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The spy swap

In the biggest spy swap since the Cold War, 10 Russian agents who infiltrated suburban America were deported today in exchange for four people convicted of betraying Moscow to the West.

The spies left New York for Moscow hours after pleading guilty to conspiracy in a Manhattan courtroom and being sentenced to time served and ordered out of the country.

The spy swap carries significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.

The US defendants were captured last week in homes across the north east.

They were accused of embedding themselves in ordinary American life while leading double lives complete with false passports, secret code words, fake names, invisible ink and encrypted radio.


One spy worked for an accounting firm, another was a real-estate agent, another a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper.

White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said that President Barack Obama was aware of the investigation, the decision to go forward with the arrests and the spy swap with Russia.

Whether the agents provided Russia with valuable secret information is questionable.

In Russia, the Kremlin said President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four convicted foreign spies so that they can be exchanged for the 10 US defendants.

The Kremlin statement carried by the Russian news agencies said that Medvedev has pardoned Russian citizens Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.

Sutyagin, an arms analyst, was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and put on a plane to Vienna.

Skripal is a former colonel in the Russian military intelligence, and Zaporozhsky is a former colonel in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.

The 10 suburban spies pleaded guilty to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country and were ordered deported. An 11th defendant has been a fugitive since fleeing authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.

One defendant's attorney said a private plane had been expected to take the 10 to Russia. The attorney, John Rodriguez, said his client, Vicky Pelaez, had been given only 24 hours to say yes or no to the "all or nothing" deal for deportation.

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.


One, Andrey Bezrukov, smiled and waved to a supporter in the audience and had an animated conversation with another, Elena Vavilova.

Vladimir and Lydia Guryev, who lived in the United States as a couple under the aliases Richard and Cynthia Murphy, sat side-by-side but didn't speak.

Anna Chapman -- whose sultry photos gleaned from social-networking sites made her a tabloid sensation -- pulled back her mane of red hair as she glanced around the courtroom. A burly US marshal hovered behind her.

All the defendants stood and raised their right hands in unison to be sworn in before answering a series of questions from the judge, beginning with a request to state their true identities.

Their answers were short and scripted, their 10 guilty pleas given one by one in assembly-line precision.

The agents are unlikely to be greeted as heroes in Russia, as the Kremlin will likely try to quickly turn the page over the embarrassing incident and avoid further damage in relations with Washington.

Newspapers and liberal commentators in Russia have chafed at the obvious lack of results of the spy ring work and ridiculed the low level of their training.