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Posted at 5:15 PM ET, 07/ 8/2010

Spy swap is 'all but unprecedented'

By Jeff Stein

John L. Martin supervised 76 espionage cases during his 26 years at the Justice Department, but he’s never seen one end like this one.

Martin said swapping spies who have not been sentenced to time in prison, much less served it, is "all but unprecedented."

Martin could recall only one case in which an accused spy was swapped without first being convicted and sentenced to prison.

Alice Michelson, a courier for the Soviet KGB, was arrested in late 1984, indicted on espionage charges, held without bail, and eventually exchanged in a deal for 25 Europeans accused of spying for the West in Eastern Europe.

"In this particular case I remember we held off the proceedings in court until the terms of the exchange were finalized" in 1985, Martin said in a telephone interview.

“For earlier exchanges, we worked for a number of years before we came up with a final number of people we would be willing to release,” among other considerations, he said.

"Both sides were doing that," he said of the Cold War era.

"We would arrest people, they would arrest people. As we arrested more people, the negotiations would intensify."

All of which makes the speed with which the latest case played out "absolutely unprecedented," he said.

Martin helped negotiate the release of Soviet dissident Anatoli Shcharansky in February 1986, which turned out to be the last time Moscow and Washington traded spies across the Glienicke Bridge linking East and West Germany.

As part of the swap announced Thursday, the 10 accused Russian spies in U.S. possession will fly home.

The fate of their children were certainly "part of the negotiations, " Martin said -- another precedent.

The Russians will claim those who were Russian-born are their citizens, Martin said.

"For the children who are native-born Americans, the Constitution confers American citizenship," he noted.

But evidence that their parents' citizenship was falsely obtained will complicate matters.

"Children who are foreign-born and whose parents used false documentation to obtain their child's citizenship, places the children in jeopardy in terms of their status," Martin said.

Those over 18 can decide for themselves what to do, unless they are here illegally.

But in the end, Martin said, "the families will have to make the decisions" on the fate of their youngsters, he said.

"It puts them in their lap."

Some of the accused have been expressing deep worries about their childrens' well-being, but Martin said his sympathy for them has limits.

"They should have been thinking about that before taking on their spying assignments," he said.

By Jeff Stein  | July 8, 2010; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Justice/FBI, Lawandcourts  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Past Russian spies have found post-swap life gets a bit sticky
Next: Sleeper spies: Tinker, tailor, soldier ... who?


I'm not surprised at anything this so called administration is capable of. Not after filing a law suit over a state complying with a ferderal law that the federal government doesn't want to comply with itself. What a bunch of stupids!

Posted by: GordonShumway | July 8, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't want to be picky, but I don't understand how they can do this without the government either dropping the charges on the grounds they can't prove them, or a trial. The judicial system is an independent branch, and there are rights to justice here. It looks to me as if they are being ignored. So Lindsay Lohan goes to the slammer for six months, and the alleged spies charged after a 10-year FBI investigation costing an unknown amount of money go scott free? Something is not right here.

Posted by: edwardallen54 | July 8, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

What's all the fuss about? Spy swaps were done often during the height of the Cold War. What difference does it make what stage they were in with the criminal process? Obviously Russian wanted them back quickly and we were able to get some people freed in exchange for that. The U.S. probably knows of a lot of other such Russian spies over here. Maybe we arrested these for the purpose of freeing those we get in exchange. In spy matter, you can't believe anything that is said. But this notion that this is somehow offensive or unprecedented is ridiculous. Get a grip, people.

Posted by: netgotham1 | July 8, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

As I understand it, we give Russia 10 spies, and they give us 4. Are there only 4 U.S. spies in Russia? Why not 10 for 10? Is this another effort on Obama's part to be loved by our enemies? When will he ever realize that they will never love us, but, rather, they want to dominate us? Russia must think that their people have a lot of valuable info if they want this to proceed so quickly.

Posted by: coffic | July 8, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

To edwardallen54: The government can drop charges any time it wants to--nobody's rights are violated when they decline to prosecute. Certainly not the person charged. And you and I are so tangentially affected that our rights aren't violated; that's the theory. If this wasn't true, the prosecutors couldn't do plea deals without getting your permission, and they happen all the time.

