U.S. and Russian officials met secretively on two continents Wednesday in a likely prelude to one of the largest swaps of accused spies in decades, a Cold War remix showing the high-stakes race for covert intelligence between East and West endures in the new century.
Five suspects charged with spying in the U.S. were hurriedly ordered to New York, joining five others already behind bars there, after a Russian arms-control researcher convicted of spying for the West came out of the cold of his forlorn penal colony by the Arctic Circle and was transferred to Moscow.
Researcher Igor Sutyagin signed a confession even while continuing to assert his innocence, his brother said, describing that event as one in a series laying the groundwork for Russia to release him and others accused of espionage in exchange for members of an alleged spy ring broken in the U.S.
Officials in neither country would confirm a swap was in the works. But the machinations — including a meeting in Washington between U.S. officials and the Russian ambassador — had all the hallmarks as the two former Cold War antagonists moved to tamp down tensions stirred by the U.S. arrests.
The trade could be the largest since 25 prisoners in Poland and East Germany and four in the United States were exchanged in 1985, the convicted or accused spies leaving their captors on the Glienecke Bridge between East Germany and West Berlin in the waning years of the Soviet bloc.
In one of the most famous swaps, downed U.S. U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers was exchanged for accused KGB spy Col. Rudolph Abel in 1962.
In Russia, Dmitry Sutyagin said his brother, serving a 14-year prison term, was told he was among convicted spies who were to be exchanged for Russians arrested by the FBI. He said his brother could be taken to Vienna, then London, for his freedom as early as Thursday.
The imprisoned Sutyagin said Russian officials had shown him a list of 11 people who could be included in the swap. His brother said Sutyagin remembered only one other person on the list — Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russian military intelligence who in 2006 was sentenced to 13 years on charges of spying for Britain.
Sutyagin said he had been forced to sign a confession, although he maintains his innocence and does not want to leave Russia, his homeland, his brother said.
"For him this all was a huge shock, totally unexpected," his brother said at a news conference. "For the first time in all these years I see him so depressed. He is mostly upset because of two things: He had to sign that paper, basically admit his guilt, and that he has to leave the country."
Despite the tight official lid on developments, the urgency of getting defendants to New York was clear. The sooner defendants could plead to charges filed in New York, the sooner any exchange could move ahead.
In Boston, U.S. Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler presided over a hearing for two defendants that lasted barely a minute and was convened, the judge said, "on rather short notice."
The defendants' lawyers said the suspects were eager to get to New York to face charges. In Virginia, where three other accused spies were held, a hearing was canceled and they were dispatched to New York as well.
Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has all along denied that he was spying, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.
His case was one of several incidents of Russian academics and scientists being targeted by Russia's Federal Security Service and accused of misusing classified information, revealing state secrets or, in some cases, espionage.
The United States arrested 10 people on June 27 and charged them with trying to obtain information about American business, scientific and political affairs.
Prosecutors say for the last decade the alleged spy ring engaged in secret global travel with false passports, secret code words, fake names, invisible ink and encrypted radio — tools of spycraft harkening back to the decades of superpower snooping.
They have been charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents.
All of those arrested in the U.S. are still being detained, and the U.S. government has opposed granting them bail. Anna Chapman, 28, was denied bail. U.S. citizen Vicky Pelaez was granted $250,000 bail with electronic monitoring and home detention, but the government was appealing the decision and she was still in custody.
A scheduled court hearing Wednesday in Alexandria, Va., for three suspects — Michael Zottoli, Patricia Mills and Mikhail Semenko — was canceled and the trio was ordered to New York. In Boston, Donald Heathfield and his wife, Tracey Lee Ann Foley, of Cambridge, Mass., waived their right to identity and detention hearings there and were being sent to New York.
An 11th suspect in the alleged spy ring, Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus last week but disappeared after being released on bail, triggering a manhunt by embarrassed Cypriot authorities.
An indictment unsealed in federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday charges all 11 defendants with conspiring to act as secret agents in the United States on behalf of Russia. Nine of the defendants were also charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Chapman's mother, the 50-year-old Irina Kushchenko, said her daughter was "no Mata Hari" and had done nothing wrong. "She has the normal life of a 28-year-old woman," Kushchenko said in a video interview posted on Russian online news site lifenews.ru.
Igor Sutyagin learned Monday of a pending swap, his brother said, in a meeting with Russian officials attended by Americans. That was at his prison in Arkhangelsk, in northwestern Russia. Afterward, he was taken to Moscow's Lefortovo prison, which is run by the main KGB successor agency.
FBI, Justice Department and State Department officials would not talk publicly about a swap.