U.S. seized opportunity in arrests of Russian spies

A plane carrying Russians who had been charged with spying for the West arrives in the United States.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010

President Obama's national security team spent weeks before the arrest of 10 Russian spies preparing for their takedown and assembling a list of prisoners Moscow might be willing to trade for the agents, senior administration officials said Friday.

U.S. officials began negotiating with their Russian counterparts shortly after the spies were arrested late last month, the officials said. Before long, the sides had reached an agreement that included pledges that neither would engage in any further "retaliatory steps," such as a diplomatic freeze or expulsions, and that neither would harass each other's officials or citizens.

Officials who provided details of how it all unfolded concentrated Friday on what they described as the smooth integration of the administration's law enforcement, intelligence and diplomatic teams in tracking the Russian agents and turning the situation into a national security victory rather than a source of political and public concern and potential criticism. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because, they said, the undertaking had been a group effort, authorized by the president.

Now, with the swap on an airport tarmac in Vienna completed, the administration hopes the episode will remain a nonissue between Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, treated as one of the occasional, fleeting bumps in a smooth road ahead for relations between their countries.

With any luck, U.S. officials indicated, it would be as if the biggest spy swap since the end of the Cold War had never happened.

The first time White House officials learned about the spies was in February, when representatives of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department held a briefing, according to one official. The briefers laid out "the broad contours" of what had been a decade-long investigation of a network of Russian "sleeper" agents placed in this country under false identities, and provided specifics about the individual agents.

Over the next several months, as concern grew that some of the agents were preparing to leave the United States, they discussed the timing of the arrests. Obama was first told about the Russian program and the long-running investigation June 11.

"He was also informed about plans for the arrests, and how that would be effected, what they would be charged with . . . [and] follow-on actions that were contemplated at that time," an official said.

Further presidential briefings followed, as did meetings among top national security officials but without Obama. Throughout those sessions, an official said, "there was a full discussion . . . about what was going to happen on the day after" the arrests.

Although there had been no final decision, the CIA and State Department had begun assembling a list of candidates for a swap, focusing on criteria that included humanitarian concerns and the general category of espionage.

They discarded the possibility of asking Moscow for individuals with no intelligence connections, and they found that the universe of imprisoned Russians who had been accused of spying for the West was surprisingly small. The list eventually included three former KGB officers and a researcher for a Moscow think tank who had been convicted of passing sensitive information to what Russia had alleged to be a CIA front company in London.

The idea of a swap "made perfect sense," an official said. There has been mild criticism from unnamed retired intelligence officials and some politicians that the release of the Russian spies gave away intelligence information, but "we didn't really have anything to learn from the agents themselves. We'd basically been looking over their shoulders for years."

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