U.S. and Russian flights believed to be carrying candidates for a 14-person spy swap landed in Vienna on Friday, parking nose-to-tail in a remote section of the tarmac as the largest such exchange since the Cold War moved into its final stage.
The U.S. charter — a maroon-and-white Boeing 767-200 carrying 10 deported Russian agents — arrived after flying overnight from New York's La Guardia airport. Within minutes, it came to a halt behind a Yakovlev Yak-42 — Russian Emergencies Ministry plane thought to be carrying the four Russians to be exchanged.
Stairs were put up to the U.S. flight and people wearing fluorescent yellow jackets entered the plane.
Before anyone was put on those flights, 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 the 10 Russian 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 some of those 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.
In an elaborate round of dealmaking, U.S. officials met in Russia on Monday with the convicted spies and offered them a chance for freedom if they left their country. Russian officials in the U.S. held similar meetings with the agents captured by the FBI.
On Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning the four after officials obtained their confessions.
The Kremlin identified the four as Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin. Among them, Sutyagin, an arms control researcher who asserts his innocence despite the confession, was thought to have been flown to Vienna.
"This sends a powerful signal to people who cooperate with us that we will stay loyal to you," said former CIA officer Peter Earnest. "Even if you have been in jail for years, we will not forget you."
He said the U.S. gave up 10 "fairly lightweight operatives" and "in return, we are getting four people who were actually convicted of spying for the U.S. and Britain, by Russia."
In the U.S., the 10 suburbanites pleaded guilty in a Manhattan courtroom Thursday to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. An 11th defendant is still a fugitive after he jumped bail in Cyprus.
The defendants, led into court in handcuffs, provided almost no information about what kind of spying they actually did for Russia. Asked to describe their crimes, each acknowledged having worked for Russia secretly, sometimes under an assumed identity, without registering as a foreign agent.
One, Andrey Bezrukov, smiled and waved to a supporter in the audience. Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, who lived in the U.S. as a couple under the aliases Richard and Cynthia Murphy, sat side by side but didn't speak.
Anna Chapman, whose sultry photos gleaned from social-networking sites made her a tabloid sensation, pulled back her mane of red hair as she glanced around the courtroom. A burly deputy U.S. marshal hovered behind her.
All the defendants stood and raised their right hands in unison to be sworn in before answering a series of questions from the judge, beginning with a request to state their true identities. Their answers were short and scripted, their 10 guilty pleas given one by one in assembly-line precision.
Chapman looked baffled when the judge asked if her secret laptop exchanges with a Russian official had been "in furtherance of the conspiracy." She finally looked at her lawyer, shrugged and replied, "Yes." Asked by the judge if she realized at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, "Yes, I did, your honor."
U.S. officials said they broke up the spying ring because they learned one of them was about to leave the country.
Vladimir Guryev acknowledged that from the mid-1990s to the present day, he lived in the U.S. under an assumed name and took directions from Moscow.
Asked whether he knew his actions were a crime, he said: "I knew they were illegal, yes, your honor."
Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, David Novak in Moscow and Danica Kirka in London, Larry Neumeister, Tom Hays and David B. Caruso in New York and Calvin Woodward in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.