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updated 7/13/2010 12:05:47 PM ET 2010-07-13T16:05:47

The scene was reminiscent of the Cold War.

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On a runway in Vienna, Austria – a city once divided, like Berlin, between East and West — unknown officials from the United States and Russia choreographed the exchange of 10 Russian spies, who had pleaded guilty just hours before in a New York courtroom, for four spies from the West.

And with that, the biggest spy swap since the fall of the Soviet Union was done.

But a key question remains: Who won?

The calculus comes down to much more than the number of spies being exchanged by each side, analysts said Friday. The key variable is how much valuable information each was able to draw out of the spies in their custody and how much they’ll be able to be get from the returned spies.

The 10 Russian spies have been described as “sleeper” agents. They were unassuming next-door neighbors, and included couples, parents and young professionals. U.S. counterintelligence officials told NBC News the network was a rainy-day operation, not a sunny-day operation, meaning that if the need arose, the Russians might have taken on a more nefarious role. But for the most part, they seemed relatively harmless.

In return for sending them home, the U.S. got two former Russian intelligence officials; a specialist in U.S. and Russian nuclear arms; and a man who may have been a former KGB recruiter.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt — I think the U.S. won,” NBC National Security Producer Robert Windrem said Friday. He said the four freed by the Russians were coming "with real information and there’s no evidence the guys from the U.S. got anything.”

Igor Sutyagin, who has garnered more attention than the others who were in Russian custody, worked as an arms control and nuclear weapons specialist before he was sentenced to 15 years in a jail in one of Russia’s remote penal colonies for allegedly handing over classified information to a London firm called Alternative Futures.

Story: US weighed spy swap well before arrests

Alexander Zaporozhsky and Sergei Skripal served as colonels in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, SVR, and military intelligence, GRU, units, respectively, before they were both arrested in early to mid-2000 for allegedly sharing top secret information with U.S. authorities. The fourth, Gennady Vasilenko, could be one of two men. One Gennady Vasilenko was arrested by Soviet authorities in Havana in 1988 for spying for the West while he worked as a KGB recruiter in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s and 1980s; another was jailed by Russian officials for illegal arms, planting explosives and resistance to arrest, but not espionage.

ITN News in the U.K. reported that Skripal and Sutyagin were to live in Britain with secret new identities and a state-funded pension worth about $4,500 a month.

Senior law enforcement officials now believe the entire Russian operation in the U.S. has been rolled up, Windrem said. It seems likely that U.S. cells in Russia, however, are still active, U.S. officials told him. Both sides are still likely relying upon high-tech interception and deciphering, which Russia has used very successfully in the past.

Despite the impressive resumes of the spies being sent to the United States, Jack Rice, a former CIA officer, argues that Russia, not the United States, is walking away from this exchange with better intelligence information.

The 10 Russian agents spent less time in an American jail than a person convicted of drunk driving, so U.S. authorities would not have had enough time to fully question them, Rice said. Russian officials had access to the Western spies for years before they had to turn them back over to the United States.

“If we’re looking at an intelligence battle, the Russians won. But the Americans weren’t looking at it that way,” Rice said. “I think the White House wanted the case to go away because they were more concerned with big-picture issues, including Iran and nuclear proliferation, so for them the question was never about the intelligence battle, it was something else.”

But Rice cautioned that with these sorts of exchanges, there is rarely enough information to fully grasp what’s at stake.

“This is a perfect example of the gray in which the intelligence community works; sometimes it’s difficult to determine who wins and sometimes difficult to deter who loses, because most of the time you’re working in the shadows anyway,” Rice said.

With the exchange, the United States was able to push what could have been a sticky diplomatic issue out of the headlines, Rice said. Also, the U.S. intelligence community now has the ability to tell new recruits that they will do everything in their power to protect their agents if something should happen — a powerful marketing tool.

U.S. and Russian officials will debrief their returning agents “in every sense of the word,” Rice said.

Officials in the U.S. will ask the four spies returned into its custody about the information they gathered while overseas, but the real focus will be on how the U.S. agents were uncovered in the first place, how they were interrogated and what questions Russian intelligence officials asked them.

NBC’s Windrem said the spy case and resultant swap will lead both countries to revisit a relationship that still needs to mature.

