US considered spy swap before arrest of Russian agents

  • Published
Plane returns to Washington after swap, 9 July
Image caption,
Two of those released by Russia returned to Washington

The US considered the possibility of a spy swap with Moscow more than two weeks before it arrested 10 Russian agents, US officials said.

President Barack Obama was briefed on the ring on 11 June, 13 days before he hosted the Russian president at the White House and 16 before the arrests.

No decision was made on the swap until after the arrests, the officials said.

The 10 agents were swapped in Vienna on Friday for four Russians convicted of spying for the West.

Planning to leave

The timeline of the spy ring case in the US suggests American intelligence agencies were tracking the Russian agents for up to a decade.

US officials said the first detailed briefing given to the White House was in February.

Intelligence in June revealed that a number of the agents might have been planning to leave.

One of them, 28-year-old Anna Chapman, was reportedly lured to a Manhattan coffee shop by an undercover FBI agent after which, in an intercepted phone call, she was told her cover may have been blown and she should leave the US.

At the 11 June briefing, President Obama was told who the agents were and what charges they would face. Also discussed was the effect the arrests would have on the "reset" of relations with Russia. Mr Obama met his National Security Council a week later.

White House officials said Mr Obama did not mention the case to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The arrests came three days after the Russian leader left.

The evidence against the agents was taken from a file that had been kept in New York and had been regularly updated so that it could be used when necessary.

White House officials insisted the arrests were not made with the purpose of making a swap. But at some point the president approved the notion that it would be better to trade than to jail the agents in the US.

Events moved quickly up to and after the arrests. There were regular early morning video conference meetings involving the CIA, FBI, and justice and state department officials.

CIA director Leon Panetta quickly told Russian spy chief, Mikhail Fradkov, the names of the four men the US wanted released.

US officials said the pair had agreed the details of the swap by 4 July, less than a week after the arrests.

The officials insisted they had not asked for any more than the four Russians in return.

John Rodriguez, a lawyer for one of the agents, Vicky Pelaez, revealed shortly before the transfer the extent of the involvement of Russian officials in the discussions that had taken place.

He said his client had been offered $2,000 a month for life, free housing in Moscow and arrangements for travel visas for her and her children.

Mr Rodriguez said his client had been given only 24 hours to decide whether to accept the "all-or-nothing" deal - Moscow or a US jail.

The 10 Russian agents were deported and put on a plane to Vienna where it was met on Friday by a Russian plane carrying the four to be swapped.

The Russian agents flew back to Moscow. Two of the four received by the US were dropped off in the UK, the others were taken to Washington.

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