TOPICS > Politics

U.S., Russia Spy Swap Harkens to Cold War Era

July 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. and Russia put the legal machinery in motion today to exchange accused and convicted spies. Russians arrested in the U.S. were being traded for four convicted spies being held in Russia.

The stage was set in New York City. Ten people accused of spying for Russia entered guilty pleas this afternoon. Within hours, most were being deported in exchange for four convicted spies held in Russia. The 10 were arrested last month on suspicion of being members of a Russian spy ring. They allegedly tried to infiltrate policy-making circles in the U.S.

Word of an imminent swap had emerged on Wednesday. The State Department confirmed the spy issue was discussed at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Washington. The ambassador met with U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns.

Of the four prisoners being released by Moscow, three were reportedly colonels who had served in military and intelligence roles. By some accounts, a fourth prisoner was already in motion.

A Russian arms control analyst convicted of spying for the U.S., Igor Sutyagin, was reportedly spotted in Vienna, Austria, today, apparently just released from a Moscow prison. Other reports disputed that account.

In Moscow, security around the Lefortovo prison intensified, with armored vans seen coming and going. The prison is believed to house those convicted of spying for the West. There had been nothing like this since February 11, 1986, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union exchanged spies on a bridge separating what was then East and West Berlin.

For more on what’s afoot between the U.S. and Russia on a possible swap and how these deals have been organized before, we go to Newsweek investigative correspondent Mark Hosenball and former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith. He’s now a lawyer in Washington.

Gentlemen, good to have you both.

Mark Hosenball, you’ve been on this story today and yesterday. Bring us up to the minute on what’s happening.

MARK HOSENBALL, investigative correspondent, Newsweek: Well, what happened today was that these 10 people who had been picked up by the FBI late last month, about 10 days ago, went into court in New York in federal district court in Manhattan, and they all pled guilty to charges of, I believe, failing to register as foreign agents. They didn’t actually plead guilty to any espionage charges.

And then they agreed to allow themselves to be deported from the United States. And that deportation is in process at the moment. We don’t know exactly where they are. They are probably still just in the U.S., but they are about to be flown out, presumably to Russia.

And then the Russians reached an agreement with the United States government via diplomatic channels to release four individuals, including, as I think you reported, three colonels who had been convicted of spying for the United States, who at some point will be flown out of Russia and resettled, we presume, perhaps in the United States, although we don’t absolutely know that, with their families.

It is my understanding also that some of the children of the 10 people that have been living in the United States have already left the United States. Some of those children were probably born in the United States, so they would be entitled to stay here because they are American citizens. My understanding is, the government basically expects all the children to leave the United States and be with their parents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, again, the 10 who had been arrested in the U.S. have pled guilty to what?

MARK HOSENBALL: To charges, as I understand it, of conspiring to fail to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department, but not to charges of espionage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not to spying.

Now, tell us some more, Mark Hosenball, about the four arrested — or the four who were imprisoned in Russia.

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, the U.S. government — neither the U.S. government nor the Russian government, to my knowledge, has officially identified these people.

There is a list of four people who might be part of this spy swap deal which appeared in a Russian newspaper today and also has appeared on the BBC. It’s my understanding that at least one of the names on this list is inaccurate.

But, as I understand it, at least one of the people on the list is this Igor Sutyagin, who was a — some sort of arms control researcher who probably dealing only with unclassified information, but was nonetheless put in jail by the Russians for spying for the United States.

Also, it’s my understanding that one of these people who was a former Russian military officer named Alexander Zaporozhsky or something like that, that he had been jailed by the Russians for spying for the United States, and may have been involved in helping the United States find a mole in the FBI, a notorious mole named Robert Hanssen, who there was a film made about and everything like that.

So, you could argue here that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: We remember him from about a decade ago.

MARK HOSENBALL: That’s right.

You could argue that the United States got some real spies or real benefit out of this deal, whereas the Russians only got back a bunch of people whose cover had been blown and who, from what we can tell, weren’t very successful spies at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, Jeffrey Smith, is this considered a fair swap, or is that how one judges these things?

JEFFREY SMITH, former CIA official: It’s always hard to judge what’s fair and unfair in spy trades.

