U.S. Seen Getting Better End Of Deal In Russia Spy Swap

The U.S. and Russia completed a spy swap this week. The Americans sent 10 people accused of working as Russian agents to Moscow; in exchange, four people being held by Russia were released to the West. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has followed the story and talks to host Scott Simon about its significance.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The week in Vienna, a spy story ended. A Vision Airlines charter jet from the United States touched down in the Austrian capital yesterday morning. It taxied and parked just yards from another plane. That one was from Moscow's Emergency Ministry.

The planes were carrying people who were part of the largest spy swap between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War ended. A little black van appeared and shuttled 10 convicted Russian sleeper agents to one plane and then returned with four men accused by Moscow of spying for the West. With passengers aboard, the two planes took off minutes later.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston's been following the story since it broke last week and joins us. Dina, thanks for being with us.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

SIMON: I'm going to see if they can play zither music, the theme to "The Third Man" while we get you to talk about this. The FBI arrested 10 people last month, said that they'd been under deep cover in this country for years. Remind us what they're supposed to have done.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, these 10 people were living in three states. And they were actually living these rather mundane lives. You know, they'd bought houses in the suburbs of New Jersey and Boston and D.C. and they had nice cars and ordinary jobs. One was a professor, another was a journalist, another was an accountant.

And their assignment was basically to blend in and try to get close to U.S. policymakers and maybe pick up intelligence. But apparently they weren't very good at that.

The U.S. officials that we talked to say they never really passed anything of value along. And according to my colleague, justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, this group had been under investigation for more than 10 years. The FBI and Justice had been working the case together. And once they started watching these people, they noticed things like flight reservations to Moscow every summer, and including this summer. In fact, there would be...

SIMON: Moscow's very pleasant in the summer. But go ahead.

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm sure it is much better in the summer than it is in the winter. But there was a concern that these people were going to go back to Russia and maybe not come back. So this is why they arrested them when they did.

I mean, what's important here is that months ago there was already a discussion in Washington about whether to disband this ring or swap them for people that the Russians were holding.

SIMON: So they were in a Manhattan courtroom this week and allowed to plead guilty to what are really kind of low-level charges.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. They had to admit that they were agents of a foreign government who hadn't properly registered, which is a very minor charge.

But what was rather dramatic in the courtroom is that these defendants, most of them just stood up and had to reveal their real Russian names. And all but one said they were Russian citizens. And then under the deal, they had to agree to immediate deportation and that they would never come back to the U.S. unless they got permission from the attorney general.

And this whole deal was sort of worked out at all kinds of different levels of government. In fact, the CIA director, Leon Panetta, was directly involved with the discussions and apparently made the initial approach to his counterpart in Russia.

And the pieces fell into place really quickly. The CIA contacted them a day after the arrests and that set the stage for a number of phone calls between Panetta and his counterpart. And they basically hammered this all out.

And the U.S. asked for four Russians - I mean, not Americans, but Russians -who'd been convicted of spying on Russia for the U.S. And from a strategic point of view, the U.S., it looks like, got a much better end of the deal.

SIMON: Well, let me get you to explain that, because it's, I mean, still four to 10. And Russia gave up four people who evidently actually passed along secret information. Is that the - is that why they're more valuable?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. These are much more high visibility people. I mean, I don't know if you recall the Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen cases in the '90s. But Aldrich Ames was the CIA agent who was convicted of espionage in 1994. And he's thought to have compromised at least 100 people or 100 intelligence operations and actually gotten people who were spying for the U.S. in Russia killed.

And then Robert Hanssen was the former FBI agent who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies...

SIMON: Yes, who tried to redeem the exotic dancer, a lot of people will remember.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Good memory. Yes, exactly. Well, one of the four spies that Russia handed over tipped the U.S. off to Ames. And during the Ames investigation that's when they figured out that there was also a Russian spy in the FBI, and that turned out to be Hanssen.

So this guy, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, actually provided really important intelligence to the U.S.

SIMON: So, what, there's a former arms control researcher and a scientist also in this group?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's right. And a high-ranking member of Russian military intelligence and a former KGB officer.

SIMON: And so all of them have been charged - had been charged with treason in Russia?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. And they were pardoned by the Russian president and then put on these planes to Vienna and eventually went to the West.

SIMON: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're very welcome.

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