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Haggai Carmon

Haggai Carmon

Posted: July 8, 2010 11:27 AM

A Russian-U.S. Spy Swap: What's the Rush?

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At this very moment, there are growing rumors about plans for a prisoner swap that would return ten suspected Russian spies to Russia, in exchange for an imprisoned Russian military researcher Igor Sutyagin, who was convicted of espionage in 2004. The rumors also suggest that the U.S. has compiled a list of 11 Russian prisoners for the swap, including Sutyagin, Sergei Skripal, a former intelligence officer convicted of espionage, Alexander Zaporozhsky, convicted in 2003 and sentenced to 18 years for espionage, and Alexander Sypachyov, identified as a CIA agent and convicted in 2002.

If the rumors are substantiated, then the swap would be the biggest since the end of the Cold War. There are, however, a few questions that must be asked. First and foremost: What's the rush?

It has been barely two weeks since the alleged Russian sleeper cell was arrested. The investigation is probably still at its embryonic stage, although the sleepers have been under FBI surveillance for several years. Nonetheless, once 10 of the 11 suspects are in custody, the FBI and other law enforcement agents have a unique opportunity to question the suspects and get answers to tough questions. The most important being: What other Russian spies are working clandestinely in the U.S.?

Given the poor compartmentalization of the sleepers, the FBI should be able to obtain from them investigative leads to find additional spies and "deep cover" Russian agents of influence. Avoiding the risk of facing up to 20 years in a federal prison is a strong enough incentive for the sleepers to sing songs for the FBI. However, if the suspected sleepers find out about Moscow's rushed activity to conduct a swap with the U.S., their mouths will be permanently sealed.

Why bother to talk or cooperate? Why bother to negotiate a plea bargain if they know that soon the U.S. federal prison's doors will open, and that they will walk with impunity?

The U.S. has a clear interest in the release of its own spies who are languishing in Russian prisons. However, these spies were already interrogated, tried, convicted and sentenced years ago. They were "peeled like an onion" as per Intel speak; therefore the Russians have no use for them. In contrast, there's the question about the Russian sleepers. Why are the Russians rushing to swap them? Do they care that their citizens might find the prison's food inedible? Perhaps they won't have enough blankets? Or are the Russians concerned that the sleepers will talk and talk and turn in other Russian plants thus far uncovered by the U.S.? Maybe the Russians are concerned that the sleepers will reveal Russian training methods? Names of others trained with them in Russia? Emergency procedures?

These are golden nuggets of information that U.S. investigators are mining as these words are written. And if this is the case, the U.S. should not rush the swap and should definitely keep the sleepers who are currently in custody in isolation without outside contact. A Bedouin proverb says: "The rush is a satanic trait." There's a world of truth in these words.