U.S. began planning spy swap long before it arrested Russian agents
WASHINGTON — President Barack 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, it was a group effort, authorized by the president.
Traded in Vienna
The 10 Russian agents returned Friday to Moscow, following a swap on an Austrian airport’s tarmac for four Russian prisoners who were whisked to freedom in Britain or the United States.
The nine Russians and a Peruvian-born naturalized U.S. citizen boarded a Russian government Yak-42 jet about noon in Vienna after disembarking from a U.S. charter Boeing 767 that had carried them overnight from New York. They then arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport early Friday evening and were whisked away in a convoy of vehicles. Anna Chapman, the redhead who won the most attention, called her sister from the runway, say- ing, “Everything’s fine. We’ve landed,” the Russian website LifeNews.ru reported.
A senior U.S. official said most of the underage children of the “sleeper” agents were sent to Russia ahead of their parents. “Everyone feels for them. The last thing you want to do is march them out on the tarmac with their parents” in front of TV cameras, he said.
Meanwhile, two of the Russians released by Moscow — former KGB officers Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko— arrived Friday evening at Dulles International Airport near Washington, a law enforcement official said on condition of anonymity.
The other two freed Russians left the chartered jet earlier during a stop at a British military base. U.S. officials identified them as Sergei Skripal, a former KGB colonel, and Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher.
With the swap 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 will be as if the biggest spy swap since the Cold War never happened.
swap list before arrests
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.
During 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.
Before a 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 the three former KGB officers and Sutyagin, who was a researcher for a Moscow think tank 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.”
During a taping Friday of “The Tonight Show,” Vice President Joe Biden made the same point when he was asked by a skeptical Jay Leno why the U.S. was sending 10 accused spies back to Russia while getting only four in return.
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Leno said.
“We got back four really good ones,” Biden reassured Leno. “And the 10, they’ve been here a long time, but they hadn’t done much.”
Waldo Mariscal, center, 38-year-old son of accused spy Vicky Pelaez, tells reporters Friday in Yonkers, N.Y., that he still doubts his parents, who were flown Friday to Moscow, were really Russian spies.