Friday, 9 July 2010

Spy Suspects Leave U.S. in Swap With Russia

Spy Suspects Leave U.S. in Swap With Russia

Ten convicted Russian sleeper agents were whisked out of the United States on a plane headed over the Atlantic Ocean late Thursday as part of a deal with Moscow to put a quick end to an episode that threatened to disrupt relations between the two countries.

Even as the Russian spies were being hastily deported, four Russian men deemed spies for the United States and its allies were being pardoned by the Kremlin and prepared for release to the West in exchange. President Dmitri A. Medvedev signed an order to free them and they were expected to leave Russia promptly.

Neither government would say where their respective prisoners were heading initially, but one official familiar with the situation said the Russian spies were flying first to Vienna, where they would be handed over before traveling onto Moscow or any other final destination. The four Russians were to be released Friday morning Moscow time and also head first to Vienna as both sides made clear they hoped to put the incident behind them soon.

The swift conclusion to the cases just 11 days after the arrest of the Russian agents evoked memories of cold war-style bargaining but underscored the new-era relationship between Washington and Moscow. President Obama has made the “reset” of Russian-American relations a top foreign policy priority, and the quiet collaboration over the spy scandal indicates that the Kremlin likewise values the warmer ties.

“The agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Within hours of the New York court hearing, the Kremlin announced that President Dmitri A. Medvedev had signed pardons for the four men Russia considered spies after each of them signed statements admitting guilt.

The Kremlin identified them as Igor V. Sutyagin, an arms control researcher held for 11 years; Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service sentenced in 2006 to 13 years for spying for Britain; Aleksandr Zaporozhsky, a former agent with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service who has served seven years of an 18-year sentence;and Gennadi Vasilenko, a former K.G.B. major who was arrested in 1998 for contacts with a C.I.A. officer but eventually released only to be arrested again in 2005 and later convicted on illegal weapons charges.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the agreement to the warming trend between Washington and Moscow. “This action was carried out in the overall context of improved Russian-American relations,” it said. “This agreement gives reason to hope that the course agreed upon by Russia and the United States will be accordingly realized in practice and that attempts to derail the course will not succeed.”

A White House spokesman, Ben Rhodes, said the episode would not affect the reset and that the two sides would cooperate when possible “even as we will defend our interests when we differ.” Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, said the president was fully briefed on the decision. Mr. Emanuel said the case showed that the United States was still watchful even as relations improved. “It sends a clear signal to not only Russia but other countries that will attempt this that we are on to them,” he told the PBS program “NewsHour.”

The sensational case straight out of a spy novel — complete with invisible ink, buried cash and a red-haired beauty whose romantic exploits have been excavated in the tabloids — came to a dramatic denouement in court.

The 10 defendants sat in the jury box, while their lawyers and prosecutors filled the well of the packed courtroom. Some of the Russian agents wore jail garb over orange T-shirts, while others wore civilian clothes. Natalia Pereverzeva, for example, known as Patricia Mills, sat in jeans with a dark sweater.

Few of the defendants conversed with one another. Some looked grim. One, Vicky Peláez, appeared to be weeping as she gestured to her sons at the close of the hearing.

At one point, Judge Kimba M. Wood asked each of the 10 to disclose their true names.

The first to rise was the man known as Richard Murphy, who lived with his wife and two children in Montclair, N.J. He said his name was Vladimir Guryev.

Then his wife rose. “My true name is Lydia Guryev,” she said.

All but three — Anna Chapman, Mikhail Semenko and Ms. Peláez — had assumed false names in the United States.

The 10 each pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without properly registering; the government said it would drop the more serious count of conspiracy to launder money, which eight of the defendants also faced. They had not been charged with espionage, apparently because they did not obtain classified information.

All of them agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the attorney general. They also agreed to turn over any money made from publication of their stories as agents, according to their plea agreements with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. Several also agreed to forfeit assets, including real estate, in the United States.

At one point, the prosecutor, Michael Farbiarz, told the judge that although Russian officials had met with the defendants, they had done nothing to force them to plead guilty or entice them into doing so. Defense lawyers concurred.

One lawyer, though, John M. Rodriguez, said Russian officials had made promises to his client, Ms. Peláez, but he assured the judge that they were not inducements to make her plead guilty. He said Ms. Peláez was told that upon her arrival in Russia, she could go to Peru or anywhere else; she was promised free housing in Russia and a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life and visas for her two children.

Ms. Peláez was not formally trained as a spy, her lawyer has said. He has also said that she had no desire to go to Russia as part of a swap. “I know we were the last to sign” a plea agreement, Mr. Rodriguez said after the hearing on Thursday.

The defendants included several married couples with children. American officials said after the court hearing that they would be free to leave the United States with their parents.

Perhaps the most recognizable of the agents was Ms. Chapman, who ran her own real estate firm and who had attained a degree of notoriety after tabloid newspapers worldwide chronicled her sex life and reprinted photographs of her in skimpy attire.

Administration officials who insisted on the condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate decision would not say who initially proposed a swap but added that they considered it a fruitful idea because they saw “no significant national security benefits from their continued incarceration,” as one put it. Some of the four Russians to be freed are in ill health, the official added.

Another American official, who was not authorized to speak about the case, said officials of the intelligence agencies were the channel for most of the negotiations, particularly Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., and Mikhail Y. Fradkov, director of the S.V.R., Russia’s foreign intelligence agency.

The official said the American side decided “we could trade these agents — who really had nothing to tell us that we didn’t already know — for people who had never stopped fighting for their freedom in Russia.”

