Spymasters go to great lengths to rescue their captured intelligence officers - including engaging in ‘spy swaps’. Here's what you need to know.
Q: How do spy swaps work?
A: There's more than one way. In 2010, 10 Russian ‘sleeper spies’ arrested in America were swapped for four British and American assets during a daylight exchange on the tarmac at Vienna’s airport. During the Cold War, Germany’s Glienicke Bridge was a popular exchange spot - 25 Americans were traded on the bridge for four Soviet and Polish agents in 1985, including Poland's Marian Zacharski.
Q: Why aren’t spy swaps a one-for-one deal?
A: One side may be interested in bringing home a high-level officer while the other side may be interested in several lower-level spies or dissidents. It’s a bit like teams trading athletes. Not all prisoners involved in a spy swap are necessarily intelligence agents. Anatoly Shcharansky, also called Natan Sharansky, was a Soviet dissident and human-rights advocate arrested by the KGB, accused of treason and espionage, and sentenced to 13 years in prison and hard-labour camps. He was released in a prisoner exchange with the West in 1986 and settled in Israel.
Q: Who negotiates the deal?
A: It depends. The CIA, FBI, and White House have all been involved in various negotiations. When the US wanted Cuba to release USAID worker Alan Gross, America’s negotiators also included, at various times, former US President Jimmy Carter and Pope Francis.