Two airplanes met on a tarmac in Vienna on Friday morning to swap the 10 Russians who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy in the United States for four men accused by Moscow of spying for the West. Ten spies for four—is that a fair trade for the U.S.?
Sure. There's no science to spy swaps, which the United States and Russia have conducted since the 1960s, and exchanges aren't often one-for-one. In this case, the U.S. probably got the better deal, at least insofar as the 10 Russians hadn't uncovered any confidential information in the decade they were tracked by the FBI. The four men released by Moscow, on the other hand—an arms-control researcher, a military intelligence officer, a foreign intelligence officer, and a former KGB agent—were convicted of spying for the U.S. and Britain and had real access to state secrets. The numbers may be lopsided one way, but the talent appears to have tilted in the other direction.
The first Soviet-American trade in 1962 wasn't even-stevens, either: The U.S. handed over convicted master spy Rudolf Abel (his real name was Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher) in exchange for downed U-2 spy-plane pilot Gary Powers and an American graduate student named Frederic Pryor. * In 1969, Britain handed over Russians Peter and Helen Kroger, an American couple who had been spying for the Communists, in exchange for jailed British teacher Gerald Brooke. The U.S. traded two convicted Russian spies in 1979 for five dissidents, including Russian author and human rights activist Alexander Ginzburg. And in 1985, the U.S. got what might have seemed like a bargain—25 prisoners held in East Germany and Poland, in exchange for the release of four convicted spies over here.
This most recent swap was also much faster and smoother—and less dramatic—than most. For years, a famous practice for East-West spy swaps was to bring the spies to either end of the Glienicke Bridge that connected East Germany to West Berlin. The spies would start walking at the same time from either end of the bridge and pass in the middle. (This was the method used in the Abel-Powers swap as well as the exchange involving Anatoly Shcharansky—later Natan Sharansky—in 1986.) Negotiations also tended to take much longer. Whereas talks over the first spy swap dragged on for nearly two years, the recent arrangement was worked out in a matter of days.
Bonus Explainer: What will happen to the Russian spies' children—can they stay in the United States? Yes. Any of the children born in the U.S. are technically citizens and can remain here. However, those under 18 are expected to be reunited with their parents in Russia, unless otherwise specified. For example, a lawyer for one of the spies, Vicky Pelaez, has said that the Russian woman's 17-year-old son may stay in the United States with her 38-year-old son from a prior marriage. One couple, Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills, reportedly reached out to relatives to take care of their children, 1 and 3. The 20-year-old son of the couple who was living in Cambridge, Mass., could conceivably continue studying at George Washington University. But staying in the country could be tough, since the spies had their homes and bank accounts confiscated as part of their plea agreements. There is precedent for the children of spies to remain in the United States. The 6- and 10-year-old sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were adopted by an American family after their parents were executed in 1953.
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Explainer thanks Tony Mendez of the International Spy Museum and Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Thanks also to reader Derek for asking the question.
Correction, July 12, 2010: This article originally misstated that the U.S. traded Rudolf Abel for Gary Powers, one-for-one. (Return to the corrected sentence.)