NPR logo Spy Exchange Would Be A Cold War Flashback

Spy Exchange Would Be A Cold War Flashback

Heard On 'Morning Edition'

The story of 10 Russians accused of infiltrating themselves into American suburban life looks like it will end the way many espionage scandals did during the Cold War — with an old-fashioned spy swap.

From the 1960s onward, it was a fairly frequent occurrence for Eastern bloc nations and the West to trade captured and accused spies. Each country wanted to bring home agents with potentially valuable knowledge — and was motivated by the chance to take back prizes from the other side.

Thousands of prisoners were traded over the years, often at neutral locations such as the Glienicke Bridge, which connected East and West Germany in Berlin. Sometimes, top-level politicians became involved in the negotiations, as with the case of Nicholas Daniloff, an American journalist who was arrested in 1986 in Moscow and accused of espionage and holding sensitive government documents.

The Reagan administration contended that Daniloff, whose grandfather had been a top Russian general during World War I, was held in retaliation for the U.S. arrest of Gennediy Zakharov, an official with the Soviet Union's United Nations mission who had been arrested days earlier. Following three weeks of negotiations between Moscow and Washington, the two men were released within a day of one another.

U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (far right) during his 1960 trial in Moscow. AP hide caption

toggle caption

U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (far right) during his 1960 trial in Moscow.


Powers Plus A Player To Be Named Later

Perhaps the most famous spy swap involved Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. pilot who had been shot down in a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960. Two years later, Powers was traded for Rudolf Abel, the leading figure in the famous "Hollow Nickel" case that began when a newsboy discovered a tiny message hidden inside a coin. Abel had posed for years as a photographer in Brooklyn before his arrest in 1957.

Frederic Pryor, an American graduate student who had been arrested in East Germany in 1961 and held without charges, found himself released as part of the Powers-Abel deal.

"I was really tossed in at the last minute," Pryor, now an economist at Swarthmore College, told NPR Thursday. "I hadn’t been formally charged since I hadn't been a spy. My communist lawyer was the lawyer for Abel, and my capitalist lawyer was the lawyer for Powers."

Gaining The President's Ear

The lawyer shared by Pryor and Abel was Wolfgang Vogel, who practiced in East Germany. The 1962 swap was the first such deal Vogel handled, but it became something of a specialty. He helped arrange trades involving more than 150 spies, as well as thousands of political prisoners.

Vogel negotiated the 1986 Glienicke Bridge exchange of Anatoly Sharansky, now known as Natan Sharansky. A prominent Soviet Jewish dissident, Sharansky was exchanged for communist spies held in the West, including Karl Koecher, the only Soviet mole known to have penetrated the CIA.

Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, in Jerusalem, shortly after his release from the Soviet Union in 1986. AP hide caption

toggle caption

Natan Sharansky and his wife, Avital, in Jerusalem, shortly after his release from the Soviet Union in 1986.


Sharansky later became an Israeli politician, and his book, The Case for Democracy, is known to have made a strong impression on President George W. Bush. In 2005, Bush invited Sharansky to the White House to discuss how the book’s ideas could be applied to the war on terror.

Other Trades Over Three Decades

1963: The State Department released two accused Soviet agents in exchange for two Americans, Marvin William Makinen, a student arrested in Kiev two years earlier, and Walter M. Ciszek, a Jesuit missionary who had been arrested in the USSR in 1941.

1964: British businessman Greville Maynard Wynne, who had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union for a year on spying charges, was exchanged for Konon Trofimovich Molody, a Russian Army officer arrested by the United Kingdom in 1961 as part of a ring that had obtained sensitive information about British submarines.

1978: The U.S., East Germany and Mozambique pulled off a three-way exchange. Mozambique freed Miron Marcus, an Israeli citizen who had been held for two years. The U.S. released Robert G. Thompson, a former Air Force intelligence clerk convicted of passing secrets to the Soviets. East Germany released Alan Van Norman, a Minnesota man arrested while trying to smuggle an East German family to the West.

1979: The Soviets released five political and religious dissidents from prison and flew them to New York. They included well-known Russian dissident Alexander Ginzburg. The U.S. released two Soviets who had been convicted of spying, Valdik A. Enger and Rudolf P. Chernyayev.

1985: The U.S. and the Soviet bloc exchanged accused spies at the Glienicke Bridge in a deal that eventually involved 29 people.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.