Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

June 1997

As my Swissair jet neared Sheremtevo Airport, the clouds thickened, then darkened, and what had been a smooth cruise now became rocky and uncertain. 

I listened to the soundtrack of Russia House on my Walkman as we bumped into a final approach.   

This time Customs was a breeze, but no Edward Howard waiting in Arrivals.  A dozen-plus cab drivers descended on me, circling again and again like sharks.  (Choose the wrong driver and you'd end up mugged or dead.)  I found a wall for my back in the dark, cavernous terminal. 

Howard finally appeared, cursing traffic.  He took my bag and led me to his battered blue Volvo.  It's odometer now clocked 106,670 miles.  Howard, dressed in a suit and tie, had gained another ten pounds. 

As we drove, Howard told me the plan:  Kryuchkov would arrive at my hotel at nine next morning accompanied by Igor Prelin, executive director of the retired intelligence officers association. 

Prelin's last job at the KGB, explained Howard, was public relations chief.  Now he acted as front man for the old guard KGB-in-Exile. 

Lena Orlova a.k.a. Larissa would be on hand to translate. 

Howard said he would make the introductions, then let us get on with it, maybe return for dinner at Kryuchkov's home. 

Howard had become a stock market analyst (from traitor to trader), affiliated with a firm called Rye, Man and Gor Securities.  As director of their analytical department, he was bullish on Aeroflot stock. 

Howard told me he'd been to Cuba two months earlier and was considering the purchase of a seafront apartment in Havana. 

"Come meet me there," he said.  "I'll introduce you to some Cuban intelligence people.  Who knows, maybe there are some books in it for you." 

Howard had worked out how to retire in five years, based upon investments in the Russian stock market.

He'd already mapped out his future:  Winters in Cuba, summers at a cabin on Lake Baikal, part-time consulting by fax and e-mail.  (Five-year plans are a Russian tradition.) 

Ninety-minutes later we arrived at my hotel, the elegant Baltschug Kempinski.  I checked into my room (310) and returned to the lobby for further chitchat with Howard.  A woman plucked a harp while, around her, young Muscovites juggled multiple cell phones, Russia's newest status symbol. 

I asked Howard if he wanted to manage money for new clients.  Damn right he did.  He could set up fiduciary accounts in Cyprus, said he; and, as some Russian stocks did not require conversion to rubles, he could buy and sell them in U.S. dollars.  What's more, he'd take only a 2.5 percent commission instead of the normal five percent.  

"I'm close to the market," said Howard.  "I'm constantly on the phone to publicly-traded Russian companies to assess their activities." 

"Sounds good," I said.  "Are you willing to travel to meet prospective clients?" 

The FBI was still in a holding pattern on luring Howard to capture.  Twenty-two months had passed since we'd been frozen "maybe as long as six months."

Nevertheless, John H and I continued to scope out such opportunities in the event that we might one day get a green light. 

"Sure," replied Howard.  "I'm traveling widely." 

But, he added, no talk of travel on the phone, fax or Internet. 

I suggested we establish a code to make commo possible, and we both made identical notes:  

Gorki = Geneva (Hotel Les Amures) 

Kharkov = Zurich (Hotel Savoy) 

Minsk = Warsaw (The Intercontinental) 

St. Petersburg = Prague  (The Intercontinental) 

Samara = Havana (Hotel Nacional) 

Always 12 noon in reception, one day past the date stipulated in communication.  

Howard wanted to get into automobile insurance, which, he said, was virtually non-existent in Russia. 

"What happens when cars collide?" I asked. 

"The drivers fight it out." 

So Howard had cultivated a relationship with a Moscow-based insurance company called Rose gal, forty-nine percent owned by the Great American Life Insurance Company. 

Howard departed for a business appointment, and I retired to my room.  The view of the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral was so grand, I opened the French windows and ordered room service:  Beluga Malassol Caviar 56g, Buckwheat Blinis, A Glass of Vodka Stolichnaya, 65 Deutschmarks. 

On my desk I plopped a copy of the Washington Post’s Sunday book section, Book World, a back-stopping of my legend should anyone pay a visit while I wasn't around.  

Next morning, Howard and his special guests arrived on time.  I descended to the lobby to greet them; we went straight back up to my room. 

Vladimir Kryuchkov had the cherubic face of a kindly uncle.  You would never know, looking at him, that he had been one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union. 

