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Kenneth E. deGraffenreid, former deputy national counterintelligence executive, a senior counterspy policy coordinator, said the U.S. intelligence community has had a “dismal” record in detecting and countering foreign spies.

“By contrast, the uncovering of this ‘illegals’ network appears to be a brilliant piece of CI by the FBI,” he said.

“To release these Russian illegals, particularly under the guise of a phony ‘spy swap,’ would be a terrible and demoralizing blow to the building of the counterintelligence and counterterrorism capabilities we need now more than ever,” he said, noting that terrorists are “illegals.”

Asked about the criticism, the senior administration official said that the 10 spies had been under surveillance for many years and that their incarceration would not benefit U.S. national security.

Additionally, the SVR’s operations have been severely disrupted in the United States by the case. “We effectively shut down their illegals program,” the official said.

Asked if there could be secret elements to the deal, such as diplomatic favors, former CIA Director James Woolsey said it was possible but that, “generally speaking, it’s people for people - and it has been going back to the early days of the Cold War.”

“It kind of looks like the gang that can’t spy straight,” Mr. Woolsey said. “A surmise on my part would be that it stems in part from the sense of paranoia in Russia that there are secret inner circles of the American decision-making process they might be able to penetrate.”

Mr. Woolsey said the illegals network “suggests that the KGB has more money than it knows what to do with.”