Image: Spy swap in Vienna
Dieter Nagl  /  AFP - Getty Images
Officials stand by a Russian government jet at Vienna airport on Friday.
updated 7/9/2010 7:29:58 PM ET 2010-07-09T23:29:58

It took less than month for the largest U.S.-Russian spy swap since the Cold War to unfold from an idea secretly hatched in the Oval Office to reality on a remote stretch of Vienna airport tarmac.

The whirlwind exchange took place Friday in a choreographed script of spy novel intrigue. Two planes, one from New York, the other from Moscow, arrived within minutes of each other and parked nose-to-tail. Their passengers — 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in the U.S. and four prisoners accused by Russia of spying for the West — were ferried to each other, and the planes departed again just as quickly.

The whole thing, a soundless drama seen only at a distance through camera lenses, took less than an hour and a half — displaying the efficiency of this extraordinary new chapter in U.S.-Russian relations.

The 10 Russian agents who had blended into U.S. communities, including Anna Chapman, the woman who had caught Americans' fancy with her Facebook photos, soon landed in Moscow. And four other Russians accused of spying for the West headed the other way, two of them arriving at Dulles International Airport outside Washington at the end of the capital's workday.

Their chartered aircraft, a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200, had stopped briefly at a southern England air base, where a U.S. official said two of the four were dropped off before the plane continued across the Atlantic.

Image: Anna Chapman
AP
Anna Chapman in an image taken from a Russian social networking website.

The swap idea was Washington's, first raised with President Barack Obama nearly a month ago when the FBI and Justice Department officials who had been watching the 10 Russian agents hiding in suburban America for over a decade informed the president it was time to start planning their arrests, according to two White House officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

What was known as "the illegals program" had been first brought to the White House's attention months before, in February, triggering weeks of meetings about how and when to proceed, the officials said. It became clear in early June that at least two of the Russians were making plans to leave the U.S., meaning the whole operation now had to be rolled up more quickly than originally thought.

The timing of the arrests was deliberated with Obama on that June 11 Friday afternoon in the Oval Office, along with the expected charges for the individuals and the potential impact on Washington's freshly "reset" relationship with its former Cold War rival. Also considered, the officials said, was the matter of what should happen afterward. One of the recommendations was to propose a swap to Russia.

The arrests were not planned to facilitate such a trade, said a separate U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence. But since the Russian agents had never penetrated the U.S. government, it seemed Washington could benefit more from using them for barter than as prisoners to be locked up for years.

The president approved.

Story: Former top Russian spy Sergei Tretyakov dies at 53

Thirteen days later, Obama hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House for the first time, the two chummy over hamburgers in nearby Arlington, Virginia, and showing off a rapport to reporters that would have been unthinkable during the nations' diplomatic low points. But transparency goes only so far. Though preparations for the arrests were moving forward — and would take place just three days later — Obama kept quiet, the White House officials said.

At that point, White House aides and their counterparts from several agencies, including the CIA, FBI, Justice and the State Department, were meeting early every morning — "too early," complained one aide — via secure videoteleconference.

Shortly after the June 27 arrests, CIA Director Leon Panetta provided Russia's spy chief, Mikhail Fradkov, the names of four prisoners being held in Russia that the U.S. wanted to free, the officials said.

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This was no dragged-out negotiation. By the following Saturday — the July 4 holiday weekend in the States and less than a week and three phone conversations after the arrests — Panetta and Fradkov, the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, had agreed to the deal by phone, the officials said.

A flurry of bureaucratic wrangling followed. Russia required signed confessions from the four in order to make way for pardons from Medvedev. And court appearances and plea deals were hastily arranged in the U.S. for the Russians.

One U.S. condition of the swap was that the deal not be accompanied by any retaliatory steps against Americans. The officials also said that Washington got everything it asked for out of the case — emphasizing that the U.S. didn't ask for any prisoners beyond the four.

The officials also said that all of the children of the Russian spies had left the United States for Russia or were in the process on Friday of leaving.

Both sets of prisoners were abruptly entering radically different lives.

The 10 Russian agents and their families traded ordinary but fictional American lives for the realities of modern Russia. And early indications were that the spy ring — which apparently uncovered little of value and were watched by the FBI for years — would not get a hero's welcome.

"They obviously were very bad spies if they got caught. They got caught, so they should be tried," said Sasha Ivanov, a businessman walking by a Moscow train station.

