The day we discovered our parents were Russian spies
May 7, 2016 6:21 AM   Subscribe

For years Donald Heathfield, Tracey Foley and their two children lived the American dream. "Then an FBI raid revealed the truth: they were agents of Putin’s Russia. Their sons tell their story."
posted by missmerrymack (57 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
I literally just finished reading the story, and I thought to myself, "this is something that is going to show up on Metafilter." And guess what!
posted by jscalzi at 6:49 AM on May 7, 2016 [13 favorites]


I lived quite literally around the corner from them. Of course I didn't notice them or know anything about them - they were spies, and good ones. They chose a neighborhood with standoffish longtime residents, combined with high turnover among students and visiting professors living there. What had always struck me was their house. I had noticed that the driveway had an extremely steep angle into the ground to a small garage door. I had to pass the house on errands at least twice a week, and I always thought idly about how hard it must be to drive in or out.
This doubtless had nothing to do with them, and everything with the insanity of driving and parking in Cambridge. Nonetheless, after the arrest, it seemed significant.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:06 AM on May 7, 2016 [16 favorites]


Why don't Alex and Tim still have US citizenship? The article says they were naturalised. Canada's argument seems to be that they were never citizens in the first place, but the US would have had to explicitly revoke it. On what grounds?
posted by doiheartwentyone at 7:11 AM on May 7, 2016


Boston police took alcohol regulations seriously

/derail, but lol
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:16 AM on May 7, 2016 [24 favorites]


Probably because of the new birth certificates and thus identities. Not much of a legal precedence here, I guess.
posted by I-baLL at 7:17 AM on May 7, 2016


On what grounds?

Naturalized citizenship can be revoked on the basis of a fraudulent application.
posted by fatbird at 7:18 AM on May 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


I think maybe on the grounds that they lied on their citizenship applications. If they'd been born in the US, I don't think their citizenship could have been revoked, but under Canadian law they were never entitled to Canadian citizenship.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:19 AM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


I have no idea what lawyers.com is (and don't accept actual legal advice from something called lawyers.com!) but here is what they have to say about denatrualization:
The two fundamental bases for revocation include that the person procured citizenship illegally (was not really eligible for naturalization in the first place) or procured it by deliberate deceit or misrepresentation (lied or concealed important and relevant information).
So yeah, not unprecedented at all.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:23 AM on May 7, 2016


If you like this true story then you'll love the fictionalized TV version, The Americans. We have a great discussion (with spoilers) ongoing over on FanFare.
posted by Nelson at 7:38 AM on May 7, 2016 [10 favorites]


Fascinating story. I was thinking that the plot of The Americans was too close to be a coincidence.
posted by nubs at 7:53 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow, what a mindfuck for the kids. I couldn't imagine how you'd process such a profound implosion of your own identity.

My inner child is totally stoked that dead letter drops, briefcase switching and newspapers with eye holes cut out are totally a thing though.
posted by NordyneDefenceDynamics at 8:13 AM on May 7, 2016 [11 favorites]


I get that two of them were naturalised fraudulently but as far as I can see Alex and Tim had no need or reason to lie, and the only reason their application could be illegal is because they applied as Canadians rather than as stateless persons or Russians which they had no reason to believe they were.

Or is the naturalisation process something that a whole family goes through which can be judged overall fraudulent ?
posted by doiheartwentyone at 8:13 AM on May 7, 2016


The problem of their citizenship is a knotty one, but I can't see why Tim and Alex shouldn't be granted Canadian citizenship. They were born here, and they've done nothing wrong. On the contrary, they seem to have a lot to contribute. The Canadian government really ought to take into consideration the fact that this is an unusual situation and these boys don't really belong to any other country, that their strongest claim to citizenship is to Canada.

I had to laugh at several lines in this article. The line about the Boston alcohol regulations, the "going counterculture" in an American high school by playing up a Canadian birth, the triumphal spy group tour of Russia, the fact that the parents like The Americans... so much about the situation is inherently absurd.
posted by orange swan at 8:25 AM on May 7, 2016 [16 favorites]


The reason their American naturalizations were withdrawn is the lies on their paperwork, lies about where the parents were born (obviously not Canada), lies about the parents' actual names (remember, the parents were using the identities of actual but long-dead Canadians), lies about the parents' true citizenship, lies about pretty much everything on their US immigration paperwork.

That would, you might think, still leave the boys with Canadian citizenship.

But no: for the most part, Canada --- like the US --- says that anyone born in Canada, no matter their parents' citizenship, is born Canadian. There's an exception though, and this is where the boys got tangled up: the exception is that if the parents are the employees of a foreign government, then their children (even though born on Canadian soil) are not Canadian citizens..... and in this case, the parents were pretty obviously the employees of the Soviet Union and its successor Russia. Therefore, no Canadian citizenship for the boys.

