NEW YORK — Finessing a high-stakes trade unseen since the Cold War, 10 Russian spies abruptly pleaded guilty in federal court in New York on Thursday in exchange for the release by the Russian government of four prisoners convicted of foreign espionage on the other side of the world.
The 10 prisoners brought together in New York pleaded to relatively minor charges of failing to register as foreign agents and were sentenced to time served — the equivalent of about 12 days or less.
As for the Russian government, it agreed to release four people incarcerated there for "contact with Western intelligence agencies." Three of them were convicted of treason and, according to the U.S., "all have served a number of years in prison and all are in poor health."
U.S. prosecutors announced that the Russian government "has agreed to release the Russian prisoners and their families for resettlement."
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In a courtroom in lower Manhattan, the 10 Russian spies were marched in wearing jail garb or American-style street clothes, some in handcuffs. They were seated in what normally serves as the jury box as U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood asked each to reveal his or her true identity and admit guilt.
Passing a microphone around as if on a television talk show, nine gave their names, birth dates and educational backgrounds, and admitted they were in fact Russian citizens and agents of the Russian Federation. Most appeared calm and relaxed, sometimes smiling and laughing lightly. Anna Chapman, who gained instant American celebrity as a Russian "femme fatale," played with her hair, braiding and rebraiding it.
The 10th defendant, Vicky Pelaez, a U.S. citizen who worked as a Spanish-language reporter, was alone in breaking down into tears. When the courtroom drama ended, all 10 were to be processed, taken by bus to a New York airport and placed by Russian officials aboard a plane bound for Moscow.
All 10 spies agreed never to return to the United States, and had to forfeit property and other assets in this country.
On the Russian side, officials did not officially identify the four prisoners set for release. However, U.S. authorities said in court papers in New York that "some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies."
One of the Russian prisoners is believed to be Igor Sutyagin, a former scientist arrested in 1999. He spent five years in pretrial detention, then was convicted in 2004 of passing classified data on Russian submarines and missile systems. Two others believed to be slated for release on the Russian side were Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russia's military intelligence, who was given 13 years in 2006 for spying for England, and Alexander Zaporozhsky, another former Russian intelligence officer serving 18 years after a 2003 espionage arrest.
The four were transferred this week to a prison in Moscow, where they were offered the opportunity to leave Russia with their families. They also had to sign statements admitting their guilt.
Talks moved quickly
A State Department official described the negotiations with Russia this way: "We drove the terms of this arrangement but there's been a series of discussions in working out the details of it. They also took some steps very early on after the individuals were arrested in this country. The Russian government did move very quickly. It was something we sorted out together."
Top Department of Justice and FBI officials insisted that the swap will not deter the U.S. from continuing to ferret out other would-be spies. "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 United States and its interests," said Attorney General Eric Holder.
FBI Director Robert Mueller added that "counterintelligence is a top FBI investigative priority" and said that his agents will work "tirelessly behind the scenes to counter the efforts of those who would steal our nation's vital secrets."