In a seeming flashback to the cold war, Russian and American officials traded prisoners in the bright sunlight on the tarmac of Vienna’s international airport on Friday, bringing to a quick end an episode that had threatened to disrupt relations between the countries.
Planes carrying 10 convicted Russian sleeper agents and 4 men accused by Moscow of spying for the West swooped into the Austrian capital, once a hub of clandestine East-West maneuvering, and the men and women were transferred, the Justice Department said. The planes soon took off again in a coda fitting of an espionage novel.
It was a very dramatic scene. For more details on the spy exchange, see the Times and also the Washington Post (which reported that the idea of a spy swap was first developed weeks ago by the Obama administration).
Let’s take a look at some of the legal angles to this story….
Here’s how the legal cases were resolved (in both the U.S. and Russia), per the NYT:
The 10 [Russian] sleeper agents had pleaded guilty to conspiracy before a federal judge in Manhattan after revealing their true identities. All 10 were sentenced to time served and ordered deported….
Within hours of the New York court hearing, the Kremlin announced that President Dmitri A. Medvedev had signed pardons for the four men Russia considered spies after each of them signed statements admitting guilt.
As in most cases resolved by plea agreement, there were other charges, but the government has moved to dismiss them:
With the exchange successfully completed in Vienna, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, whose office prosecuted the Russian agents, announced his office had asked a judge on Friday to dismiss all remaining charges against the 10 defendants, thus ending the criminal case. All 10 had pleaded guilty to a single conspiracy count, but another, more serious charge involving money laundering against 8 of the 10 had remained open until the exchange was done.
The case was presided over by the #1 female superhottie of the federal judiciary, Judge Kimba Wood, who required the defendants to reveal their true identities to her:
The first to rise was the man known as Richard Murphy, who lived with his wife and two children in Montclair, N.J. He said his name was Vladimir Guryev.
Then his wife rose. “My true name is Lydia Guryev,” she said.
Vladimir and Lydia? Jeez. Were Boris and Natasha already taken?
The 10 each pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without properly registering; the government said it would drop the more serious count of conspiracy to launder money, which eight of the defendants also faced. They had not been charged with espionage, apparently because they did not obtain classified information.
Russian spy FAIL. Living in the upscale suburb of Montclair wasn’t likely to yield secrets — unless you consider tidbits like the rules of Bus No. 66 to be classified information.
There were some interesting provisions in the plea agreements:
All of them agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the attorney general. They also agreed to turn over any money made from publication of their stories as agents, according to their plea agreements with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. Several also agreed to forfeit assets, including real estate, in the United States.
The defendants included several married couples with children. American officials said after the court hearing that the children would be free to leave the United States with their parents.
According to the Washington Post, some of the underage children went back to Moscow ahead of their parents.
This had to be one of the more bizarre aspects of the case: the kids. You’re a normal American kid in some nice suburb like Montclair, NJ, or Cambridge, MA. You go to the local public school; you play soccer, or softball. Can you imagine waking up one day to learn that your parents are Russian spies — and that they’re taking you back to Russia with them? Hope you like borscht.
It was a bizarre case — and now it’s over. If you have some thoughts on it, feel free to share them in the comments.
UPDATE: For more information about the children of the spies, see Fox News. It appears that the adult children who were U.S. citizens were allowed to stay in the U.S. if they wanted to, while the underage children were sent to Russia “consistent with what their parents’ wishes were,” according to Attorney General Eric Holder.
Prisoner Swap in Vienna Ends U.S.-Russia Espionage Case [New York Times]
U.S. weighed spy swap well before ‘sleeper’ agents were arrested [Washington Post]
Paging Moscow Center! What the Spies Found in Montclair [New York Observer]