Posted by: Dan4 | July 8, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Can't we keep Anna Chapman?

National Security is well and good, but some perspective would be in order.

Posted by: thebump | July 8, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

This is just president Obama throwing out all the hard work and lengthly investigations of the FBI in favor of short term political favors from Putin. This was a power play by Putin to keep these spies from really talking and our president fell for it. Bush would never have been that naive. At times like these I really miss George W. Bush.

Posted by: AnotherContrarian | July 8, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

I know that we hear at the UW will miss our favorite Soviet spies.

Posted by: WillSeattle | July 8, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Just another case of an incompetant Administration pandering to the Socialists and Communists it supports. At what point do we charge this whole Administration of grand corruption and malfeascense? Just look at its' assault on the State of Arizona for wanting to enforce our own immigration laws. I'll be gratefull when this clowns' anti-American insanity is put to an end.

Posted by: ssmorehouse | July 8, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

To AnotherContrarian: I will never miss George W Bush.......

Posted by: bubb909 | July 8, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Only people who are hopelessly partisan can object to the freeing of these four people who have been held in Russian prisons with no hope of release.
Typical Republicans: no compassion for the individual, cemented into their ideology at the expense of each and every individual.
As far as they are concerned, these four people could have rotted in a Russian prison forever. Who cares about THEM? Not Republicans. Just like they don't care about you.

Posted by: cms1 | July 8, 2010 7:29 PM | Report abuse

Wait until the spy's kids get to Russia and find out what a crap hole "home" really is!

Posted by: nuke41 | July 8, 2010 7:30 PM | Report abuse

Why do I have the strong suspicion that the barack administration is not telling us everything? Based on barack and his DOJ's track record, this trade is happening way too fast. Why hasn't anyone in the CIA, NSA, FBI or DOJ given a hint of what these spies have done? And, obviously the Russian spy agency does not want any of these people cooperating.

Posted by: mike9270 | July 8, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

More proof Obama is anti-American.

Posted by: astro2009 | July 8, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse


My inital reaction exactly.

Something just stinks about this whole [dare I say sordid?] affair.

Will the American public have to wait 50 years or more until a portion of the file is declassified?

Sorry, I'll be dead by then.

Posted by: LAWPOOL | July 8, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

mike9270, you have "the strong suspicion that the barack administration is not telling us everything" because THEY AREN"T.
NO administration tells us "everything" about what is going on behind the scenes. YOU? are expecting to be let into the negotiations with a foreign country?
Because YOU know all the answers and the ins and outs of foreign policy to the extent that our national leaders should let YOU tell them what to do?

Posted by: cms1 | July 8, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

They have to swap the Harvard spy back home to behind the Iron Curtain before his link to Kagan is discovered. Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorbachev... but not so fast.

Posted by: blasmaic | July 8, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

As I understand it, we give Russia 10 spies, and they give us 4. Are there only 4 U.S. spies in Russia? Why not 10 for 10? Is this another effort on Obama's part to be loved by our enemies? When will he ever realize that they will never love us, but, rather, they want to dominate us? Russia must think that their people have a lot of valuable info if they want this to proceed so quickly.

Did you miss the part about the arrests being the culmination of a ten year operation? These people had nothing. The Russians want it over because they were running a Keystone Kops spyring. It's about saving face. We're willing to trade ten morons because we want our four presumably useful NOCs back. They just want it to go away.

Posted by: mason08 | July 8, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

LAWPOOL, well isn't it just "sordid" that four people are being released from a Russian prison who could have languished there until their deaths? Um humm, What? you believe they should have stayed there until death?
No. You simply don't care one single bit about them as human individuals. You don't care if they die in a Russian prison. So what, as far as you are concerned.
If these people being released really WERE spies ( and since they were convicted by Russians who the hell really knows) then we should all be thrilled that these people working to keep us free have now BEEN freed.
If they were simply people who got caught up in Russian paranoia and were, accordingly, innocent people, then we should also be celebrating the fact that our government has seized on the opportunity to get them home.
Don't you have ANY memory about what it is like to be an American instead of simply a partisan?

