Spies who had been facing years of incarceration in the US and Russia came in from the cold last night as they traveled in opposite directions around the globe, 10 headed eastward to Moscow and four who had been in detention in Russia beginning journeys to new lives in the West.
The extraordinary exchange unfolded last night after all 10 spies, whose deep-cover ring had been blown open by US authorities nearly two weeks ago, pleaded guilty in a court in New York to operating illegally as agents of a foreign country.
It became clear last night that the human bartering had been authorised at the highest levels, amidst reports that the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, had personally pardoned the four Russians being released from his cells. But before seeing the keys turned all four had been obliged to sign documents admitting their guilt.
In a similar flurry in Washington of leaks and intrigue, word came from the office of the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, that President Barack Obama had been kept abreast of the Le Carré-style theatre from its first inception and that he had made the decision to go forward with the exchange.
As the swap of a kind not seen since the Cold War unfolded, the US Justice Department confirmed in a letter that the 10 deep-cover agents caught within US borders would be dispatched to Russia. At the same time Moscow was releasing four who had been imprisoned for spying for the West. A US official said those who had been in Russia had suffered after being held in "incredibly difficult circumstances".
Among those was Igor Sutyagin, a Russian scientist, who, according to relatives, was being delivered first to Vienna and from there would be flown to Britain accompanied by UK agents.
Mr Sutyagin, a military analyst, was accused of passing information to a British company, Alternative Futures, that Moscow believed to be a CIA front. He has always maintained his innocence, insisting information was drawn from open sources. He was sentenced in 2004 to 15 years in jail.
"The network of unlawful agents operating inside the US has been dismantled," Mark Toner, of the State Department, said. "No significant national security benefit would be gained from the incarceration in the US of these 10 unlawful agents."
The US Attorney General Eric Holder said the "extraordinary" case took years of work, "and the agreement we reached today provides a successful resolution for the US and its interests."
As the courtroom drama unfolded in lower Manhattan, Judge Kimba Wood nodded as all 10 suspects said that they had voluntarily agreed to the plea bargains and sentenced each of them to time served – the eleven days since they were arrested.
Three of the couples, who had been paired up by the Russian intelligence services as part of their covers, had been raising children in the US. It appeared that two of them had already left the US bound for Moscow and two others were to be sent east with their parents – youngsters who until less than two weeks ago had considered themselves as American as their schoolmates and had no notion of their Russian ties.
At Moscow's Lefortovo prison, to where Mr Sutyagin had been moved earlier in the week from a far-northern penal colony, riot police stood guard and a number of vehicles arrived and left throughout the day. In the afternoon, his lawyer said she had information that her client had been seen arriving in Vienna, although the Austrian Foreign Ministry refused to confirm or deny he was in the country.
Mr Sutyagin's relatives said he was shown a list of names of people to be included in the swap, but that the only one he could remember was Sergei Skripal, a former colonel of Russia's military intelligence, the GRU. He was jailed for 13 years in 2006 for passing classified information to Britain.
Yesterday, Russia's Kommersant newspaper suggested two other names, citing Russian intelligence sources. It said that former intelligence operatives Alexander Sypachev and Alexander Zaporozhsky would also be handed over to the US. They are serving eight and 18-year jail terms respectively for passing information to the CIA.
Analysts speculated that an exchange could bring benefits for Moscow and Washington, as it would preclude lengthy trials that could prove an embarrassment for both countries, leaking intelligence secrets and proving an obstacle to the continuence of the recently improved relations between Russia and the US. Since taking office, Barack Obama has overseen a "reset" in relations with Russia, and the spy arrests came just three days after a friendly summit between Mr Obama and the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Spy exchanges were relatively commonplace during the Cold War, but no high-profile swaps have taken place since the Soviet Union collapsed. It is believed a Wednesday meeting between US Under Secretary of State William Burns, a former Ambassador to Moscow, and the Russian Ambassador in Washington, Sergei Kislyak, was key to arranging a deal.
Some Russian sources suggested that Anna Chapman, the femme fatale whose exploits and photographs have excited tabloid readers around the world, could be on her way to Moscow on an overnight flight. But the lawyer for Vicky Pelaez, a columnist for a Spanish-language newspaper in New York and the only defendant who is not believed to be a Russian citizen, said his client would not want to move to Russia.
Cold War prisoner exchanges
February 1962 Gary Powers and Rudolf Ivanovich Abel are released from their prison terms for espionage and are exchanged secretly at the border between West Berlin and East Germany. Powers was the pilot of a US reconnaissance plane shot down two years earlier in central Soviet Union. Abel was reputed to be director of a Soviet spy network in the United States when he was arrested in New York in 1957.
11 October 1963 The State Department announced that two accused Soviet agents held by the United States had been exchanged for two Americans convicted and imprisoned on espionage charges.
22 April 1964 Greville Maynard Wynne, a British businessman jailed in 1963 on charges of spying for Britain and the United States, was exchanged for Konon Trofimovich Molody, a Russian army officer imprisoned by the British in 1961 for masterminding a spy ring that obtained information about British submarines.
30 April 1978 A three-way prisoner exchange among the United States, East Germany and Mozambique. Miron Marcus, an Israeli citizen held since September 1976, was released on the Mozambique-Swaziland border. The United States released Robert G Thompson, a former US Air Force intelligence clerk convicted of passing secrets to the Soviets. East Germany released American Alan Van Norman who had been arrested in East Germany trying to smuggle a family to the West.
27 April 1979 Five political and religious dissidents were released from Soviet prisons and flown to New York in exchange for two Russians convicted of spying in the United States. The group included Alexander Ginzburg, one of the best known Russian dissidents.
11 June 1985 The United States and the Eastern bloc exchanged accused spies in a deal that was to eventually involve 29 people. Four people convicted or indicated for espionage in the United States were exchanged for five Polish prisoners and 20 other alleged spies held in East Germany and Poland. It was described as one of the largest East-West prisoner swaps since the Second World War.
11 February 1986 Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly B Shcharansky was freed in an exchange that involved a total of nine people either accused or convicted of espionage. Shcharansky was convicted in the USSR. in 1978 of spying for the West. His release came after eight years of imprisonment and forced labour.
September 1986 American journalist Nicholas Daniloff and Gennadiy Zakharov, a worker at the United Nations accused of spying for the Soviet Union, were released a day apart after just three weeks of negotiations by the USSR and the United States.