US and Russia make spy swap deal
Spies who had been facing years of incarceration in the US and Russia came in from the cold last night as they traveled in opposite directions around the globe, 10 headed eastward to Moscow and four who had been in detention in Russia beginning journeys to new lives in the West.
The extraordinary exchange unfolded last night after all 10 spies, whose deep-cover ring had been blown open by US authorities nearly two weeks ago, pleaded guilty in a court in New York to operating illegally as agents of a foreign country.
It became clear last night that the human bartering had been authorised at the highest levels, amidst reports that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had personally pardoned the four Russians being released from his cells. But before seeing the keys turned all four had been obliged to sign documents admitting their guilt.
In a similar flurry in Washington of leaks and intrigue, word came from the office of the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, that President Barack Obama had been kept abreast of the Le Carré-style theatre from its first inception and that he had made the decision to go forward with the exchange.
As the swap of a kind not seen since the Cold War unfolded, the US Justice Department confirmed in a letter that the 10 deep-cover agents caught within US borders would be dispatched to Russia. At the same time Moscow was releasing four who had been imprisoned for spying for the West. A US official said those who had been in Russia had suffered after being held in "incredibly difficult circumstances".
Among those was Igor Sutyagin, a Russian scientist, who, according to relatives, was being delivered first to Vienna and from there would be flown to Britain accompanied by UK agents.
Mr Sutyagin, a military analyst, was accused of passing information to a British company, Alternative Futures, that Moscow believed to be a CIA front. He has always maintained his innocence, insisting information was drawn from open sources. He was sentenced in 2004 to 15 years in jail.
"The network of unlawful agents operating inside the US has been dismantled," Mark Toner, of the State Department, said. "No significant national security benefit would be gained from the incarceration in the US of these 10 unlawful agents."
The US Attorney General Eric Holder said the "extraordinary" case took years of work, "and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the US and its interests."
As the courtroom drama unfolded in lower Manhattan, Judge Kimba Wood nodded as all 10 suspects said that they had voluntarily agreed to the plea bargains and sentenced each of them to time served – the eleven days since they were arrested.
Three of the couples, who had been paired up by the Russian intelligence services as part of their covers, had been raising children in the US. It appeared that two of them had already left the US bound for Moscow and two others were to be sent east with their parents – youngsters who until less than two weeks ago had considered themselves as American as their schoolmates and had no notion of their Russian ties.
At Moscow's Lefortovo prison, to where Mr Sutyagin had been moved earlier in the week from a far-northern penal colony, riot police stood guard and a number of vehicles arrived and left throughout the day. In the afternoon, his lawyer said she had information that her client had been seen arriving in Vienna, although the Austrian Foreign Ministry refused to confirm or deny he was in the country.
Mr Sutyagin's relatives said he was shown a list of names of people to be included in the swap, but that the only one he could remember was Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's military intelligence, the GRU. He was jailed for 13 years in 2006 for passing classified information to Britain.
Yesterday, Russia's Kommersant newspaper suggested two other names, citing Russian intelligence sources. It said that former intelligence operatives Alexander Sypachev and Alexander Zaporozhsky would also be handed over to the US. They are serving eight and 18-year jail terms respectively for passing information to the CIA.
Analysts speculated that an exchange could bring benefits for Moscow and Washington, as it would preclude lengthy trials that could prove an embarrassment for both countries, leaking intelligence secrets and proving an obstacle to the continuence of the recently improved relations between Russia and the US. Since taking office, Barack Obama has overseen a "reset" in relations with Russia, and the spy arrests came just three days after a friendly summit between Mr Obama and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Spy exchanges were relatively commonplace during the Cold War, but no high-profile swaps have taken place since the Soviet Union collapsed. It is believed a Wednesday meeting between US Under Secretary of State William Burns, a former Ambassador to Moscow, and the Russian Ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, was key to arranging a deal.
Some Russian sources suggested that Anna Chapman, the femme fatale whose exploits and photographs have excited tabloid readers around the world, could be on her way to Moscow on an overnight flight. But the lawyer for Vicky Pelaez, a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York and the only defendant who is not believed to be a Russian citizen, said his client would not want to move to Russia.