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Former USSR Prisoner: U.S. Has Upper Hand In Russian Spy Swap05:43

This article is more than 10 years old.

Two Cambridge residents who allegedly doubled as Russian spies were transferred to New York on Wednesday amid reports that a swap was being set up to exchange the 11 accused Russian spies for prisoners in Russia.

Nicholas Daniloff knows something about spy swaps. Currently a professor at Northeastern University, he spent more than 10 years reporting on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and he was part of a prisoner swap himself in 1986, when he was arrested by the KGB and charged with espionage. Daniloff has consistently denied those charges.

Daniloff told Morning Edition that spy deals are tricky political turf. "In my case, in 1986, the deal practically fell apart because the conservatives said you should not swap an American journalist who is without guilt for a spy that has been found taking secrets for money," he said.

At the same time, Daniloff says, spy deals can be a powerful political tool.

"The Russians were caught red-handed in this case — you can make them pay a premium for getting their guys back," Daniloff said. That "premium" could be Americans imprisoned in Russia on spy charges. If there aren't any, Daniloff thinks the U.S. could use the deal as leverage to demand that Russia release some political prisoners.

"Dissidents, people who have been rejected because they objected to authoritarian rule by Vladimir Putin, something of that sort," Daniloff said.

The individuals accused in this case do not appear to have gathered sensitive information, but Daniloff says that doesn't lessen their weight in a swap deal.

"They had set up a network which eventually could have led them into espionage, and it was deeply hidden, deeply covered," Daniloff said, adding his prediction that the alleged spies were looking for information on the Russian's three major interests: industrial secrets, military weaponry and political decisionmaking.

The Russians have their own security interests — but they also have common interests with the United States. That's why Daniloff predicts this case will eventually blow over.

And for the accused themselves? "I think they will pretty much fade away," Daniloff said. "In another three, four or five years somebody will do an interview with them, wanting to know how they've adjusted to Russian life. I'd say there's a good chance that they will not be all that happy in Russia, but who knows?"

This program aired on July 8, 2010.

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