“The bottom line here is that there is much more cooperation here in the most critical aspects of national security — terrorism — than there are problems,” he said, adding that Russian intelligence is no doubt embarrassed by the exposure of the sleeper cell.

The desire of both countries to move beyond the episode likely means that U.S. officials will not pursue the 11th Russian spy, who skipped bail after he was arrested by Cypriot officials last week.

“[U.S. officials] are probably not going to find him, and they have no interest in it. They don’t want to see it in the papers,” Rice said, adding that Russia and the U.S. already know that they have spied on each other and will continue to do so.

The end of the Cold War did not halt that practice.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints.

Video: U.S. got better deal in spy swap, analysts say

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. got better deal in spy swap, analysts say

    >>> good evening. i'm lester holt in for brian. there was such fan a fair just two weeks ago are back in moscow tonight in a scene straight out of the pages of a novel, the ten who had been living here posing as americans were swamped on an airfield for four russian citizens. two of them arrived in washington just a short time ago. now apparently free men, but nonetheless pawns in an east-west game most of us thought was of a bygone era. we have more on this story. martin, good evening.

    >> yes, sir, good evening. it was the quickest spy swap experts could remember. quickly ending an embarrassing spy scandal between the united states and russia . the scene straight from the cold war today, two planes nose to tail in a remote corner of a european airfield. a spy swap. ten russian spies for if four men who worked for american british intelligence. last night the russians deported from america after pleading guilty to acting as unregistered foreign agents. didn't have the drama of berlin's bridge, once known as the bridge of spies seen in so many dramatic swaps. vienna, 11:15 this morning. a bus shuttles between two planes. quickly the ten enter the russian plane. among them, vladimir and glydia, richard and cynthia, their daughters age 7 and 11 are expected to join them in russia . and anna became the face of the spy ring . within 90 minutes they return east. the four russians return west. there's no clear winner in the swap.

    >> the american es and russians want the story to go away. they get their assets back. they get the spies they already acquired information from. at the same time the americans want more cooperation from the russians for iran for nuclear proliferation. both sides win. both sides lose.

    >>> among them soviet ex-colonel believed to have named robert hanson , an american the spies the russia whose secrets led to the deaths of top american agents. also free igor sutyagin . after dropping off two of the men in london, they landed late this afternoon at dallas airport outside washington. it's believed they'll be debriefed and helped to set up new lives. it's too early for details and officials told nbc news it's all happened quickly.

    >> martin fletcher in london, thank you.

Timeline: Spy swaps in history

Major Russia-U.S. spy swaps since the Cold War

Associated Press, Reuters, msnbc.com | Link |

Explainer: ‘Such a nice couple’: The spies next door

  • Image: US-RUSSIA-SPY-ARREST
    SHIRELEY SHEPARD  /  AFP - Getty Images
    This drawing dated June 28, 2010 shows five of the 10 arrested Russian spy suspects in a New York courtroom.
    It’s a tabloid editor’s dream come true: Ten people are accused of being undercover Russian spies, and one of them is even photogenic enough to deserve her own slideshow (see The New York Post’s tribute to what they are calling "Sexy Russian Spy Anna Chapman" here).

    But for the neighbors of the 10 people arrested throughout the Northeast, it's more of a nightmare. Who are these people who they had come to trust as a professor, a newspaper columnist, and an architect, among other well-respected professions? Video: FBI arrests 10 in alleged Russian spy ring


    “They’re such a nice couple,” Susan Coke, a real estate agent who sold a home in Montclair, N.J. to two of the suspects — who called themselves Richard and Cynthia Murphy — told The New Jersey Star-Ledger. “I just hope the FBI got it wrong.”

    You can read the the court filing about the alleged spy program here, and the Department of Justice's court complaint against two of the suspects, Mikhael Semenko and Anna Chapman, here.

    Information compiled by msnbc.com's Elizabeth Chuck and Ryan McCartney.

  • Anna Chapman, New York, N.Y.:

    Image: Anna Chapman
    AP
    Anna Chapman
    Dubbed the “femme fatale” of the Russian spy ring, Chapman, 28, said she was the founder of an online real estate company worth $2 million. The daughter of a Russian diplomat (whom her ex-husband dubbed "scary"), she said she had a master's in economics, was divorced and lived a socialite’s life in Manhattan’s Financial District. According to the New York Daily News, Chapman is the one who figured out the spy network was being monitored on Saturday, prompting the FBI to make the arrests Monday. Photographs and videos of her have popped all over the Internet (See a wrap-up on The Washington Post).

