Russian Spies and Semiconductors

The FBI arrested an alleged cell of Russian spies this week, but the group wasn’t making off with secret documents or classified intelligence, the agency claims. This group is accused of having illegally supplied $50 million worth of commercially available high-tech components that could be used for military projects — all while Moscow is busy building a slew of new weapons.

The range of components, described in a criminal indictment released Wednesday, reads like an ingredient list for advanced gadgetry: digital signal processors, microcontrollers, amplifiers and field programmable gate arrays (.pdf). Everything from smartphones to drones runs on gear like this. Federal prosecutors say these Russia-bound shipments had a military purpose. “These microelectronics had applications in a wide range of military systems, including radar and surveillance systems, weapons targeting systems and detonation triggers,” the indictment reads.

The alleged ringleader, 46-year-old Alexander Fishenko, is also accused of acting “as an unregistered agent of the Russian government” who procured the tech for “Russian military and intelligence agencies.” Eight members of the group including Fishenko were arrested in Houston on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. Three others are still on the loose. The group’s procurement manager, Alexander Posobilov alias “Sasha,” was captured while attempting to flee the country at a Houston airport. Fishenko meanwhile faces up to 20 years if convicted on the money laundering charge, and 10 years for being a secret agent.

Most of the group’s members were rounded-up in Houston, where they operated a front company that ostensibly manufactured traffic lights, prosecutors claim. Known as Arc Electronics, the company sat in a nondescript suburban office park on Houston’s west side, where employees seemed to have kept low. One office park worker told the Los Angeles Times that the business “received lots of deliveries” and that he noticed an “an older Russian man outside the building, smoking” — of course he was smoking — “but had never really talked to him.”

In reality, the company never manufactured anything. Instead, starting in 2008, employees routed hundreds of shipments — including thousands of electronic components — through New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and then on to Russia. In Moscow, another company called Apex System was waiting to receive the tech and pass it onto the military.

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