(W)Archives: Deep Under Cover

February 28, 2014

Fans of FX’s The Americans enthusiastically welcomed the return of the series last Wednesday. For those unfamiliar with the program, The Americans is set in Washington, D.C. during the early 1980s, a particularly frosty period of the late Cold War. The narrative centers on two Soviet KGB “illegals” living as a seeming normal American couple and burrowed deep undercover in a Beltway suburb. Enthusiasts of espionage and counterespionage yarns relish the cat-and-mouse FBI-KGB struggle played out on the streets of the nation’s capital. The cast is uniformly excellent. Particularly notable is Richard “John Boy Walton” Thomas, who shines as the difficult and demanding chief of the FBI counterintelligence squad. As an added bonus, viewers are regularly treated to the sight of the program’s sublime co-star, Keri Russell, romping in hotel rooms while wearing a pageboy wig.

The show is loosely based on a real case. An FBI investigation, Operation Ghost Stories, led to the arrest of ten individuals in 2010 who were accused of working for the SVR, the KGB’s successor organization. One of these illegals, Anna Chapman, would go on to considerable renown—less for her espionage skills (none of the SVR agents appeared to have delivered anything of interest) and more for her striking good looks. After the case was wrapped up, the FBI released an extensive collection of documents, photographs and videos about Ghost Stories. In particular, this video, declassified by the FBI, shows Chapman meeting an undercover agent in a New York coffee shop. While it hardly does justice to Chapman’s considerable charms, it underlines the mundane nature of much of the real espionage business while offering a glimpse of FBI counterintelligence in action chasing the “Americans” among us.


William Rosenau is a senior analyst at CNA Corporation, a non-profit research center in Alexandria, Virginia..


Photo credit: Hugo-photography