updated 7/9/2010 5:44:19 PM ET 2010-07-09T21:44:19

The White House began deliberating a spy swap with Moscow nearly a month ago, well ahead of the arrests of 10 Russians in the United States less than two weeks ago, a White House official said Friday.

In the course of the following negotiations with Moscow, the United States put forward the names of the four people who were released by Russia on Friday as their part of the bargain, the official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.

The swap took place Friday in Vienna. The official said all of the children of the Russian spies had left the United States for Russia or were in the process of leaving.

The Russian agents had been under observation by U.S. authorities for a decade. The decision to move against them was precipitated by indications that some planned to leave the United States this summer, the official said.

The case was brought to the White House in February by officials of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department. They presented the broad contours of what was known as "the illegals program" and some specifics about the individuals involved. That triggered weeks of meetings at the White House about how to proceed.

In early June, a decision was made to take action against the Russians and on June 11, a Friday, President Barack Obama was briefed on the matter in the Oval Office. He was told about plans for the arrests, how they would occur, what the Russians would be charged with and the possible impact of the case on U.S.-Russian relations, the official said. That's when the idea of a swap was raised, in a list of options.

Thirteen days after learning of the case, Obama met at the White House with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the two men went out for hamburgers. Obama did not mention the spy case, the official said.

Within days of the arrests on June 27, the United States offered to talk with Russia about an exchange of the 10 people in custody for four people held in Russian on charges that they had spied for the United States. CIA Director Leon Panetta and Russia's spy chief worked out the exchange, the largest spy swap since the Cold War, a separate U.S. official said.

Panetta had already developed a sound relationship with Mikhail Fradkov, head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, that allowed them to quickly clinch the deal, which traded the 10 Russian sleeper agents for the four prisoners in Russia.

Story: U.S. vs. Russia: Who won in spy swap?

As part of the swap, there was an understanding by both sides that the deal should not be accompanied by any retaliatory steps or other actions, the U.S. official said.

The U.S. government has declared itself pleased with the outcome, saying it got everything it wanted out of the case.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Spies deported, sent back to Russia

  1. Closed captioning of: Spies deported, sent back to Russia

    >> morning to you.

    >> reporter: meredith, good morning. those ten russian agents are gone, deported just 11 days after they were arrested. this morning a plane carrying them met up in an airport in vienna, austria, with a plane carrying four russians for the u.s. both planes were in the air, one to russia , the other to london where the four russians will be debriefed, the final step in this spy swap. within hours after pleading guilty in a new york city courtroom, they were on their way, banned from ever returning without u.s. government approval, something they're unlikely to get. one by one they told a federal judge their real names and add admitted they were russian agents. the judge sentenced them to the 11 days they've been in jail, freeing the government to send all ten of them to russia in exchange for four russians accused of spying for the u.s.

    >> we've broken up a very significant init tell generals gathering operation in the united states and we are getting back four people who the russians allege were involved in intelligence gathering activity, and we want those people back.

    >> reporter: the lawyer for one of the ten russians , vicky pelaez, says the russians promised her a pension.

    >> $2,000 a month for life, unrestricted travel out of russia , which for her could mean to her native country , peru.

    >> reporter: anna chapman, the tlam buoyant new york businesswoman, accepted the deal reluctantly, her lawyer says, to avoid a long and harsh imprisonment. the u.s. was willing to make the swap because chapman and others never stole any valuable secrets so prosecutors could not push for tough sentences. a former fbi official says it's a plus to get people in return like igor sutyagin , sentenced to 14 years in a prison camp .

    >> we've demonstrated to these individuals who may have worked for us on the other side that we take care of our people if they're going to do that for us.

    >> reporter: the attorney general says the minor children of four of the russian couples were allowed to go to russia with their parents.

    >> the russians insisted on that, something we thought was totally appropriate, and we made sure we did things that were consistent with the wishes of the parents.

    >> reporter: that means for six children ages 1, 3, 7, 11, 16 and 17, they're uprooted from the only home they've known to a country that speaks a language they don't understand. though their parents are barred from coming back, the children, all born here and therefore u.s. citizens , are free to return. under the plea agreement the ten give up all they had here, houses, cars, money. the agreement even says when they get older, although they spent time here, they cannot apply for a u.s. social security benefits. meredith?

    >> not surprising. pete williams , thank you very much.


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