    Sources: New York Daily News, New York Post

  • Mikhail Vasenkov (a.k.a. 'Juan Lazaro') and Vicky Pelaez, Yonkers, N.Y.:

    Image: Vicky Pelaez
    AFP - Getty Images
    Vicky Pelaez

    Lazaro, 66, told people for decades that he was born in Uruguay and was a Peruvian citizen, but he is actually Russian and his real name is Mikhail Vasenkov. Lazaro admitted that he sent letters to the Russian intelligence service and that the Russian government paid for his house. He said that although he loved his son, he would not violate loyalty to the "Service," even for his child.

    Neighbors said they knew Lazaro to be an economics professor at a college in New Jersey. An agent for Russia for years, Lazaro brought his wife, Vicky Pelaez, into the conspiracy by having her pass letters to the Russian intelligence service on his behalf.

    Pelaez worked as a columnist for one of the United States' best-known Spanish-language newspapers, El Diario La Prensa. She had come to the U.S. after being briefly kidnapped by a leftist guerrilla group in Peru in 1984.

    Pelaez, 55, lived under her real name and was an American citizen, but now plans to return to Peru after a brief stay in Russia, according to her attorney.

    The couple has two sons: Waldomar Mariscal, 38 (Pelaez's son, Lazaro's stepson), and Juan Jose Lazaro, Jr., 17.

    Both sons told reporters shortly after the arrests that they didn't believe the allegations.

    "This looks like an Alfred Hitchcock movie with all this stuff from the 1960s. This is preposterous," Mariscal said. Of the charges, he said, "They're all inflated little pieces in the mosaic of unbelievable things."

    Source: New York Daily News, The Associated Press, The New York Times

  • Vladimir and Lydia Guryev (a.k.a. 'Richard and Cynthia Murphy'), Montclair, N.J.:

    Image: Alleged Russian Spies Live "Regular" Life In Suburban America
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    Richard and Cynthia Murphy

    Richard was an architect, a neighbor told The New Jersey Star-Ledger, and Cynthia had just gotten an MBA. Richard said he was from Philadelphia; Cynthia said she was from New York.

    The couple lived with two young daughters, Katie, 11, and Lisa, 7, in a home on Marquette Road in Montclair that they purchased for $481,000 in the fall of 2008. The two had come to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, first living in an apartment in Hoboken, N.J.

    Cynthia, 39, earned $135,000 a year as a vice president at a Manhattan firm, Morea Financial Services. Alan Patricof, a client of the firm and friend of the Clintons', told The Washington Post he believes he may have been targeted by the ring. Prosecutors said one of her assignments had been to network with Columbia University students.  Her real name is Lydia Guryev.

    Richard, 43, mostly stayed home with the children, neighbors said. His real name is Vladimir Guryev.

    Sources: Star-Ledger, New York Daily News, Politico, The Washington Post

  • Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva (a.k.a. 'Michael Zottoli and Patricia Mills'), Arlington, Va.:

    Image: A view of River House Apartments, where suspected Russian spies Michael Zottoli and his wife Patricia Mills lived in Arlington
    Molly Riley  /  Reuters
    River House Apartments, where Zottoli and Mills lived in Arlington, Va.

    The husband-and-wife pair lived in Seattle before they moved to Arlington, Va. in October 2009. Zottoli, 41, said he was born in Yonkers, N.Y., and Mills, 36, said she was a Canadian citizen. Records show the two moved around several times between 2002 and 2009. Zottoli was an accountant who constantly took personal calls at work, co-workers told the Seattle Times. Mills was a stay-at-home mom for the couple’s toddler, Kenny. There are reports they also have a 1-year-old.

    “They were the nicest people,” said John Evans, the couple's former apartment manager. “In fact, I wish they had stayed on as tenants. They were really good tenants.”

    When their Seattle apartment was searched in February 2006, FBI agents reportedly found password-protected computer disks that contained a “stenography program employed by the SVR.”

    His real name is Mikhail Kutsik. Her real name is Natalia Pereverzeva.

