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U.S. State Department Briefing on Russian Spy Case, July 2010

Published July 8, 2010

The U.S. State Department gave this press conference on July 8, 2010 regarding the Russian spy case.

OPERATOR: Welcome everyone, and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. During the question-and-answer session you may press *1 on your touch-tone phone. Today’s conference is being recorded, so if you have any objections you may disconnect at this time. Now, I would like to turn the meeting over to Mr. Mark Toner. You may begin.

MR. TONER: Thank you. Good evening, welcome. Thanks for joining us. As you know, there were some significant developments today in the Russian spy case. Ten individuals pleaded guilty today in Manhattan Federal Court to conspiring to act as unlawful agents within the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation.

We’re pleased to have with us tonight two Senior Administration Officials who can provide further context to the day’s events, both from the legal and from the diplomatic perspective. Just a brief word on ground rules, this will be a background call involving two Senior Administration Officials.
Just to reemphasize, these individuals should only be identified as Senior Administration Official number one and Senior Administration Official number two. I think we’ll have both of them give one or two minutes of opening comments and then we’ll open it up for questions.
Senior Administration Official number one, you can go ahead.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. Earlier today, in proceedings that ended at approximately 4:45 p.m. in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, 10 individuals pleaded guilty to the first count of a two-count indictment or charging instrument. The defendants pleaded guilty in particular, to conspiring to act as agents of the Russian Federation without notifying the attorney general, which is a violation of two federal statutes – Section 951* of Title 18 of the United States Code.
As part of these guilty pleas, the defendants who were here under false names were required to disclose their true Russian identities. And the defendants were also required to forfeit certain money, property, and other assets. At the same hearing, they were also sentenced and ordered removed from the United States. They have agreed as part of their plea agreement never to return to the United States without the prior authorization of the attorney general.
The plea agreements between the United States and each defendant take place against the background of an agreement between the United States Government and that of the Russian Federation, which I or my colleague can describe later in the call.
MR. TONER: Thank you. Senior Administration Official number two, please.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Sure. Just to add on the diplomatic side – the timing of the arrest of the 10 individuals was driven by our knowledge that one of the individuals intended to depart the United States. The fact that it came on the heels of the President’s successful June 24th
As my colleague just said, as part of their plea agreement, the 10 individuals agreed to disclose their Russian identities and be immediately expelled from the United States; in turn, Russia agreed to release four individuals who they had charged with working on behalf of Western governments.
We drove the terms of this arrangement, which was based on national security as well as humanitarian grounds. After many years of monitoring the individuals, we were confident that we’d gain no significant national security benefit from their further incarceration. Instead, we took the opportunity to secure the release of the four Russian individuals, several of whom are in poor health.
Since Monday, we’ve had contact with the four individuals in Russia who were transferred by the Russian authorities to a prison in Moscow. We explained the opportunity – they had to leave Russia, accompanied by members of their family if they so desired. It was a Russian Government condition that each of the four individuals sign a statement admitting guilt as part of an application for pardon. And I’d leave it to the individuals involved to tell their stories, including their years of imprisonment. But in order to get out of jail, they had no choice but to sign the Russian Government oath.
As the June summit indicated, we have a full agenda to pursue with the Russian Government, and we’re confident that the new approach to Russia pursued by President Obama will continue to advance our strategic interests. No one should be surprised that some vestiges of the past remain or that Russia has an active intelligence service. But the rolling up of this network, as my colleague stressed, is a significant success for U.S. law enforcement and intelligence community, and we’re pleased that its aftermath has been handled quickly and pragmatically.
summit with President Medvedev was coincidental. I think in many respects the handling of this case and its aftermath reflects the progress that we’ve made in U.S.-Russian relations after an initial statement by the Russian foreign ministry denying the charges, the Russian Government moved very quickly to resolve the spy scandal, including by immediately acknowledging the Russian citizenship of the individuals involved.MR. TONER: Thank you, very much. Conference moderator, we’re ready to open up to questions.
OPERATOR: Okay, thank you. Again, if anybody does a question you can press *1 on your phone. You will be prompted to record your name. Please do so, so that I can introduce you with your question. If your question is answered, you may press *2 to withdraw your question. Again, it’s *1 to ask the question, *2 to withdraw it.
