NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ten people pleaded guilty on Thursday to being agents for Russia while living undercover in the United States as part of a spy swap between the U.S. and Russian governments that revived Cold War-era intrigue.
The suspects agreed in court to be deported to Russia. In turn, Russia agreed to release four people imprisoned for suspected contact with Western intelligence agencies, the U.S. Justice Department said.
The swap helped resolve a scandal that threatened to strain U.S.-Russian relations and revealed shocking details about 10 people living double lives as ordinary citizens while trying to infiltrate U.S. policymaking circles.
Such swaps are not unprecedented but were more a fixture of the Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union were sworn enemies competing for world domination.
Both the Kremlin and the administration of President Barack Obama sought to prevent the arrests from affecting relations that had been improving after hitting lows with Russia’s 2008 war against Georgia.
Obama, who hosted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the White House last month, needs Moscow’s help for efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear program and keep supply lines open for the war in Afghanistan. Russia wants U.S. support to gain entry to the World Trade Organization.
Obama “was fully informed” about the swap and endorsed it, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said on the “PBS NewsHour” program, stressing that the case was pursued by intelligence and law enforcement officials.
Some of the suspects were shown on NBC television boarding a Vision Airlines jet at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Thursday night, and footage from Reuters Television later showed the plane taking off.
Neither the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Department of Justice would comment on the reports.
Five of the suspects revealed their real names for the first time publicly and all but one — Peruvian journalist Vicky Pelaez — said they were Russian citizens.
The couple known as Richard and Cynthia Murphy said their names were Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, 44 and 39 years old.
Donald Howard Heathfield was actually Andrey Bezrukov, 49, Tracey Lee Ann Foley was Elena Vavilova, 47, and Juan Lazaro was really Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasemkov, 66.
Vladimir Guryev told the court he had been in the United States since the early 1990s.
“I resided here under an assumed name and took direction from the Russian Federation and met with Russian officials and I did not register as a diplomat or foreign agent,” he said.
Russian officials promised Pelaez she could go to any country, including her native Peru, with a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life plus visas for her children, her lawyer told the court.
The 10 suspects were sentenced to time already served — 11 days since their arrests on June 27 — and had separate charges of money-laundering dropped.
One of them, Anna Chapman, became a staple of the New York tabloid press, which splashed pictures of her across their pages and labeled her a party-hopping “sexy redhead” and a “Manhattan beauty.”
Also known as Anya Kushchenko, the 28-year-old was arrested in Manhattan, where she ran a $2 million real estate business.
In Moscow, relatives anxiously awaited word from a jailed Russian scholar they said was to be sent to Vienna on Thursday in the first stage of the swap.
It was unclear whether Igor Sutyagin, convicted in 2004 of passing secrets to the West, had arrived in Austria as part of what his lawyer said Sutyagin was told would be a exchange for Russian agents arrested in the United States.
Sutyagin, a respected nuclear expert, was convicted in 2004 of passing classified military information to a British firm that Russian prosecutors said was a front for the CIA.
He said the information was available from open sources and his conviction cast a chill on Russian scientists.
Three of the prisoners Russia agreed to release were convicted of treason and serving long prison terms, Justice Department prosecutors said. Some were in poor health, and the Russian government agreed to release them and their family members for resettlement.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the investigation was not done to gain a “bargaining chip” with Russia.
“With the arrests and guilty pleas in this case it would appear that the Russian Federation is unlikely to engage in this methodology in the future, and that is a good thing,” Bharara told reporters.
“These arrests and prosecution send a message to every other intelligence agency that if you come to America and spy on Americans in America, you will be exposed and arrested.”
Additional reporting by James Vicini in Washington and Aydar Buribayev, Conor Humphries and Sergei Karpukhin in Moscow; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by John O'Callaghan