It still sucks for them, and I wish them well.
posted by easily confused at 8:35 AM on May 7, 2016


Where the hell is Maxwell Smart when you need him?
posted by jonmc at 8:52 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


They, along with eight other agents, had been betrayed by a Russian spy who had defected to the Americans.

This is how good spying is done. There are megabytes of digital tracks these people have left in the NSA's ocean of data but finding any of it without a human tip would be as likely as finding a needle in a haystack.
posted by bukvich at 9:03 AM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


My guess would be that The Powers That Be in Canada and the US aren't inclined to cut the kids a break because there could be other undercover agents in the West, and their kids could be a source of leverage to get them to cooperate with Western governments. "If you work with us, your kids won't have to move back to Moscow and try to befriend Edward Snowden" might work with some spies who might otherwise not be wiling to defect. It totally sucks for the kids, who aren't guilty of anything, but considering that we're talking about the American and Russian spy services, they're hardly the first or the worst innocent victims.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:05 AM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


It's hard to know whether the Canadian citizenship thing was largely a result of this going down on the watch of Stephen "2nd Class Citizens are the Best Citizens" Harper or if it would have pretty much had the same result regardless. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the US was exerting significant diplomatic pressure on Canada to continue to deny the boys citizenship.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:11 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Here's a Toronto Star article from last October that provides some insight into the Canadian government's rationale for revoking citizenship: Sons of Russian spies battle for their birthright

From the article: “Mr. Vavilov does not dispute his parents’ status as illegals in the United States, nor does he dispute that their Canadian citizenship and passports were obtained by fraud,” wrote Federal Court Justice Richard Bell in a recent ruling upholding the federal government’s decision in Alexander’s case. “There is adequate evidence on the record to reasonably conclude that his parents’ presence in Canada constituted part of their (spying) mission for the Russian government."
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 9:24 AM on May 7, 2016


Decent explanation of digital steganography.
posted by shackpalace at 9:45 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow, what a mindfuck for the kids. I couldn't imagine how you'd process such a profound implosion of your own identity.

If only they could ask River Phoenix.
posted by xedrik at 9:45 AM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


I thought you meant this River Phoenix!
posted by Nelson at 9:54 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


It's sort of interesting that the clause in the Citizenship Act that the government relied on to strip the boys of their citizenship is largely a protective clause for diplomats -- it prevents their children from accidentally obtaining citizenship in a foreign land, thus introducing a conflict of interest and negating the security clearances of the diplomats themselves. It allows the diplomatic core to function without countries worrying that their diplomats will be creating fixed ties to all the countries they get posted to.

That said, there are several recent examples of the Canadian courts using the same clause to deny citizenship to other children who sought it, including some whose parents' diplomatic status wasn't entirely clear at the time of the child's birth. Nothing 100% on point -- how could there be, really? -- but a lot that suggests they shouldn't hold out much hope.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:12 AM on May 7, 2016 [3 favorites]


Woah, I just started watching The Americans this week.
posted by dirigibleman at 10:18 AM on May 7, 2016


It says something about Putin's mindset that this program was continued after the cold war was over. The costs seem like they were awfully high (especially to those boys) compared to the benefits which could have been obtained more easily.
posted by Bee'sWing at 10:19 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Great read... that's a crazy story.
posted by ph00dz at 10:19 AM on May 7, 2016


FWIW the Principal Secretary to the PM linked to the story on twitter today.
posted by maledictory at 10:34 AM on May 7, 2016


Mind boggling to me that the parents could be taught English so well, while in the USSR, that they could blend in as Canadian-born on arrival.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:55 AM on May 7, 2016


I wonder what possessed them to have kids? Maybe with the fall of the USSR they thought that they'd never be contacted again?
posted by bitmage at 12:29 PM on May 7, 2016


Cynically, having kids probably made for great cover. I mean except for the fact that the FBI was onto them basically the entire time they were in the US.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 12:38 PM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wow, what a mindfuck for the kids. I couldn't imagine how you'd process such a profound implosion of your own identity.