The four Russians accused of spying for the West, meanwhile, were sprung from dismal Russian prisons. But, facing separation from loved ones and homeland, it was unclear where any of them planned to settle.

One of the four — Alexander Zaporozhsky — is a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States. Another, think tank analyst Igor Sutyagin, says he didn't pass along any information that wasn't available through open sources.

Sutyagin, a 45-year-old arms researcher convicted of spying for the United States via an alleged CIA front in Britain, had told relatives earlier that he was loath to leave his homeland. He said he signed a confession and agreed to be part of the swap out of concern he would otherwise ruin everyone else's chances — and for fear of abuse and misery in the three years remaining in his prison term.

The others were Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, who was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006, and Gennady Vasilenko, a former KGB officer. The latter was sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison for illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities.

A U.S. official confirmed that Skripal and Sutyagin were the two men who disembarked in Britain. The official insisted on anonymity as a condition of discussing intelligence matters.

Some touchy elements remain unresolved. The alleged paymaster for the U.S. spy ring was still a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.

But one thing was clear: Both sides were eager to resolve as quickly and cleanly as possible a matter that could have threatened the fragile recent progress in U.S.-Russian relations, with Moscow wanting to make strides as a cooperative partner and the U.S. trying to steer clear of new resentments.

As evidence of just how keenly they wanted to move on, Obama and Medvedev themselves have not talked once about the situation. And, said the White House officials, they don't plan to.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: U.S. got better deal in spy swap, analysts say

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. got better deal in spy swap, analysts say

    >>> good evening. i'm lester holt in for brian. there was such fan a fair just two weeks ago are back in moscow tonight in a scene straight out of the pages of a novel, the ten who had been living here posing as americans were swamped on an airfield for four russian citizens. two of them arrived in washington just a short time ago. now apparently free men, but nonetheless pawns in an east-west game most of us thought was of a bygone era. we have more on this story. martin, good evening.

    >> yes, sir, good evening. it was the quickest spy swap experts could remember. quickly ending an embarrassing spy scandal between the united states and russia . the scene straight from the cold war today, two planes nose to tail in a remote corner of a european airfield. a spy swap. ten russian spies for if four men who worked for american british intelligence. last night the russians deported from america after pleading guilty to acting as unregistered foreign agents. didn't have the drama of berlin's bridge, once known as the bridge of spies seen in so many dramatic swaps. vienna, 11:15 this morning. a bus shuttles between two planes. quickly the ten enter the russian plane. among them, vladimir and glydia, richard and cynthia, their daughters age 7 and 11 are expected to join them in russia . and anna became the face of the spy ring . within 90 minutes they return east. the four russians return west. there's no clear winner in the swap.

    >> the american es and russians want the story to go away. they get their assets back. they get the spies they already acquired information from. at the same time the americans want more cooperation from the russians for iran for nuclear proliferation. both sides win. both sides lose.

    >>> among them soviet ex-colonel believed to have named robert hanson , an american the spies the russia whose secrets led to the deaths of top american agents. also free igor sutyagin . after dropping off two of the men in london, they landed late this afternoon at dallas airport outside washington. it's believed they'll be debriefed and helped to set up new lives. it's too early for details and officials told nbc news it's all happened quickly.

    >> martin fletcher in london, thank you.

Explainer: ‘Such a nice couple’: The spies next door

  • Image: US-RUSSIA-SPY-ARREST
    SHIRELEY SHEPARD  /  AFP - Getty Images
    This drawing dated June 28, 2010 shows five of the 10 arrested Russian spy suspects in a New York courtroom.
    It’s a tabloid editor’s dream come true: Ten people are accused of being undercover Russian spies, and one of them is even photogenic enough to deserve her own slideshow (see The New York Post’s tribute to what they are calling "Sexy Russian Spy Anna Chapman" here).

    But for the neighbors of the 10 people arrested throughout the Northeast, it's more of a nightmare. Who are these people who they had come to trust as a professor, a newspaper columnist, and an architect, among other well-respected professions? Video: FBI arrests 10 in alleged Russian spy ring


    “They’re such a nice couple,” Susan Coke, a real estate agent who sold a home in Montclair, N.J. to two of the suspects — who called themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy — told The New Jersey Star-Ledger. “I just hope the FBI got it wrong.”

    You can read the the court filing about the alleged spy program here, and the Department of Justice's court complaint against two of the suspects, Mikhael Semenko and Anna Chapman, here.

    Information compiled by msnbc.com's Elizabeth Chuck and Ryan McCartney.

