Spy swap yields no clear-cut winner
The matter was brought to a swift conclusion Friday before it could complicate President Barack Obama's campaign to "reset" relations with Russia, and both sides expressed satisfaction. Still, the episode evoked images of deception and suspicion from a darker period.
The deal meant a fresh start and uncertain future in Russia for 10 deep-cover agents who were arrested June 27 and deported on Thursday after pleading guilty to conspiracy to act as unregistered foreign agents. They were not charged with spying, and it's not clear that in a decade or so of burrowing into American society they actually compromised any U.S. secrets.
The four Russians — three former intelligence officers and one think tank arms expert — who were swapped for the 10 were sprung from jail and flown to the West on Friday. But their inclusion in the deal leaves the impression that they were American secret agents all along.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said the U.S. does not acknowledge the espionage charges against the four Russians — each of whom signed a confession as a Russian condition for his release. And Toner asserted that the speed of the deal showed progress in U.S.-Russian relations.
"It was done a lot more quickly than ever before," he said, alluding to Cold War-era spy swaps.
In assessing the outcome of this extraordinary episode, David Smith, a former U.S. arms control negotiator, said Friday, "The winners here are the guys we got out of the gulag" in Russia.
The four include Alexander Zaporozhsky, who may have exposed information leading to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, two of the most damaging spies ever caught in the U.S.
"Second prize goes to the gang who couldn't shoot straight," Smith said, referring to the 10 deep-cover agents who were equipped with invisible ink and other spy gadgetry in search of inside dope on U.S. foreign policy and other topics but apparently never managed to steal a single secret. Smith is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
Leon Aron, the top Russia policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, sees it differently — a "morally messy" swap that tacitly validates Moscow's case against the four.
"We exchanged inept or sleeper spies for what appear to be victims of (Russian) political repression," Aron said. In his view, the exchange was a "face-saving device" for the U.S., which acknowledged that there was no national security benefit to keeping the 10 behind bars.
It could be argued that the arrangement favored Moscow, since it was spared further embarrassment over the exploits of the 10 while washing its hands of an inconvenient prisoner: Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher who in 2004 was jailed on charges of passing information to the CIA.
Sutyagin has long protested his innocence, insisting the information he gathered while at the U.S.A. and Canada Institute was available from open sources. Russia watchers have described the case as a part of campaign by the Kremlin to cow the nation's academics, and Sutyagin's cause has been championed by Russian and international human rights campaigners.
"Obviously, the Russians have got a better deal," said former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who was one half of an East-West prisoner swap in 1976. "This is already an unequal exchange. Usually in this kind of the deal both sides are trying to observe some kind of parity."
Amnesty International, one of the groups which had pushed for his release, said Friday that the swap had robbed Sutyagin of a chance to clear his name.
Jonathan Eyal, a Russia expert at London's Royal United Services Institute, said Moscow was the loser.
The 10 individuals deported by the U.S. are espionage "nobodies," and "retro-spy amateurs," Eyal said. An 11th person charged in the case is a fugitive after jumping bail in Cyprus.
Oleg Gordievsky, a former senior KGB agent who defected to the West in 1985, saw it similarly.
He said that the four men released by Moscow were far more significant figures than the 10 men and women expelled from the United States, singling out Zaporozhsky, the former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service who may have helped expose spies Hanssen and Ames.
Zaporozhsky "was a hero to the CIA," Gordievsky said in a telephone interview. Zaporozhsky retired from Russian intelligence in 1997 and settled in the United States, but he was lured back to Russia and arrested in 2001. He was convicted of espionage and sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison.
"The Americans felt a deep regret that they didn't warn him against this, so they wanted to rescue him," Gordievsky said.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for The Associated Press since 1990. Associated Press writers Raphael G. Satter and Jennifer Quinn contributed to this report from London.
Last updated: 2:24 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012