NEW YORK – In the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, 10 confessed Russian agents who infiltrated suburban America were ordered deported Thursday in exchange for four people convicted of betraying Moscow to the West.
The agents, many speaking in heavy Russian accents despite having spent years posing as U.S. citizens, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a Manhattan courtroom, were sentenced to time served and ordered out of the country. U.S. and Russian officials said they would be exchanged for four Russian citizens convicted of spying for the West.
The swap carries significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
The 10 U.S. defendants, captured last week in suburban homes across the Northeast, were accused of embedding themselves in ordinary American life for more than a decade while leading double lives complete with false passports, secret code words, fake names, invisible ink and encrypted radio.
One worked for an accounting firm, another was a real-estate agent, another a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the “extraordinary” case took years of work, “and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests.” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said on PBS’ “NewsHour” that President Barack Obama was aware of the investigation, the decision to go forward with the arrests and the spy swap with Russia.
Whether the agents provided Russia with valuable secret information is questionable.
“None of the people involved from my understanding provided any information that couldn’t be obtained on the Internet,” defendant Anna Chapman’s attorney, Robert Baum, told the Associated Press.
In Russia, the Kremlin said President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four convicted foreign spies so that they can be exchanged for the 10 U.S. defendants.
The Kremlin statement carried by the Russian news agencies says that Medvedev has pardoned Russian citizens Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that the exchange being conducted by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and the CIA was conducted in the context of “overall improvement of the U.S.-Russian ties and giving them new dynamics.”
An Obama administration official said the quick and pragmatic arrangement of the spy swap with Russia speaks to the progress that has been made in U.S.-Russian relations.
The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deal, said that by shutting down the spy operation, the U.S. sent a warning to other governments that might be interested in undertaking similar spy operations.
The 10 suburban spies pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country and were ordered deported. An 11th defendant has been a fugitive since fleeing authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.
One defendant’s attorney said a private plane was expected to take the 10 to Russia within days.
The attorney, John Rodriguez, said his client Vicky Pelaez had been given only 24 hours to say yes or no to the “all or nothing” deal for deportation.
The defendants – led into court in handcuffs, some in prison smocks and some wearing T-shirts and jeans, provided almost no information about what kind of spying they actually did for Russia. Asked to describe their crimes, each acknowledged having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent.