Friday, July 09, 2010

United States and Russia in Vienna Espionage Swap

Friday, July 09, 2010
16:44 Mecca time, 13:44 GMT

US and Russia in Vienna spy swap

The operation in Vienna is the biggest exchange of spies since the end of the Cold War

Russia and the United States have completed a dramatic spy swap at Vienna airport with 10 Russian agents deported by US authorities and four people convicted of spying in Russia thought to have been exchanged.

Special Russian and US flights which had taken the spies to the Austrian capital took off within 15 minutes of each other following the biggest exchange of spies since the end of the Cold War.

The main doors to the two planes were hidden from media gathered at the airport hoping for a sight of those involved.

Vienna, near the old Iron Curtain frontier, has not seen such drama since the Cold War, when it was a traditional venue for espionage rivalry between the two superpowers.

The Russian foreign ministry confirmed that the exchange involved the "return to Russia of 10 Russian citizens accused in the United States, along with the simultaneous transfer to the United States of four individuals previously condemned in Russia".

A US administration official said the quick and pragmatic arrangement of the spy swap underlined the progress made in US-Russian relations.

Presidential pardon

Before their deportation, the Russian agents, many of them speaking in heavy Russian accents despite having spent years posing as US citizens, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a Manhattan, New York, courtroom on Thursday.

They were sentenced to time served and ordered out of the country.

In Russia, the Kremlin said Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, had signed a decree pardoning four convicted foreign spies so they could be exchanged for the 10 convicted in the US.

Among those pardoned, according to the Kremlin statement carried by Russian news agencies, was Igor Sutyagin, an arms-control expert sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2004 for spying for the US.

The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the exchange being conducted by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the CIA was conducted in the context of "overall improvement of the US-Russian ties and giving them new dynamics".

"That agreement gives grounds to believe that the course set by the leaders of Russia and the US will be implemented and attempts to derail it will fail," it added.

Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said in the statement that together with Sutyagin, Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal - all Russian citizens - had been pardoned after admitting their guilt and submitting a plea for pardon.

Russian rights activists welcomed Sutyagin's release, but Amnesty International (AI), the London-based human rights advocacy group, has said that any deal requiring Sutyagin to leave Russia against his wishes would amount to forced exile, which is prohibited under international law.

"It will also deprive him of the chance to clear his name of the charges," Nicola Duckworth, AI's Europe and Central Asia programme director, said.

Sutyagin has insisted on his innocence, saying that the information he provided to a British company that investigators said was a CIA cover, came from open sources.

His family said this week that Sutyagin said he was forced to sign a confession, although he insisted he was not guilty and does not want to leave Russia.

Obama aware

Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, told broadcaster PBS that Barack Obama, the US president, was aware of the investigation, the decision to go forward with the arrests and the spy swap with Russia.

Eric Holder, the US attorney-general, said the "extraordinary" case took years of work, "and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests".

The 10 Russian agents, captured last month in suburban homes across the US, were accused of embedding themselves in ordinary American life for more than a decade while leading double lives complete with false passports, secret code words, fake names, invisible ink and encrypted radio.

The 10 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country and were ordered to be deported.

Asked to describe their crimes in court on Thursday, each of the 10 acknowledged having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent.

An 11th defendant has been a fugitive since fleeing authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.

But independent newspapers and liberal commentators in Russia have ridiculed the obvious lack of results from the spy ring and the apparent low level of the agents' training.

In any case, they are unlikely to be greeted as heroes in Russia, as the Kremlin will very likely try to quickly turn the page over the incident and avoid further damage in relations with Washington.

"Both sides want to put Cold War suspicions behind them," Al Jazeera's Neave Barker, reporting from Moscow, said.

Still, the Russian government has promised Vicky Pelaez, one of the convicted 10, $2,000 a month for life, housing and documents to allow her children to visit Russia and have all their expenses paid, her lawyer, John Rodriguez, said in court.

Pelaez said the promises did not induce her to plead guilty.

'Special case'

Jeff Stain, a "spytalk" columnist for the Washington Post, called the swap a "very special case".

"First of all, none of these people were charged with espionage to start with," he told Al Jazeera.

"It seems to be now a concocted arrest; not that they were not guilty but that the United States government decided that it wanted to get possession of people in Russia ... [in exchange for agents] who they had under surveillance for many, many years in order to make a trade. That's my guess after looking at this for several days now."

Two other convicted agents on the Kremlin's swap list were Russian intelligence officers.

Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006. He was accused of revealing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.

Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the SVR, quit the service in 1997 and settled in the US, but Russia enticed him back and arrested him in 2001.

He was sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for spying for the US, convicted on charges of passing secret information about Russian agents working under cover in the US and about American sources working for Russian intelligence.

The US justice department said in a letter on Thursday that some of the four prisoners were in poor health and had served lengthy prison terms.

Preet Bharara, a US attorney, said the investigation against the spy ring in the US had been aimed at uncovering and deterring espionage, and "not undertaken for the purpose of having a bargaining chip".

