U.S. be­gan plan­ning spy swap long be­fore it ar­rested Rus­sian agents

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Karen Deyoung

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.”

Seth Wenig As­so­Ci­ATED PREss

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.

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