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Spy swap hatched in Oval Office


US and Russian planes parked at Vienna airport where a 14-person spy swap is thought to have taken place (AP)

US and Russian planes parked at Vienna airport where a 14-person spy swap is thought to have taken place (AP)

US and Russian planes parked at Vienna airport where a 14-person spy swap is thought to have taken place (AP)

The largest US-Russian spy swap since the Cold War unfolded in less than a month from an idea secretly hatched in the Oval Office to reality on a remote stretch of Vienna airport tarmac.

The whirlwind exchange took place early on Friday in a choreographed script of spy novel intrigue. Two planes, one from New York, the other from Moscow, arrived within minutes of each other and parked nose-to-tail.

Their passengers - 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in the US and four prisoners accused by Russia of spying for the West - were ferried to each other, and the planes departed again just as quickly.

The whole thing, a soundless drama seen only at a distance through camera lenses, took less than an hour and a half - displaying the efficiency of an extraordinary new chapter in US-Russian relations.

The 10 Russian agents who had blended into US communities, including Anna Chapman, the woman who had caught Americans' fancy with her Facebook photos, soon landed in Moscow. And four other Russians accused of spying for the West headed the other way, two of them arriving at Dulles International Airport outside Washington at the end of the capital's working day.

Their chartered aircraft, a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200, had stopped briefly at a southern England air base, where a US official said two of the four were dropped off before the plane continued across the Atlantic.

The swap idea was Washington's, first raised with President Barack Obama nearly a month ago when the FBI and US Justice Department officials who had been watching the 10 Russian agents hiding in suburban America for over a decade informed the president it was time to start planning their arrests, according to two White House officials.

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What was known as "the illegals programme" had been first brought to the White House's attention months before, in February, triggering weeks of meetings about how and when to proceed, the officials said. It became clear in early June that at least two of the Russians were making plans to leave the US, meaning the whole operation now had to be rolled up more quickly than originally thought.

The timing of the arrests was deliberated with Mr Obama on that June 11 Friday afternoon in the Oval Office, along with the expected charges for the individuals and the potential impact on Washington's freshly "reset" relationship with its former Cold War rival. Also considered, the officials said, was the matter of what should happen afterwards. One of the recommendations was to propose a swap to Russia.

The arrests were not planned to facilitate such a trade, said a separate US official. But since the Russian agents had never penetrated the US government, it seemed Washington could benefit more from using them for barter than as prisoners to be locked up for years. The president approved.

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