Laura Rozen, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. And what happens, I guess, to the children of the ten Russian individuals who plead guilty today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: As far as the government is concerned, we’re permitting the children of these defendants to depart the United States at any time as long as the departure complies with the wishes of their parents and with any applicable requirements of U.S. law.
QUESTION: Do you – are you all aware of what the plans are for any of the children of these 10?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: This is really fundamentally a matter between the parents and the children.
QUESTION: Okay. And also for Vicky – Vicky Pelaez is, I guess, the one U.S. citizen. I mean, what’s the – it seems legally like her case may be slightly different from the other nine, and that she’s not originally a Russian citizen. Can you speak to that at all?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: It’s true she is a citizen, and on the other hand though, as part of her agreement she has also agreed to leave the United States and not to return absent the authorization of the attorney general.
OPERATOR: Bill Gertz, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. I was wondering if you could help with a little bit more of the mechanics of the actual exchange. They moved the Russians to Moscow, and then there were reports that one of them was going to Vienna and then on to Britain. Can you explain a little bit of the details of how this – the negotiations for the exchange began and what are the mechanics of the actual swap? There’s no (inaudible) bridge this time, I guess.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, we really can’t comment on the mechanics of any prisoner exchange and won’t get into that kind of operational matter on this call.
QUESTION: Well, how about the actual exchange? Can you actually say where it’s going to take place?
QUESTION: Will it be in Europe?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, no, sorry. We just can’t get into the operational details as my colleague said.
OPERATOR: Andrei Sitov, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, and thanks and congratulations on this resolution of the case. My question is, what does “immediate” mean? Have the Russians left? And then to the official number two, is this a result of your recent meeting with the Russian ambassador? And lastly, do you release the names of the people who are to be – who are supposed to be released in Russia? Can you release them? Can you share them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, just to work backwards through your questions – no, we can’t release the names at this stage. Second, this has been an issue that’s been handled principally on law enforcement channels which is traditionally the way it’s handled. The wider national security team has certainly been involved in this and kept apprised of it. And the meeting that you referred to was focused mainly on other issues.
QUESTION: And have they left, the Russians?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: We – like I said before, we can’t get into the operational details at this point.
OPERATOR: Peter Baker, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi guys, thanks for doing the call. So, do I take it then you’re not going to identify the four at this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, not at this stage we can’t.
QUESTION: Okay. And can you tell us who came up with the idea of trading and how did we pick these four or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I mean, the only thing we can say is what I mentioned before is that we drove the terms of this arrangement, but there’s been a series of discussions through the channels I mentioned before about how to work out the details of it.
QUESTION: But “we drove the terms” – does that mean we said to Moscow, “Hey, guys, one way to resolve this is if we could effectuate a release of some people there” or did they come to us and say, “Hey, we’d like our people back here – some people we’ll offer to you.”
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, as I said, they took some steps very early on after the individuals in this country were arrested. After an initial statement by the foreign ministry denying the charges, the Russian Government did move quite quickly, including by immediately acknowledging the Russian citizenship of the individuals involved. And after that, we moved relatively quickly to talk about the terms of an arrangement, as I mentioned before.
QUESTION: But I mean, sorry, just – I get that. But whose idea was it to go ahead and try to do this sort of an exchange?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I think this is something we sorted out together. I mean, we’ve had some experience in doing this in the past.
QUESTION: Okay. And last question is: Is – by exchanging these 10 who we’ve now convicted – they pleaded guilty – for these other four, are we acknowledging that these four had, in fact, worked for us in some fashion? And if not, isn’t that the implication that people are going to get from it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, I mean, the only thing that I’d say again is that these are individuals who had been detained in Russia on charges of working on behalf of Western governments in Russia. Those are the charges on which they were detained, but beyond that can’t really offer much.
QUESTION: So you’re not denying or confirming whether they worked for the Western governments?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Just not going beyond that statement.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
OPERATOR: Charlie Wolfson, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, can either one of you address the question of how and when President Obama was briefed on the deal, whether he signed off on it before it was effectuated?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, this has been primarily handled as a law enforcement, national security matter through law enforcement channels and national security channels. Of course, the President and other officials were kept informed of matters, but this again, has been handled by the national security team for the Executive Branch in an interagency discussion of how to proceed, as is the normal way in these kind of matters.