  • Anna Chapman, New York, N.Y.:

    Image: Anna Chapman
    AP
    Anna Chapman
    Dubbed the “femme fatale” of the Russian spy ring, Chapman, 28, said she was the founder of an online real estate company worth $2 million. The daughter of a Russian diplomat (whom her ex-husband dubbed "scary"), she said she had a master's in economics, was divorced and lived a socialite’s life in Manhattan’s Financial District. According to the New York Daily News, Chapman is the one who figured out the spy network was being monitored on Saturday, prompting the FBI to make the arrests Monday. Photographs and videos of her have popped all over the Internet (See a wrap-up on The Washington Post).

    Sources: New York Daily News, New York Post

  • Mikhail Vasenkov (a.k.a. 'Juan Lazaro') and Vicky Pelaez, Yonkers, N.Y.:

    Image: Vicky Pelaez
    AFP - Getty Images
    Vicky Pelaez

    Lazaro, 66, told people for decades that he was born in Uruguay and was a Peruvian citizen, but he is actually Russian and his real name is Mikhail Vasenkov. Lazaro admitted that he sent letters to the Russian intelligence service and that the Russian government paid for his house. He said that although he loved his son, he would not violate loyalty to the "Service," even for his child.

    Neighbors said they knew Lazaro to be an economics professor at a college in New Jersey. An agent for Russia for years, Lazaro brought his wife, Vicky Pelaez, into the conspiracy by having her pass letters to the Russian intelligence service on his behalf.

    Pelaez worked as a columnist for one of the United States' best-known Spanish-language newspapers, El Diario La Prensa. She had come to the U.S. after being briefly kidnapped by a leftist guerrilla group in Peru in 1984.

    Pelaez, 55, lived under her real name and was an American citizen, but now plans to return to Peru after a brief stay in Russia, according to her attorney.

    The couple has two sons: Waldomar Mariscal, 38 (Pelaez's son, Lazaro's stepson), and Juan Jose Lazaro, Jr., 17.

    Both sons told reporters shortly after the arrests that they didn't believe the allegations.

    "This looks like an Alfred Hitchcock movie with all this stuff from the 1960s. This is preposterous," Mariscal said. Of the charges, he said, "They're all inflated little pieces in the mosaic of unbelievable things."

    Source: New York Daily News, The Associated Press, The New York Times

  • Vladimir and Lydia Guryev (a.k.a. 'Richard and Cynthia Murphy'), Montclair, N.J.:

    Image: Alleged Russian Spies Live "Regular" Life In Suburban America
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    Richard and Cynthia Murphy

    Richard was an architect, a neighbor told The New Jersey Star-Ledger, and Cynthia had just gotten an MBA. Richard said he was from Philadelphia; Cynthia said she was from New York.

    The couple lived with two young daughters, Katie, 11, and Lisa, 7, in a home on Marquette Road in Montclair that they purchased for $481,000 in the fall of 2008. The two had come to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, first living in an apartment in Hoboken, N.J.

    Cynthia, 39, earned $135,000 a year as a vice president at a Manhattan firm, Morea Financial Services. Alan Patricof, a client of the firm and friend of the Clintons', told The Washington Post he believes he may have been targeted by the ring. Prosecutors said one of her assignments had been to network with Columbia University students.  Her real name is Lydia Guryev.

    Richard, 43, mostly stayed home with the children, neighbors said. His real name is Vladimir Guryev.

    Sources: Star-Ledger, New York Daily News, Politico, The Washington Post

  • Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva (a.k.a. 'Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills'), Arlington, Va.:

    Image: A view of River House Apartments, where suspected Russian spies Michael Zottoli and his wife Patricia Mills lived in Arlington
    Molly Riley  /  Reuters
    River House Apartments, where Zottoli and Mills lived in Arlington, Va.

    The husband-and-wife pair lived in Seattle before they moved to Arlington, Va. in October 2009. Zottoli, 41, said he was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and Mills, 36, said she was a Canadian citizen. Records show the two moved around several times between 2002 and 2009. Zottoli was an accountant who constantly took personal calls at work, co-workers told the Seattle Times. Mills was a stay-at-home mom for the couple’s toddler, Kenny. There are reports they also have a 1-year-old.

    “They were the nicest people,” said John Evans, the couple's former apartment manager. “In fact, I wish they had stayed on as tenants. They were really good tenants.”

    When their Seattle apartment was searched in February 2006, FBI agents reportedly found password-protected computer disks that contained a “stenography program employed by the SVR.”