This was the plot of an episode in season 2 of Elementary. On the show, spoiler, the teenaged kid killed her Russian spy mom.
posted by carsonb at 12:47 PM on May 7, 2016


They had the kids in 1990 and 1994. I wonder if they thought that the Cold War was over, and they'd either be called home to Russia, where the kids would be Russian kids with an interesting backstory, or they could stay in the US and melt into their cover story. They didn't bank on the new Russian regime deciding to keep KGB-style espionage going.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:02 PM on May 7, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also the plot of NBC's short-lived Allegiance set modern day, which wasn't nearly as good as The Americans.
posted by Pryde at 2:34 PM on May 7, 2016


Kids are good cover, but also they were a real couple and they may have wanted kids, it may have even been part of the agreement - we'll give up our lives for this job, but we get to have kids with no interference. Given the generally very dull day-to-day of most of the Illegals' lives, there was no reason not to have them. Probably, they thought the worst that could happen is that they'd get caught, and they thought that raising the boys to be fairly international would help them (which it clearly has) enough that abruptly being patriated to Russia would be fiiiiine (obviously it's not), but I've seen parents bullshit themselves about far more ridiculous things. I don't think you can survive being a parent without a certain amount of that skill.

Right toward the end of the Guardian article is a mention that nobody knows for sure whether they had begun the process of recruiting/training/indoctrinating Tim. If that's a thing the FBI made up, the lie did exactly what it was supposed to - put Canada in a corner. They can't grant citizenship to a suspected SVR spy. And what if it wasn't just Tim but Alex too? It's a shit move if it's a lie, but even without the story the FBI is telling you can't know for sure, and it would have been a concern on Canada's part no matter what.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:57 PM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


God, this is so sad for the kids.

The "unnamed source" story just seems so transparently goofy, as Tim calls out in the article. Sure, I can believe the parents would have told the kids, but that an American teenager would pledge allegiance to "Mother Russia"? Come on. And does the Canadian government actually think the brothers would be spies? I can't imagine the Russian government even wanting them to be spies - I'm sure they would be so closely monitored.

Like Countess Elena, I also lived near them in Cambridge for a few years. I agree that neighborhood would be perfect: lots of people with hard-to-pin-down international backgrounds. I chuckled at the part about the sons thinking their parents were boring compared to other parents they knew because, yeah, Cambridge.

I also went to the same graduate school as the father, 6 years later, but a friend did it at the same time as him and I can't wait to ask if he knew him.
posted by lunasol at 4:12 PM on May 7, 2016


Something I've always wondered about these sorts of spies (who until just now I thought were all fiction): how do they get paid?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:06 PM on May 7, 2016 [5 favorites]


A former Illegal was on Slate's The Americans podcast a few weeks ago, and it sounded like a) most of them had good full-time employment in a field in which they were educated (Barsky worked in energy systems software), b) the KGB had money-laundering schemes for providing cash for operations and operatives, but any obvious flashiness would have drawn attention so they were pretty much self-supporting. Barsky's wife in Germany apparently received some kind of payment on his behalf, but he had no real access to that money. (He supported his actual unsuspecting American wife with his own income. That whole thing got real complicated for him, it seems.)
posted by Lyn Never at 9:08 PM on May 7, 2016 [4 favorites]


I can't imagine they will be much of a security threat when living in Canada, though. Everyone will know their background, and they will probably never obtain any kind of security clearance. So the security argument doesn't seem to hold water.
posted by Harald74 at 1:29 AM on May 8, 2016


When I was a kid I loved to read all of those men's adventure type novels--spying, warring, extreme crime solving, etc. One of my absolute favorites was a Cold War espionage thriller by Nelson DeMille called The Charm School. A major portion of the plot revolved around American POWs being forced to train Russian spies how to be convincingly Western. I remember thinking at the time that this was a brilliant (but flawed) plan--get actual Americans to school the spies to be embedded in the US. As fascinating as The Americans angle on this is, I'd love to know so much more about their preparation in Russia for such a daunting task. Surely there was more to it than an American defector teaching ESL.
posted by xyzzy at 1:55 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


When my husband and I started watching The Americans, I had real trouble buying the whole premise as believable. I thought FOR SURE there was no way they could have no discernible accent. Seems like I have lost an argument several months late.
posted by threeturtles at 2:16 AM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Everyone will know their background, and they will probably never obtain any kind of security clearance. So the security argument doesn't seem to hold water.

Obtaining the clearance isn't an issue. Working as, say, a lawyer in a field where you run into people with In The Know kinda jobs and can pick up gossip at parties would work.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:51 AM on May 8, 2016


The thing is, Tim is probably still attending those parties, just as an expat in Asia, not in Canada or the US. But I'm sure that he could still hear interesting gossip in his current situation. There's really no way to know who's a spy, and the way to prevent that is to keep people from gossiping about state secrets, not to ban people from the country.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:02 AM on May 8, 2016


When my husband and I started watching The Americans, I had real trouble buying the whole premise as believable. I thought FOR SURE there was no way they could have no discernible accent. Seems like I have lost an argument several months late.

