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The largest spy swap between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War unfolded Thursday as 10 people accused of spying in suburban America pleaded guilty to conspiracy and were deported to Russia in exchange for the release of four Russian spies.
Earlier in the day, a Russian convicted of spying for the United States, Igor Sutyagin, was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna.
The defendants each announced their guilty pleas to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country during Thursday's hearing before U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in Manhattan federal court.
When the spies did talk, some spoke with heavy Russian accents, sometimes in broken English, despite having spent years living in the U.S. posing as American and Canadian citizens.
The defendants 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.
Defendant Anna Chapman mentioned she had communicated with a Russian official via a wireless signal, sent from her laptop. Asked by the judge whether she realized at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, "Yes I did, your honor."
Later her defense attorney tried to minimize her role in the spy ring, whose tales of invisible ink and buried cash evoked the Cold War novels of John le Carre.
"She never personally met any member of the Russian federation, she never passed any information, she never received any money," said defense attorney Robert Baum.
Authorities arrested the suspects more than a week ago, capping a decade-plus investigation. Officials said the defendants were reporting what they learned in the U.S. to Russian officials.
Defendant Richard Murphy acknowledged that from the mid-1990s to the present day, he lived in the U.S. under an assumed name and took directions from the Russian Federation.
Asked whether he knew his actions were a crime, he said:
"I knew they were illegal, yes, your honor."
A swap would have significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
Officials in neither country would confirm an exchange was planned. But the machinations — including a meeting in Washington between U.S. officials and the Russian ambassador on Wednesday — had all the hallmarks as the two former Cold War antagonists moved to tamp down tensions stirred up by the U.S. arrests.
"A swap seems very much on the cards. There is political will on both sides, and actually by even moving it as far as they have, Moscow has de facto acknowledged that these guys were spies," intelligence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said.
Five of the suspects charged with spying in the U.S. were hurriedly ordered to New York on Wednesday, joining five others already behind bars in the city. Among the guilty pleas was journalist Vicky Pelaez, the wife of another spy suspect and the only U.S. citizen accused in the ring.
Her defense attorney said that the Russian authorities offered her free housing and a $2000 a month stipend for life, as well as visas for her children. Pelaez asked if she could be sent back to her native Peru and her defense attorney said that's where she'll be headed after touching down in Russia.
Despite this ordeal, he said she's still loyal to her husband, who she knew as Juan Lazaro -- not by his true name, Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov.
"I can tell you, I do not believe that she knew he had another name," said defense attorney John Martinez.
"She loves him, she loves her husband unquestionably," he added.
Meanwhile, riot police beefed up security around Moscow's Lefortovo prison today as a gaggle of TV cameras and photographers jostled for the best position as the world braced for the complicated spy exchange.
A convoy of armored vehicles arrived in the morning at the prison, thought to be the central gathering point for people convicted of spying for the West, including nuclear researcher Igor Sutyagin, serving a 14-year sentence for spying for the United States.
Sutyagin's brother and lawyer say he was transferred to Lefortovo earlier this week and then sent on to Vienna today to take part in the swap. They said Sutyagin saw a list of several prisoners in Russia who are being traded for 10 people arrested in the United States for being unregistered Russian agents.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron would not confirm or deny a possible US-Russian spy swap taking place in London. "This is primarily an issue for the U.S. authorities," spokesman Steve Field said.
In a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday, the ten suspects in New York and an 11th person were formally charged.
The indictment charged all with conspiring to act as secret agents and charged nine of them with conspiracy to commit money laundering. It demanded that those accused of money laundering return any assets used in the offense.
Prosecutors released a copy of the indictment as federal judges in Boston and Alexandria, Virginia, signed orders directing that five defendants arrested in Massachusetts and Virginia be transferred to New York. All were charged in Manhattan.
The defendants were accused of living seemingly ordinary lives in America while they acted as unregistered agents for the Russian government, sending secret messages and carrying out orders they received from their Russian contacts.
All have remained in custody except for a man identified as Christopher R. Metsos, the 11th suspect who is charged with being the spy ring's paymaster. Metsos, traveling on a forged Canadian passport, jumped bail last week after being arrested in Cyprus.
Sutyagin, who worked as an arms control and military analyst at the Moscow-based U.S.A. and Canada Institute, a think tank, was arrested in 1999 and convicted in 2004 on charges of passing information on nuclear submarines and other weapons to a British company that investigators claimed was a CIA cover. Sutyagin has all along denied that he was spying, saying the information he provided was available from open sources.
His case was one of several incidents of Russian academics and scientists being targeted by Russia's Federal Security Service and accused of misusing classified information, revealing state secrets or, in some cases, espionage.
Late Thursday, the New York Times reported that the Kremlin identified the four spies to be released were Sutyagin; Sergei Skripal, a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence service sentenced in 2006 to 13 years for spying for Britain; Aleksandr Zaporzhsky, a former agent with Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service who has served seven years of an 18-year sentence; and Gennadi Vasilenko, a former K.G.B. major who was arrested in 1998 for contacts with a C.I.A. officer.
Jonathan Dienst WNBC
WNBC Jonathan Dienst