Ten Russian agents who infiltrated suburban America and acted as spies for Moscow were deported Thursday after admitting their crimes.
The spies left New York for Moscow hours after pleading guilty to conspiracy in a Manhattan courtroom and being sentenced to time served and ordered out of the country, the Associated Press said it learned from a law enforcement official. The 10 long-term sleeper agents appeared before a federal judge and revealed their true identities, the New York Times reported.
The United States sealed an agreement Thursday to trade the 10 Russian agents, who were arrested last month, for four men imprisoned in Russia for alleged contacts with Western intelligence agencies, quickly concluding an episode that threatened to disrupt relations between the countries.
The swift end to the cases just 11 days after their arrests evoked memories of Cold War-style bargaining but underscored the new-era relationship between Washington and Moscow. President Barack Obama has made the "reset" of Russian-U.S. relations a top foreign policy priority, and the quiet collaboration over the spy scandal indicates that the Kremlin likewise values the warmer ties.
"The agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the United States and its interests," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
Within hours of the New York court hearing, the Kremlin announced that President Dmitry Medvedev had signed pardons for the four men Russia considered spies after each of them signed statements admitting guilt. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the agreement to the warming trend between Washington and Moscow.
The White House referred questions to the Justice Department, calling it a law enforcement matter, but Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff, said the president was fully briefed on the decision as it was being made. Emanuel said the case showed that the United States was still watchful even as relations improved.
"It sends a clear signal to not only Russia but other countries that will attempt this that we are on to them," he told the PBS program NewsHour.
The sensational case straight out of a spy novel - complete with invisible ink, buried cash and a red-haired beauty whose romantic exploits have been excavated in the tabloids - came to an equally dramatic denouement in court.
The defendants sat in two rows of chairs in the jury box, while their lawyers and prosecutors filled the well of the packed courtroom. Some of the Russian agents wore jail garb over orange T-shirts, while others wore civilian clothes. Natalia Pereverzeva, for example, known as Patricia Mills, sat in jeans with a dark sweater.
Few conversed with one another. Some looked grim. One, Vicky Pelaez, appeared to be weeping as she gestured to her sons at the close of the hearing.
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.
All 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 U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan. Several also agreed to forfeit assets, including real estate, in the United States.
At one point, the prosecutor, Michael Farbiarz, told the judge that although Russian officials had met with the defendants, they had done nothing to force them to plead guilty or entice them into doing so. Defense lawyers concurred.
One lawyer, though, John Rodriguez, said Russian officials had made promises to his client, Pelaez, but he assured the judge that they were not inducements to make her plead guilty. He said Pelaez, the only one of the suspects not formally trained as a spy, was told that upon her arrival in Russia, she could go to Peru or anywhere else; she was promised free housing in Russia and a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life and visas for her two children.
The defendants included several married couples with children. U.S. officials said the children would be free to leave the country with their parents.
From Russia, with little love
Convicts whom Russia released in a spy swap:
. Alexander Zaporozhsky, a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, sentenced in 2003 to 18 years in prison for espionage on behalf of the United States. Zaporozhsky quit the service in 1997 and settled in the United States; Russia enticed him back and arrested him in 2001. He was convicted on charges of passing secret information about Russian agents working undercover in the United States and about American sources working for Russian intelligence. The U.S. global intelligence company, Stratfor, said that Zaporozhsky was rumored to have passed information leading to the capture of Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames, both extremely valuable double agents in the U.S. intelligence services.
. Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, was found guilty of passing state secrets to Britain and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2006. He was accused of revealing the names of several dozen Russian agents working in Europe.
. Igor Sutyagin, a military analyst with the USA and Canada Institute, a respected Moscow-based think-tank, was sentenced to 15 years in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that Russia said was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has insisted on his innocence, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.
. Gennady Vasilenko. Vasilenko, a former KGB officer employed as a security officer by Russia's NTV television was arrested in 2005. In 2006 he was sentenced to three years in prison on murky charges of illegal weapons possession and resistance to authorities. Reasons for his involvement in the swap weren't immediately clear.