online property business, PropertyFinder Ltd, which sold real estate in Moscow, Spain, Bulgaria and other countries.

In court, Chapman's lawyer said the business was valued by his client at 1.3m. "Love launching innovative high-tech start-ups and building passionate teams to bring value into market," her LinkedIn biography states.

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However, it was not all work and no play. She combined her entrepreneurial zeal with a taste for adventure.

Eschewing the traditional covert lifestyle of the Russian operative, she posted numerous glamorous photographs of herself on social networking sites, images that have been reprinted in the world's press.

Indeed, despite her alleged motivations against the United States, the New York Post saw fit to describe her "red hot beauty".Rival publication, the New York Daily News, was no less hot and bothered, describing her "sexy profile pictures that could easily be headshots in a casting call to find the next Bond girl".The pictures depict her in various locations, including Westminster. Other photographs show her relaxing in the luxury of Istanbul's Hotel Les Ottoman.

One photo shows Chapman posing with a glass of wine between two men at the Global Technology Symposium at Stanford University in March - an event that cost more than $1,000 to attend.

An acquaintance in New York's property market, David Hartman, described her as "pleasant, very professional, friendly". It is understood the multilingual Russian national lived in the UK for about four years from 2003, during which she worked at the London office of NetJets Europe and married an Englishman, only to divorce him soon afterwards.

Barclays has confirmed she worked in its investment banking division. She also claimed to have been employed by Navigator Asset Management Advisers, a Mayfair hedge fund.

Assistant US Attorney Michael Farbiarz has described Chapman as someone blessed with "extraordinary training", a woman who is "a sophisticated agent of Russia.

She certainly seemed to revel in confounding expectations. "If you can imagine it, you can achieve it," her Facebook motto states. "If you can dream it, you can become it."

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Only time - and the judicial process - will tell which elements of Chapman's life were genuine and which were make believe.

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