Cold War-style swap sends secret agents to Russia, with haste
WASHINGTON — In a rapidly arranged spy swap reminiscent of Cold War intrigues, the U.S. government Thursday night sent to Russia 10 agents who had burrowed into American society, and in return won the release of four jailed Russians accused of passing information to the West.
The Russian spies — who pleaded guilty Thursday to acting as unregistered foreign agents and were ordered deported — 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 on to the Russian agents, because 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 held by Moscow, some of whom had spent long stretches in prison and were in poor health.
The deal was expected to remove an irritant from the U.S.-Russia relationship. But one senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that “vestiges of an old Russia” were 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 Barack Obama hasn’t spoken to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the spy swap, but he has been “fully briefed and engaged in the matter,” said the administration official. “It did come to the (U.S.) president for his authorization,” the official said of the spies’ arrests. “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 identify the four Russians being sent to the United States. But a Kremlin statement identified them as Alexander Zaporozhsky, Sergei Skripal and Gennady Vasilenko, all former Russian 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 Thursday afternoon in federal court in Manhattan. 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 he gave his name as Vladimir Guryev.
His wife rose and said, “My true name is Lydia Guryev.”
All but three — Anna Chapman, Mikhail Semenko and Vicky Pelaez — had assumed false
identities in the United States.
Peruvian-born Pelaez, the only non-Russian among the agents, burst into tears as she spotted a loved one among the onlookers.
Her attorney, John Rodriguez, said in court that the Russian government had promised Pelaez $2,000 a month for life, housing and documents to allow her children to visit Russia and have all their expenses paid. But she said the promises didn’t induce her to plead guilty.
Chapman, a Russian diplomat’s daughter whose photos have become an Internet sensation, played with her red hair during the hearing, attempting to tie it back. But most of the defendants were stony-faced.
Chapman looked baffled when the judge asked if her secret laptop exchanged with a Russian official was “in furtherance of the conspiracy.” She finally looked at her lawyer, shrugged and replied, “Yes.” Asked by the judge if she realized at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, “Yes, I did, your honor.”
The hearing brought an abrupt conclusion to one of the more unusual spy cases in U.S. history. The 11 agents — one is still at large after disappearing in Cyprus — were sleepers whose job was to blend in at high-powered institutions such as the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University 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 weren’t 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 children, officials said that was up to their parents, indicating they were likely to accompany them to Russia.
Despite the benefits promised at least to Pelaez, the group is unlikely to be greeted as heroes in Russia.
Independent newspapers and liberal commentators in Russia have chafed at the obvious lack of results of the spy ring work and ridiculed the low level of their training.