Posted by: cms1 | July 8, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: f8ds9afhak | July 8, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

This justice according to Herr Diktator Obama.
Don't bother me with Constitutional Law!
I know what is best for you!
And we know what we want in 2012!!
Barry out!!!

Posted by: thornegp2626 | July 8, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Is a lack of historical perspective the sign of the neo-neo-Con set, where everyone is as shallow and vapid as that Wacky Witch From Wasilla? Just back from a Sharron "Wacky" Angle rally on the set of Comedy Central's "Reno 911"?

It was rarely, if ever, even swaps, even during the St. Ronnie (Patron Saint of the Absent Minded) Raygun goose-stepping days. There was a Soviet Union and KGB then. Dubya was a dense little leaguer in comparison.

There are friendly states, but no truly friendly intelligence services. They are vital to, and serve, their national interests. Spying has been a part of the Russian DNA since the czars. Information is a commodity, exchanged with all the "openness" of a Vegas high-stakes poker game. Every nation serves itself first. Get over it.

Knowing is always far better than not knowing. Sometimes you get caught, but that does not mean you stop collecting information. This isn't "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." Part of the game.

I imagine the FSB balked at taking some of our nutter Tea Baggers as part of the exchange.

Posted by: CharlieM57 | July 8, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

thebump: Do we keep Anna Chapman in the Federal Witness Protection Program training Hooters waitresses in the boonies of North Dakota? Or, perhaps, we could sell her to for their ads. Make her the billboard girl for Army Recruiting?

Glad to see you don't suffer from hormone deficiency!

Posted by: CharlieM57 | July 8, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

I heard a man on TV who was with the CIA say that Obama is negotiating too soon.

He said you need time to see what these 10 spies found out about our government and try to find out what were their future plans. Also, try to find out the whereabouts of other spies in the US.

This takes time. Obama is folding his hand too soon. And TEN of their spies not even tried, for 4 of ours who were in jail for some time. The Russians found out all they could from our spies by now, so they have the advantage in this swap.

Obama is foolish. But didn't we all know this? No, I guess the fools who voted for him didn't.

Posted by: janet8 | July 8, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

The only thing comparable is when Bush had to get the Saudis out of town after 9/11 and cancel the Clinton sanctions on Pakistan's nuclear program the week after 9/11.

Posted by: OldAtlantic | July 8, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

As Gore Vidal pointed out, and is documented in THE IRREGULARS and, I'm sure, more scholarly works, our British friends had a major intelligence and propaganda operation in the Western Hemisphere during World War II and emphatically during the run-up. The Brits were very good at it and got agents working on the highest levels, as in providing a back-channel between Roosevelt and Churchill (Roosevelt was good at letting slip, so to speak, comments he couldn't say but wanted Churchill to know.) Also in having a dashing young RAF officer and author getting himself run into the ground swiving a US senator and wife unto a major magazine publisher (one woman, but a very energetic one).

And the Israelis have spied on us, and NSA has routinely monitored just about everything electronic coming into or leaving the USA or broadcast (or sent by some major optic cables).

The basic story is of the variety, GAMBLING OPERATION DISCOVERED IN CASINO!!! If the DoJ et al. make the spy trades early rather than late, that's a kind of progress: it saves the wasted time of the mating-dance-of-scorpions of the Cold War.

Posted by: ErlichRD | July 8, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

We will probably never really know what happened with the "spies." However, the 4 the Russians released did not look like Americans and I saw the tape on TV several times today. In the first place, the 4 were too small and dark to be Americans. They looked like jockeys. We will probably never know. I did not even know Russia HAD 4 American prisoners. Usually, we would have been trying to get them freed.

I really miss George Bush!! I detest the sordidness we have in the white house now.

Posted by: annnort | July 8, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

this story was released to the media not too long ago.

Do you Obama haters think the government learned about it the day before?

