I arrived at Clair George's house shortly before our expected guests from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
At 10 a.m. sharp, the doorbell rang.
Enter Nicholas W, a Section Chief from FCI (foreign counterintelligence), and Allyson G, a supervisory special agent, both from Headquarters. They proffered calling cards and displayed much deference to the former spymaster, who opened the meeting.
"I met Eringer around the time I retired from government," said George. "He moved into my neighborhood and we became close personal friends."
I conveyed the offer made to me by National Press Books to handle Edward Lee Howard's book.
"Oh." This stumped Nick. "We hadn't even thought of that."
"A unique opportunity has presented itself," I said. "This situation is Howard-initiated. He is seeking a publisher. Howard's literary agent will vouch for the fact that National Press Books is the ideal publisher for his book. By an odd quirk of fate, National Press would put me in charge of Howard's book as his editor. Over time, I could gain Howard's trust. And I could lure him into a trap."
Nick warmed up to this. "Howard could certainly use a friend," he said. "But this isn't a Bureau decision. This is the domain of the U.S. Attorney out in New Mexico. He's the one who has to prosecute this case. So he's the one who has to decide whether or not to use these kinds of tactics, how it's going to play out in court, a pretty complex thing."
"The U.S. Marshals have something called the Curved Frisbee Doctrine," I said. "If we can lure Howard to an international corridor without violating his human rights, the courts won't object." (I'd heard about this doctrine from Howard Safir, former chief of the U.S. Marshal Service, who'd coined the term himself after masterminding the international apprehension, known as an extraordinary rendition, of CIA renegade Edwin Wilson.)
"No," I said. "This operation would be on your nickel. I'm not planning to pursue this opportunity unless you folks sign on, cover my expenses, and hire me as a contract agent."
"What's your deadline on this?" asked Supervisory Special Agent Allyson G, who had been filling legal pages with hand-scribbled notes.
I shrugged. "I don't have one, but you can be sure this opportunity won't last forever."
"We'll pass it to the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico," said Allyson. "It'll be up to him."
Meantime, Edward Howard phoned Joel Joseph from Moscow and pressed him for a commitment to his book proposal.
In turn, Alan Sultan called me. "I know how these things work," said Sultan. "If we're going to sign him, we've got to keep up the momentum. Otherwise another publisher will come along and we'll lose him."
I relayed this update to Allyson G. "It's heating up," I said. "Can we get an answer?"
"They seem pretty interested," said the Supervisory Special Agent. "Others have come forward in the past with plans to trap this guy, mostly from inside the Bureau, but nothing as interesting as this. However, we still have to get the Justice Department on board."
It should have tipped me off there and then what it's like to work for a U.S. government agency: you spend your life getting smacked around like the silver ball inside a pinball machine. Hit this base, bang! Whacked over to another post, boing! Boomeranged someplace else, ba-da-bing! Until, after a good battering, you drop into a black hole.
Alan Sultan guzzled a beer when I arrived at Montgomery's Grille, about 4:15 p.m., October 5th. "Are you going to buy me a birthday drink or what?" I asked.
"Happy birthday," said Sultan. "Anything you want." I opted for a glass of pinot grigio.
"I'm convinced we should do this book," said Sultan.
"But do you really believe Howard's story that he didn't help the Russians until after he was forced to flee?"
"Who cares?" I said. "The guy's a traitor whichever way you cut it."
"But I still wonder if he started off as a spy. What do you think?"
"I'm inclined to go with the evidence," I said. "Howard was identified by a Soviet defector named Vitaly Yurchenko, who also identified Ron Pelton, an NSA engineer who admitted his guilt."
"But if we publish Howard's book, won't people say we're capitalizing on treason?"
"People can say whatever they want." I shrugged. "It's a publisher's job to publish interesting books. Howard's story is a piece of espionage history."
Sultan had another concern. "We have to assume Howard may run a background check on us. What will he find on you?"
"Well, I guess he might discover that I was William Colby's literary agent." (Colby had been director of the CIA in the mid-1970s; I represented him as a literary agent for the placement of his book on Vietnam, Lost Victory.)
"That's what I was thinking," said Sultan. "I don't think Howard would like that."
"I wouldn't worry about it," I said. "Even if the Russians check you out, and that's iffy because they probably can't stomach Howard any more, the most they'd do is send a flunky up to your office to make sure National Press really exists."
Next morning brought a call from Allyson G. "There's a guy in our office out west who wants to talk to you."
Ten minutes later my phone rang. "This is John H," said a voice. "You know my name?"
We both chuckled. John H's name was all over Edward Howard's book proposal; he, the special agent tasked, long-term, with tracking the fugitive traitor.
John H had even met Howard in Sweden and, face-to-face, made a pitch for the turncoat to come home, face the music. This case, at the top of John H’s docket, was his passion.
"I'd like to meet with you and discuss the legal ramifications of what we're talking about here." John H was low-key, soft-spoken. "I have to tell you, I was negative on this when I first heard about it. But then I learned all the details and I've come round. I'm in Albuquerque. I'd like to give you a ticket to fly out here. Would that work for you?"
No, it would not work for me, I said. I suggested, instead, we meet in Washington, D.C.
I wasn't about to go charging off anywhere, expending time and energy, until we set ground-rules.