QUESTION: So the President did not sign off on the deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Again, this is something that the national security team worked on, and beyond that I think I would not have any additional comment.
OPERATOR: Evan Perez, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. There’s been some criticism of this arrangement, especially on the part of the Russian side of the deal, in part because some of these folks have steadfastly denied that they were in contact with Western intelligence or working for Western intelligence. And in fact, they’re being forced to relocate, to leave the country. Do you have any response to that? It seems like if that’s forced exile that we’re abide – we’re helping the Russians do that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, I don’t have much to add to what we said before in the sense that the opportunity was explained to the four individuals who were being detained in Russia, and the opportunity to leave Russia accompanied by members of their family if they so desired. And I’ll leave it to the individuals involved, I think, to tell their own stories.
QUESTION: But you’re not – you wouldn’t consider this to be forced exile?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think these are incredibly difficult circumstances under which these individuals have been detained and had to endure, but I’d leave it to them to tell their own stories.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Jill Dougherty, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Reading through these documents there – in each case there seems to be reference to if a person wanted to use any type of details of their experience – let’s say, in the United States, or I presume during this court case, that they would have to sign over rights and any proceeds to the U.S. Government. It just struck me a little strange that in this type of document you’d be essentially saying, look, if you write – if you get a movie deal, we want the proceeds from that. Am I interpreting that correctly?
And then also, there’s a reference to other steps to improve relations between the countries. Is there a further understanding that the countries have that things from now on will be handled differently in this regard?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I will take the first part of that, and perhaps my colleague can take up the second.
With respect to the provision of the agreements about the profits from any, you know, publication or dissemination of information from the story, that is a not uncommon provision for these kinds of (inaudible) like this, that enjoy a certain notoriety. So it's not something unique to this case, it is something that's been used (inaudible) agreements before.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, and I don't have a lot to add on the second part of your question Jill, I mean, except to say that I think it is significant, the way in which the aftermath, the resolution of this case has been handled, quickly and pragmatically. And I think that says something about the progress that we have made, and the relationship.
But there is also no doubt that the rolling up of this network is a significant success for our law enforcement and intelligence community, and I think will have a lasting impact on the capacity of the Russians in the future.
QUESTION: If I could just ask a quick follow-up here – I think we’re still questioning that a little bit more. I want to know a few more details of how this was negotiated. I mean, you're saying that it was a success and it shows the relationship. How does it show that? I mean, were they more willing than in previous cases, or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No, I think the success that I referred to was the rolling up of the network. I mean, I think that is a significant success for the law enforcement and intelligence community.
Now, I think the only thing I was suggesting about the relative speed, and I think the pragmatic way in which the aftermath has been handled, I think clearly serves the interests of the United States since a further incarceration of these individuals wasn't going to bring us any further significant national security benefit, and we did want to take advantage of the opportunity to secure the release of the four Russian individuals who were going to be coming out. So, in that sense, I think it served our interest.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me just add to that, with respect to the sort of importance of this from a law enforcement/national securities perspective, as my colleague has mentioned, we have – this really is, I think, an important achievement. We have stripped these illegal agents of their ability to operate here, and we have shut down this program here that had been running for many years. And I think, for the future, we have demonstrated our very strong counterintelligence capabilities, and that ought to serve as a warning to any other governments that might try to undertake a similar kind of operation in the future. So, I do think it is an important achievement today.
OPERATOR: Robert Burns, with the Associated Press, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. In the brief State Department statement that was put out this evening, it was mentioned that some of the four who are being released by the Russians are in poor health. I am wondering if you could elaborate on that, and say to what degree that was a factor in the timing of this swap.
And, secondly, with regard to the activities of the 10 who were being deported from the U.S., was any classified information compromised by their activities?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, on the second part of that question, I would say we were not going to get into any particulars in the 37-page complaint and other court documents, which do tell a fairly comprehensive story here. And I would refer you to those documents.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And on the first part of that question, I mean, all I would say is that the fact that we were aware of the poor health of several of these individuals did reinforce our interest in trying to move expeditiously through the process of negotiating this swap.
