Signs point to possible U.S.-Russia spy swap

WASHINGTON — Across a vast global chessboard, the pieces were set in motion Wednesday.

In Moscow, Igor Sutyagin, an imprisoned physicist, was transported from a prison camp near the Arctic Circle to the high-security Lefortovo facility and ushered into a room to meet with a general from the Russian security services and three U.S. diplomats.

On the other side of the world, five alleged Russian spies due in U.S. federal court Wednesday were instead transferred to New York to join five other suspected spies detained there.

The moves appeared to foreshadow another turn in the already intrigue-laden case of the 10 accused deep cover agents for Russia: the possibility of the largest U.S.-Russia spy swap since the end of the Cold War.

The mother of Sutyagin, the Russian scientist convicted in 2004 of spying for the U.S., told the Los Angeles Times that her son was hastily moved to Moscow from a prison camp and told that if he confessed to spying, he would be among 10 people exchanged "for the 10 Russians recently arrested in the United States."

In the U.S., lawyers for the accused would say only that talks with federal prosecutors were ongoing.

"We are in negotiations with the government, and they're of a sensitive nature and we're not going to comment on them," said Fiona Doherty, a lawyer representing Anna Chapman, the young Russian redhead who has been fodder for tabloid newspapers.

"I can't say anything publicly about it right now," said Charles Burnham, a lawyer for spy suspect Patricia Mills.

The 10 spying suspects were officially charged in a federal indictment unsealed in New York on Wednesday of trying to secretly gather information for Russia. An 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus last week, but disappeared after being released on bail. The indictment mirrored charges outlined in the criminal complaint that led to their arrests last month.

Arraignment for the 10 defendants in custody is scheduled today in New York before U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood.

As rumors of a spy swap rippled Wednesday across Moscow and Washington, both governments clammed up. State Department spokesman Mark Toner would only confirm that a high-ranking U.S. diplomat, William Burns, discussed the spy case with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a meeting at Kislyak's residence. He referred further questions to the Justice Department, where spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment.

"I have nothing for you on that," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.

Gibbs' statement came hours after Sergei Guskov, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, said, "There will be no comments on the situation with the people detained in the United States."

Officially, the Russian government has called the charges "baseless and improper," and Russian news media, which is heavily influenced by the government, has not been reporting on the case.

A 20-person spy swap would be one of the largest in U.S. history. In 1985, the U.S. freed four Eastern Europeans charged with espionage in exchange for 25 eastern Europeans held prisoner in East Germany and Poland.

Signs point to possible U.S.-Russia spy swap 07/08/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 8, 2010 12:08am]

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