U.S. Acted Too Hastily in Spy Swap

Most analysts in the United States are praising U.S. President Barack Obama and the way his administration handled the spy swap. Many in Russia, by comparison, are blasting the Foreign Intelligence Service for an inept, clumsy spy operation that embarrassed their country. Both governments seem eager to put the controversy behind them as quickly as possible, but many questions remain unanswered before this episode gets relegated to the history books.

For the Obama administration, the arrests of 10 Russians accused of failure to register as foreign agents — which, to be clear, is far short of espionage — and money laundering less than 72 hours after the “cheeseburger summit” between President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama were incredibly awkward. Because the Obama administration touts the reset policy as its major foreign policy success, it felt it could not afford to let the spy story play out any longer and risk damage to the bilateral relationship. Obama, according to reports, was unhappy with the timing of the arrests, and he and his policy advisers wanted the problem to go away as quickly as possible. Hence, the spy swap of the 10 Russian agents in the United States for four Russians serving harsh prison terms for espionage.

The Kremlin also wanted to play down the incident for two main reasons: embarrassment and fear that it would weaken Obama and strengthen his critics in Congress and elsewhere, who are not ecstatic about his reset policy. Russian leaders like dealing with Obama but worry, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in February in a cover letter accompanying the “leaked” foreign policy document, about attempts by U.S. “right-wing conservative forces, including the military, intelligence, and foreign policy establishment … [to] revert to the confrontational policy of the previous administration.” Indeed, some Russian officials and analysts — as well as 53 percent of Russians surveyed last week — questioned the timing of the U.S. law enforcement actions and suspected an anti-Russian, right-wing conspiracy from within the FBI and other security organizations.

The notion that people inside the FBI or Justice Department wanted to throw a monkey wrench into Obama’s reset policy strikes this observer as absurd. They briefed Obama on the situation June 11, more than two weeks before the arrests, which were made after concern that one or more of the accused Russian agents may have discovered that their cover had been blown.

According to media accounts, the U.S. side moved quickly in proposing the swap idea to Moscow. CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly presented his Russian counterpart with a list of four names, and the Russian side quickly agreed. To be clear, it is very good that four Russians being held in Russian prisons were released as part of the deal. But the haste with which this whole deal was consummated has an unsettling quality to it in several respects.

First, one of the four Russians released from Russian prisons, Igor Sutyagin, was unfairly persecuted and imprisoned in 2004 for allegedly passing on information to a British firm suspected of being a front for the CIA. From day one, Sutyagin has professed his innocence, as have the State Department and human rights organizations. As part of the swap, Sutyagin had to sign a confession admitting guilt or else the whole deal would have been voided and he would have been blamed for scuttling it. Sutyagin and his family have complained about the pressure applied to him by Russian officials and apparently in the presence of U.S. Embassy officials to sign such a confession. According to an interview his father gave to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Sutyagin had no choice. Instead of rushing to get this done so quickly at the expense of Sutyagin’s reputation and integrity, could the U.S. side not have held out a little longer and insisted that Sutyagin not be coerced into admitting guilt as a firm condition for the swap?

Second and related, if the United States had held out for a better deal, could it have secured the release of more Russians whom it deems are being detained in Russia improperly? The four who were released are good, but could Washington have gotten more by being in less of a rush?

Third, if the 10 Russians were charged with failing to register as foreign agents and money laundering but not espionage, why was the Russian government so eager to secure their return to Moscow? Was the Kremlin afraid the arrested Russians might spill the beans about some larger plot or implicate officials at the Russian Embassy in Washington or its mission to the United Nations? Were the 10 Russians or others not apprehended up to more than U.S. authorities accused them of? By returning them so quickly to Moscow, the Obama administration forfeited the opportunity to get more information out of them, use them as leverage to demand more information from Russian officials about what they were really up to. U.S. law enforcement authorities contend they knew everything they needed to know about the activities of the 10 “illegals.” I wish I had more confidence that were true.  

Fourth, to credit a phrase coined by Columbia University professor Stephen Sestanovich, the U.S. government’s ”catch-and-release policy” amounts to a mere slap on the wrist and a ticket back home. Is that supposed to deter illegal activity, including spying, by other or future Russian agents (or those from other countries)?  That Russians are still spying on the United States is not a surprise, of course. In fact, Russian activity is on the rise, and these days it isn’t just state secrets that they’re after but corporate, industrial and innovation secrets, too.

The bumbling efforts of the 10 Russians have provided plenty of fodder for comedians, but their actions posed a clear threat to U.S. interests and were in violation of U.S. law. Their presence in the United States was no laughing matter. In weighing its options, the Obama administration decided to dispatch of the Russian spies immediately so as to keep its reset policy on track, and it did secure the release of Sutyagin and three other Russians. But could the U.S. side have gotten more? Was Sutyagin’s forced confession really unavoidable? Was there more to the Russian operation than 10 incompetent dilettantes? Were these the agents Moscow wanted Washington to find? We may never know the answers to these questions.

David J. Kramer is senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington. During the administration of George W. Bush, he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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