The White House began deliberating a spy swap with Moscow nearly a month ago, well ahead of the arrests of 10 Russians in the United States less than two weeks ago, a White House official said Friday.
In the course of the following negotiations with Moscow, the United States put forward the names of the four people who were released by Russia on Friday as their part of the bargain, the official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House.
The swap took place Friday in Vienna. The official said all of the children of the Russian spies had left the United States for Russia or were in the process of leaving.
The Russian agents had been under observation by U.S. authorities for a decade. The decision to move against them was precipitated by indications that some planned to leave the United States this summer, the official said.
The case was brought to the White House in February by officials of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department. They presented the broad contours of what was known as "the illegals program" and some specifics about the individuals involved. That triggered weeks of meetings at the White House about how to proceed.
In early June, a decision was made to take action against the Russians and on June 11, a Friday, President Barack Obama was briefed on the matter in the Oval Office. He was told about plans for the arrests, how they would occur, what the Russians would be charged with and the possible impact of the case on U.S.-Russian relations, the official said. That's when the idea of a swap was raised, in a list of options.
Thirteen days after learning of the case, Obama met at the White House with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the two men went out for hamburgers. Obama did not mention the spy case, the official said.
Within days of the arrests on June 27, the United States offered to talk with Russia about an exchange of the 10 people in custody for four people held in Russian on charges that they had spied for the United States. CIA Director Leon Panetta and Russia's spy chief worked out the exchange, the largest spy swap since the Cold War, a separate U.S. official said.
Panetta had already developed a sound relationship with Mikhail Fradkov, head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, that allowed them to quickly clinch the deal, which traded the 10 Russian sleeper agents for the four prisoners in Russia.
As part of the swap, there was an understanding by both sides that the deal should not be accompanied by any retaliatory steps or other actions, the U.S. official said.
The U.S. government has declared itself pleased with the outcome, saying it got everything it wanted out of the case.