OPERATOR: Andrew Quinn, your line is open.
QUESTION: My question has been asked, thanks.
OPERATOR: Okay. Bernie Bennett, your line is open. Bernie Bennett, your line is open.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
OPERATOR: Yeah, now we can.
QUESTION: Okay. Sorry about that. What's going to happen to the properties and monies that were seized from these 10 individuals?
And what are the kind of circumstances – I think official number one mentioned that, subject to the approval of the attorney general, that there is a – there are circumstances under which they could return to the United States. What are those circumstances?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, on the first part of it, the – each plea agreement specifies certain monies and properties –
QUESTION: Sorry about that. Can you hear me all right?
OPERATOR: You’re still beeping, Bernie.
QUESTION: Something in my background. Sorry.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: With respect to the forfeiture question, the plea agreements in each case specify certain property that will be forfeited, or that the defendant will not contest the civil or administrative forfeiture of things like, currency, bank accounts, property – real property, houses and so forth.
And so, again, this is not an uncommon term in a plea agreement of this sort. And they will – title will pass to the United States in connection with that forfeiture process.
In terms of the possibility of return, the essential elements of the plea agreement are that they consent and agree to immediate removal or expulsion from the United States, and that they agree never to re-enter the United States after their removal for any purpose, without prior authorization by the attorney general, and recognize that, if they were to re-enter the United States without that approval, it would void the plea agreement and permit prosecution.
I won't comment on the – any situation in which the attorney general might permit a return or re-entry into the United States, but it's obviously solely within the attorney general's discretion under these agreements.
OPERATOR: Pete Yost, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Were you suggesting – and I may have misunderstood – that your interest in getting four out long predated the arrests? And, secondly, were there discussions, negotiations underway, prior to the arrest in regard to these four?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No. I mean, I can't really add to what I said before, except to say that we were certainly aware of the health conditions. And once the situation arose, we saw the merits, in terms of our interests, as well as the humanitarian concerns about the individuals involved in moving quickly.
QUESTION: And so you're saying that the discussions post-dated any arrests, in regard to these four?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Well, I mean, all I would say is that we wanted to move quickly, because we saw it in our interest to see if we could obtain the release of these individuals.
QUESTION: And, again, I’m trying to make sure I understand. The order in which this happened was arrest, discussions, swap – I mean, is that right?
QUESTION: Am I making myself clear?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Mm-hmm, you are. And that's the sequence.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Just have time for one or two more questions.
OPERATOR: Andrei Sitov, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, sorry, it's me again. I guess it's a follow-up to the previous question.
Does the fact that you are getting four people in return mean that there are only four people there who you wanted to be returned? In other words, are there any others you are interested in getting released, but maybe who were left behind in this swap?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, just -- that's not one, at least, that I can answer.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I have no comment on that, either.
OPERATOR: Shira Bush, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. I was just wondering if you can speak to the group that will be leaving New York. Are they all traveling together? And do we have any idea when they are leaving New York, where they are leaving New York from? Anything you can add to that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Not really. The -- again, the plea agreement provide expressly that they agree to cooperate in immediate removal or expulsion from the United States, but I think that's as far as I would like to go in discussing that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Last question.
OPERATOR: (Inaudible), your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes. Representative Pete Hoekstra questioned whether allowing these illegals to leave early, the U.S. intelligence community might be missing out on some valuable details or secrets about how the Russian intelligence service operates. Can you comment on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Well, I guess as I mentioned earlier, I mean we have reaped a number of significant benefits from these arrests, as well as the very long-term investigation that's detailed and described in the complaints. These people have been under investigation, under surveillance, for quite a long time now.
In addition to depriving these particular illegal agents and others of their ability to operate here, and removing them from the United States and obtaining admission, as we did today, we have effectively shut down the illegal program here, and again demonstrated our capabilities. I think of that as a very important achievement, and a very significant success.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR. TONER: All right. Well, that's our last question. I just want to thank, again, our two Senior Administration Officials for doing this tonight, taking time out in the evening, as well as thanking all of you for joining us, and hope everyone has a good Thursday evening.

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