The spy swap between the United States and Russia may seem like something out of a Cold War espionage novel. But although such exchanges are often shrouded in secrecy, they are far from outdated. They continue to be a useful tool for governments, and more especially for their intelligence agencies.
There was a time when Soviet and Western spies would be exchanged in a mutual tense walk across the Glienicke Bridge that spanned the divide between West and East Berlin.
The Soviet Union is now gone, and Berlin is a single city in a reunited Germany. But, as intelligence historian Walter Wark of the University of Toronto says, the latest exchange shows that spy swaps have not gone out of date.
"We have a tendency to forget that spying goes on as usual, and when spying goes on as usual, sooner or later there will be occasion to do a spy swap," Wark said. "But it's gone out of our consciousness, I think is the only thing that's really remarkable about this. It's not that it should happen. It's just that kind of, with all the other dangers that we're facing in a 21st century world, we've forgotten about espionage," he said.
Spy swaps have several uses, say analysts. For one thing, says Wark, it allows a democratic government to avoid an open trial that might force secrets into the open.
"Taking spies to trial is a very difficult matter, not least because if you're going to do that successfully you have to expose intelligence sources and methods very often in an open courtroom process. So it's very difficult, actually, to prosecute spies unless you're lucky enough to have a confession, and you won't always have that," said Wark.
But swaps are even more important to intelligence agencies. Security analyst Fred Burton of the private intelligence firm Stratfor says spy exchanges serve as an aid to recruiting an agent inside a foreign government, letting a potential spy know he or she will not be left behind.
"If you're the clandestine officer at the sgency [CIA] now trying to recruit assets [agents] to run against Russia, people are going to be sitting back and thinking, 'well, do I really want to go down this path?" Asked Burton. "What guarantees do I have that the American CIA is not lying to me, or the British security service?' So this is a pretty powerful signal that the U.S., Western intelligence, will do what it can to get you out if you do get picked up," he said.
But analysts point out there were several aspects of the Russian spy roundup and subsequent swap that were unusual.
For one thing, most swaps have occurred long after capture and conviction and after protracted negotiations. For example, the 1962 exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union of downed spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers and Soviet deep cover agent Rudolf Abel took place at the Glienicke Bridge two years after Powers was shot down by a Soviet missile and five years after Abel was arrested in New York. In contrast, the recent exchange of 10 accused Russian agents for four alleged Western spies came less than two weeks after their arrests in the U.S. were announced.
Another is that none of the arrested Russian spies were charged with committing acts of espionage. They were charged with the far less serious offense of being unregistered agents of a foreign power. They appeared in court, pled guilty, and were whisked off to Vienna for their swap and a trip home.
Stratfor's Fred Burton says something appears to have forced the FBI to act prematurely before they could catch the spies performing an act of espionage.
"Having gone back to the original tripwire event, what caused this chain of events to occur has not been disclosed," said Burton. "And I've been around enough of these kinds of cases, and engaged in enough of them, and I know how the FBI operates to the point that they just didn't wake up that day and say, let's take these cells down. This has to be part and parcel to something larger, and I don't know what that is. But it's there. We just haven't found it yet," Burton added.
Burton says that could be because another spy tipped off the Russians, or new information came from a defector or another agent, or perhaps there is some other aspect of the affair the government wants to cover up. But whatever the reasons, they are being kept secret in keeping with the operational rules of the espionage game.