U.S., Russia reach deal on exchanging spies
Friday, July 9, 2010
In a rapidly arranged spy swap reminiscent of Cold War intrigues, the U.S. government on Thursday agreed to expel 10 agents who had burrowed into American society and in return won the release of four Russians jailed for illegal contacts with the West.
The spies pleaded guilty to acting as unregistered foreign agents for Russia, a charge well short of espionage. They had endured only a few days of jail time since their arrests in the United States last month; in prior cases, spies spent years behind bars before being exchanged.
U.S. officials said there was no point in holding the agents, since authorities had monitored their activities for years and had unraveled their network. Obama administration officials said they had been eager to win the release of the four Russians, some of whom have spent long stretches in prison and are in poor health.
The deal was expected to remove an irritant from the U.S.-Russia relationship, which has improved markedly under the Obama administration. But one senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that "vestiges of an old Russia" are evident in the spying case. "Frankly, that's why we were as aggressive in rolling up this operation as we were," the official said.
President Obama has not spoken to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the spy swap but has been "fully briefed and engaged in the matter," the administration official said. "It did come to the [U.S.] president for his authorization. And he gave it."
Another senior U.S. official said the timing of the spies' arrests, just days after the two presidents happily munched cheeseburgers during a visit to Washington by Medvedev, was coincidental. It was driven "by our knowledge that one individual intended to depart the United States" imminently, the official said.
The U.S. government declined to name the four Russians being released from custody. But a Kremlin statement identified them as Alexander Zaporozhsky, Sergei Skripal and Gennady Vasilenko, all former intelligence officers; and Igor Sutyagin, a nuclear expert at a think tank.
The 10 U.S.-based spies were expelled from the country after appearing in federal court in Manhattan Thursday afternoon. The agents walked into Courtroom 26a in groups of five, some wearing beige-and-blue prison jumpsuits and others sporting T-shirts and jeans. One by one, they entered their pleas. The courtroom was silent as the judge asked the defendants to reveal their identities.
The man known as "Richard Murphy" hesitated, apparently unsure which name to use. "Your true identity," said Judge Kimba Wood. Then "Murphy" gave his name: Vladimir Guryev.
Peruvian-born Vicky Pelaez, a naturalized U.S. citizen and the only non-Russian among the agents, burst into tears as she spotted a loved one among the onlookers. Anna Chapman, the Russian diplomat's daughter whose photos have become an Internet sensation, played with her red hair, attempting to tie it back.
The hearing brought an abrupt conclusion to one of the more unusual spy cases in U.S. history. The 10 agents -- and a suspect still at large after disappearing in Cyprus -- were "sleepers" whose job was to blend in at high-powered institutions such as Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government or in Manhattan financial circles, officials said.