By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 10, 2010; A01
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."
The timing of the arrests was left in the hands of Justice and the FBI. When they finally moved on June 27, an official said, it was "entirely coincidental" that Medvedev had just left Washington after his seventh face-to-face visit with Obama.
Several officials said that the FBI's hand was forced by a flight out of the country booked for that night by one of the suspects for that night.
No one in the administration knew how the Russian government would react to the arrests, and the first response from Moscow was an official denial of the spy ring. But White House officials were heartened when the Russians reversed themselves within a day, and Obama quickly approved his national security team's recommendation that the swap be proposed.
CIA Director Leon Panetta was assigned to make the initial approach to his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov, and called him the day after the arrests. "They were ready to listen," a U.S. official said.
The four names were quickly transmitted and negotiations began. U.S. prosecutors began discussing a plea arrangement with the 10 in this country. In Moscow, the Russians accepted the U.S. list, gathered their own prisoners and arranged for presidential pardons. Panetta and Fradkov eventually spoke three times, the last call on July 3.
As the White House led daily 7:30 a.m. meetings on developments, the legal arrangements dragged into a second week. Members of the group of 10 wanted to know what their situation would be on return to Russia and what would happen to their children. In Moscow, the imprisoned researcher temporarily balked at agreeing to a pardon he said was a false admission of guilt.
Unanswered questions remain, particularly about the timing of the arrests. There were indications on June 26, according to law enforcement sources and the Russian news media, that at least one of the suspects, Anna Chapman, was approached by an FBI informant and suspected she had been unmasked.
That same morning, another of the 10, Mikhail Semenov, was lured by the FBI to a video-recorded "drop" of money supposedly sent by Moscow. Both undercover actions appeared to be inexplicable last-minute risks, if the plan to pick them up June 27 was already in motion.
Administration officials declined to discuss investigators' methods. "Clearly, they were here illegally, for intelligence purposes," one said. "That was their sole function, and that was the basis of the decision" to pick them up.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.