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Attorney general says Russian spies posed threat to US

Defends decision to swap them for four prisoners

By H. Josef Hebert
Associated Press / July 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — While they passed along no US secrets, the 10 Russian agents involved in the spy swap posed a potential threat to the United States and received “hundreds of thousands of dollars’’ from Russia, Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday.

“Russia considered these people as very important to their intelligence-gathering activities,’’ Holder said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.’’

He defended the decision to allow the 10 to return to Russia in exchange for the release of four Russian prisoners accused of spying for the West because the swap presented “an opportunity to get back . . . four people in whom we have a great deal of interest.’’

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, sidestepping the question of whether Russia’s espionage poses a threat to the United States, said the swap came amid improved relations between the two countries.

“The economic discussions that President [Dmitry] Medvedev and President Obama had just recently and the progress that we’ve made in reducing nuclear weapons — and hopefully we’ll get a treaty through Senate this summer that will further reduce nuclear weapons — means our security is stronger and safer and our relationship is stronger,’’ Gibbs said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.’’

Holder also sought to relieve concern over the fate of the children of the Russian agents, saying they all were allowed to return to Russia “consistent with their parents wishes’’ or, in the case of those who were adults or nearly adults, were allowed to make their own choices of where to live.

The seven offspring embroiled in the spy saga ranged in age from a 1-year-old to a 38-year-old architect. In most cases they had been born in and grew up in the United States, making them US citizens.

On pending terrorism cases, Holder acknowledged “there’s a real question’’ as to whether a terrorist suspect such as self-professed Sept. 11 coordinator Khalid Sheikh Mohammed can face the death penalty if he were to plead guilty before a military commission.

Holder indicated he still favors bringing Mohammed and four alleged accomplices before civilian courts, but that has been met with opposition in Congress and elsewhere. No decision has been made on where the trials will be held.

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