Not only that, Both actors who play Philip and Martha are covering up UK accents (Rys' Welsh burr is actually pretty damn thick and there no trace of it in Philip)
posted by The Whelk at 4:13 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


That's a good point - if almost every trained actor in the UK and Australia can learn how to learn and replicate accents at around the age of 20, there's no reason a highly-motivated government can't provide similar training to similarly-motivated recruits around the same age, even with the added difficulty (or not, maybe?) of learning a new language simultaneously.

(Bringing all these threads together, here's an Ellen segment with a clip of the The Americans when Philip and Elizabeth are arguing about their teenage daughter's future if they defect, and then Matthew Rhys coming out and speaking in his natural accent. It's astounding.)
posted by Lyn Never at 5:56 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


Not only that, Both actors who play Philip and Martha are covering up UK accents (Rys' Welsh burr is actually pretty damn thick and there no trace of it in Philip)

I know! I saw him in something on UK TV (which I watch a good amount of) and I couldn't place him for the longest time until I suddenly realized who he was. The voice threw me way off. I mean, yes, I accept fairly regularly that people from different English-speaking countries can fake accents (with, to be fair, varying degrees of success), but for a native Russian speaker seems like it would more of a challenge. Obviously I was wrong.
posted by threeturtles at 9:43 PM on May 8, 2016


If that's a thing the FBI made up, the lie did exactly what it was supposed to - put Canada in a corner. They can't grant citizenship to a suspected SVR spy

Yes they can - the two kids (regardless of indoctrination or whatever) are now completely useless as spies, aren't they? What Harald74 said.

Also, that really is terrible for them. It's pretty bad finding out some part of your life is a lie, but finding out the whole thing is a lie and you're kinda screwed because of your parents is a whole 'nother level of awful.
posted by iffthen at 11:37 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]


Rhys Welsh-ed it up in an episode of Archer.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:06 AM on May 9, 2016


That Ellen clip is astonishing. We see Matthew Rhys speaking in his regular American voice, and then for some reason he comes out wearing a leek on his vest and performing this outlandishly unbelievable Welsh accent. So weird!

Here's Rhys goofing with other accents.
posted by Nelson at 10:30 AM on May 9, 2016


As a learner of a second language that I can speak decently, I am REALLY curious how they were able to sound like native speakers of English- I wish the article addressed this. That is very difficult!

I am also curious about how it was for them to hide or do away with cultural practices from Russia.

Does The Americans address any of these questions?
posted by bearette at 11:48 AM on May 9, 2016


The fictional TV show talks a bit about cultural issues. Like in a recent episode, Philip eats some borscht with another Russian spy and notes he hadn't had borscht in years. He doesn't seem particularly pleased with it either.

Most of the show is about the Americanization of the spies. Them enjoying American culture and wealth, while still staying true to Soviet ideology. Another tension frequently explored is how the kids are American through-and-through, and whether the Russian spy parents want their kids to just be normal Americans or to bring them into the Russian spy life at some point.

Seriously, The Americans is some of the best TV drama being produced right now. It's not quite as high-concept as The Wire or Breaking Bad, but the writing and acting are on that level. Highly recommend it. You want to start at the beginning.
posted by Nelson at 11:59 AM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am also curious about how it was for them to hide or do away with cultural practices from Russia.

So many ways to slip. The show's Russian translator mentions one tell during an episode of Slate's podcast: when Russians count on their fingers they don't start with a fist, instead their hand is open and they close their fingers one by one.
posted by kingless at 12:45 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well, ok, but if my neighbor counted on her fingers in a weird way, I would think she had a quirky way of counting on her fingers, not that she was a Russian spy. I think that part of it is that undercover Russian-spyness is never going to be anyone's default explanation for odd behavior.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:56 PM on May 9, 2016


DAMN YOU, REALITY, why did you have to steal a major subplot of my forthcoming trilogy (first book due out next January) in advance?

(OK, my sleeper spies are East German Stasi—for added lulz, agents of a state which no longer exists—not FSB, but you get the picture ...)
posted by cstross at 1:37 PM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


Joe Haldeman used Soviet sleeper agents in 1987's Tool of the Trade.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:54 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Well, ok, but if my neighbor counted on her fingers in a weird way, I would think she had a quirky way of counting on her fingers, not that she was a Russian spy.

But if you were a decently-trained defense contractor, you might notice if your new golf buddy or the woman flirting with you at the hotel bar did it.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:17 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


my sleeper spies are East German Stasi

Looking forward to the trilogy. Other fans of The Americans have said that Deutschland 83 is very good so I'm saving it for the end of this season.
posted by kingless at 5:31 PM on May 9, 2016


It chills me to the bone that this actually happened in real life. Thanks a lot, Putin.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:27 AM on May 10, 2016


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