Ten convicted members of a Russian spy ring, some of whom posed as ordinary Americans for more than a decade, were exchanged with four men jailed in Russia, bringing a rapid conclusion to a case made public 12 days ago.
The members of the network, broken up June 28 with arrests in the New York area, Boston and Arlington, Virginia, pleaded guilty yesterday in Manhattan federal court to conspiring to work as unregistered foreign agents.
“The Russian Federation agrees to release four individuals who are incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with the United States,” U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood said at the plea hearing.
Wood sentenced the 10 spies to time served and ordered their deportation. Prosecutors have since asked her to drop the remaining charges against eight members of the ring since the transfer was completed. The Russian spies landed in Moscow earlier today on a flight from Vienna. A jet photographed near that plane at Vienna International Airport landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington today.
One by one, each of the foreign agents yesterday 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.
‘Sends a Message’
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,” said Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. The timing of the arrests wasn’t for the purpose of obtaining a “bargaining chip” to trade for Russian prisoners, Bharara said.
President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned four people convicted of spying in Russia, spokeswoman Natalya Timakova said. She identified them as Igor Sutyagin, Sergei Skripal, Gennady Vasilenko and Alexander Zaporozhsky. The plane used in the swap earlier today in Vienna landed at Dulles International Airport outside Washington at about 5:30 p.m.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the four were chosen because “some of them were in poor health” and “it was deemed in the vital national security interests of the U.S. government.”
The White House was considering a spy swap with Russia almost a month ago, according to an administration official. The arrests occurred on June 28 because of intelligence that at least one of the spies was planning leave the U.S. “imminently,” according to the official.
Toner said the U.S. rejected Russian claims that they were American operatives. The Russian Foreign Ministry and foreign intelligence service have declined to comment.
The 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
As part of the swap deal, the U.S. seized property of the 10 defendants and directed that any proceeds from “any publication” or story about their lives as Russian agents will be assigned to the American government. The plea agreements don’t specify how that would be accomplished.
U.S. Bank Accounts
The New Jersey couple known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy, who identified themselves in court yesterday as Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, agreed to forfeit $80,000 in U.S. bank accounts and give up their home at 31 Marquette Road in Montclair. The Massachusetts couple known as Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who identified themselves as Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, agreed to give up their home on Trowbridge Street in Cambridge and all funds in four bank accounts.
The Virginia couple known as Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, who said they were really Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva, agreed to forfeit almost $105,000 in U.S. bank accounts and two cars -- a 2010 Volkswagen and 2004 BMW.
Robert Baum, a lawyer for Anna Chapman, said his client would be permitted to keep her on-line real estate business. He said she had asked friends to pack up her belongings left behind in her Manhattan apartment on Exchange Place near Wall Street.
“She has asked her friends to take care of her things for her,” Baum said yesterday in an interview after court. “She has no fear about going back to Moscow.”
The case is U.S. v. Metsos, 10-cr-00598, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan).