Meet the spies who lived next door

How Russian pair blended into Cambridge

Spies Yelena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov, posing as Americans, lived in this house in Cambridge. Spies Yelena Vavilova and Andrei Bezrukov, posing as Americans, lived in this house in Cambridge. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / November 2, 2011

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Their neighbors thought they were a sales consultant and a real estate agent. He had a degree from Harvard. They had two children. They were a typical American family, except they were not.

Documents released by the FBI paint a picture of the lives and the extensive training in spycraft given to a group of Russian spies sent to live in American society, including one couple found in Cambridge.

The local couple, who assumed the names Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, worked seemingly ordinary jobs, educated themselves, and had children while living as spies.

The pair and eight other spies were rounded up in July 2010 after a decadelong counterintelligence investigation. An 11th spy was detained and released in Cyprus and disappeared shortly thereafter.

They were illegals, because they blended into society, taking civilian jobs, rather than hiding behind the diplomatic immunity offered by working out of the Russian Embassy.

The documents show that these agents received extensive training before coming to the United States, including language skills, agent-to-agent communication, invisible writing, codes and ciphers, and creation of a “cover profession,’’ a day job used to mask their intelligence activities.

The spies were trained in steganography, the craft of encrypting text messages into seemingly ordinary digital photographs.

Once training was over, the two Cambridge agents were provided with the identities of dead Canadian citizens and given false documents. They then emigrated to the United States as perfectly innocent-looking Canadians.

The documents confirmed that most of the illegal agents were paired up, often as married couples, while they were still living in Russia, to further sell the story.

The documents suggested that Heathfield and Foley had their two sons to help deepen their American roots and sell the cover story. Moscow arranged to secretly pay their Boston spies, including reimbursements for rent, utilities, cars, insurance, gas, meals, and gifts.

The spies, according to the documents, were instructed to gather information on, among other things, American policy on the use of the Internet by terrorists, American policies in Central Asia, and a “Western estimation of Russian foreign policy.’’

In 2006, law enforcement officials found that by entering a 27-character code into the computer of the Cambridge spies, they were able to access a special steganography program that makes the messages appear on digital images downloaded from specific websites that they used to communicate secret messages.

A message decrypted by the FBI spelled out the illegals’ mission to “search and develop ties in policymaking circles in US and send’’ intelligence reports.

In 2006 and 2008, the pair sent messages back to Moscow, discussing the change in leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency and the election of Barack Obama. Some of the information, according to the documents, was said to come from an unnamed former congressional legislative counsel and an economics professor.

A Sept. 23, 2005, message from Heathfield indicated that he had made contact with a “former high-ranking United States government national security official.’’

Another message, dated Dec. 3, 2004, indicated Heathfield made contact with a worker at a government research facility and had discussed the development of nuclear weapons, including “nuclear bunker-buster warheads.’’

In 2001, federal officials searched a safe deposit box that had been opened under Foley’s name. Inside, they found a series of photographic negatives with images of a much younger Foley, probably in her 20s. The film was marked “TACMA,’’ which was the name of a former Soviet film company.

Foley was also given a fake British passport by her Russian handlers, which she used to travel to Moscow.

The documents were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The arrest of the spies led to a spy swap, the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the Soviet Union. But in a drastic departure from Cold War-era treatment of unmasked spies, the Russians have become celebrities back home.

Anna Chapman, one of the spies who had been living in New York, has become a model and television personality.

Heathfield, whose real name is Andrei Bezrukov, was reported in December 2010 to be working as an adviser to the president of Rosnet, Russia’s largest oil company. Foley’s real name is Yelena Vavilova.

John M. Guilfoil can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globe_guilfoil.

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