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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Did Russian Spies Plan to Attack the US Via ETFs and HFT?

News summary by MFWire's editors

It's like something out of a bizarro spy thriller. And this time, ETFs could've been dragged into things.

On Friday, the U.S. government filed charges accusing two Russian diplomats and a Russian banker of spying on the U.S. And the FBI's purported description of the accused's meetings and phone conversations includes one phone chat where, as the FBI tells it, ETFs and market destabilization were the alleged spies' topic du jour. You can read the sealed complaint here, as submitted by FBI special agent Gregory Monaghan of the counterintelligence division and New York field office.

The three alleged spies are Evgeny Buryakov (age 39, known as Zhenya), Victor Podobnyy (27) and Igor Sporyshev (40). Buryakov worked in Manhattan for an as-yet unnamed Russian bank, Podobnyy (from December 2012 through September 2013) was an attache to Russia's permanent mission to the UN, and Sporyshev (from November 2010 to November 2014) was a Russian trade representative. The FBI claims that Podobnyy and Sporyshev were both actually undercover spies for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), protected by their diplomatic immunity, while Buryakov was an unprotected undercover spy (because his cover provided no such immunity and he was not identified to the U.S. government).

The FBI arrested Buryakov yesterday. Yet the bureau says that the other two alleged spies are no longer in the U.S.

The 26-page complaint, which is basically the FBI's cataloging of more than two years of alleged meetings and calls among the three defendants. The upshot is that the Buryakov is charged with being a foreign spy on U.S. soil without informing the U.S. government, and the trio are charged with conspiring to that end.

In one phone call transcript, on page 15 of the complaint, which is before U.S. Magistrate Judge Frank Maas, the FBI details an alleged conversation in which Buryakov tells Sporyshev to have a Russian state-backed news outlet ask the NYSE about ETFs, high-frequency trading and "trading robots," and "the mechanisms of use for destabilization of the markets." Monaghan describes all three defendants part of the SVR's Directorate ER, which specializes in economic issues.

And for those fans of James Bond movies or of FX's The Americans 80s spy show that returns this week, there's an extra twist: the investigation that netted Buryakov's arrest began shortly after the June 2010 arrest of 10 covert SVR agents (who pled guilty to spying and money laundering). The FBI calls those 10 agents the "Illegals" and says they worked for the SVR's nontraditional espionage unit, Directorate S. 

Edited by: Neil Anderson, Managing Editor

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