Friday, July 9, 10 Russian agents were deported by the United State and put on a plane to Vienna where it was met by a Russian plane carrying the four US spies to be swapped. The Russians flew back to Moscow. Two of the four received by the US were dropped off in Britain; the rest flew on to Washington.
So ended a spy episode every colorful detail of which the clandestine agencies concerned freely shared with the Western public, allowing themselves be caricatured as the outdated survivals of bygone Cold War days.
Like most other experts, debkafile's intelligence sources have no doubt that what the public saw was only a fragment of the full story. For instance, why if the White House was briefed in February about a possible deal to swap 11 Russian agents, was all the hoopla over their capture staged only six months later – or at all?
It would have been more normal for the eleven "moles" to be quietly picked up, tried behind closed doors and sent back to Moscow in a swap before the affair was published.
The Russians must have been sounded out on an exchange deal some time ago and its details negotiated well ahead, such as which agents the FBI would detain, the severity or lenience of the charges against them and, most importantly, which American agents the Russians would release in return. It does not stand to reason that this transaction was put in place as claimed only three or four days before the actual trade.
Our sources believe that hard bargaining was tough and spread over weeks, if not months, because what Moscow really wanted from the deal were not just the 11 semi-dormant moles who had done nothing important except living it up in the US, but two real heavyweights, the two most damaging Russian moles ever to undermine the CIA. Aldrich Ames was finally caught in the mid-1990s after climbing its ranks to become a senior officer and betraying the secrets of most US secret agencies to the KGB; and the FBI's Robert Hanssen, who was believed to have taken over from Ames as Moscow's top illegal agent in America.
Both were sentenced to life without parole.
Russia has never given up on securing the release of these two master-spies and most probably initiated the swap with the United States for this goal, our intelligence sources believe. Washington's refusal to play explains the apparent inconsequentiality of the final deal, which ended up benefiting neither the US nor Russia and had to be cleared away in a hurry before the new "reset" in US-Russian relations was affected.
Moscow's part of the deal was to release four agents accused of spying for the CIA and the British MI6: Igor Sutyagin, who was serving a 15-year sentence, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian army colonel and two former officers of the SVR, the post-Cold War version of the KGB, Alexander Zaporozhsky and Gennady Vasilenko.
The entire affair unfolded as though it was the last remaining leftover of – or possibly a prologue to – a bigger transaction – more like the opening chapter of a John Le Carre novel than its final denouement.
It also looked as though someone in Washington was more interested in the hype over the capture of 11 Russian spies than the feat per se. Their low value in terms of espionage gave Western media a chance to parody Russia's spy service as a comical anachronism stuck in the good old 1960s and 1970s, with no real missions to assign its once glamorous "illegals" in this day and age.
The Washington Post ridiculed the Russia's intelligence service and Vladimir Putin, its former chief, in this comment: "The operation must have made for a superb briefing in the Kremlin: 'Comrade leader, we have a (whisper) network in American awaiting your instructions.'"
This sort of parody presents Russian security agencies as bumbling apparatchiks when, the truth is that Moscow runs a highly competent, up-to-date spy service in many parts of the world, including the Middle East. Its undiscovered networks are poles apart from the bon vivant network rolled up in the United States.
Under the heading: European View: The missing links, The London Economist ran this comment on Monday, July 12:
A good example of the "we know what's really going on" genre comes from Debka in Israel. It rightly notes that the publicly available information is fragmentary at best (and maybe outright misleading) and then asks
For instance, why if the White House was briefed in February about a possible deal to swap 11 Russian agents, was all the hoopla over their capture staged only six months later – or at all?
Debka's theory is that what Russia really wanted was the release of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen, their two most successful spies in America (at least of those we know about).