When spies swap, pragmatism trumps punishment

By William Maclean, Security Correspondent

LONDON (BestGrowthStock) – There was Cold War drama aplenty in a Berlin spy swap witnessed by Annette von Broecker of Reuters one chilly February morning in 1962, amid a wind that “seemed to blow straight from the North Pole.”

“It was a peaceful scene, static and unreal. The men, wrapped in winter coats, who stood on the bridge, were in two groups, divided by a white line that was brushed across the tarmac to declare that here was the Iron Curtain.”

“As I arrived, the men were set in motion. One group walked Eastwards, the other West, vanishing behind closed curtains in limousines. They took off like rockets.”

The drama of von Broecker’s scoop is unlikely to be repeated in a swap apparently being prepared by Moscow and Washington.

Almost half a century later, and 20 years after the Cold War died, there will be no dawn walk across the Glienicke Bridge like the one that day by prisoners including KGB Colonel Rudolf Abel and U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers.

Even if some Moscow-Washington tensions remain, simultaneous two-way crossings of the Iron Curtain are history.

What has not changed is the abiding utility such swaps have for intelligence services.

“It’s based on mutual benefit,” said John J. LeBeau, a former CIA official and Professor of National Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center in Germany.

“It’s much like prisoner exchanges in conventional warfare. It serves the interests of both sides.”

Speculation about a possible exchange has circulated since a Russian nuclear expert jailed for passing secrets to the West told his family this week that he had been informed by Russian officials that he was to be handed over as part of the spy swap.

Igor Sutyagin said he had seen a list of at least 10 names who would be exchanged for the 10 suspected Russian agents who were arrested last month in the United States.


Asked to list the main considerations in such swaps, LeBeau replied that neither side had much to gain by continuing to hold on to people whose activities they had already disrupted.

Richard Aldrich, a historian of espionage, agreed that pragmatism was the guiding principle.

“The Russians are in a hole and have people in jail. They pride themselves on getting their people out, so they don’t have much choice,” he said.

Swaps also indirectly aid recruitment and staff morale.

In remarks to BBC radio, former British ambassador to Moscow Anthony Brenton suggested both sides’ services would be keen to demonstrate to their respective employees that they would do their utmost to get them back if they were ever captured.

“These agencies are very keen to look after their people. And they have a mutual interest and mutual respect … a mutual concern to not to be too damaging to each other,” he said.

Brenton said the United States would be aware that if it helped Russia get its people back, Moscow might reciprocate “the next time” Washington wanted its own people back.,

So although morality is not a prime concern of espionage agencies, a swap sees intelligence services putting their cold-eyed pragmatism to something akin to humanitarian use.

But there are limits. Genuine traitors are rarely traded.

“A Russian officer working under cover is doing a job for his or her country. There is no stigma attached. They can be traded. Traitors are a different matter,” said Robert Ayers, a former U.S. intelligence officer.

“You will never, ever see a trade involving an Aldrich Ames, or a Hanssen of the FBI,” said LeBeau, referring to former U.S. officials who have spied for Moscow.

In February 1994, the United States arrested Aldrich Ames, a CIA counter-intelligence official. Ames pleaded guilty to spying for Moscow and is sentenced to life in prison.

In February 2001, FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested on charges of selling secrets to Moscow over 15 years. He was sentenced to life in prison in May 2002.

(Additional reporting by Dave Cutler; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

When spies swap, pragmatism trumps punishment