Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Spy affair barely hostile

The Russian-American spy swap in Vienna last week effectively ended a chapter in ex-Cold War espionage. The case came to light last month with FBI action against 11 Russian spies in the United States.

Ten Russians, operating under deep cover in the United States for years, pleaded guilty to the minor charge of not registering as foreign agents. They were deported by the United States. One other, reportedly the paymaster of the operation, fled bail in Cyprus.

In return, Russia pardoned four Russians who had been imprisoned for allegedly spying for the United States and handed them over to U.S. authorities.

The choice of Vienna for the exchange had theatrical resonance. It is the capital of Austria, an ostensibly neutral, non-NATO nation that is a member of the European Union. In the old days, the city was something of a nest of spies.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are said to be pleased by the outcome from a professional point of view. President Obama is said to be pleased in that the affair probably has disrupted as little as possible his effort to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations.

That long agenda includes ratification of the SALT arms-reduction treaty, Russian cooperation in bridling Iran's nuclear weapons effort, North Korea's return to the six-party talks to stifle its nuclear weapons program, and retention of Russia as a member of the quartet - along with the European Union, the United Nations, and the United States - charged with achieving a Middle East peace agreement.

Mr. Obama has sought to reinforce his efforts to improve the relationship by strengthening his personal rapport with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. There likely were phone conversations between him and them as efforts to resolve the spy crisis proceeded.

There are, as always, loose ends. Americans are assured that this network was all there was. Perhaps. The banality of what has been reported to be the information and contacts the spies were targeting raises questions about whether that was all they were doing.

If there had been trials, the American people would have had a better idea of their activities. They might have pointed to other such possible actors in the United States.

The members of the ring were charged with not registering as foreign agents and with money laundering. Both are minor offenses. Did the fact that they weren't charged with espionage mean that the Justice Department would have had difficulty proving such charges, and thus was glad not to have to take the spies to trial?

The Obama Administration could improve Americans' response to this affair by a fuller laying down of the U.S. cards in the case, rather thanseeking to present it as an unqualified success.

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