The United States and Russia carried out a major spy exchange echoing the past era of Cold War espionage Friday when 10 deep-cover Russian agents recently arrested by the FBI were exchanged at an airport in Vienna, Austria, for four people held by Moscow on spy charges.
The spy swap was the largest prisoner transfer of its kind since the 1980s, when U.S. and Soviet bloc spies and agents were traded over Berlin's Glienicke Bridge separating the American sector of West Berlin from communist East Germany.
Two planes -- one from New York's La Guardia airport and another from Moscow -- arrived in Vienna within minutes of each other, parked nose-to-tail at a remote section on the tarmac, then spent about an hour and a half before departing just as quickly, the Associated Press reported from Vienna.
The swap completed, a Russian Emergencies Ministry Yakovlvev Yak-42 plane left Vienna reportedly carrying the 10 people deported from the U.S. Shortly afterward, a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 that brought those agents in from New York took off, apparently with four Russians who had confessed to spying for the West, the AP reported. No information was immediately available as to the planes' destinations. But the Russian flight was thought to heading for Moscow, while the U.S. charter was likely flying to London.
The Justice Department announced the trade in a statement Thursday evening, saying the 10 Russian agents - all but one a Russian national - had pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan to conspiracy to work as unregistered foreign agents. They were then ordered by a judge to be expelled from the country.
The deal came 12 days after the FBI rolled up a decade-long investigation by arresting the group of agents, called "illegals" because they posed as Americans and did not work under diplomatic immunity.
Court papers said the agents had been dispatched by Moscow to obtain U.S. secrets and to influence the U.S. government while posing as Americans in Washington, New York and Boston.
The spies were working for Russia's foreign intelligence service, known by its Russian acronym SVR - the successor to the Soviet KGB political police and intelligence service.
A senior Obama administration official who briefed reporters on the swap Thursday evening explained some of the considerations that factored into the exchange.
"We drove the terms of this arrangement," the senior official said, noting that law enforcement officials were mainly involved in the discussions.
The poor health of those imprisoned in Russia also was a factor. "We wanted to move quickly because we saw it in our interest to see if we could obtain the release of these individuals," the senior official said.
According to the official, Russia's government, after initially denying publicly that the 10 agents worked for Moscow, shifted and admitted the 10 people were Russians. "We moved relatively quickly to the terms of the arrangement [after that]," the senior official said.
A second official said the timing of the arrests shortly after President Obama's meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was not intentional.
"No one should be surprised that some vestiges of the past remain or that the Russians have an active intelligence service," this official said.
Only one of the four Russians being released was actually linked to U.S. intelligence. The others had spied for U.S. allies, including Britain, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The last major spy exchange of its type took place in June 1985 when five Soviet intelligence agents who had been caught spying on behalf of the KGB in the 1980s were traded for a group of 25 U.S. and allied agents.
That exchange was followed by a second swap in February 1986 that freed human rights activist Nathan Sharansky, who was not a spy, and both exchanges took over two years of secret negotiations in Berlin and Washington, said former Justice Department lawyer John Martin, who took part in that swap.
U.S. officials said the main Russian to be set free in the deal is Igor V. Sutyagin, who was serving a 14-year sentence on charges of spying for the United States. He reportedly had been transferred to Vienna, Austria, and then to Britain as part of the exchange.
The Kremlin said the other three were Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service serving a 13-year sentence on charges of spying for Britain's MI6 foreign intelligence service; Aleksandr Zaporozhsky, another former Russian intelligence agent, serving an 18-year sentence; and Gennadi Vasilenko, a former KGB major, arrested first in 1998 for allegedly spying for the CIA and again in 2005 on illegal weapons charges.
An 11th member of the U.S.-based spy ring, who was identified in court papers as Christopher Metsos, fled to Cyprus before his arrest and was detained by Cypriot authorities who released him on bond and he fled again.
Court papers identified Mr. Metsos as the spymaster who met with several of the U.S.-based agents and provided them with cash.
Each of the 10, including four married couples, were required under the plea to reveal their true identities.
The couple known as Richard Murphy and Cynthia Murphy disclosed that they were Russian agents Vladimir Guryev and Lydia Guryev. Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills revealed they were really agents Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva, and Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley admitted to being agents Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova.
Juan Lazaro confessed to being Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov, a Russian agent.
Vicky Pelaez, the only U.S. national in the group, agreed to leave the country as part of the plea deal and never return. Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko admitted working for the Russian SVR intelligence service in the United States under their true names. Chapman and Semenko also admitted they are Russian citizens.
The Justice Department did not identify the four people who the statement said were held for their "alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies."
"This was an extraordinary case, developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers and prosecutors, and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests," Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said.
Critics of the exchange said it was carried out too quickly, likely limiting the ability of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to learn about SVR operations and activities in the United States.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview that he is concerned the U.S. side made too many concessions in the deal.
"The key here is did we get all the intelligence we needed to make sure that we got better insights into what [the Russians] are doing and trying to do against us? I don't know," he said.
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."
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