He predicted the Russian government was "unlikely to engage in this methodology in the future and that's a good thing... The case sends a message to every other agency that if you come to America and spy on Americans in America you will be exposed".

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

U.S., Russia swap spies, reports say

By the CNN Wire Staff

Spy swap takes place in Vienna, Austria, Russia state media says
One plane reportedly carrying Russian agents lands in Moscow, Russia
Suspects pleaded guilty to failing to register as foreign agents in U.S.
Another plane carried those convicted of spying for the U.S. toward the West

Moscow, Russia (CNN) -- A spy swap between the United States and Russia took place Friday at the airport in Vienna, Austria, Russian state media reported.

A plane carrying 10 Russian agents, who were expelled from the United States for intelligence gathering, has landed at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, the airport press office said.

A separate plane carrying four people convicted of spying for the United States took off from Vienna, bound for a destination in the West, according to Russia Today, the state television station.

The elaborately choreographed transfer -- reminiscent of a scene from the Cold War -- took about an hour, Russian state media reported.

The 10 pleaded guilty in the United States on Thursday for failing to register as foreign agents and were ordered out of the country. They then boarded a U.S.-chartered flight accompanied by U.S. Marshals, a federal law enforcement source said.

Their expulsion was in exchange for Russia's release of the four prisoners, officials from both countries said Thursday.

In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder said none of the 10 had passed classified information and therefore none was charged with espionage.

"They were acting as agents to a foreign power," he told CBS News, referring to the Russians who, U.S. officials have said, had been under observation by federal authorities for more than a decade.

All of their children have been repatriated, he said. Attorneys for some of the Russians involved in the case said no children were aboard the Vienna-bound flight.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel told PBS' "NewsHour" that although the 10 didn't plead guilty to being spies, they "were clearly caught in the business of spying."

In a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials said the agents agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the U.S. government.

Holding them would have conferred no security benefit to the nation, they said.

This "clearly serves the interests of the United States," one official said.

A second official said the four prisoners in Russia were in failing health, a consideration that prompted quick completion of the deal.

Under the plea agreements, the defendants disclosed their true identities in court and forfeited assets attributable to the criminal offenses, the Justice Department said in a news release.

"Defendants Vicky Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, who operated in the United States under their true names, admitted that they are agents of the Russian Federation; and Chapman and Semenko admitted they are Russian citizens," the Justice Department said.

Carlos Moreno, an attorney for Pelaez, said his client does not want to take up residence in Russia and would prefer ultimately to live in her native Peru or in Brazil where she has family. Pelaez hopes to continue her work as a journalist, according to Moreno.

Pelaez told the court that Moscow has promised her free housing in Russia and a $2,000 monthly stipend for life, as well as visas for her children to travel to see her. Pelaez and her husband, both naturalized American citizens, were stripped of their citizenship as a part of the plea deal.

Authorities have lost track of an 11th suspect, who was detained in Cyprus, released on bail, and then failed to check in with authorities as he had promised to do.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree Friday pardoning the four individuals imprisoned for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies, the Kremlin press service said, according to state-run RIA Novosti.

Though the four Russians were released to the custody of the United States, that does not necessarily mean they would go to America, an embassy spokesman said.

"Three of the Russian prisoners were convicted of treason in the form of espionage on behalf of a foreign power and are serving lengthy prison terms," the Justice Department said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood. "The Russian prisoners have all served a number of years in prison and some are in poor health. The Russian government has agreed to release the Russian prisoners and their family members for resettlement."

It added, "Some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies. Three of the Russian prisoners have been accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian (or Soviet) government."

The individuals pardoned by Russia are Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.

All four appealed to the Russian president to free them after admitting their crimes against the Russian state, press secretary Natalia Timakova said.

But in Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied Thursday that Sutyagin had been a spy.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move was made "in the general context of improving Russian-American relations, and the new dynamic they have been given, in the spirit of basic agreements at the highest level between Moscow and Washington on the strategic character of Russian-American partnership."

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July 8, 2010

Russian Spy Suspects Plead Guilty as Part of a Swap

New York Times

WASHINGTON — The United States sealed an agreement on Thursday to trade 10 Russian agents arrested last month for four men imprisoned in Russia for alleged contacts with Western intelligence agencies, bringing to a quick conclusion an episode that threatened to disrupt relations between the countries.

The 10 long-term sleeper agents pleaded guilty to conspiracy before a federal judge in Manhattan after revealing their true identities. All 10 were sentenced to time served and were to be transferred to Russian custody as part of a deal in which Moscow will release the four Russian prisoners, three of whom were serving long sentences after being convicted of treason for spying.

The swift end to the cases — the Russian agents were to be taken by bus Thursday night to a New York-area airport and flown out of the country — just 11 days after their arrests 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.

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.

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Benjamin Weiser from New York. Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry from Moscow, Scott Shane and Charlie Savage from Washington, and Colin Moynihan from New York.

1 comment:

goldtracker said...

This is one bizarre story and I can't believe that it has all transpired so quickly. It's like a whitewashing going on. What particularly interests me is what the heck it had to do with gold.