The spy scandal that erupted last month with the arrest of 10 Russian spies ended in record time. Their hastily arranged departure is reminiscent of the relatives of Osama bin Laden being flown out of the United States after Sept. 11.
Following guilty pleas, the United States agreed to exchange the 10 Russians for four prisoners held in Russia who had been convicted of working for Western intelligence services. A government official, speaking anonymously before the agreement was announced, said that swap would not be a fair one. He was right. The 10 Russians each served 11 days of prison time. The four Russian prisoners served a total of 32 years in prison.
A former Justice Department official who supervised many espionage cases was reported as saying that the terms of this spy swap were “all but unprecedented,” pointing out that he could recall only one case during the Cold War in which a Soviet spy was exchanged before being convicted and serving time in prison. One can only assume that political and diplomatic considerations won the day.
It also was reported that the Russians, not the Americans, were promoting this exchange. It’s not hard to figure out why: The Russians wanted these individuals returned before they started talking to the FBI. (An attorney for one defendant who initially expressed an unwillingness to plead guilty and leave the United States said the Russian government had offered his client a lifetime payment of $2,000 a month and other incentives to change her mind. She did.)
Despite 10 years of FBI surveillance, none of the 10 Russians was charged with espionage, but with lesser crimes of conspiracy to commit money laundering and failing to register with the Department of Justice as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Though it is possible that no members of the Russian network of “illegals” committed espionage while in the United States, it also is possible that we were not able to obtain any evidence of such acts. Another possibility exists that the United States did not wish to bring the case to court for fear of having to divulge classified information about our intelligence-gathering activities, which no doubt are being used to track more “illegals.” Finally, a recent espionage case brought against officials of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) was withdrawn by the Justice Department. There are no guarantees when you bring a case to court.
Questions remain unanswered about this spy network. Despite its portrayal in the media as incompetent, snippets of information about its work in the United States for more than 10 years have been leaking out, suggesting the spies may have played a more important and effective role working for Russian intelligence.
One spy may have been servicing dead drops for the FBI-agent-turned-Soviet-spy Robert Hanssen. In an article published by the George Washington University newspaper, a professor at the university who worked with one of the spies, Donald Heathfield, said that “in retrospect, I marvel at how well he … infiltrated the normal activities of life in Washington policy circles.” Although these spies may have never been able to gain access to classified information and thus not violate our espionage laws, there is much to be learned elsewhere from unclassified “open” sources that is very valuable. With the release of these spies, these and other questions will never be answered.
Perhaps we could have held on to them for a little while longer. The real threat of prison time might have forced them to talk. Allowing the Russian spies to leave this country without serving any time in prison - unlike their counterparts - sends a bad message to other Russian spies that if they get caught by the United States, they will not go to jail. With published reports suggesting that Russian intelligence activities in the United States are at levels as high or higher than during the Cold War, this is not a good signal for the United States to send.
Charles Pinck is a partner in the Georgetown Group, an investigative and security-services firm.