    Sources: KOMO-TV, Washington Post, The Seattle Times

  • Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova (a.k.a. 'Donald Howard Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley'), Cambridge, Mass.:

    Image:Residence owned by Donald Heathfield and Tracey Foley, who were arrested Sunday by the FBI on allegations of being Russian spies.
    Russell Contreras  /  AP
    Heathfield and Foley's home

    The “Boston Conspirators,” as the FBI dubbed them, identified themselves as French-Canadian when they came to the U.S. in 1999.

    Heathfield, 49, received a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 2000 and worked as a consultant for a Cambridge-based consulting firm called Global Partners Inc — a job that allegedly enabled him to contact a former high-ranking U.S. government national security official. He also had his own consulting company, Future Map Strategic Advisory Services LLC. His real name is Andrey Bezrukov.

    Foley, 47, was a real estate agent who showed houses in the Boston area. She worked on a contract basis for the real estate brokerage Redfin. Her real name is Elena Vavilova.

    They spoke to their two sons, ages 20 and 16, in French when they appeared in court in Boston following the arrests.

    Craig Sandler, a former classmate of Heathfield, told The Boston Globe the Russian spy was friendly and intelligent. Other classmates told The New York Times he had a taste for Scotch and described him as a “flavorful conversationalist” who was smart and funny.

    “It never crossed my mind that he might be a spy,” Sandler said. “But it’s not completely flabbergasting. He seems like a guy who would make a pretty good spy.”

    Sources: Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, New York Times

  • Mikhael Semenko, Arlington, Va.:

    Mikhael Semenko, 28, was a travel specialist at Travel All Russia LLC’s in Arlington, Va. He joined the company in 2009 and was described as a friendly and diligent worker who spoke Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, in addition to Russian and English, according to a statement released by the company after his arrest. Semenko’s LinkedIn profile indicates he was particularly interested in non-profits, think tanks, public policy and educational institutions.

    Semenko also has a Twitter account, a Facebook profile, and a blog called “Chinese Economy Today.

    Semenko graduated from Seton Hall University with a degree in international relations in 2008, according to his LinkedIn profile.

    Arrested at his home in Arlington, he was accused of using sophisticated communications equipment and making incriminating statements to an undercover agent posing as a Russian official. According to Britain’s Daily Telegraph, FBI officials met Semenko just blocks from the White House, at the intersection of 10th and H Street. “Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?” the undercover agent asked. “Yes, we might have but I believe it was in Harbin,” Semenko reportedly replied.

    See below for other code words and phrases the suspects used.

    Sources: Daily Telegraph, LinkedIn, Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press

  • Christopher R. Metsos, arrested in Cyprus:

    Image: Photo of Robert Christopher Metsos Russian spy
    Cyprus Police / Handout  /  EPA
    Christopher Metsos

    Very little is known about Metsos’ background or current whereabouts.

    Officials said he arrived in the coastal town of Larnaca in Cyprus on June 17 and was arrested June 29 on an Interpol warrant while he was waiting to board a flight to Hungary. A Cyprus judge decided to release Metsos on $33,000 bail. Metsos failed to show up to a required meeting with Larnaca police following his release, initiating a manhunt for the final member of the group of Russian spies.

    Officials fear Metsos could flee to northern Cyprus, which the AP described as a “diplomatic no-mans-land.”

    Metsos, age 54 or 55, carries a Canadian passport and is what U.S. prosecutors called the “money man” of the group. He is accused of receiving and distributing money to the group and of conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to the U.S. Justice Department, he was given payments by a Russian official affiliated with Moscow's mission to the United Nations in a spy novel style "brush-pass" handoff and buried money in rural New York that was recovered two years later by another suspect.

    Sources: The Associated Press

  • Code words, phrases suspects used

    Following are among the phrases used by the alleged agents, their handlers and, deceptively, by U.S. counter-espionage officials in exchanges designed to verify a contact's identity.

    "Excuse me, but haven't we met in California last summer?"

    "No, I think it was the Hamptons."

    "Could we have met in Beijing in 2004?"

    "Yes, we might have, but I believe it was in Harbin"

    "Excuse me, did we meet in Bangkok in April last year?."

    "I don't know about April, but I was in Thailand in May of that year."

    Source: Reuters