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. The Russian government has agreed to release four people whom it had convicted of spying for the U.S. Their families will also be able to join them in the United States.
Each of the 10 secret agents in New York 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 in exchange for their pleas.
"This was an extraordinary case, developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers, and prosecutors, and the agreement we reached provided a successful resolution for the United States and its interests," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a written statement.
One of the reasons the case was resolved so quickly was because none of the 10 ever faced espionage charges. 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.
Their hearing lasted more than two hours. Some of the defendants were dressed in street clothes, others in prison garb.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys recommended the accused be sentenced to time served and U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood accepted both the pleas and sentence recommendation and immediately ordered the group to be deported.
The 10 Russian agents were deported to Moscow Thursday.
The most dramatic part of the hearing came when the defendants stood and stated their real names. All but three of them had Russian names and all but one, Vickey Pelaez, a Spanish-language newspaper journalist in New York, admitted they were Russian citizens. The judge told the defendants that they would have to return to Russia and were not permitted to come back to the United States. The group forfeited their houses and their cars to the U.S. government as part of their plea deal.
Palaez was given special dispensation. She will be permitted to go on to any third country after she arrives in Russia — including her native Peru — and will be given $2,000 a month for the rest of her life. If she should stay in Russia, her housing there would be paid for and her children will be provided with visas for wherever she is living.
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.
Sutyagin was arrested in 1999. Russian authorities accused him of passing along secrets about nuclear submarines to a British company that prosecutors said was a front for the CIA. He was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to 15 years. Human-rights organizations at the time said Sutyagin had been railroaded as part of a broader effort by the Russian government to discourage any contact their scientists had with foreigners.
Sutyagin's mother, Svetlana, told NPR that she visited with her son in prison yesterday. And she said her son told her he had to sign a confession before there would be any exchange of prisoners. "Our officials, they've been waiting so long for the change to say ah-HA, you see, he's admitted it," she said. "But he wasn't guilty. ... All this was forced. He's been pushed out of the country. This is what saddens him."
It is unclear who else is on the American swap list. An official familiar with the talks said the U.S. had been trying for a one-for-one trade and wanted the Russians to agree to release 11 people accused of spying for the West. (An 11th man, suspected of spying for Russia here in the U.S., was released on bail in Cyprus last week. He has since disappeared. It is unclear how he might fit into the deal.)
Now U.S. officials say the Russians will release four prisoners. Even so, the U.S. may be getting the better end of the swap, considering how little information the suspects arrested in the U.S. had delivered.
The FBI had been tracking the 10 defendants for years. It had recorded their conversations, traced their steps in foreign countries, and videotaped their secret meetings with their contacts in the Russian government. In some cases, the defendants had been in the U.S. for decades, and over that time, the FBI says, the group never actually got any secret intelligence.
Their assignment apparently had been to come to America and blend in. They bought suburban split-levels and American cars. They got ordinary American jobs as professors and accountants. And they basically tried to look normal. The idea was that once their deep cover was established, they could then befriend key decision makers and politicians and potentially glean important information from them.
That never seemed to happen, even for the most glamorous and talked-about in the bunch: a young woman who went by the name Anna Chapman. She frequented bars in New York and London trying to insinuate herself into various influential groups, but had little success. She had been tabloid fodder in the U.S. and Russia because she is quite striking and apparently had a number of racy photographs and posts on the Internet.
The New York Post summed up a week's worth of spy stories with a front-page photograph of Chapman. The headline read: "Spy Swap: But Can We Keep Her?"
Apparently not. U.S. officials said she could be on a plane to Russia as early as this evening.