Another time, Moscow offered vague instructions that might have been directed to journalists: “Try to single out tidbits unknown publicly but revealed in private by sources close to State department, Government, major think tanks.”
But why would Russian intelligence ask for such information from people settled in New Jersey rather than, say, Russian Embassy experts or specialists in Moscow or Washington?
“It’s a Hail Mary pass,” said Milton A. Bearden, who served for three decades in the C.I.A.’s clandestine service and ran its Soviet and East European division as the Soviet Union fell.
“Maybe I end up next to a guy that is the minority staff director on some committee and we do barbecues, or I coach his kid in Little League,” Mr. Bearden said. “How can you lose?”
For the Russian government, he said, supporting the so-called illegals operation was probably relatively inexpensive, particularly because some suspected agents were self-supporting, as court papers show.
One, Ms. Murphy, reported an annual income of $135,000 as a financial planner, her affidavit says. And another, Anna Chapman, owned her own real estate firm in Manhattan, which her lawyer said in court was valued by his client at $2 million.
If anything, the challenge for Moscow in an operation of such duration was to make sure its agents remained loyal amid the comforts of daily suburban American life. After the collapse of Communism, Mr. Bearden said, several Czech “sleeper agents” in the United States refused to go home, saying they felt they had become Americans.
“What’s their life like, and particularly if it goes on for years?” said Burton Gerber, a former chief of the C.I.A.’s Soviet division, of the suspected Russian agents. For couples with children, for example, they may be “very guilty spies,” Mr. Gerber said, and yet influenced by P.T.A. and after-school sports.
“At some stage, do you begin to think of yourself more as American than Russian?” he said. “Without feeling a sense of betraying Russia, they may just want to lead quiet lives.”
Scott Shane reported from Washington, and Benjamin Weiser from New York. Clifford J. Levy contributed reporting from Moscow, and Mark Mazzetti and Peter Baker from Washington.