    His real name is Mikhail Kutsik. Her real name is Natalia Pereverzeva.

    Sources: KOMO-TV, Washington Post, The Seattle Times

  • Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova (a.k.a. 'Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley'), Cambridge, Mass.:

    Image:Residence owned by Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who were arrested Sunday by the FBI on allegations of being Russian spies.
    Russell Contreras  /  AP
    Heathfield and Foley's home

    The “Boston Conspirators,” as the FBI dubbed them, identified themselves as French-Canadian when they came to the U.S. in 1999.

    Heathfield, 49, received a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000 and worked as a consultant for a Cambridge-based consulting firm called Global Partners Inc — a job that allegedly enabled him to contact a former high-ranking U.S. government national security official. He also had his own consulting company, Future Map Strategic Advisory Services LLC. His real name is Andrey Bezrukov.

    Foley, 47, was a real estate agent who showed houses in the Boston area. She worked on a contract basis for the real estate brokerage Redfin. Her real name is Elena Vavilova.

    They spoke to their two sons, ages 20 and 16, in French when they appeared in court in Boston following the arrests.

    Craig Sandler, a former classmate of Heathfield, told The Boston Globe the Russian spy was friendly and intelligent. Other classmates told The New York Times he had a taste for Scotch and described him as a “flavorful conversationalist” who was smart and funny.

    “It never crossed my mind that he might be a spy,” Sandler said. “But it’s not completely flabbergasting. He seems like a guy who would make a pretty good spy.”

    Sources: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, New York Times

  • Mikhael Semenko, Arlington, Va.:

    Mikhael Semenko, 28, was a travel specialist at Travel All Russia LLC’s in Arlington, Va. He joined the company in 2009 and was described as a friendly and diligent worker who spoke Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, in addition to Russian and English, according to a statement released by the company after his arrest. Semenko’s LinkedIn profile indicates he was particularly interested in non-profits, think tanks, public policy and educational institutions.

    Semenko also has a Twitter account, a Facebook profile, and a blog called “Chinese Economy Today.

    Semenko graduated from Seton Hall University with a degree in international relations in 2008, according to his LinkedIn profile.

    Arrested at his home in Arlington, he was accused of using sophisticated communications equipment and making incriminating statements to an undercover agent posing as a Russian official. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, FBI officials met Semenko just blocks from the White House, at the intersection of 10th and H Street. “Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?” the undercover agent asked. “Yes, we might have but I believe it was in Harbin,” Semenko reportedly replied.

    See below for other code words and phrases the suspects used.

    Sources: Daily Telegraph, LinkedIn, Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press

  • Christopher R. Metsos, arrested in Cyprus:

    Image: Photo of Robert Christopher Metsos Russian spy
    Cyprus Police / Handout  /  EPA
    Christopher Metsos

    Very little is known about Metsos’ background or current whereabouts.

    Officials said he arrived in the coastal town of Larnaca in Cyprus on June 17 and was arrested June 29 on an Interpol warrant while he was waiting to board a flight to Hungary. A Cyprus judge decided to release Metsos on $33,000 bail. Metsos failed to show up to a required meeting with Larnaca police following his release, initiating a manhunt for the final member of the group of Russian spies.

    Officials fear Metsos could flee to northern Cyprus, which the AP described as a “diplomatic no-mans-land.”

    Metsos, age 54 or 55, carries a Canadian passport and is what U.S. prosecutors called the “money man” of the group. He is accused of receiving and distributing money to the group and of conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to the U.S. Justice Department, he was given payments by a Russian official affiliated with Moscow's mission to the United Nations in a spy novel style "brush-pass" handoff and buried money in rural New York that was recovered two years later by another suspect.

    Sources: The Associated Press

  • Code words, phrases suspects used

    Following are among the phrases used by the alleged agents, their handlers and, deceptively, by U.S. counter-espionage officials in exchanges designed to verify a contact's identity.

    "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?"

    "No, I think it was the Hamptons."

    "Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?"

    "Yes, we might have, but I believe it was in Harbin"

    "Excuse me, did we meet in Bangkok in April last year?."

    "I don't know about April, but I was in Thailand in May of that year."

    Source: Reuters

Timeline: Spy swaps in history

Major Russia-U.S. spy swaps since the Cold War

Associated Press, Reuters, msnbc.com | Link |
  1. Above: Timeline Spy swaps in history
  2. Interactive Spy swap

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