But, in the past, the United States had worked very carefully to try to do the best we could with the circumstances that we faced. And based on what we have just learned this afternoon, it sounds to me like the United States got a very good deal here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But giving up 10 people — and there was still an investigation under way with those 10, right?

JEFFREY SMITH: Yes, there was, although they pled guilty. And the fact that the FBI had been very effective in following them for all of these years, and the Justice Department undoubtedly agreed to this exchange, so I think it’s fair to conclude that they had not done much harm here and were unlikely to have done any real harm in future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, explain why you think it’s a good deal for the U.S.

JEFFREY SMITH: If what we know from what the Justice Department said in court this afternoon, that these four individuals were convicted of espionage for Western intelligence agencies, I have to assume that, from my own personal experience, the United States would make very hardheaded decisions about what’s in our national interest.

And so I am assuming from that that these individuals were people who had, in fact, been spies for some Western service, perhaps our own, and that we were very pleased to get them out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, Mark Hosenball, any — in your reporting, any sense of why this was happening, how it came about and why it was happening?

MARK HOSENBALL: Why the spy deal came about?

It — I think the American government felt it was a pretty good deal, and that they felt that they had completely blown this network of illegals, undercover operatives who had been here for years, out of the water. They also tell me, anyway, U.S. officials do, that — that they believe that there is no additional network like that remaining in the United States.

So, I think they felt that they had really nothing to lose, except a whole bunch of money putting these people in prison and keeping them locked up for years, by letting them go, and perhaps a lot to gain if these people who are being let out by the Russians really did do the United States or other allied services — and the British may have been involved in this as well — a big service.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Smith, how does this compare to spy swaps during the Cold War?

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, I’m not sure there was a typical spy swap during the Cold War, but, in most instances, the individuals that were traded on either side had served a considerable portion of their sentence.

We — it was rare — in fact, as I think about it, I can’t recall any circumstance in which we traded somebody so quickly after they had been arrested. That makes this a little unusual. But times have changed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does this say, do you think, about the state of U.S.-Russia relations?

JEFFREY SMITH: I think it says that it was important to both the leadership in Moscow and Washington that they put this quickly behind them. And it was important because we had bigger fish to fry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by that?

JEFFREY SMITH: Well, that there a lot of issues in U.S.-Russian relations at the moment, and they didn’t want this to get in the way of addressing those issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what does it say about spying still ongoing between our two countries? Do we assume it’s still happening?

JEFFREY SMITH: Oh, yes. It’s important for the United States to continue to have an active intelligence service and to be keeping an eye on governments that might sometime have interests adverse to our own, and vice versa. It will go on and should go on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in terms of — so, how should — how does the U.S. view Russia then? Is Russia the enemy?

JEFFREY SMITH: Oh, of course not, no. But it’s — in some respects, it’s President Reagan’s comment about trust, but verify.

We clearly have interests in Russia. We have also areas where we compete. We — the Russians still have a great many nuclear weapons. They are still a power in the world with which we must deal. They see us the same way.

But forever nations have dealt with one another and at the same time used intelligence to find out what’s going on, in part as a way of reassuring what we know from more public sources to try to find out whether what we are seeing publicly is what is also going on privately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark Hosenball, what do you pick up from your sources in terms of whether there are — they assume there’s still other spying going on in this country?

MARK HOSENBALL: Well, they have to assume that there is other spying going on in this country.

The Russians still have certainly diplomatic missions based in New York and Washington and probably consulates, I think, on the West Coast. They have to assume that at least some of the officers, maybe quite a number of those officers, in those installations are intelligence officers.

What I am told is that they are confident — the U.S. government is confident, pretty confident — well, quite confident — that there is no other illegal networks like this one, whose people are being thrown out, still in existence in the United States.

And I have heard this both from current officials, former — and former officials who are pretty expert in this matter, who say that it’s just very burdensome, costly, time-consuming to support a network like the one that the United States rounded up here, and they just couldn’t afford to keep another network like that going.

Now, whether there are similar networks operating in other friendly countries, England, France, whatever, you probably have to assume that there probably are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A fascinating story.

Mark Hosenball, Jeffrey Smith, thank you both.

JEFFREY SMITH: Thank you.

MARK HOSENBALL: Thank you.