The largest US-Russian spy swap since the Cold War happened less than a month after an idea was secretly hatched in the Oval Office, and reached fruition on a remote stretch of Vienna airport tarmac.
The exchange took place early yesterday in a choreographed script of spy novel intrigue. Two planes, one from New York, the other from Moscow, arrived within minutes of each other and parked nose-to-tail.
Their passengers – 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in the US and four prisoners accused by Russia of spying for the West – were ferried to each other, and the planes departed again just as quickly.
The whole thing, a soundless drama seen only at a distance through camera lenses, took less than an hour and a half – displaying the efficiency of an extraordinary new chapter in US-Russian relations.
The 10 Russian agents who had blended into US communities, including Anna Chapman, the woman who had caught Americans’ fancy with her Facebook photos, soon landed in Moscow.
Four other Russians accused of spying for the West headed the other way, two of them arriving at Dulles International Airport outside Washington at the end of the capital’s workday.
Their chartered aircraft, a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200, had stopped briefly at a southern England air base, where a US official said two of the four were dropped off before the plane continued across the Atlantic.
The swap idea was Washington’s, first raised with President Barack Obama nearly a month ago when the FBI and Justice Department officials who had been watching the 10 Russian agents hiding in suburban America for over a decade informed the president it was time to start planning their arrests, according to two White House officials, who spoke anonymously.
What was known as “the illegals programme” had been first brought to the White House’s attention months before, in February, triggering weeks of meetings about how and when to proceed, the officials said. It became clear in early June that at least two of the Russians were making plans to leave the US, meaning the whole operation had to be rolled up more quickly than originally thought.
The timing of the arrests was deliberated with Mr Obama on that June 11 Friday afternoon in the Oval Office, along with the expected charges for the individuals and the potential impact on Washington’s freshly “reset” relationship with its former Cold War rival.
Also considered, the officials said, was the matter of what should happen afterwards. One of the recommendations was to propose a swap to Russia.
The arrests were not planned to facilitate such a trade, said a separate US official. But since the Russian agents had never penetrated the US government, it seemed Washington could benefit more from using them for barter than as prisoners to be locked up for years.
The president approved.
Thirteen days later, Mr Obama hosted Russian president Dmitry Medvedev at the White House for the first time, chatting over hamburgers in nearby Arlington, Virginia, and showing a rapport to reporters that would have been unthinkable during the nations’ diplomatic low points.
But although preparations for the arrests were moving forward – and would take place just three days later – Mr Obama kept quiet, the White House officials said.
Shortly after the June 27 arrests, CIA director Leon Panetta provided Russia’s spy chief Mikhail Fradkov with the names of four prisoners being held in Russia that the US wanted to free, the officials said.
By the following Saturday – the July 4 holiday weekend in the States and less than a week and three phone conversations after the arrests – Mr Panetta and Mr Fradkov, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, had agreed to the deal by phone.
A flurry of bureaucratic wrangling followed. Russia required signed confessions from the four in order to make way for pardons from Mr Medvedev and court appearances and plea deals were hastily arranged in the US for the Russians.
One US condition of the swap was that the deal not be accompanied by any retaliatory steps against Americans. The officials also said that Washington got everything it asked for out of the case – emphasising that the US did not ask for any prisoners beyond the four.
The officials also said that all the children of the Russian spies had left the US for Russia or were in the process of leaving.