The spy swap between the U.S. and Russia is reportedly proceeding apace, with ten accused Russian spies pleading guilty in a federal court in Manhattan.
The guilty pleas are part of a plan that includes American authorities putting ten Russians the Justice Department accused of operating in the U.S. for years under deep cover on a plane bound for Russia.
In return, the U.S. won the release of four individuals the Russians had imprisoned for alleged spying for the West.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston writes in a web report:
All 10 of the people suspected of operating under deep cover in the U.S. for Russian intelligence pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom Thursday, paving the way for the biggest U.S.-Russian spy swap since the end of the Cold War.
Each of the 10 admitted to a single charge: acting as an unregistered foreign agent. It's a relatively minor offense that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and no minimum penalty. Prosecutors agreed to drop a second charge of conspiring to launder money, which could have meant a 20-year sentence.
None of the 10 ever faced espionage charges because, it appears, after more than a decade (and in some cases two decades) of living in the U.S., they never managed to discover anything secret to pass on to Moscow.
It now appears that the 10 — and possibly an 11th person still at large — will be exchanged for four prisoners held by the Russians.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys recommended the accused be sentenced to time served and U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood immediately ordered them to be deported. They are expected to be sent back to Russia right away, perhaps as early as Thursday evening.
Two officials familiar with the case told NPR the spy swap actually started early this morning. That's when a Russian scientist and arms control researcher named Igor Sutyagin was moved out of Lefortovo prison in Moscow and put on a plane to Vienna, Austria. Sutyagin had been sentenced to 15 years for spying for the United States. He has consistently denied doing so, but apparently, to win his freedom, he signed a document admitting guilt before he left Russia, the officials said.
The case has left many people scratching their heads since the accused Russian spies appear to have obtained no classified information. Nor did they seem to have befriended no top government officials. A very strange spying operation, indeed.
State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner issued the following statement:
Ten individuals pleaded guilty today in Manhattan Federal Court to conspiring to act as unlawful agents within the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation. As part of their plea agreements, those defendants operating in the United States under false identities disclosed their true Russian identities. Each of the defendants also agreed to be immediately expelled from the United States.
The United States and the Russian Federation agreed that the United States would transfer these individuals abroad and turn them over to Russian authorities. The Russian Federation, in turn, would release four individuals incarcerated in the Russian Federation.
This case is the result of a multi-year investigation conducted by the Department of Justice. The network of unlawful agents operating inside the United States has been dismantled. A determination to seek a rapid and comprehensive solution was made on national security and humanitarian grounds. No significant national security benefit would be gained from the prolonged incarceration in the United States of these ten unlawful agents. The United States took advantage of the opportunity presented to secure the release of four individuals serving lengthy prison terms in Russia, several of whom were in poor health.