This is SOP for this kind of thing. Bush did it, Reagan did it, Teddy Roosevelt did it. hell, even your mama did it ... did you ever wonder how two brown eyed parents could have a red-haired blue-eyed child?

Posted by: jontomus | July 8, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

Right, and no-one's asking questions? Right...

Posted by: prossers7 | July 8, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

Dear American heros,
I am so sorry. On behalf of the the American people, I apologize for this clown shoe wearing buffoon we elected. We wont do it again.

Posted by: carlbatey | July 8, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

Don't you have ANY memory about what it is like to be an American instead of simply a partisan?

Posted by: cms1

So true, and so well said! Thank you for being a patriot.

Posted by: MadamDeb | July 8, 2010 10:09 PM | Report abuse

No matter what decision Obama and the U.S. Gov't made regarding this matter it would have been the wrong decision. GOP and conservatives will NEVER admit any decision is made is a good one. They are the party of NO!!
After investigating and monitoring these spies for 10 years, the gov't knows exactly what information they have!!!

Posted by: Jaimers | July 8, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

Why doesn't the federal gov't get a pat on the back for catching these spies???

Posted by: Jaimers | July 8, 2010 10:16 PM | Report abuse

Well this at least says some good things about improving relations with Russia. Stuff like this can help with bigger picture things like 'no these anti-missile systems are not aimed at you' type issues.

Posted by: Nymous | July 8, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

Comments like this belong people that should stay in bed ........To AnotherContrarian: I will never miss George W Bush....... Bitterness will never make their life better.

The decesion gives Russia a face saving in world opinion that we can question, do they deserve such a generous act. I actually believe it a good move. The problem is will the world believe the US facts on the case.

Posted by: ZebZ | July 9, 2010 7:45 AM | Report abuse

You mean obama got ripped off in basic negotiations again?

No really? cannot imagine.

Obama didn't know that russia invaded georgia for 48hrs, he was partying with the chinese during the opening ceremonies.

obama sent clintoon and the "reset" button

obama didn't realize for 3 weeks.... 3 weeks that the russians closed our major land based supply chain to afganistan.

obama didn't have his sat-com briefing for months into his presidency. Have you any idea what that means?... the US was incapable of launching a nuke for 4 months or so (exact delay of obama's choice has been deemed TOP SECRET)

This is basic competency we're talking about now.

Posted by: docwhocuts | July 9, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

Let's get real. The US released 10 people who were sleepers and whose only real alleged crimes were being in the US illegally and money laundering. And they were so inept that they had been watched for a number of years before they were arrested. The intel community gets an A+. Russia 0, US 10.

The Russians released 4 individuals 2 of whom were clearly major assets to Western Intelligence and two whose stories are murky at best. For the two, western nations asked these people to provide them information and got considerable solid intelligence for the asking. Not sure what to think about the other two but there may be more to their story than has surfaced. The US and its allies have, I think, a moral obligation to go to bat for such people and all to often they are simply abandoned. US and UK 2+ Russia 0.

Looks to me like a good deal.

Posted by: rsvaught | July 9, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I find that this particular matter is exactly opposite to "unprecedented", in fact I would say this is exactly the outcome that is most typical!

Firstly, the Israeli spy issue was sorted out very quickly with little fuss or fanfare, and, without any exchange of prisoners. The reason was so as not to embarrass a supposedly close ally. Russia is a natural ally geographically, and, even philosophically these days; with stae-sanctioned oligarcs replicating the corporate mogul state coziness of American society, for instance.

Both Russia and America are now threatened by China's phenomenal growth and its policy of non-intervention in other government's policy, as long as they get the contract - be it an energy deal or a mineral asset development.

America and Russia need each other. Important Russian and Siberian gas field assets, along with still huge relatively untapped Arctic energy assets - important to all of Europe and America - make cozy relations more important than a few sleeper cells implanted as a matter of course a decade or more ago.

The exchange, whether unbalanced or not, is a huge policy win for both nations, and this is where the second point comes in. All spy activity is governed by a successful policy outcome, no matter what way it is gained!

