U.S. and Russian flights believed to be carrying candidates for a 14-person spy swap landed Friday in Vienna as part of the largest such exchange since the Cold War.
A maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 charter carrying 10 deported Russian agents flew in overnight from New York's La Guardia airport. Within minutes of its arrival, the plane came to a halt behind a Russian Emergencies Ministry plane thought to be carrying the four Russians to be exchanged.
Both countries won admissions of crimes from the subjects of the exchange — guilty pleas in the U.S. and signed confessions in Russia. In exchange for 10 agents, 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 such 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.
The 10 Russian agents arrested in the U.S. had tried to blend into American suburbia but 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.
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. if she had not agreed to the deal.