The 74-year-old former KGB chairman dressed like a Communist Party apparatchik in a charcoal wool suit, white shirt, navy-blue tie with a white vertical stripe, and a woolen sweater-vest.  His round, apple-cheeked face was dominated by large spectacles with heavy amber-colored frames.  A wisp of gray hair atop his bald pate stood on end. 

It was hard to believe that this short, smiling man had personally ordered the executions of spies given up by Aldrich Ames. 

As KGB Chairman, he would visit their cells the night before execution and ask, "Are you comfortable?"

Kryuchkov's sidekick, Igor Prelin, was dressed (comically, I thought) in black slacks, black silk shirt, black striped tie and burgundy shoes; slicked back hair, heavy on the grease, and a trim gray beard.  Al Capone meets Red Mafia

Lena Orlova was Howard's assistant, Larissa, a KGB agent who had been married to Glenn Michael Souther, an American defector from the U.S. Navy who committed suicide at age 32 in 1989. 

Orlova now operated as Howard's fallback date.  Plain with ivory skin and observant eyes, the odd thing about Orlova was her bobbing Adam's apple.  (Females normally do not have Adam’s apples.)  

I opened the meeting and explained my position on Kryuchkov's book:  It would have to be a memoir of his intelligence career, not a full-fledged autobiography; the American reading public could not sit through two long volumes, as just published in Russia.  It needed jazzing up, I said, a little color.  But it also needed major revelations.  Things nobody had ever known before.  The sort of thing they once called Gee whiz moments at The National Enquirer. 

"Ah," said Prelin.  "Silver bullets." 

"Right," I said. "Silver bullets." 

We needed, I said solemnly, to solve some of the great spy mysteries of the second half of the twentieth century. 

Vladimir Kryuchkov had begun his government career as a diplomat.  Posted in Hungary during that nation's repressed rebellion in 1956, he caught the eye of Ambassador Yuri Andropov, a rising star who would, in time, become Chairman of the KGB and eventually succeed Leonid Brezhnev as the Soviet Union's top banana.  Andropov became Kryuchkov's mentor, first transferring him from the foreign ministry to the KGB, then nurturing Kryuchkov's career to the top. 

In all, Kryuchkov spent 24 years in high positions at the KGB, including chief of the First Directorate, a spymaster responsible for Soviet espionage and covert operations worldwide. 

In 1988 Mikhail Gorbachev crowned Kryuchkov chairman of the KGB. 

And in August 1991, Kryuchkov showed his appreciation by conspiring to unseat Gorbachev in a failed putsch. I asked permission to tape-record our session; Kryuchkov agreed, and we began.

"I trusted Gorbachev," said Kryuchkov.  "He swore that he would not permit disintegration of the Soviet Union."

Now Kryuchkov had only profound scorn for his former boss. 

"The date of the downfall of the Soviet Union can be precisely marked to the day Gorbachev took power in 1985," he said.

Kryuchkov was convinced (a "silver bullet," Prelin interrupted) that Alexandre Yakovlev, one of Gorby's closet advisers, worked secretly for the CIA; that Yakovlev had been recruited in 1959 while an exchange student at Columbia University in New York City. 

"I brought this to Gorbachev's attention," said Kryuchkov.  "I suggested that we commence an official investigation.  What did the President of the USSR do?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing." 

With hindsight, Kryuchkov now questioned Gorbachev's allegiance to the Motherland. 

"Gorbachev was praised by American and German leaders.  He liked everybody in the West," said Kryuchkov, attempting profundity.  "So here is the question:  Did Gorbachev work for the East or West?"

Kryuchkov said that the CIA's strategy of destabilizing the Soviet Union from within is what led to its collapse.

"The KGB received trustworthy information on this point," said Kryuchkov.  "We knew that they had created a network of influence in Soviet society, a long-term program that influenced our intelligentsia and demoralized our military.  We must pay tribute to Western strategists," he added with sarcasm.  "They did not make a mistake backing Gorbachev." 

"How do you know these things?" I asked. 

I knew I was talking to the former KGB chairman, who should know these things.  But Maurice Buckmaster, the late chief of Britain's Special Operations Executive during World War II, taught me always to play the skeptic when dialoging with sources. 

"It all started with Philby," replied Kryuchkov.  Kim Philby, the infamous British MI6 operative who spied for the Russians over two decades and did untold damage to the West.  "The materials passed us by Philby were of extreme tactical and strategic importance."

