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Whelan's Arrest In Russia On Espionage Charges Raises Old Questions


The arrest of American Paul Whelan on espionage charges in Russia has raised a question - how to get him out. Sometimes an accused spy there is traded for an accused spy in the United States. Possibly the most famous such exchange between those two countries is described in this old movie newsreel.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In 1957, convicted Russian spy Rudolf Abel was sentenced to 30 years, escaping the death penalty after his attorney argued that the United States might want to swap Abel for an American at some future time. Now, Abel has been exchanged for U-2 pilot Gary Powers.

INSKEEP: That swap, dramatized in the more recent movie "Bridge Of Spies," was one of many in history. We've put your questions about this practice to commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us every week to answer your questions about how politics and the government work. Hi there, Cokie.


INSKEEP: Now, let's hear our first question.

CHRIS MOORE: This is Chris Moore in Lake Worth, Fla. Is there usually some degree of parity in the value of the spies being swapped? Or have the swaps more typically been asymmetrical? And if they have been, which country has more often been on the short end of the stick?

INSKEEP: Wow, it's, like, a chess metaphor. Do you trade a rook for a bishop, a knight for a queen?

ROBERTS: (Laughter) Well, that's right. And you can get a lot of arguments going on here about that. The answer is often, of course, viewed through a political lens, as in conservatives will accuse Democratic administrations of getting the short end of a swap. That happened in 2010 under Obama when the U.S. traded 10 Russians accused of spying in the U.S. for four jailed Russian double agents. The U.S. intelligence said that the four held in Russian prisons were far more valuable than the 10 we sent back. They were the so-called illegals living as everyday Americans. They got no classified information. They were apparently trying to infiltrate government and academia in hopes of influencing future policymakers. Their story, Steve, you can recognize. They became the basis of the popular TV show "The Americans." One reason the U.S. was eager to send them home rather than try them here was that a trial could reveal surveillance methods that the FBI was eager to keep secret.

INSKEEP: Let's hear from our next listener.

DAN SMITH: Hello, this is Dan Smith in Seattle, Wash. Have we ever traded a spy out of the country that can incriminate the highest levels of one of our political parties with their testimony and cooperation?

ROBERTS: Well, most of what a spy who's been held in jail knows was likely already revealed to his or her government before the arrest. What intelligence agencies tend to be much more wary about are alleged defectors; most notorious case there was that of Yuri Nosenko who defected from the KGB in 1964. He revealed that Lee Harvey Oswald was not a Soviet agent. The CIA was totally distrustful of Nosenko and held him in harsh detention for several years until he finally convinced them he was for real. Then they gave him a new name, sent him someplace South. Neither his name nor his place of residence was revealed in his 2008 obituary.

INSKEEP: Wow. We have another question here about the regularity of these kinds of events.

MIKE KOEPPEN: Mike Koeppen - Arlington Heights, Ill. Do spy swaps happen all that often?

ROBERTS: In the Cold War, the swaps happened much more often than they have in recent years. Before that 2010 one that we talked about earlier, the last major one was in 1986, and it was on the so-called Bridge of Spies, the bridge in Berlin where spies were exchanged in very dangerous and precarious ways through the Cold War - very, very dramatic.

INSKEEP: That's Cokie Roberts. We contemplated swapping her for Nina Totenberg for this segment, but the exchange did not work out. Cokie, thanks so much.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

INSKEEP: You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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