In spy case, concern for children

Allegations could shake a sense of identity

By Jonathan Saltzman
Globe Staff / July 2, 2010

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When Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley were led into a packed Boston courtroom yesterday in handcuffs and leg shackles, spectators saw a middle-aged Cambridge couple accused of spying for Russia for the past decade.

But two people in the gallery saw Mom and Dad.

Tim Foley, a 20-year-old student at George Washington University, and his brother, Alex Foley, a 16-year-old at the International School of Boston, sat in chairs against the back wall wearing dress shirts and stoic expressions. When their mother turned around at one point and waved at them, Tim Foley waved back.

Of all the surprising details of this week’s arrest of 10 alleged Russian spies in the United States posing as ordinary suburban residents, none seemed more startling than the fact that the defendants included four sets of parents raising seven children.

In spy fiction, secret agents are usually single and unencumbered, free to engage in stealth and derring-do without the day-to-day responsibilities of child rearing.

In this real-life case, however, the alleged spies had children in grade school and college and led seemingly conventional American lives. The children played soccer, went to slumber parties, gave piano recitals. Now they face the prospect of life with their parents in prison.

“That’s one of the first concerns that came up in my mind,’’ said Mark Podlasly, who met Heathfield a decade ago as a classmate at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He dined with the family of four at their Cambridge home shortly after graduation and heard Heathfield talk proudly about Tim and Alex at a recent class reunion.

“I have kids, too, and that’s the first thing that would go through your mind,’’ Podlasly said.

Dinesh Chhaya, a Belmont marketing director who befriended Tracey Lee Ann Foley because both had children at the International School, said, “I think you would be worried about any kids trapped in this kind of situation.’’

In light of such concerns, the US attorney’s office in Manhattan issued a statement Wednesday saying that prosecutors “recognize the importance of proper care for the children in this case’’ but could not discuss the status of each child for privacy reasons.

Generally, the prosecutors said, minors whose parents have been taken into custody on federal charges are placed in the care of state child protective services. It was not clear whether that practice would be applied in this case. At age 16, Alex Foley is still a minor.

At yesterday’s detention hearing in US District Court in Boston, US Magistrate Judge Jennifer Boal granted a defense request to let Heathfield and Foley meet at the courthouse lockup to discuss custody for their children. Although a prior court order prevents them from speaking with each other, the judge let them discuss their children for about an hour.

Tim and Alex, smooth-faced brothers with hair cut in bangs, declined to speak to a swarm of reporters after they left the courthouse, walking briskly and ignoring questions.

The arrest of two parents on criminal charges is more common than people think, say legal specialists and mental health professionals. Through the years, authorities in Massachusetts have arrested couples with children on charges ranging from drug dealing to white-collar fraud.

What makes this case extraordinary, specialists say, is that the children of the accused spies are grappling with far more than an abrupt separation from their parents: accusations that their mother and father were not who they said they were.

Heathfield and Foley told friends and neighbors they were French Canadian, but that was a lie, according to prosecutors. Heathfield allegedly used the name of a Canadian who died in infancy. Foley allegedly had a bogus identity, too, authorities said.

To make matters more intriguing, an FBI affidavit that lays out the case against all the alleged spies in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia suggests that their marriages and families were contrived.

Deep-cover agents are sometimes dispatched in pairs “under the guise of a married couple,’’ said the affidavit, and such couples will “often have children together’’ to further the legend, or false identity, of the spies.

Dr. Nancy Rappaport, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard who specializes in treatment of teenagers, said that if Heathfield and Foley were indeed spies and their sons were unaware of the fact, the brothers will probably “have to wrestle with a tremendous sense of betrayal that things aren’t what they seem.’’

If their parents are spies, Rappaport said, it is possible that the brothers knew about their parents’ activities, either because of hints they picked up on their own through the years or because their parents confided in them.

Still, the arrests would be highly traumatic, she said, particularly for boys making the transition to adulthood.

Most Soviet espionage has been conducted by legal KGB officers operating under official cover as diplomats. If arrested, they were protected by their diplomatic status and faced only expulsion.

The alleged spies arrested this week are accused of being “illegals,’’ agents who work undercover for years or even decades and have no diplomatic protection.

During the Soviet era, the KGB would have been loath to let families accompany spies because of the risk of defections, said Jeffrey Burds, a Northeastern University associate professor of Russian history who has written extensively on espionage. “They liked to keep the family back as hostages in the Soviet Union,’’ he said.

But since the mid-’90s, Russia has relied more heavily on illegal agents who bring their spouses, often spies themselves, to make sure agents adhere to their missions, said Minh A. Luong, assistant director of international security studies at Yale University. Children can enhance the spies’ cover, he said.

Luong said it is “highly unlikely’’ that such agents would disclose their activities to young children because “you don’t know what they’re going to say’’ to other people. But when the children reach adulthood, some spies “might bring them into the family business,’’ particularly if their progeny can exploit their deep cover to gain access to sensitive government or business information.

Chhaya, the friend of Foley, said he “would be very surprised if [Foley’s children] knew anything about what their parents were doing.’’

Shelley Murphy and John Ellement of the Globe staff and correspondents Jack Nicas and Alex Katz contributed to this report. Saltzman can be reached at

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