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Dramatic U.S.-Moscow prisoner swap came 60 years before Griner release

Francis Gary Powers, on Aug. 17, 1960, during the opening of his espionage trial in Moscow. (TASS/AP)
6 min

Sixty years ago before the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner, Washington and Moscow made perhaps the most famous prisoner swap in U.S. history, when the Soviet Union released a CIA pilot who had been shot down over its airspace in exchange for a Soviet spy imprisoned in the United States for espionage.

The American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, faced a nearly identical prison term to that of Griner, who was released from Russian custody Thursday in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Powers had been sentenced to 10 years of Soviet imprisonment after his 1960 conviction for espionage; Griner received a 9.5-year sentence on charges of entering Russia with vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.

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Both prisoners the United States released faced much longer sentences. Bout was serving a 25-year sentence. The Soviet spy the United States traded for Powers, Col. Rudolf Abel, had been sentenced to 30 years back in 1957.

The 1962 Abel-Powers exchange was actually a two-for-one deal for the United States, which also secured the release of Frederic Pryor, an American graduate student whom the East German government had held but not charged. Abel and Powers traded places on a foggy morning on a bridge connecting East Germany and West Berlin, but not before the United States got assurance of Pryor’s release at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie.

“As in a Hitchcock thriller, the Abel-Powers exchange was held up for a few minutes after the two heavily guarded principals were driven to the Glienicke Bridge,” The Washington Post reported at the time. “Before handing Abel over to the Communists who held Powers, the Americans waited for word that Pryor had been released.”

It wasn’t Alfred Hitchcock but Steven Spielberg who in 2015 would turn the gripping story into a movie, “Bridge of Spies.”

The 1960 capture of Powers, an American U-2 pilot, was a major international incident, leading to the cancellation of a summit meeting between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev announced that a U.S. plane had been shot down deep in Soviet territory, and the United States came up with a flimsy cover story: NASA said one of its planes was conducting a weather reconnaissance flight and had accidentally crossed into Soviet airspace.

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In fact, Powers was on a mission to photograph the Soviet Union’s long-range ballistic missiles.

Abel, meanwhile, led a clandestine network in the United States after entering the country illegally from Canada in 1948. FBI agents arrested him in a Manhattan hotel room in 1957 on espionage charges. CIA Director Allen W. Dulles recognized Abel’s value as a Soviet spy when he said, “I wish we had three or four [intelligence agents] like him inside Moscow right now.”

A Brooklyn Bar Association committee appointed James B. Donovan as Abel’s lawyer. Donovan — played by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies” — helped pave the way for the prisoner exchange when he convinced the judge not to sentence his client to death, arguing that Abel could be traded for a U.S. agent or become a source of intelligence.

Several years after his client’s conviction, Donovan traveled to Berlin and, with the U.S. government’s authorization, helped negotiate the 1962 prisoner exchange. (Later that year, Donovan negotiated with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and secured the release of more than 1,100 prisoners captured in the Bay of Pigs invasion, in exchange for U.S. food and medicine worth $53 million.)

The Berlin prisoner exchange was understandably big news in the United States, but the Soviet Union’s take was more or less: What prisoner exchange?

The government announced it had pardoned and released Powers after receiving a petition from his relatives, “guided by a desire to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.” It made no reference to the Americans’ release of a Soviet spy.

“Communist authorities never told their people that Abel was convicted of spying in the United States and was sent to prison for 30 years,” the Associated Press reported at the time. “Only ‘imperialist, colonialist, aggressive, war mongering’ countries have spies, according to Soviet doctrine.”

The Soviet Union looked to maximize the international significance of Powers’s release, while the United States sought to minimize it, The Post reported in a front-page story after the exchange. The American pilot’s release, the paper said, was probably part of a “powerful campaign for ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the United States that has brought the Soviet Union into serious ideological conflict with Communist China … whose policy is based on militant communism and complete hostility toward the United States.”

But U.S. officials were wary of this “coexistence.” In the past week, the story noted, Moscow Radio had stated that “the principles of peaceful coexistence demand a victory over the militant and inhumane character of the imperialists,” although it also said that “Soviet people would like to be friends with Americans.”

Powers was not treated as a hero upon his return, in part because his instructions were to destroy his plane if he believed he would be captured. (He said he had tried to, but the mechanism on the plane didn’t work.) He acknowledged giving the Soviets information about the plane, which he said he figured they already knew.

“I could have got up and just made a big patriotic speech and not told them a thing,” he said years later, according to the AP. “But I don’t think it would have served any purpose. It might have made a hero out of me. I have no desire to be a hero.”

He had trouble landing work back in the United States, and in his 1970 book, “Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident,” he blamed the CIA for not having his back.

“He said the CIA had never told him to commit suicide if captured — an impression which was allowed to remain in the media,” the AP reported.

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In “Bridge of Spies,” Hanks, as Donovan, tells his CIA handlers, “Everybody hates Powers. He didn’t kill himself and he let the commies parade him on television. He’s the most hated man in America. After Rudolf Abel, maybe. And me.” Donovan received abusive calls and letters calling him a “commie lover.”

Seventeen years after his plane crashed in the Soviet Union, Powers was killed when the helicopter he was piloting for KNBC-TV crashed in Los Angeles in 1977. He was 47.

“Mr. Powers was a curious figure in American history,” the New York Times observed at the time. “He was one of the nation’s most famous spies. Yet, he was anything but a glamorous agent. Rather he was essentially a technician — a bland figure who perhaps symbolized the modern era of espionage by computer and electronic surveillance, a human element necessary only until robot satellites would come along.”

An obituary in The Post described Powers as “a quiet, unassuming man, who seemed ill-suited to the role of international superspy.”