"Do you ever wonder if Philby wasn't a triple agent?" I posed. 

"When Philby first arrived in Moscow, we watched his apartment, monitored his telephone conversations and opened his mail," Kryuchkov admitted.  "He did not understand everything about our Soviet reality, and many things upset him, particularly our way of life. (!)  But during his last ten years, Philby enjoyed the unlimited confidence of his Soviet friends, and there was nothing about his behavior to doubt his loyalty to communism and the Soviet Union." 

But it was another Western spy whom Kryuchkov ranked "one of our most brilliant achievements":  Aldrich Ames, a CIA mole who reported to his masters in Moscow for almost ten years. 

"Until Ames joined our side in the mid-1980s," said Kryuchkov, "we had very limited success in the hunt for foreign penetrations in our service."

Kryuchkov took no responsibility for Ames's arrest.  "During my chairmanship, Ames's security was of paramount importance." 

(Other former KGB officials believe Kryuchkov's treatment of those fingered by Ames, their recall from foreign posts, swift arrest and execution, convinced the FBI and CIA to launch a spy-hunt.) 

On the subject of famous spy cases, I asked the former KGB chairman about Vitaly Yurchenko, the KGB officer who defected to the United States from Italy in 1985, then re-defected to the Soviet Union. 

It was Yurchenko who gave up "Robert" to CIA debriefers (who included Aldrich Ames).  That codename and a description of Robert’s circumstances traced immediately to Edward Howard.

"During a walk in Rome," said Kryuchkov, "Yurchenko suddenly felt sick.  He sat down for a rest and passed out.  When he regained consciousness, Yurchenko saw strangers bending over him--everything else was a fog:  an airplane, an isolated house, the United States."

The real fog, in this instance, was Kryuchkov-created:  a tale fabricated for internal Soviet consumption.

"Nobody believes that," I said, shaking my head.

  "No?" said Kryuchkov.  "Then how about this:  Yurchenko knew what he was doing.  It was a self-appointed mission to embarrass the CIA." 

"Better," I said.  "But I've been hoping your book would be truthful." 

As Prelin translated, Kryuchkov stiffened.  Even after many months in the can, the former KGB chairman was still accustomed to sycophants who said yaa, not nyet-nyuk

We moved onto the case of Nicholas Shadrin, a Soviet naval commander who defected to Sweden in 1959 and went to work for the CIA.

In 1975 Shadrin disappeared while on a trip to Austria.

"Yes, we did kidnap Shadrin," Kryuchkov conceded.  "He had violated his oath, defected to the West and worked against the USSR.  For this crime, he was tried in absentia, convicted and sentenced to be shot.  In the early 1970s, our service located Shadrin in Washington and established contact with him.  He agreed to make amends and work for Soviet intelligence.  I believed he was truly remorseful and could be useful to us.  But he became too enthusiastic, and we found his behavior suspicious.  Then we received reliable information that the Americans were behind this game.  So we decided to lure this traitor out and bring him home.  Oleg Kalugin, a First Directorate colonel, was put in charge of the operation.  In meetings, we discussed how to deal with Shadrin's resistance and transport him from Vienna to Prague.  We decided to use chloroform.  But Kalugin had his own agenda.  The result was a fiasco.  Drugged unconscious, Shadrin was pulled a thousand yards in the snow at the Austrian-Czech border, then left to lay in the icy cold for twenty minutes because the car that was supposed to carry him got stuck in the snow.  Shadrin died.  My deputy flew to Prague to assess the failure of this operation.  He reported that our receiving team was upset--all except for Kalugin, who appeared satisfied by the outcome.  An autopsy determined that Shadrin had liver cancer at an advanced stage, so he would not have lived more than six months anyway." 

During a short break, Igor Prelin engaged me in conversation.  He told me he had written a novel, published in Russia, based on a true story, "about a CIA officer I ran for eight years who died tragically in Lebanon." 

"When?" I asked. 

"January 1985, the embassy bombing." 

I was surprised by the casualness with which Prelin laid such a bombshell on me. Perhaps he wanted to track where it might travel. 

I asked Prelin if Kryuchkov had been followed to my hotel. 

"They've been called off for one day."  Prelin winked.  "We have professionals in charge again." 

Prelin told me that he represented 3,600 retired KGB officers. 

"Who has better counterintelligence?" I asked him. "Russians or Americans." 

"We do," replied Prelin.  "America only catches agents through betrayal.  We catch them through hard work."