Swapping spies: More than Cold War exchanges and Hollywood drama

It’s the stuff of movies…a secret exchange on a neutral bridge, where captured spies are swapped secretly back to their countries, in the dark of night.

Except during the Cold War, this really happened.

Back in those days they had to do it secret because there was so much tension,” said Chris Lapetina, a political strategist.

And a famous spot for it was in Germany, on the Glienicke Bridge.

If any side needed to swap spies that was the place they did it,” said James C. Lewis, a journalist and travel writer.

Today, the bridge is just a normal bridge.

People drive on it, it’s open to the public, just one of the many bridges operated in Berlin,” said Lewis, who visited it last year.

But decades ago, it was closed to regular traffic, and known as the “bridge of spies.” It was where some of the secret spy swaps took place during the Cold War, both know and probably unknown, but immortalized in movies.

This is the bridge where Gary Powers was exchanged that wrapped up the whole U-2 affair,” recalled Lewis.

That “affair” happened when a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.

American pilot Francis Gary Powers was captured after parachuting down onto Russian soil. He was exchanged in 1962 for KGB Colonel Rudolph Abel, arrested in the United States years earlier. It went down, of course, on the Glienicke Bridge.

Now with talk of a modern day exchange of agents between the countries, of course the question comes up, how would that happen today?

I think now if there is a swap like this it could be done almost in public because I think both countries understand that why we may not be friends we don’t have to be enemies,” said Lapetina.

Where both countries understand spying happens and it doesn’t mean they have to re-enact the Cold War.

Better or worse, I think most Americans understand we spy on Russia and Russia spies on us and if we get caught it’s better if we have our own people back and they get their’s back,” believes Lapetina.

This makes secret spy swaps these days, only the stuff of movies, for real.


Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern and investigative journalist Wayne Madsen both agree that a potential swap is technically possible to address the current Russian spy case.

The State Department would take this case from the Justice Department, claim responsibility for foreign affairs. They probably, the ten under arrest in this country would see the charges dropped or put aside and I’m sure the restrictions would be that they could never return to the United States, they could never get a US visa,” said Madsen

McGovern added that this would be a real test for the “reset button” between US-Russian relations, given that the ten alleged spies held in the US are armatures as opposed to pros. He also added that the positive movement on the US-Russia relationship, at the high state level, is likely to be unaffected.

Intelligence services like to pull their agents out of foreign nations, argued McGovern.

There’s a mutual incentive, there is no honor among thieves, but there is sort of an unwritten agreement that once your illegals get wrapped up, then if you can trade them it serves both services to be shown to look after the people they put in such jeopardy,” said McGovern.

He argued that that is what is driving talks of a spy swap, since it serves the interest of both nations. He also said that in order to keep spies, is it best that nations show a certain level of care to the spies they catch. 


Francis Gary Powers, Jr. is the son of Francis Gary Powers and the founder of the Cold War Museum.

When my father returned home he was extensively debriefed by the CIA, he was put before a Senate Select Committee hearing to find out what had happened with the U2 incident, he was exonerated of any wrong doing and showed to be a fine young man performing well under dangerous circumstances,” said Powers.

He add, that after his father returned he adjusted quite well, aside from a few months of night fights where he awoke suddenly still thinking he was in a Soviet prison. While in prison his marriage fell apart and he returned home divorced.

Powers referred to the recent spy scandal between the US and Russia as normal, calling it a “day-to-day” activity.

Every country spies; every once in a while someone will get caught,” said Powers.

Powers said he did not see the 10 agents held by the United States as spies in a traditional sense. He said they were not direct agents committing espionage and that they more resembled contractors than actual spies.

He argued that if there is in fact a trade between the US and Russia, it will most likely take place in broad daylight in neutral territory, possible in Vienna, Austria.