Spy Swap Discussed Weeks Before Arrests

Limousines sit beside a Russian plane believed to be carrying candidates for a 14-person spy swap as part of the largest spy swap since the Cold War, on the tarmac at Vienna's Schwechat airport, Friday, July 9, 2010.
AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
The White House began deliberating a spy swap with Moscow as early as June 11, well ahead of the arrests of 10 Russians in the United States on June 27, a White House official said Friday.

In the course of the following negotiations with Moscow, the United States put forward names of the four people who were released by Russia on Friday as their part of the bargain, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

The swap took place Friday in Vienna. The official said all the children of the Russian spies had left the United States for Russia or were in the process of leaving.

The Russian agents had been under observation by U.S. authorities for a decade. The decision to move against the Russians was precipitated by indications that some planned to leave the United States this summer, the official said.

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The case was brought to the White House in February by officials of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department. They presented the broad contours of what was known as "the illegals program" and some specifics about the individuals involved. That triggered weeks of meetings at the White House about how to move forward.

In early June, a decision was made to take action against the Russians and on June 11, a Friday, Obama was briefed in the Oval Office about the matter. He was told about plans for the arrests, how that would be done, what they would be charged with and the possible impact of the case on U.S.-Russian relations, the official said.

Thirteen days after learning of the case, Obama met at the White House with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the two men went out for hamburgers. Obama did not mention the spy case, the official said.

Within days of the arrests on June 27, the United States offered to talk with Russia about a swap of the 10 people in custody for four individuals held in Russia on charges that they had spied for the United States. CIA director Leon Panetta and Russia's spy chief worked out the exchange, the largest spy swap since the Cold War, a U.S. official said.

Panetta already had developed "a sound relationship" with Mikhail Fradkov, head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, known as the Svr, that allowed the two former adversaries to clinch the deal quickly to trade the 10 Russian sleeper agents for the four prisoners in Russia.

In the negotiations, the United States named the four prisoners it wanted and those are the four who were released, the official said.

As part of the swap, there was an understanding by both sides that the deal should not be accompanied by any retaliatory steps or other actions not in the spirit of the agreement, such as action against U.S. citizens of officials, the official said.

The United States declared itself completely happy with the outcome, saying it got everything it wanted out of the case.