The United States and Russia exchanged spies this morning on the tarmac of the airport in Vienna, Austria, bringing an end to a 12-day saga that reminded the world that secret agents and invisible ink are not a thing of the past.
A jet chartered by the U.S. government delivered the ten men and women who Thursday admitted in court they were Russian agents and were expelled from the country. The U.S. jet parked next to a Russian government plane, which carried four people who had been convicted of spying for the west. They are on a Vision Airlines plane en route to Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. The flight is scheduled to land shortly after 6pm EST.
The 10 expelled from the U.S. could be seen boarding the Russian jet which took off for Moscow around 6:30 a.m., eastern time.
U.S. officials said they wanted the spies to carry a message to Russian spy headquarters.
"If you come to America to spy on Americans, you will be caught and exposed," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.
Under a deal worked out between the U.S. and Russia, the 10 pleaded guilty in court Thursday to one criminal count of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign country. They were sentenced to time already served, just 11 days, and then ordered expelled.
Officials said the grade school daughters of the New Jersey couple that went by the name of Richard and Cynthia Murphy were also on the spy swap plane last night.
The teenage sons of the spy couple Andrey Bezrukov and Elena Vavilova, who went by the names of Donald Heathfield and Tracey Lee Ann Foley, were reported to have left for Moscow Wednesday night. Their real names were disclosed in court Thursday.
Robert Baum, the attorney for the Russian spy stunner Anna Chapman, continued to deny the seriousness of his client's involvement as she headed to board the flight to Vienna.
"The only allegation against her was that she communicated with a Russian official through a laptop-to-laptop communication without the government specifying the nature of any of those communications," Baum said. "She never met personally with any official of the Russian federation, she never passed information, she never received any money."
Baum said Chapman would have preferred to stay in the U.S. and work, but that she might eventually move to Britain, where she is a citizen because of her previous marriage.
The quick end to the case is the best case scenario, said Jeffrey Burds, a professor of Russian and Soviet history at Northeastern University.
"It was in everyone's best interest to put this scandal behind them as quickly as possible," Burds said. "I think that both the Russian foreign diplomats as well as the United States State Department have made it very clear that they did not want this scandal to derail us - Russian relations - which have been quite good in the recent months."
Burds said the Russian spies will likely arrive home as heroes.
"The Russian Government will be inclined to celebrate their service, award them with medals and then they'll quietly go back into their lives," said Burds. "They will use this, in other words, sort of a recruitment poster rather than a reason for embarrassment."