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U.S., Russia swap spies

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Who the U.S. got in the spy swap
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Spy swap idea originated with the U.S.
  • Six children of Russian agents have left the U.S., attorneys say
  • U.S. and Russia complete spy swap at Vienna airport
  • Moscow airport confirms plane landed with 10 Russian agents aboard

Washington (CNN) -- The United States and Russia completed a spy swap Friday, exchanging the agents on chartered planes at an airport in Vienna, Austria, a U.S. official and Russian media said.

The plane carrying 10 Russian agents, who were expelled from the United States on Thursday for intelligence gathering, landed at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport on Friday afternoon, the airport press office said.

"The United States has successfully transferred 10 Russian agents to the Russian Federation and the Russian Federation has released four individuals who had been incarcerated in Russia," Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the National Security Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a statement released as the plane landed in Moscow. "The exchange of these individuals ... has been completed."

The elaborately choreographed transfer -- which took place while the planes sat on the ground for about an hour -- was reminiscent of a scene from the Cold War.

The White House was first briefed in general terms in February by the FBI, the CIA and the Department of Justice about the program and some of the individuals involved, a White House official said. Additional briefings occurred in subsequent months, the official said.

President Obama was first briefed on the matter on June 11 and given details of the individuals involved over the past decade.

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A week later, Obama chaired a meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the issue.

The idea of a swap was discussed among the administration's national security team before the arrests were made, the official said.

The four individuals freed by the Russians were selected based on humanitarian concerns, health concerns, and other reasons, the official said.

The 10 Russian agents pleaded guilty in the United States on Thursday for failing to register as foreign agents and were ordered out of the country. They then boarded a U.S.-chartered flight accompanied by U.S. marshals, a federal law enforcement source said.

"As a result of the successful exchange ... the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York has requested that the court dismiss any remaining charges against the 10 Russian agents," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Friday.

In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder said none of the 10 had passed classified information and therefore none had been charged with espionage.

"They were acting as agents to a foreign power," he told CBS News, referring to the Russians who, U.S. officials have said, had been under observation by federal authorities for more than a decade.

Four young children of the Russian agents are now in Russia, according to attorneys for the agents. Two older children are no longer in the United States, though their exact location is unknown. Another two older children have remained in America, the attorneys indicated.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told PBS' "NewsHour" that although the 10 agents didn't plead guilty to being spies, they "were clearly caught in the business of spying."

In a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials said the agents agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the U.S. government.

Holding them would have conferred no security benefit to the nation, they said.

This "clearly serves the interests of the United States," one official said.

A second official said the four prisoners in Russia were in failing health, a consideration that prompted quick completion of the deal.

Under the plea agreements, the defendants disclosed their true identities in court and forfeited assets attributable to the criminal offenses, the Justice Department said in a news release.

"Defendants Vicky Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, who operated in the United States under their true names, admitted that they are agents of the Russian Federation; and Chapman and Semenko admitted they are Russian citizens," the Justice Department said.

Carlos Moreno, an attorney for Pelaez, said his client does not want to take up residence in Russia and would prefer ultimately to live in her native Peru or in Brazil, where she has family. Pelaez hopes to continue her work as a journalist, according to Moreno.

Pelaez told the court that Moscow promised her free housing in Russia and a $2,000 monthly stipend for life, as well as visas for her children to travel to see her. Pelaez and her husband, both naturalized American citizens, were stripped of that citizenship as a part of the plea deal.

Authorities have lost track of an 11th suspect, who was detained in Cyprus, released on bail, and then failed to check in with authorities as he had promised to do.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree Friday pardoning the four Russians imprisoned for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies, the Kremlin press service said, according to state-run RIA Novosti.

"Three of the Russian prisoners were convicted of treason in the form of espionage on behalf of a foreign power and are serving lengthy prison terms," the Justice Department said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood, who handled the case in the United States. "The Russian prisoners have all served a number of years in prison and some are in poor health. The Russian government has agreed to release the Russian prisoners and their family members for resettlement."

It added, "Some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies. Three of the Russian prisoners have been accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian (or Soviet) government."

The individuals pardoned by Russia are Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal, and Igor Sutyagin.

All four appealed to the Russian president to free them after admitting their crimes against the Russian state, press secretary Natalia Timakova said.

But in Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied Thursday that Sutyagin had been a spy.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move was made "in the general context of improving Russian-American relations, and the new dynamic they have been given, in the spirit of basic agreements at the highest level between Moscow and Washington on the strategic character of Russian-American partnership."

CNN's Dugald McConnell and Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report

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