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Washington and Russia agree to swap intelligence gatherers

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Russian spy suspects plead guilty
  • NEW: Holder: none passed classified info
  • NEW: Emmanuel: "Caught in the business of spying"
  • Expulsion of 10 suspected spies is to occur quickly, federal officials say
  • The suspects on Thursday plead guilty to failing to register as foreign agents

New York (CNN) -- Ten Russians allegedly involved in intelligence gathering will be expelled from the United States in short order, in exchange for Russia's release of four Russian prisoners accused of spying for the United States, officials from both countries said Thursday.

The elaborately choreographed announcements emanating from both nation's capitals described a case evocative of the Cold War.

In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder said none of the 10 had passed classified information and therefore none were charged with espionage.

"They were acting as agents to a foreign power," he told CBS News, referring to the Russians who had been under observation by federal authorities for more than a decade.

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All of their children have been repatriated, he said.

But White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel told PBS "NewsHour" that, although they didn't plead guilty to being spies, they "were clearly caught in the business of spying."

Carlos Moreno, a lawyer representing two of the Russians, told CNN Thursday night that all 10 were in a detention center in New York City. They were to be taken to an airport in the city later Thursday or Friday, put on a plane provided by the Russian government, and flown directly to Moscow, he said.

In a conference call with reporters, senior administration officials said the 10 Russians agreed never to return to the United States without permission from the U.S. government.

Holding them would have conferred no security benefit to the nation, they said.

This "clearly serves the interests of the United States," one official said.

A second official said the four prisoners in Russia were in failing health, a consideration that prompted quick completion of the deal.

Under the plea agreements, the defendants disclosed their true identities in court and forfeited assets attributable to the criminal offenses, the Justice Department said in a news release.

"The defendants known as 'Richard Murphy' and 'Cynthia Murphy' admitted they are Russian citizens named Vladimir Guryev and Lydia Guryev and are agents of the Russian Federation," it said.

"Defendants 'Michael Zottoli' and 'Patrica Mills' admitted they are Russian citizens named Mikhail Kutsik and Natalia Pereverzeva, and are agents of the Russian Federation;

"Defendants 'Donald Howard Heathfield' and 'Tracey Lee Ann Foley' admitted they are Russian citizens named Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, and are agents of the Russian Federation;

"'Juan Lazaro' admitted that he is a Russian citizen named Mikhail Anatonoljevich Vasenkov and is an agent of the Russian Federation;

Defendants Vicky Pelaez, Anna Chapman and Mikhail Semenko, who operated in the United States under their true names, admitted that they are agents of the Russian Federation; and Chapman and Semenko admitted they are Russian citizens," the Justice Department said.

Authorities have lost track of an 11th suspect, who was detained in Cyprus, released on bail and then failed to check in with authorities as he had promised to do.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree Friday pardoning the four individuals imprisoned for alleged contact with Western intelligence agencies, the Kremlin press service said, according to state-run RIA Novosti.

Though the four Russians were released to the custody of the United States, that does not necessarily mean they would go to the United States, an embassy spokesman said.

"Three of the Russian prisoners were convicted of treason in the form of espionage on behalf of a foreign power and are serving lengthy prison terms," the Justice Department said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood. "The Russian prisoners have all served a number of years in prison and some are in poor health. The Russian government has agreed to release the Russian prisoners and their family members for resettlement."

It added, "Some of the Russian prisoners worked for the Russian military, and/or for various Russian intelligence agencies. Three of the Russian prisoners have been accused by Russia of contacting Western intelligence agencies while they were working for the Russian (or Soviet) government."

The individuals pardoned by Russia are Alexander Zaporozhsky, Gennady Vasilenko, Sergei Skripal and Igor Sutyagin.

All four appealed to the Russian president to free them after admitting their crimes against the Russian state, press secretary Natalia Timakova said.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move was made "in the general context of improving Russian-American relations, and the new dynamic they have been given, in the spirit of basic agreements at the highest level between Moscow and Washington on the strategic character of Russian-American partnership."

Meanwhile, a lawyer for Sutyagin, who was convicted in Russia in 2004 for spying for U.S. intelligence services, said her client arrived Thursday in Vienna, RIA-Novosti reported.

Sutyagin was convicted in 2004 of passing secret data to members of U.S. intelligence services acting as employees of a British company called Alternative Futures, in exchange for monetary rewards in 1998-1999.

But in Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied Thursday that Sutyagin had been a spy.

CNN's Susan Candiotti, Elise Labott, Jill Dougherty, Eden Pontz, Deb Feyerick and Raelyn Johnson contributed to this report.