Somewhere, Ian Fleming is turning in his grave. The final denouement of one of the most dramatic post-Cold War episode of espionage played out this week, and it would have put even James Bond to shame.
Ten individuals who admitted that they were guilty of spying for Russia were exchanged for Russians accused of being United States double agents, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) and media reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry.
They had been residing in the suburbs of New York leading ostensibly ordinary lives for nearly a decade, during which time they were being secretly tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Their arrests came a few weeks ago, startling a nation that has sought to deepen its engagement with Russia in recent years.
Reports said that on Thursday the ten suspects from the U.S. were swapped for four agents working for Western services at Vienna airport, Austria. The Russian Foreign Ministry said, “This action was carried out in the general context of improving Russian-U.S. relations and giving them a new dynamic in the spirit of the agreements in principle at the highest level between Moscow and Washington on the strategic nature of Russian-U.S. partnership.”
Among those accused of spying for Russia in the U.S. were four married couples with children, including a Peruvian-born U.S. citizen, Vicky Pelaez. The DoJ said that along with Ms. Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, who operated in the U.S. under their true names, admitted that they were agents of the Russian Federation; and Chapman and Semenko admitted they were Russian citizens.
The persons charged with spying in the U.S. reportedly did not provided any information about the specific espionage they engaged in, only admitting to “having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent”.
Reports in particular quoted defendant Anna Chapman as confessing to communicating with a Russian official through a wireless signal from her laptop. When queried by a federal judge as to whether she realised that her actions were criminal, she was reported to have said, “Yes I did, your honour.”
The DoJ further noted that in exchange for the U.S. transferring these individuals to Russia, the Russian Federation had agreed to release four individuals who were incarcerated in Russia for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies.
According to reports from Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev pardoned four alleged spies accused of giving top secret information to the West, and “a key figure among them is Igor Sutyagin (45), a private nuclear researcher who was sentenced for high treason to 15 years in a far north prison camp in 2004”. The others reportedly pardoned by Mr. Medvedev were Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennadi Vasilenko and Sergei Skripal, who was said to have been sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “This was an extraordinary case, developed through years of work by investigators, intelligence lawyers, and prosecutors, and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the U.S. and its interests.”
Acting Spokesman at the State Department Mark Toner added, “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 U.S. of these ten unlawful agents.” He added that the U.S. had taken 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”.
In a statement the DoJ revealed the real Russian names of each of the accused. It said that the defendants known as “Richard Murphy” and “Cynthia Murphy” admitted they were named Vladimir Guryev and Lydia Guryev; defendants “Michael Zottoli” and “Patrica Mills” that they were in reality named Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva; defendants “Donald Howard Heathfield” and “Tracey Lee Ann Foley” that they were actually Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova; and “Juan Lazaro” that he was Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov. All of them, according to the DoJ, confessed to being agents of the Russian Federation.