Less than two weeks after the FBI broke the spy ring in a counterintelligence operation cultivated for a decade, 10 Russian secret agents caught in the U.S. are back in Russia, four convicted of spying for the West have been pardoned and released by Moscow, and bilateral relations appear on track again.
In describing how the swap unfolded, U.S. officials made clear that even before the arrests, Washington wanted not only to take down a spy network but to move beyond the provocative moment.
Channels of communication that once coursed with world-shaking superpower crises were reflexively put into play. Moscow and Washington not only have a history of nuclear-tipped tension but also long experience keeping those tensions in check.
Just imagine if the U.S. had been caught up in a spy flare-up with Iran instead.
“This case has been done with electrifying speed,” said John L. Martin, who oversaw Cold War espionage prosecutions and trades during a 27-year career at the Justice Department. “I’ve never seen so much pressure to do it quickly.”
The detailed case against the network of secret Russian agents was brought to the attention of the White House in February, officials said. On June 11, President Barack Obama was briefed on the matter.
Well before FBI agents moved against the operatives late that month, Washington had in mind that they might become bargaining chips to free Russians imprisoned for betraying Moscow and helping the West.
The U.S. arrests were not made to facilitate a swap, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence. Rather, they were precipitated, at least partly, by the plans of several of the Russians to leave this country this summer. He said that as the time approached to take down the ring, the question officials asked each other was, “Once the arrests take place, what do we do?”
CIA and FBI officials decided that because the sleepers had been observed and tracked by U.S. agents for so long, there was nothing to be gained or learned from them, the official said. Once in custody, the operatives “provided an opportunity for us to get something from the Russians.”
The idea of a swap advanced.
The CIA was assigned to make the initial approach, “testing the waters, and following through,” the official said. About a day after the arrests were made, the CIA contacted the Russian service to say, “We had a proposal to resolve the situation.”
The Russians, despite crying foul in public over the arrests, were ready to privately listen.
That set the stage for three phone calls between CIA Director Leon Panetta and Russia’s spy chief, Mikhail Fradkov. Panetta identified the four prisoners being held in Russia that the U.S. wanted to free, several U.S. officials said.
“I think the U.S. government had its end game lined up when it started this process,” said attorney Peter Krupp, who represented Donald Heathfield, one of the U.S. defendants.
“The Justice Department and perhaps the State Department moved mountains that couldn’t be moved by local officials to orchestrate a meeting between my client in Boston on Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend,” said Krupp.
Daniel Lopez, who represented defendant Mikhail Semenko in the case, says he has handled over 1,000 criminal cases “and I’ve never seen one move this quickly.”
On Monday, four days after becoming Semenko’s court-appointed lawyer in Alexandria, Va., Lopez got a phone call from a federal prosecutor telling him that “it would be in your client’s best interests to agree to come to New York as fast as you can because either he is ‘on the bus’ when it’s leaving or he is not.”
“I said ‘Do we have a plea agreement in this case?’ And he said ‘yes,’” Lopez recalled. But Lopez had no idea yet that his client was to become part of a spy swap.
All 10 defendants were assembled in New York from various jails to enter guilty pleas, complete the swap arrangements and be deported.
Once Russian diplomats talked to defendants or their lawyers to lay out what was going on, it became clear from their side as well that the operatives were merely pawns in a chess game controlled by Washington and Moscow.
Lopez said two Russian diplomats approached him Thursday as his client waited to plead.
“I said, ‘What is going to happen to my client’s belongings?’” and one diplomat replied, “It’s not important.”
“I said, ‘Well, what is important is for my client to know when he is going to leave.’ One of them said, ‘He’s leaving today … as soon as this is over, we’re going to the airport, straight to Europe and from there to Russia.’”
“I was amazed,” said Lopez.
Robert Krakow, attorney for Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov, said he was surprised to learn Russian officials had met his client without his knowledge. “I was not happy about it,” he said. “But the last thing I want to do is have my needs as a lawyer intrude upon events that are unfolding.”
Prosecutors sent Krakow a plea deal letter close to what was eventually agreed upon. When he first told his client, Vasenkov rejected the idea of going to Russia.
“He said, ‘No, I’m not going. What am I going to do in Russia?’” the lawyer recalled. Vasenkov, 66, went by the name Juan Lazaro, falsely claimed he was South American and lived in a Yonkers, N.Y., home paid for by Russian intelligence.
“It became clear that the choices were limited,” Krakow went on, and his client agreed to go — promised support for himself and his family in their new life. John Rodriguez, lawyer for Vasenkov’s wife Vicky Pelaez, said the couple had 24 hours to accept the “all-or-nothing” deal to go to Moscow or face years behind bars in the U.S.
Krakow said when he met the Russian representatives, one of them told him his “mission was to get this done.”
“We didn’t like him,” Krakow said. “He was very heavy-handed. It was sort of like the imperative: ‘This is what we will do.’ His manner was: ‘This is what’s going to happen.’”
And that is what happened with all 10, leaving only one pawn eluding the chess masters, at least for now. He is Christopher Metsos, on the run after posting bail in Cyprus.
Associated Press writers Kim Dozier and Pete Yost in Washington and Larry Neumeister in New York contributed to this report.