WASHINGTON - Their U.S. ring dismantled, 10 Russian secret agents are on their way to a new life under Moscow's wing in a swiftly brokered trade also freeing four men imprisoned for spying at the highest levels for the West.
Both countries won admissions of crimes from the subjects of the exchange - guilty pleas in the U.S. and signed confessions in Russia - and set in motion the largest known swap since the era of Cold War spycraft.
The Russian agents were deported Thursday night. The lawyer for one of them, Vicky Pelaez, said the Russian government offered her $2,000 a month for life, housing and help with her children - rather than the years behind bars she could have faced in the U.S. The lawyer said Pelaez wanted to return to her native Peru instead.
The 10 had blended into American suburbia, if with thick Russian accents in some cases, and been under watch for up to a decade by the FBI. Their access to top U.S. national security secrets appeared spotty at best, although the extent of what they knew and passed on is not publicly known.
In contrast, the U.S. won freedom for and access to two former Russian intelligence colonels who had been convicted in their home country of compromising dozens of valuable Soviet-era and Russian agents operating in the West. Two others also convicted of betraying Moscow were wrapped into the deal.
One ex-colonel, Alexander Zaporozhsky, 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.
U.S. officials said several of the four freed by Russia were ailing and cited humanitarian concerns in part for arranging the swap in a hurry. They said no substantial benefit to national security was seen from keeping the captured agents in prison for years. Former intelligence operatives agreed.
"This sends a powerful signal to people who cooperate with us that we will stay loyal to you," said former CIA officer Peter Earnest. "Even if you have been in jail for years, we will not forget you."
He said the U.S. gave up 10 "fairly lightweight operatives" and "in return, we are getting four people who were actually convicted of spying for the U.S. and Britain, by Russia."
The U.S. and Russia were acting, too, to turn the page quickly on their episode and improve relations.
In an elaborately drawn round of dealmaking, of a kind familiar from the days of U.S.-Soviet brinkmanship and crisis diplomacy, U.S. officials met in Russia on Monday with the convicted spies and offered them a chance for freedom if they left their country.
Russian officials in the U.S. held similar meetings with the agents captured by the FBI.
Captives in both countries were assembled from far-flung locations - the Russian agents urgently brought to New York to enter guilty pleas and prepare for deportation.
Nothing to be Gained
"The network of unlawful agents operating inside the United States has been dismantled," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "No significant national security benefit would be gained from the prolonged incarceration in the United States of these 10 unlawful agents."
Another piece fell into place Thursday when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning the four after officials obtained their confessions.
The Kremlin identified the four as Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin. Among them, Sutyagin, an arms control researcher who asserts his innocence despite the confession, was thought to have been flown to Vienna.
In the U.S., the 10 suburbanites pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. An 11th defendant was a fugitive after he fled authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.
Provided Sparse Information
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 U.S. as a couple under the aliases Richard and Cynthia Murphy, sat side by side but didn't speak.
Anna 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.
Short, Scripted Answers
All the defendants stood and raised they 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 had been "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."
The arrests occurred more than a week ago. U.S. officials said they acted because they learned one of them was about to leave the country.
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 Moscow.
Asked whether he knew his actions were a crime, he said: "I knew they were illegal, yes, your honor."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Larry Neumeister, Tom Hays and David B. Caruso in New York; David Nowak, Misha Japaridze, Vladimir Isachenkov, Jim Heintz and Khristina Narizhnaya in Moscow; Pete Yost, Robert Burns and Matt Lee in Washington; Denise Lavoie in Boston; Matt Barakat in Alexandria, Va.; Jim Fitzgerald in White Plains, N.Y.; and David Stringer in London.
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