On Feb. 10, 2008, Joseph Fradel, an American citizen, was stopped and searched at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport while en route back to the United States. Russian airport security officials found in Fradel’s possession a second U.S. passport under a different name.
Fradel’s response was unexpected: He immediately attempted to eat the second passport. When security officers grabbed the partially ingested passport, they saw the picture on the second document was the same as in Fradel’s passport, but the name wasn’t Joseph Fradel. It was Naum Morgovsky. Russian authorities let the man leave the country, but alerted their U.S. counterparts about the potential identity theft.
When Fradel landed in San Francisco, he was confronted by U.S. officials, and was found carrying credit cards in Morgovsky’s name, as well as business cards for Hitek, a night-vision company owned by Morgovsky.
A Joseph Fradel had died in Maryland in 1969. The real name of the traveler, who was arrested on the spot for passport fraud, was indeed Naum Morgovsky.
Then, for nearly a decade, the court case describing the passport-eating incident disappeared, sealed by a federal judge. This summer, Naum Morgovsky, an immigrant from Soviet-era Ukraine, and his wife, Irina Morgovsky, pleaded guilty in San Francisco federal court to breaking U.S. laws on exporting military equipment.
At its core, the case against the Morgovskys, which prosecutors have described as “a dizzying panoply of criminal activity,” revolved around allegations that the couple masterminded a scheme to export hundreds of military-grade night-vision device parts and other image-intensifier technologies to Russia, in violation of U.S. export control laws. Many of these devices were smuggled to a Moscow-based night-vision company that is a supplier to the Russian military and the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB.
The Morgovskys’ tale, however, is not an isolated one. Former intelligence officials say it’s part of a larger story of Russia’s appetite for Western cutting-edge technologies with military applications. The Department of Justice has prosecuted at least five cases involving the illegal export of night-vision equipment to Russia in the past five years. All five cases involved the latest generation of night-vision devices that Russia in recent years has had trouble producing domestically.
Much of the public focus on Russia’s covert activities in the United States has focused on salacious cases, like Maria Butina, the Russian gun-rights supporter who is accused of acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States, or attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. But old-fashioned theft of military technology — once a staple of the Cold War — is still alive and thriving.
It is technology with life-and-death implications: The Pentagon has been sending thousands of advanced night-vision devices to Ukraine at a time when Russia, which is backing separatists in the country’s east, has been struggling to produce comparable devices. Russian soldiers in Syria fighting to prop up President Bashar Assad rely on night-vision devices, and there have been reports that Russia is supplying night-vision technology to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“The Russians have been after night-vision technology forever,” says one former senior intelligence community official. “For whatever reason, it seems to have eluded them.” And, as a series of other court cases and leaked emails show, Russia’s appetite appears to be intensifying.
Night-vision technology, which allows the wearer to see in almost total darkness, dates to World War II. The devices intensify images through collecting ambient light, like that from the moon and stars; other, newer related technologies track thermal, or heat-based, emissions, which are invisible to the naked eye. After the Vietnam War, where night-vision devices were first used widely, the United States invested heavily in the technology, believing it would allow the U.S. military to “own the night,” that is, to possess an overwhelming tactical edge in darkness.