By Mary Beth Sheridan and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 9, 2010; A01
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.
Their mission was to gather information and identify potential future government employees who could be helpful, officials said.
Tales emerged of their seemingly ordinary lives in the suburbs, where they raised children together, even though the four couples were not really married, U.S. officials said. The agents passed on information to a shadowy Russian intelligence apparatus known as "Moscow Center," using invisible ink and sophisticated computer networks.
Asked about the future of the spies' American-born offspring, officials said that was up to their parents, indicating the children were likely to accompany them to Russia.
The agents are far different from other notable U.S. spies for the Soviet Union, such as Robert P. Hanssen and Aldrich H. Ames, who did major damage to national security. In contrast, the agents had been ordered not to seek classified data, and it remains unclear if they did any harm to the U.S. government.
U.S. law enforcement officials praised what they said was a successful outcome.
"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.
Still, some analysts questioned the rapid release of the sleeper agents.
"One thing that makes it harder to recruit people for work like this is the prospect you're going to be in a world of hurt if you get caught. If the worst you have to worry about is the American government's catch-and-release policy, what kind of deterrent is that?" said Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations.
John L. Martin, who supervised dozens of espionage cases during a 26-year career at the Justice Department, said earlier spy exchanges took years to work out. The speed at which the latest one occurred was "absolutely unprecedented," he said.
Indeed, the swap could feed Republican criticism that the Obama administration is too accommodating toward Russia.
Obama administration officials said the deal illustrated the good working relationship between the former Cold War enemies. After initially denying that the agents worked for Moscow, the Russian government did an about-face and was willing to deal, U.S. officials said.
"We drove the terms of this arrangement, which was based on national security as well as humanitarian grounds," said one of the U.S. officials.
The quick agreement suggested both Washington and Moscow wanted to move beyond the scandal, which occurred as the Senate is weighing a new bilateral nuclear arms-control accord.
Officials also indicated that the spies had provided little useful information after their arrests.
One of Russia's conditions was that the four men it released sign statements acknowledging their guilt, but Russian news agencies said that Medvedev had also issued pardons for them.
U.S. officials declined to confirm whether the four Russians were indeed spies for the West. And they refused to give details on when or how the spy exchange would occur.
Sutyagin has denied being a spy, a statement backed up by the State Department. Human-rights groups denounced his conviction in 2001 as an effort by the Kremlin to muzzle researchers.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus and SpyTalk columnist Jeff Stein in Washington, staff writer Michael W. Savage in New York and researcher Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.