NEW YORK — The largest spy swap between the U.S. and Russia since the Cold War unfolded Thursday as 10 people pleaded guilty to conspiracy Thursday and were to be returned to Russia in exchange for the release of four convicted Russian spies, officials said.
The defendants all affirmed U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood's question of whether they would plead guilty in a Manhattan courtroom.The defendants were expected to be deported to Russia within hours, apparently in exchange for the release of convicted Russian spies.
Two Obama administration sources told The Associated Press the Russian government will release four people in the spy swap with the United States, speaking on condition of anonymity because papers in the spy case are in the process of being publicly released.
They would not disclose the names of those being released by Russia.
But Igor Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst convicted of spying for the United States, was reportedly plucked from a Moscow prison and flown to Vienna earlier Thursday.
A swap would have significant consequences for efforts between Washington and Moscow to repair ties chilled by a deepening atmosphere of suspicion.
The defendants each announced their pleas to conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign country. Some spoke with heavy Russian accents, sometimes in broken English, despite having spent years living in the U.S. posing as American and Canadian citizens.
An 11th defendant was a fugitive after he fled authorities in Cyprus following his release on bail.
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.
Chapman mentioned she had communicated with a Russian official via a wireless signal, sent from her laptop. Asked by the judge whether she realized at the time that her actions were criminal, she said, "Yes I did, your honor."
The arrests occurred more than a week ago, capping a decade-plus investigation of people who appeared to have embedded themselves in the fabric of American life. Authorities said they were reporting what they learned in the U.S. to Russian officials.
Defendant Richard Murphy acknowledged that from the mid-1990s to the present day, he lived in the U.S. under an assumed name and took directions from the Russian Federation.
Asked if he knew his actions were a crime, he said:
"I knew they were illegal, yes, your honor."
One person familiar with the plea negotiations told the AP that most of the defendants expected to be going home to Russia later Thursday. The person was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter in advance of the plea and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It's a resolution that will put this thing behind him as quickly as we can arrange it," said Peter Krupp, an attorney for Donald Heathfield, before the hearing.
Sutyagin, a Russian arms control analyst serving a 14-year sentenced for spying for the United States, had told his relatives he was going to be one of 11 convicted spies in Russia who would be freed in exchange for 11 people charged in the United States with being Russian agents. They said he was going to be sent to Vienna, then London.
In Moscow, his lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, said a journalist called Igor Sutyagin's family to inform them that Sutyagin was seen walking off a plane in Vienna on Thursday. However, she told the AP she couldn't get confirmation of that claim from Russian authorities.
Russian and U.S. officials have refused to comment on any possible swap.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara would say Thursday only that prosecutors strive in all cases "to make sure that justice is served if consistent with the needs of national security, and the way we deal with national security is to make sure that is done in a way that is consistent with justice.
"Whatever the disposition is in this case, I think people should be confident it was done in the interest of national security and justice," Bharara said in White Plains, N.Y.