NEW YORK (AP) — In the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, 10 Russian agents who infiltrated suburban America were deported Thursday in exchange for four people convicted of betraying Moscow to the West.
The spies left New York for Moscow hours after pleading guilty to conspiracy in a Manhattan courtroom and being sentenced to time served and ordered out of the country, said a law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
The spy swap carries significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
The U.S. defendants were captured last week in homes across the Northeast. They were accused of embedding themselves in ordinary American life while leading double lives complete with false passports, secret code words, fake names, invisible ink and encrypted radio.
One spy worked for an accounting firm, another was a real-estate agent, another a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the "extraordinary" case took years of work, "and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests." White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said on PBS' "NewsHour" that President Barack Obama was aware of the investigation, the decision to go forward with the arrests and the spy swap with Russia.
Whether the agents provided Russia with valuable secret information is questionable.
"None of the people involved from my understanding provided any information that couldn't be obtained on the Internet," defendant Anna Chapman's attorney, Robert Baum, told The Associated Press.
In Russia, the Kremlin said President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four convicted foreign spies so that they can be exchanged for the 10 U.S. defendants.
The Kremlin statement carried by the Russian news agencies says that Medvedev has pardoned Russian citizens Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.
Sutyagin, an arms analyst, was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and put on a plane to Vienna. Skripal is a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, and Zaporozhsky is a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also issued a statement saying that the exchange being conducted by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service and the CIA was conducted in the context of "overall improvement of the U.S.-Russian ties and giving them new dynamics."
An Obama administration official said the quick and pragmatic arrangement of the spy swap with Russia speaks to the progress that has been made in U.S.-Russian relations.
The senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deal, said that by shutting down the spy operation, the U.S. sent a warning to other governments that might be interested in undertaking similar spy operations.
The U.S. Department of Justice said in a letter Thursday that some of the four prisoners are in poor health and had served lengthy prison terms. Three of the four were accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian or Soviet government, the letter stated.
The 10 suburban spies pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country and were ordered deported. An 11th defendant has been a fugitive since fleeing authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.
One defendant's attorney said a private plane had been expected to take the 10 to Russia. The attorney, John Rodriguez, said his client, Vicky Pelaez, had been given only 24 hours to say yes or no to the "all or nothing" deal for deportation.
The defendants — led into court in handcuffs, some in prison smocks and some wearing T-shirts and jeans, provided almost no information about what kind of spying they actually did for Russia. Asked to describe their crimes, each acknowledged having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent.
One, Andrey Bezrukov, smiled and waved to a supporter in the audience and had an animated conversation with another, Elena Vavilova. Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, who lived in the United States as a couple under the aliases Richard and Cynthia Murphy, sat side-by-side but didn't speak.
Pelaez's two sons were among the children of the accused spies in court. A lawyer for her husband said the children would have the option of going to Russia with their parents or staying in the U.S.
Chapman — whose sultry photos gleaned from social-networking sites made her a tabloid sensation — pulled back her mane of red hair as she glanced around the courtroom. A burly deputy U.S. marshal hovered behind her.
All the defendants stood and raised their right hands in unison to be sworn in before answering a series of questions from the judge, beginning with a request to state their true identities. Their answers were short and scripted, their 10 guilty pleas given one by one in assembly-line precision.
Chapman looked baffled when the judge asked if her secret laptop exchanges with a Russian official "were in furtherance of the conspiracy." She finally looked at her lawyer, shrugged and replied, "Yes." Asked by the judge if she realized at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, "Yes I did, your honor."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Farbiarz said Russian officials had visited with the defendants numerous times in prison, and he sought assurances that none of the pleas resulted from inducements that might have been offered by Russian authorities.
Rodriguez, the attorney, said in court that the Russian government had promised Pelaez $2,000 a month for life, housing and documents to allow her children to visit Russia and have all their expenses paid. She decided to go home to her native Peru instead.
Peru's foreign minister, Jose Antonio Garcia, told the AP that Pelaez had committed no crime in her homeland and would be "received like any other Peruvian citizen."
Vladimir Guryev acknowledged that from the mid-1990s to the present day, he lived in the U.S. under an assumed name and took directions from the Russian Federation.
Asked whether he knew his actions were a crime, he said:
"I knew they were illegal, yes, your honor."
Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the U.S., was reportedly taken from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna earlier Thursday.
Sutyagin had told his relatives he was going to be among spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for 11 people charged in the United States with being Russian agents. They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.
In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said a journalist called Sutyagin's family to inform them that he was seen walking off a plane in Vienna on Thursday. However, she told the AP she could not confirm that claim with Russian authorities.
In New York, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said that the investigation was aimed at uncovering and deterring espionage and was "not undertaken for the purpose of having a bargaining chip."
He predicted the Russian government "is unlikely to engage in this methodology in the future and that's a good thing. ... The case sends a message to every other agency that if you come to America and spy on Americans in America you will be exposed."
Despite the benefits given to at least one of the Russian agents freed by the United States, they are unlikely to be greeted as heroes in Russia, as the Kremlin will likely try to quickly turn the page over the embarrassing incident and avoid further damage in relations with Washington.
Independent newspapers and liberal commentators in Russia have chafed at the obvious lack of results of the spy ring work and ridiculed the low level of their training.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Pete Yost, Calvin Woodward and Matt Lee in Washington; David B. Caruso in New York; Denise Lavoie in Boston; David Nowak, Misha Japaridze, Vladimir Isachenkov, Jim Heintz and Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow; Matt Barakat in Alexandria, Va.; Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y.; Carla Salazar in Lima, Peru, and David Stringer in London.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.