This is how the big game is played and this is what intelligence organisations aim for, a big win is always better than a small win, and, if a small win can be translated into a big win then someone deserves a medal in the intelligence organisations that helped make it happen.

I wouldn't be surprised to find out some promotions were liberally handed out secretly for this one, it's a bigun because it cements government policy across the globe - common enemies of Russia and America are not very happy right now.

Although allies of both nations are now quickly trying to allay fears in their own nations, it's a big win for sure for America, but it'll take a while before the flak from the opposition turns to goose feathers.

Posted by: icurhuman2 | July 9, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Jeff Stein:
Thank you for your hard work on your articles.
Reading the comments here, there are some intelligent people who find the swap beneficial.
However, I estimate that 60-70 percent are paid GOP trolls who are assigned to haunt the comment boards on the Washington Post spewing propaganda designed to bring down the current administration, and with it, our nation.
They appear indefatiguable at times.
Their irrational contempt and braggadacio are only equaled by the advertising/spam that keeps turning up every once in a while.
BTW, there's no reason why the Washington Post can't ban f8ds9afhak.
I know how they keep changing one digit or letter to sneak back through the ban again, however, I believe it can be done.
I hope those Web shopping sites seduce some of these GOP trolls and relieve them of their ill-gotten gains from M. Steele.
It would be karma.
Sigh. :-)

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | July 9, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I think that if the FBI has been tailing these people for up to 10 years, we've already learned from them pretty much everything there is to learn. So why would we want to spend more on keeping them housed and fed at US taxpayer expense when we can trade them off for the release of some good people held in Russian prisons?

Comparing it to Lohan's case is meaningless - two different court systems, different prosecutors, different community and national interests. (Besides which, if the judge saw the "F..U" Lohan painted on her fingernail, that might have affected the decision and explain why Lohan's attorney resigned.)

Posted by: j3hess | July 9, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

What John L. Martin apparently wanted the administration to do, after over 10 years of investigation was to drag them through an expensive court trial (of course, that they pled guilty is of no value), trip them down to Guantanamo, no doubt, to give them a taste of the medicine that our 4 people, long sunk in labor camps in Russia, had been enduring for what probably seems to them as ages.
But Mr. Martin would allow them to continue to rot in their misery, awaiting a never-ending court exercise that would yield little or nothing except to drive another wedge between the Russians and the U.S. government.
Senseless spy talk.
The U.S. administration made a good decision here.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | July 9, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

... the 4 the Russians released did not look like Americans and I saw the tape on TV several times today. In the first place, the 4 were too small and dark to be Americans.

I really miss George Bush!! I detest the sordidness we have in the white house now.
Posted by: annnort

The thinly veiled face of racism reveals itself.

George Bush, whatever his faults, was not a racist and would reject such views.

The Obama administration has also, to the anger of many liberals, kept in place most of the national security personnel and policies of the Bush administration, refusing to prosecute either agency employees or the political appointees and administration officials for breaking the laws on torture, detention, etc. Bush would be happy with how much of his legacy Obama has preserved.

There is absolutely no basis for regarding this swap through a partisan lens. It follows a tradition maintained by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The only unprecedented thing here is the speed (i.e., efficiency) with which it was executed.

Posted by: j3hess | July 9, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

"In the first place, the 4 were too small and dark to be Americans." really annort? so if you are dark and small you're not american?

Posted by: dolly3 | July 9, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the children. I expect there will be secret deals done and the innocent will still found to be American children... New identities will be in the mix, and a further mutual bond established betwixt Russia and the U.S.A. due to the outcome.

This spy issue can be milked for positives very easily. Lets see what happens when the U.N. Security Council meet next, for example. China might be forced to take a harder line on Iran with U.S./Russian cooperation... A U.S. Russian alliance, as a weird thought, would be unstoppable with the combination of resources, military and diplomatic influence... Sometimes the leading edge of policy change is where the real action is...

Posted by: icurhuman2 | July 9, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

carlbatey: How did you become authorized to speak on behalf of the American people?In the reality based world, we are very divided in how we feel about the current President

Posted by: newageblues | July 10, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

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