The Obama administration’s spy swap was a good deal for the United States, John L. Martin, the Justice Department’s former chief spy prosecutor, tells Newsmax.
“These 11 people charged with spying were useless appendages of a shattered regime,” Martin says. “They are a hangover from the old Soviet Cold War days. Remember — as part of the proceedings, they were fully exposed; they had to identify themselves by true name in open court. All of their assets, their homes, their cars, their banking accounts, were seized, and they were packed up with their children to go back to Mother Russia, never to re-enter the United States again.”
On the other hand, Martin says, the United States was able to swap the Russian illegals for four individuals of far higher quality. Illegals are officers or assets of an intelligence service sent to spy on another country without diplomatic cover or any overt connection to their government.
Martin points out that in the event the administration had proceeded with a trial, the political climate in Russia could have changed, and Russia may not have agreed to a swap at that point.
“You strike when the iron’s hot,” Martin says.
Martin’s credentials for evaluating the spy swap are unparalleled. A former FBI agent, Martin took over espionage prosecutions in 1973 and became chief of the Justice Department’s Internal Security Section in 1980.
He was the architect of a new policy of prosecuting spies rather than covering up penetrations of the CIA and other agencies because they were embarrassing.
Before Martin took over the job, no spies had been prosecuted in federal courts for nearly a decade. By the time he retired in August 1997, Martin had supervised the prosecution of 76 spies. Only one of the prosecutions ended in acquittal.
In 1985, known as the “year of the spy,” Martin was in charge of prosecuting John A. Walker Jr., a Navy warrant officer; Jonathan J. Pollard, the Israeli spy; Ronald Pelton, a former NSA employee; and Lawrence Wu-Tai Chin, a spy for the Chinese.
“I’m a firm believer in giving them their full constitutional rights and then sending them to jail for a lifetime,” Martin would say.
As part of his job, Martin helped arrange three previous spy swaps. The most notable occurred in 1986, when Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident, and others were released and Karl and Hana Koecher, two Czech Intelligence Service spies, were sent back to Prague over the Glienecker Bridge, which joined East Germany with West Berlin. It was the same bridge where the United States exchanged U2 pilot Gary Powers for Soviet illegal Rudolf Abel more than 20 years earlier.
To be sure, Martin says, the Russian illegals who were swapped were pathetic spies: They never obtained any classified information. That’s why they were charged with failing to register as foreign agents or with money laundering rather than with espionage. Their maximum penalty would have been only five years in prison for failing to register.
Yet, Martin says, “the Russians started this; the FBI didn’t. The Russians trained and embedded their citizens, except for one defendant, into U.S. society, using false names, false documentation, and equipped with all of the old spycraft, but spycraft never really gets old.”
To its credit, the FBI got onto them.
“At the beginning of the investigation, the FBI didn’t know what they had,” Martin observes. “Why were the Russians running it? I don’t know, because no one from Montclair, N.J. can get close to someone in Washington, D.C., who has access to secrets, and apparently, none of these people did get close to anyone.” But, Martin says, “You’ve got to understand the paranoid Russian mentality. Remember, one of the things that they instructed all of their people to look out for were any signs of war. So maybe they were looking for a primitive early-warning system. That would have been part of their training.”
The operation is an example of government bureaucrats trying to make themselves look good to their bosses, Martin says.
“It is art for art’s sake,” Martin says. “They were running it because they could run it. Because it’s in their blood, it’s in their bureaucracy, it’s in the system. And they can show their bosses they’re doing something. Boss, they can say, we’ve got these people, they haven’t ever been detected or caught, and they’re all over the place,” Martin says, suggesting that other illegals probably have not been caught.
Martin says the case highlights improvements in cooperation between the FBI and prosecutors now that the USA Patriot Act has torn down the so-called wall that many in the Justice Department mistakenly believed required separation of information gathered through intelligence sources and information gathered for use in criminal cases.
“Under the prior political regimes in Washington, Janet Reno, Jamie Gorelick, and others would have been approving Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests for wiretaps, microphones, and surreptitious entries,” Martin says. “They would not have allowed any of that to be shared with the prosecutors. Not with my office nor with the U.S. attorney’s office. They would have said there is a wall between intelligence and law enforcement, and never the twain shall meet.”
In fact, FISA, which Martin helped draft, specifically allowed for sharing of information, and the FISA appeals court has upheld sharing information. But Reno and Gorelick fell for an incorrect interpretation of the law drafted by a low-level Justice Department lawyer, Martin says. Because of these impediments that were needlessly imposed, Martin and other prosecutors were told of espionage cases just before they were to go down.
“I would get these major cases at the last minute,” Martin says. “They would say, ‘Somebody’s leaving town.’ I would tell them, ‘You don’t have a spy case.’ They would question my patriotism, my parenthood, and everything else, and they’d end up with nothing. And that happened numerous times.”
Now, “While the wiretaps, microphones, and surreptitious entries are being carried out in the later stages of the investigation, an affidavit in support of arrest warrants is being put together, and it’s being updated constantly,” Martin says. “So while the evidence of contacts, the photographs, the surveillance, and the wiretap and intercept information is coming in, the Justice Department can constantly update the pleadings that will be used to make these arrests. That is magnificent, and has never been done before.”
Of the 11 individuals charged, one jumped bail in Cyprus, so only 10 spies were swapped.
In deciding whether to swap the 10 spies immediately, “The question the administration faced was, Are you going to have 10 people standing trial in three separate jurisdictions under three different sets of judges, trying these cases?” Martin says. “And what do we get in return? These people have no criminal records, they have not had access to secrets. A number of them could get probation, others could get very light sentences, but the administration knew we’re not going to get a very big bang for the buck.”
Holding trials would have meant that “we’re going to go through 10 lengthy trials, showing all of the ways we got this information, all of the information regarding FISAs and surreptitious entries, and our techniques for surveillance, because not all of that stuff could be subject to secret proceedings,” Martin says.
“You could look at it and ask, are President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder doing something political and putting the nation at risk by swapping the spies immediately?” Martin says. “I don’t see it that way; there’s no down side to it.
"If we were sending 10 slugs back for four slugs received, and there was a numerical imbalance, that would be different.”
In this case, “The quality of the people that we got out of Russian prisons far outweighs the quality of people that we sent back,” Martin says.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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