With the just completed exchange of spies between the United States and Russia, the media storm will undoubtedly soon disappear. Amid all the accounts of such arcana as steganography, brush passes, and dead drops, the fascination with Internet photos of a naked and sexy Anna Chapman, and tales of families of spies tending to their hydrangeas in the suburbs, there has been little attention to how similar trades occurred in the past.

Like many such trades in the past, this exchange is asymmetrical. The United States has sent ten Russian spies, nine of whom are professional officers of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency, the other, a naturalized American citizen from Peru, to Russia. The Russians have not freed any Americans, and certainly no professional CIA officers, in exchange. Instead, Russia released four Russians. While they all signed confessions to secure their releases, it is not clear that any of them actually spied for the United States. Igor V. Sutyagin, imprisoned as an American spy, has always denied the charge, and human rights groups have insisted that his conviction was deeply flawed and an effort to intimidate Russian scientists and limit even benign contacts with the West. One of the four was sentenced for spying for Britain, not the United States. The other two were imprisoned for spying for the United States, but the truth of those charges remains unknown, although it is possible that these latter three were important enough spies that the United States was willing to accept the unbalanced swap of ten for four.

One of the few “one of theirs for one of ours” trades was the 1962 exchange of KGB officer Rudolf Abel, caught and imprisoned after operating under a false identity in the United States, for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down over the Soviet Union. The British have occasionally swapped Russian illegals for British citizens, and there have been a handful of similar exchanges that involved spies from several countries.

Other American-Soviet exchanges were even more unbalanced than the current one. In May 1941, the FBI arrested Gayk Ovakimyan, an engineer working for the Soviet trading company Amtorg, as a Soviet spy, based on information from a KGB defector in Canada. Known as “the wily Armenian,” Ovakimyan was, in fact, chief of the KGB station in the United States. He claimed diplomatic immunity, but since Amtorg’s employees lacked official diplomatic status, he faced a lengthy prison term. The issue was resolved when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June. America supported Moscow’s war effort and offered to release Ovakimyan as part of a trade.

There were no real American spies in Soviet prisons in 1941 (America didn’t even have a foreign intelligence service at the time!), although there were thousands of Soviets imprisoned in the Gulag on false charges of working for the United States, Britain, and France. But the USSR did not even offer people falsely accused of being spies. Instead, the State Department asked that the Russian wives of a number of American journalists, long denied exit visas, be allowed to leave the USSR. In order to get Ovakimyan back the Soviets agreed to allow a few of the women to join their husbands in the United States. (Thoughtfully, the KGB then recruited several as spies and they carried out minor tasks for Soviet intelligence after they reached the United States.) Fortunately for Ovakimyan, his arrest by the FBI convinced Soviet authorities that he was not a Trotskyist traitor. He had been slated for recall and execution, but upon his return was promoted to general.

Just as skewed was the 1986 exchange of Soviet spies Karl and Hana Koecher for Anatoly Shcharansky (now known as Natan Sharansky, a prominent Israeli politician). The Koechers were real spies, professional officers of the Communist Czechoslovak intelligence service operating under KGB direction. Posing as dissidents and refugees from Communist oppression they gained American citizenship. Karl Koecher then managed to penetrate the CIA, winning a position as translator/analyst that he used to provide the KGB with highly valuable information. Hana, a stunning blonde, made Anna Chapman’s suggestive photos look like child’s play; she later boasted she had sex with numerous CIA and Pentagon employees, journalists, and one senator. The Koechers were members of the “Capitol Couples,” a club of swingers who met each weekend for group sex. Sharansky, for whom they were exchanged, had been arrested in 1977 on charges of spying for the United States and treason and sentenced to 13 years of forced labor in Siberia. He was no spy at all but a courageous Jewish dissident and a painful thorn in the side of the Soviet establishment.

Just because most prior spy swaps have been asymmetrical does not mean they were without benefit to the United States. While punishing spies who have violated the laws of the United States, and deterring others who might contemplate imitating them, is important, other issues are at play. In 1941, the shift in the diplomatic relationship of the United States and the Soviet Union after the German attack made the Ovakimyan case a distraction that the State Department wanted put aside. And the trade for the wives allowed it to resolve a humanitarian issue that the Soviets had stonewalled for years. The 1986 exchange allowed the United States to avoid what was shaping up as a difficult prosecution of the Koechers due to several legal procedural missteps, while freeing Sharansky from the Gulag was a significant propaganda blow against a Soviet system then spiraling toward dissolution.

This latest exchange also offers some advantages to the United States. One is avoiding a court contest. The American criminal justice system has never meshed well with foreign espionage cases. It allows defense lawyers to demand all sorts of information under discovery motions. Such demands once threatened to reveal in open court highly secret and sensitive information about American counter-intelligence operations, over which hostile espionage agencies drooled.

The lawyer for accused Soviet spy Judith Coplon in 1949 demanded that the material she had stolen from the Justice Department, and which had been found in her possession when she was arrested in the act of handing it over to a Soviet diplomat, be entered as public evidence for the world to see. The FBI was outraged that the documents it had stopped Coplon from delivering to a Soviet diplomat would be handed to the Soviets via an American court. Federal prosecutors asked Judge Albert Reeves to refuse the motion. Reeves replied that as a federal judge, “I am not charged with the responsibility of protecting the security of the government” and ordered the documents made public.

This “graymail” effectively prevented prosecution of a number of foreign spies. American security agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA) would rather forgo prosecution of a spy than reveal such secrets to America’s enemies, contenting themselves with identifying the spy and putting an end to his or her espionage with deportation or some other method of neutralization. In a belated response in 1980 Congress passed the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA). It provided that government prosecutors could request a judicial review of classified information demanded by a defense attorney. The judge would then rule on what classified information necessarily had to be disclosed in order for the defendant to present an adequate defense, with an option of substituting unclassified summaries for the sensitive materials. CIPA called upon judges to balance the need of the government to protect intelligence information and the right of a defendant to a fair trial. It reduced but did not eliminate the “graymail” problem in espionage and terrorism cases because judges retained a large element of discretion.

In the current case there is likely one item of information that the FBI very much wants to keep secret and that Russian intelligence very much wants to learn. From the criminal complaints released by the FBI it is clear that the bureau has had all of these spies under surveillance for years, some for nearly a decade. How did American security get onto them? Did the NSA intercept and decode the covert radio transmissions some of the Russian agents used? Was there some error in the false documents that the Russians used when entering the United States that put the FBI on the trail? Did “legal” Russian agents from the consulate and embassy who met covertly with these “illegals” make some kind of tradecraft error? And, most important, does the CIA have a source inside Russian intelligence?

Russian intelligence desperately wants to know the answers to these questions, and American counter-intelligence most emphatically doesn’t want to tell them. Defense lawyers might have attempted to use discovery motions to force disclosure of information that would help the Russians to answer these questions in hopes that the Justice Department would rather drop the prosecutions than produce the information. This swap removes that risk. Russian intelligence is left in the dark as to what went wrong with what was by all odds a major operation to which it devoted an impressive amount of resources.

The SVR will get no clues about what American counterintelligence has learned or how it did so and will likely have to undergo a time-consuming, divisive, and painful internal review to try and pinpoint what went wrong. And while the Russian spies will not go to prison, their careers as field intelligence operatives are over. They may never again be fully trusted in Russia. Anna Chapman may yet parlay this episode into a new career, but for most of her compatriots, the game is over.

John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr are co-authors, with Alexander Vassiliev, of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press).

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