The spy ring case further fueled debate in Washington about Mr. Obama’s outreach to Russia even as he tries to persuade the Senate to ratify the New Start arms control pact he signed last spring with Mr. Medvedev.

“The lesson here is this administration may be trying to reset the relationship, but I don’t have any confidence that the Russians are,” said Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “They got caught.”

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, wondered whether the administration could have gotten a better deal. “The White House risks appearing overeager to sweep problems under the rug,” he said.

But supporters of the administration said the spy case should not undermine the relationship or support for the treaty. Richard R. Burt, a former arms control negotiator who now heads a pro-disarmament group called Global Zero, pointed out that the United States ratified treaties during the cold war when there was an active espionage campaign waged between the two powers. “No arms treaty, including the New Start agreement, is based on trust,” Mr. Burt said.

On June 27, 2010, 10 people in Yonkers, Boston and northern Virginia were arrested and accused of being part of a Russian espionage ring, living under false names and deep cover in a patient scheme to penetrate what one coded message called American "policy making circles." The next day, an 11th accused member of the ring was arrested at an airport in Cyprus while trying to leave for Budapest.

The arrests were the result of an F.B.I. investigation that began at least seven years ago.

Criminal complaints filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan read like an old-fashioned cold war thriller: Spies swapping identical orange bags as they brushed past each other in a train station stairway. An identity borrowed from a dead Canadian, forged passports, messages sent by shortwave burst transmission or in invisible ink. A money cache buried for years in a field in upstate New York.

The suspected spy ring had everything it needed for world-class espionage: excellent training, cutting-edge gadgetry, deep knowledge of American culture and meticulously constructed cover stories. The only things missing in more than a decade of operation were actual secrets to send home to Moscow.

Most, and perhaps all, of the 10 suspects have agreed to plead guilty to help facilitate a swap between Russia and the United States.

Spies in American Suburbia

The spy ring assignments, described in secret instructions intercepted by the F.B.I., were to collect routine political gossip and policy talk that might have been more efficiently gathered by surfing the Web. And none of the suspects face charges of espionage, because in all those years they were never caught sending classified information back to Moscow. The 10 in custody have been charged with conspiring to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government, and eight were also charged with conspiring to commit money laundering. The eight could face up to 25 years in prison if convicted.

In June, court documents detailed what the authorities called the "Illegals Program," an ambitious, if puzzling, long-term effort by the S.V.R., one of the successors to the Soviet K.G.B., to plant Russian spies in the United States to gather information and recruit more agents. The network of so-called illegals — spies operating under false names outside of diplomatic cover — also used cyber-age technology, according to the charges. They embedded coded texts in ordinary-looking images posted on the Internet, and they communicated by having two agents pass casually with laptops containing special software flashed messages between them.

The suspects had lived for more than a decade in American cities and suburbs from Seattle to New York, where they seemed to be ordinary couples working ordinary jobs, chatting to the neighbors about schools and apologizing for noisy teenagers. They were directed to gather information on nuclear weapons, American policy toward Iran, C.I.A. leadership, Congressional politics and many other topics, according to prosecutors. The Russian spies made contact with a former high-ranking American national security official and a nuclear weapons researcher, among others.

The 'Illegals Program'

Experts on Russian intelligence expressed astonishment at the scale, longevity and dedication of the program, and many questioned its worth. They noted that Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian prime minister and former president and spy officer, had worked to restore the prestige and funding of Russian espionage after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dark image of the K.G.B.

Cells of undercover operatives, masked as ordinary citizens, are known in Russian as "illegals," and they occupy a storied position in Soviet culture.

Illegals, unlike most spies, live in foreign countries without the benefit of a diplomatic cover, which would have offered them immunity from prosecution if they were caught. Soviet intelligence services began training a corps of these agents shortly after the October Revolution in 1917, when few countries had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and it came to be seen as a particular Soviet specialty.

It is both risky and very expensive work, since agents often spend years just developing a fake life story, known in Russian as a "legend," and because the KG.B. would often keep an agent in place abroad for years or even decades before he or she was able to gather useful information.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many career spymasters began to speak publicly about the adventures of the illegals, but several recent arrests have come as reminders that the tactic is still in use.

In 2008, Estonia found that one of its top intelligence officials was reporting to a Russian agent who was living under a Portuguese identity as Antonio de Jesus Amorett Graf. In 2006, Canadian officials arrested a Russian spy who had been living under an assumed Canadian identity as Paul William Hampel.

A Swap Between the U.S. and Russia

The exchange between Russian and United States could lead to a series of relatively quick guilty pleas, allowing the government to avoid a series of protracted trials. Prosecutors have not accused the suspects of passing classified information to their Russian handlers. But a resolution would allow the government to avoid a long legal battle in which sensitive information about intelligence techniques could be exposed.

On July 8, 2010, Igor V. Sutyagin, a Russian scientist convicted of spying for the United States in 2004, was released and flown to Vienna where he was met by a British official. Mr. Sutyagin was arrested in 1999 and accused of passing secrets about nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a British company that prosecutors said was a front for the C.I.A. Imprisoned for 10 years, Mr. Sutyagin has maintained his innocence.

If the Russian suspects held in the United States sign on to the deal as expected, they are expected to leave the country promptly. As often occurs in plea bargains, the defendants will be allowed to plead guilty to one charge — conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent, which carries a maximum penalty of five years and has no minimum term. The government will presumably drop a second charge that most of the defendants face, conspiring to launder money, which carries a 20-year term. None of the defendants are charged with espionage.

Such a deal would also eliminate the possibility that a high-profile case would serve as an irritant to relations between the United States and Russia. Both countries have made clear they do not expect the charges to damage relations.

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