U.S., Russian Planes Taking Part in 14-Spy Swap Leave Vienna, AP Reports

U.S. and Russian aircraft taking part in the exchange of 14 convicted spies left Vienna International Airport after parking nose-to-tail on a remote section of runway, the Associated Press reported.

The two planes landed within minutes of each other and spent about 90 minutes on the ground, the AP said. The Russian Foreign Ministry and foreign intelligence service declined to comment.

Ten members of a Russian spy ring pleaded guilty yesterday in New York to conspiring to act as unregistered foreign agents. U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan sentenced them to time served and ordered them deported as Russia agreed to release four people convicted of spying.

The case “sends a message to every other intelligence gathering agency that if you come over here to spy, you will be exposed and arrested,” Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said yesterday. The timing of the arrests wasn’t for the purpose of obtaining a “bargaining chip” to trade for Russian prisoners, Bharara said.

One by one, each of the accused agents admitted carrying money or coded messages, secretly communicating with Russian officials and instructing others on how to find information useful to Russia. Their objective was to infiltrate U.S. policy- making circles after constructing false American identities in suburbs and cities along the East Coast, prosecutors said.

Sending a Message

President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned four people convicted of spying in Russia, presidential spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said. She identified them as Igor Sutyagin, Sergei Skripan, Gennady Vasilenko and Alexander Zaporozhsky.

Sutyagin, an arms expert at the Moscow-based U.S.A.-Canada Institute, was convicted in 2004 of spying for the U.S. and U.K. and sentenced to 15 years in jail. Skripal, a former colonel in military intelligence, was convicted of spying for the U.K. in 2006 and received a 13-year sentence. Zaporozhsky, a colonel at the foreign intelligence service, got 18 years in 2003 for spying on behalf of the U.S. Vasilenko, a former KGB major, was convicted illegal arms possession in 2006, Interfax reported.

The U.S.’s exposure of a so-called deep-cover operation -- followed by a prisoner exchange -- reprises a spy drama that has played out repeatedly since the 1940s.

The agents who pleaded guilty yesterday follow a line of networks the former Soviet Union planted to better understand American society as well as obtain military and policy secrets, intelligence experts said.

Cold War Beginnings

“This is exactly the same illegals program that has been in existence since the beginning of the Cold War,” Vincent Cannistraro, a former counter-terrorism chief with the Central Intelligence Agency, said in an interview. “The assumed names, their methodology is the same. It worked very well in the 1960s, but the world has changed. I think you have an old-fashioned mentality in Russia running things.”

The U.S. has conducted other spy swaps under similar circumstances.

In 1957, the U.S. charged Rudolf Ivanovich Abel with espionage, saying the artist known to his neighbors in Brooklyn, New York as Emil Goldfus was really a colonel in the Soviet Union’s intelligence service, or KGB. Abel was tried and convicted of espionage and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Abel was exchanged in 1962 for downed U-2 spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers at Glienicke Bridge, the famed “Bridge of Spies” that linked Berlin to Potsdam in the former East Germany. Abel had been exposed by another “illegal” living in a small house in Peekskill, New York, as Eugene Maki, a name stolen from an American whose family had moved to Estonia. Maki defected to the U.S.

1986 Swap

In August 1986, Gennadiy Zakharov, a scientist with the United Nations, was arrested on a Queens, New York subway platform by agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after paying $1,000 for secret documents about the design of jet engines. Zakharov was indicted on espionage charges by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn. A week later, the Soviet Union arrested American journalist Nicholas Daniloff and accused him of espionage.

After negotiations with the U.S. State Department, Daniloff was allowed to leave the Soviet Union without standing trial. The next day, Zakharov pleaded “no contest” to a count of conspiring to commit espionage and attempting to transmit national defense information to the Soviet Union.

He was sentenced to time-served by U.S. District Judge Joseph McLaughlin and released immediately to the Soviet government in the courthouse basement’s garage.

‘Madman in Brooklyn’

Andrew J. Maloney, the Brooklyn U.S. attorney at the time, said Zakharov’s arrest on the eve of a summit meeting between former President Ronald Reagan and Russia’s then-President Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland drew criticism.

“I remember a Washington D.C. columnist saying, ‘Who’s that madman in Brooklyn arresting this guy on the eve of the Icelandic meeting?” Maloney said in an interview.

He said the U.S. didn’t view the exchange as a “quid pro quo,” because as part of the agreement other Soviet dissidents were released later.

“If you think back to the Cold War, even when things were very hot, what we’d do in the U.S. was catch these spies and they’d end up in an exchange situation,” he said.

Maloney, now in private practice, said the current ring nestled in affluent towns such as Montclair, New Jersey and Cambridge, Massachusetts shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial.

“Who knows what they’re really doing?” he said. “It’s a very serious threat. In the future, if we have a problem with a new regime in Russia, these people could be called upon to do sabotage or harm the country,” he said. “I don’t dismiss this case at all.”

The case is U.S. v. Metsos, 10-cr-00598, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

To contact the reporters on this story: Patricia Hurtado in New York federal court at pathurtado@bloomberg.net.

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