The Americans, season 3: Spy story like real life past and present

Operation Ghost Stories FBI

“Russian spy Christopher Metsos, right, swaps information in a ‘brush pass’ with an official from the Russian Mission in New York in 2004. The image from a video is part of a trove of documents, photos, and surveillance released by the FBI as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.” (Image and caption/FBI)

Season 3 of ‘The Americans’ strikes up on FX on January 28, with life on the home front getting messier for the main characters who are KGB undercover agents, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). The series is set in the 1980s as newly elected president Ronald Reagan’s first term commences.

Few series sport the remarkable number of talented actors the series features, but what many viewers may not realize is that real life models for the characters and story lines exist both in the present and the past. 

REAL LIFE KGB PLANT ALDRICH AMES
ABC tried a series based on the life of a real spy, a double agent named Aldrich Ames who worked for the CIA while spying for the KGB. That series lasted for only one episode in January, 2014. Ames and his wife were both convicted in the early 1990s on charges associated with espionage. He had worked for the CIA for more than three decades; Ames’ wife was released after completing her sentence.

OPERATION GHOST STORIES
A web of Russian spies in the US came to light in 2011 when the FBI revealed Operation Ghost Stories:

“The arrests of 10 Russian spies last year provided a chilling reminder that espionage on U.S. soil did not disappear when the Cold War ended. The highly publicized case also offered a rare glimpse into the sensitive world of counterintelligence and the FBI’s efforts to safeguard the nation from those who would steal our vital secrets.”

The investigation, said the FBI, “went on for more than a decade.”

Operation Ghost Stories did not receive an abundance of attention from US media as the country approached a presidential election year. Although the official summary on the FBI website doesn’t mention names of targets in “U.S. policymaking circles,” at least one legacy media outlet did. The L.A. Times said one of the spies “had gone to work for a confidant of a U.S. Cabinet member.”

The paper also reported what might have stayed above the fold and upfront on 24/7 news cycles had the politician held a different ideology [emphasis added]:

“One of the Russians, who identified herself as Cynthia Murphy of Montclair, N.J., provided financial planning for Alan Patricof, a New York venture capitalist and top Democratic donor who was finance chairman of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, according to news reports.

The agents were known as “illegals,” because they weren’t operating out of Russian embassies or military missions. Instead, they led seemingly normal lives in the U.S.

Figliuzzi noted that one of the spies, Donald Heathfield of Cambridge, Mass., attended Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, which trains many senior government officials. One of the photos released Monday showed Heathfield, who purportedly stole the identity of a Canadian infant who had died decades ago, graduating from Harvard in 2000. The university has revoked the degree.”

ROBERT PHILIP HANSSEN, FBI AGENT AND SPY
Documentaries and at least one film have also depicted a spy whose case at the time drew a great deal of attention, Robert Philip Hanssen. The agency said, “Hanssen’s espionage began in November 1979 – three years after he joined the FBI – and continued intermittently until his arrest in February 2001, just two months before his mandatory retirement date.”

US UNIVERSITIES TARGETED
In 2012 the FBI revealed US universities are a target for exploitation by spies. Bloomberg published an article, American Universities Infected by Foreign Spies, describing how programs such as the slipshod US visa program create opportunities for spies. A report published online by the FBI explains “how foreign intelligence services and non-state actors use US colleges and universities to further their intelligence and operational needs.” How much unrest and anti-American messaging occurs at the hands of foreign operatives is unknown and that is a topic no one broaches.

RUSSIAN SPY RING, 2015, IN NEW YORK
On January 26, 2015 the FBI announced charges against a Russian spy ring in New York. One US attorney said, “Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst under cover of secrecy.”

The FBI explained how Russia continues to attempt to spy within the US:

“[T]he arrest of Evgeny Buryakov and the charges against him and his co-defendants make clear that—more than two decades after the presumptive end of the Cold War—Russian spies continue to seek to operate in our midst under cover of secrecy. Indeed, the presence of a Russian banker in New York would in itself hardly draw attention today, which is why these alleged spies may have thought Buryakov would blend in.”

COMMUNISM’S HEART IN TWO SENTENCES

Season 3 of ‘The Americans’ begins with a close look at how serving the Soviet Union impacted the fictional Jennings family. Communism requires absolute fealty to the state; individualism is not acceptable.

There’s a scene with Philip and Elizabeth talking to their KGB contact, Claudia (Margo Martindale). Claudia’s character places absolute trust in her government, and she speaks to the heart of systems like communism where all belongs to the state.

Claudia is informing the Jennings their 14 year old daughter Paige must be informed about their real purpose in the US because she will be expected to serve as her parents are doing. Claudia, played with a perfect aura of chill by the remarkably talented, award-winning Martindale, tells the horrified parents Paige must serve the KGB: “She belongs to the world and the cause. We all do.”

Season 3 of The Americans begins on FX, a network that continues to produce top tier series like ‘The Americans’, ‘Justified’, and ‘Fargo’.

Featured Image (top): “Russian spy Christopher Metsos, right, swaps information in a ‘brush pass’ with an official from the Russian Mission in New York in 2004. The image from a video is part of a trove of documents, photos, and surveillance released by the FBI as part of a Freedom of Information Act request.” (Image and caption/FBI)

(Filed by Kay B. Day/Jan. 28, 2015)


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About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.
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