US pilot Francis Gary Powers faces a nearly identical prison sentence to Griner, who was released from Russian custody on Thursday in exchange for convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Powers had been sentenced to 10 years of Soviet imprisonment after his 1960 conviction for espionage; Griner was sentenced to 9.5 years in prison for entering Russia with vape cartridges containing a small amount of cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.
Brittney Griner arrives in San Antonio after being released from Russian prison
The two prisoners the United States released received much longer sentences. Bout was serving a 25-year sentence. The Soviet spy the United States traded for Powers, Colonel Rudolf Abel, was sentenced to 30 years in 1957.
The 1962 Abel-Powers exchange was effectively a two-for-one deal for the United States, which also secured the release of Frederic Pryor, an American graduate student whom the East German government had detained but not charged. Abel and Powers swapped places one foggy morning on a bridge connecting East Germany and West Berlin, but not before the United States secured assurances of Pryor’s release at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin.
“Like a Hitchcock thriller, the Abel-Powers swap was suspended for a few minutes after the two heavily guarded directors were driven to the Glienicke Bridge,” The Washington Post reported at the time. “Before handing Abel over to the Communists who held power, the Americans waited until Pryor was freed.”
It is not Alfred Hitchcock but Steven Spielberg who, in 2015, will transform the captivating story into a film, “Bridge of Spies”.
The 1960 capture of Powers, an American U-2 pilot, was a major international incident, prompting the cancellation of a summit meeting between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev announced that an American plane had been shot down deep in Soviet territory, and the United States offered a flimsy cover story: NASA said that one of its planes was on a weather reconnaissance flight and had accidentally crossed the Soviet airspace.
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In fact, Powers was on a mission to photograph the Soviet Union’s long-range ballistic missiles.
Abel, meanwhile, ran a clandestine network in the United States after entering the country illegally from Canada in 1948. FBI agents arrested him in a Manhattan hotel room in 1957 for espionage. CIA Director Allen W. Dulles acknowledged Abel’s value as a Soviet spy when he said, “I wish we had three or four [intelligence agents] like him in Moscow right now.
A committee of the Brooklyn Bar Association appointed James B. Donovan as Abel’s attorney. Donovan – played by Tom Hanks in ‘Bridge of Spies’ – helped pave the way for the prisoner swap when he convinced the judge not to sentence his client to death, arguing that Abel could be swapped for a prisoner. US agent or become an intelligence source. .
Several years after his client’s conviction, Donovan traveled to Berlin and, with the permission of the U.S. government, helped broker the 1962 prisoner exchange. (Later that year, Donovan negotiated with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and secured the release of more than 1,100 prisoners captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion, in exchange for US food and medicine worth $53 million.)
The Berlin prisoner exchange was of course big news in the United States, but the position of the Soviet Union was more or less: what prisoner exchange?
The government announced that it had pardoned and released Powers after receiving a petition from his relatives, “guided by a desire to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the United States”. He made no reference to the Americans’ release of a Soviet spy.
“Communist authorities never told their people that Abel had been convicted of spying in the United States and sent to prison for 30 years,” the Associated Press reported at the time. “Only ‘imperialist, colonialist, aggressive, warmongering’ countries have spies, according to Soviet doctrine.”
The Soviet Union sought to maximize the international significance of Powers’ release, while the United States sought to downplay it, The Post reported in a front-page story after the exchange. The American pilot’s release, the paper said, was likely part of a “powerful campaign for ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the United States that brought the Soviet Union into a serious ideological conflict with Communist China…whose the policy is based on militant communism and outright hostility towards the United States.
But US officials were wary of this “coexistence”. Over the past week, according to the article, Moscow radio said that “the principles of peaceful coexistence demand a victory over the militant and inhuman character of the imperialists”, although it also said that “the people Soviet would like to be friends with the Americans.”
Powers was not treated as a hero upon his return, in part because his instructions were to destroy his plane if he believed it would be captured. (He said he tried, but the plane’s mechanism didn’t work.) He acknowledged giving the Soviets information about the plane, which he said he thought they already knew. .
“I could have stood up and just made a big patriotic speech and said nothing to them,” he said years later, according to the AP. “But I don’t think it would have helped anything. It could have made me a hero. I have no desire to be a hero.
He struggled to land work in the United States, and in his 1970 book, “Operation Overflight: A Memoir of the U-2 Incident”, he blamed the CIA for not supporting him.
“He said the CIA never told him to kill himself if caught – an impression that may have stuck in the media,” the AP reported.
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In “Bridge of Spies,” Hanks, as Donovan, tells his CIA handlers, “Everyone hates powers. He didn’t kill himself and he let the commies parade him on TV. He’s the most hated man in America. After Rudolf Abel, perhaps. And me.” Donovan received abusive calls and letters calling him a “coconut lover.”
Seventeen years after his plane crashed in the Soviet Union, Powers was killed when the helicopter he was flying for KNBC-TV crashed in Los Angeles in 1977. He was 47.
“Mr. Powers was a curious figure in American history,” The New York Times observed at the time. “He was one of the country’s most famous spies. Yet he was anything but a glamorous agent. Rather, he was essentially a technician – a bland figure who perhaps symbolized the modern age of computer espionage and electronic surveillance, a human element needed only until robot satellites arrived.
An obituary in The Post described Powers as “a quiet, unassuming man who seemed ill-suited to the role of international super-spy.”