Saturday, July 10, 2010

US Justice Department Completes Successful Spy Swap

A Vision airlines plane reportedly  carrying 10 Russian spies from U.S. sits on the tarmac at Vienna airport  next to a Russian jetplane.
A Vision airlines plane reportedly carrying 10 Russian spies from U.S. sits on the tarmac at Vienna airport next to a Russian jetplane. (Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY July 09, 2010 —The U.S. Justice Department announced on Friday morning that it had completed a successful spy swap that's being called the biggest exchange since the Cold War.

"The United States has successfully transferred ten Russian agents to the Russian Federation and the Russian Federation has released four individuals who had been incarcerated in Russia," a justice department official told WNYC. "The exchange of these individuals took place in Vienna, Austria, and has been completed."

On Thursday, 10 undercover Russian spies masquerading as American citizens for years pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as unregistered agents of a foreign country. A federal judge spared them from prison time but ordered them to be deported immediately. After the exchange on Friday, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara asked that any remaining charges against the Russian spies be dropped.

“As a result of the successful exchange in Vienna, Austria, of ten Russian agents and four individuals who were previously incarcerated in Russia, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has requested that the court dismiss any remaining charges against the ten Russian agents,” Bharara said.

WNYC's Ailsa Chang caught up with the defense lawyers for the Russian agents at Manhattan federal court on Thursday.

Robert Baum has been part of the small army of lawyers defending the 10 accused secret agents. He represents 28-year-old Anna Chapman, whose seductive face and come-hither outfits have been gracing tabloids for days. Baum says his client was dumbfounded when she saw the battalion of reporters packing the courtroom.

"She was surprised by the extent of the coverage," he says. "She'd be telling you, Why aren't you covering LeBron instead of her?'"

Well, while Lebron's been toasted by multiple cities, Chapman's ex-husband has been feeding the tabloids with steamy accounts of their sex life. Baum says solitary confinement saved Chapman from reading those accounts firsthand, but he says the detention still took a toll on her.

"She was permitted to leave the cell for one hour per day," Baum says. "She was not permitted to make any phone calls. She was not permitted to have any visitors, except her counsel."

But Chapman looked fresh-faced in the courtroom. She twirled and untwirled her red hair absent-mindedly, as if she didn't know how else to kill time during the nearly two-hour proceeding. The other spies really did look like they could pass for "the neighbors next door." The spy previously known as "Patricia Mills" was wearing expensive designer jeans. And her co-defendant -- aka "Richard Murphy" -- looked like he had bedhead.

They sat calmly and politely and, speaking with thick Russian accents, they revealed their real names to the judge. Mikhail Vasenkov -- aka "Juan Lazaro" -- pleaded guilty because his family was foremost on his mind. At least, that's what his lawyer says.

"His decision was solely made to protect his family," says Genesis Peduto. "He understands what he was facing here. Now he'll be a free man, and he'll go to Russia. And from there, he can go anywhere he wants in the world."

But prosecutors said Lazaro was not a family man. He allegedly told them that even though he loved his son, he would never violate his loyalty to the Russian Federation...not even for his son. If that's true, he was fired up by a cause his wife did not seem to share.

"It doesn't seem like she was doing it for the Russian government," says John Rodriguez, the lawyer for defendant Vicky Pelaez. "I think she was doing it for her husband."

Pelaez is a longtime journalist at Spanish-language newspaper El Diario. Her colleagues say they're shocked that she pleaded guilty and agreed to leave the U.S. Since her arrest, media reports swirled about Pelaez's leftist views -- as a Castro sympathizer and critic of U.S. policies. But Rodriguez says Pelaez didn't sign up for the conspiracy for ideological reasons. She just did what her husband wanted her to do -- even it meant picking up a package of money in Peru.

"She loved him," says Rodriguez. "She had known him for 30 years. I can tell you I do not believe she knew he had another name."

It's still unclear if Pelaez now feels betrayed. She was the last to sign the plea agreement. The Russians tried to sweeten the deal by offering her a monthly stipend of $2,000 for life and free housing in Russia. But Rodriguez says Pelaez wants to go back to Peru, where her family has a ranch. Her two sons will most likely stay in the U.S.

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