Washington In the rapid-fire spy swap, the United States and Russia worked together as only old enemies could.
Less than two weeks after the FBI broke the spy ring in a counterintelligence operation cultivated for a decade, 10 Russian secret agents caught in the U.S. are back in Russia, four convicted of spying for the West have been pardoned and released by Moscow, and bilateral relations appear on track again.
In describing how the swap unfolded, U.S. officials made clear that even before the arrests, Washington wanted not only to take down a spy network but to move beyond the provocative moment.
So the U.S. made an offer. Russia was ready to deal.
Channels of communication that once coursed with world-shaking superpower crises were reflexively put into play. Moscow and Washington not only have a history of nuclear-tipped tension but also long experience keeping those tensions in check.
Just imagine if the U.S. had been caught up in a spy flare-up with Iran instead.
“This case has been done with electrifying speed,” said John L. Martin, who oversaw Cold War espionage prosecutions and trades during a 27-year career at the Justice Department. “I’ve never seen so much pressure to do it quickly.”
The detailed case against the network of secret Russian agents was brought to the attention of the White House in February, officials said. On June 11, President Barack Obama was briefed on the matter.
Well before FBI agents moved against the operatives late that month, Washington had in mind that they might become bargaining chips to free Russians imprisoned for betraying Moscow and helping the West.
The U.S. arrests were not made to facilitate a swap, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence. Rather, they were precipitated, at least partly, by the plans of several of the Russians to leave this country this summer. He said that as the time approached to take down the ring, the question officials asked each other was, “Once the arrests take place, what do we do?”
CIA and FBI officials decided that because the sleepers had been observed and tracked by U.S. agents for so long, there was nothing to be gained or learned from them, the official said. Once in custody, the operatives “provided an opportunity for us to get something from the Russians.”
The idea of a swap advanced.
The CIA was assigned to make the initial approach, “testing the waters, and following through,” the official said. About a day after the arrests were made, the CIA contacted the Russian service to say, “We had a proposal to resolve the situation.”
The Russians, despite crying foul in public over the arrests, were ready to privately listen.
That set the stage for three phone calls between CIA Director Leon Panetta and Russia’s spy chief, Mikhail Fradkov. Panetta identified the four prisoners being held in Russia whom the U.S. wanted to free, several U.S. officials said.
“I think the U.S. government had its end game lined up when it started this process,” said attorney Peter Krupp, who represented Donald Heathfield, one of the U.S. defendants.
“The Justice Department and perhaps the State Department moved mountains that couldn’t be moved by local officials to orchestrate a meeting between my client in Boston on Saturday of the Fourth of July weekend,” Krupp said.
Daniel Lopez, who represented defendant Mikhail Semenko in the case, says he has handled over 1,000 criminal cases “and I’ve never seen one move this quickly.”
On Monday, four days after becoming Semenko’s court-appointed lawyer in Alexandria, Va., Lopez got a phone call from a federal prosecutor telling him that “it would be in your client’s best interests to agree to come to New York as fast as you can because either he is ‘on the bus’ when it’s leaving or he is not.”
“I said ‘Do we have a plea agreement in this case?’ And he said ‘yes,’” Lopez recalled. But Lopez had no idea yet that his client was to become part of a spy swap.
All 10 defendants were assembled in New York from various jails to enter guilty pleas, complete the swap arrangements and be deported.
Once Russian diplomats talked to defendants or their lawyers to lay out what was going on, it became clear from their side as well that the operatives were merely pawns in a chess game controlled by Washington and Moscow.