Sunday, August 31, 2014

35. I SPY 3

Igor Batamirov

Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

January 1998

At 6 p.m., Howard arrived at the Baltschug Kempinski with his new girlfriend, Mila, to take Rick and me out for a "real" Russian dinner. 

Mila, from Ukraine, was a blonde knockout.  Young, curvy, vivacious:  the kind of trophy wife rich cretins like to show off in Monte Carlo. 

Mila apologized, in excellent English, for wearing sunglasses, meant to hide a bad case of conjunctivitis.  Or recent plastic surgery.  Or a black eye.   

The two had met, said Howard, on March 8th (International Women's Day in Russia) 1997, at a party.  Mila was a divorcee with a 22 month-old son. Howard found a space outside Le Romanoff.   

(You wouldn't call a decent restaurant Le Stalin or Le Khrushchev.  Not unless their specialty was boiled potatoes and cabbage.) 

Rick focused on Mila; I, on Howard, as we had pre-arranged.

Howard requested that I not mention Mila to Lena Orlova; he juggled both women. 

By chance, said Howard, he had bumped into a woman from the U.S. Agency for International Development whom he'd known in the Peace Corps many years earlier.  She met Howard a second time and told him that she had to report their encounter to the U.S. Embassy.  As a result, the embassy's legat (FBI representative) had made Howard a new offer:  Come home, admit espionage, and spend two years at a minimum-security prison. 

"Sounds like a fair deal to me, Ed," I said.  "Why not go for it?" 

"First off," said Howard, "who knows what could happen to me in prison?  And after I got out, I'd probably wind up back in Moscow because my experience and contacts are here, so why bother?"  He paused.  "Maybe in a couple years they'll offer me a better deal." 

I asked him if he still wanted to sneak back into the United States for a visit. 

Howard puffed on a Salem (was back to chain-smoking) and smiled.  "Yeah, I'd like to take a Greyhound bus tour and see the Grand Canyon.  But I'll have to be careful.  One of my KGB contacts told me, 'They [the FBI] have given up on you, they'll only get you if you show up on U.S. territory.'" 

As far as I knew, and I knew a lot, Howard's KGB contact had it right. 

From where had the Russians gotten such good intelligence? 

(The on-going spy hunt back in Washington had focused, erroneously, on a CIA officer named Brian Kelley.) 

As we ate our meals, a trio of Russian musicians performed traditional tunes, including one by Pushkin.

 Howard was so cheap, he wouldn't even order a second bottle of wine, so I took control of ordering, and the tab.  This cheered him significantly, and he opened up with an interesting tidbit on George Blake:  The British traitor had finally been venturing out of Russia for vacations abroad.  Blake marveled at the ease with which Howard traveled so freely around Europe.  So last summer he'd taken his wife on a Mediterranean cruise. 

I asked Howard about his business.   

"My KGB contacts liked to point me out as a success story," said Howard.  "Doing well, making money."

But he was not as buoyant as the summer before.  The Russian stock market had petered out, was losing money, not making any, and Howard, with his accountant mentality, defined himself by financial worth and fiscal growth. 

His enthusiasm for meeting new clients had waned in this declining market, so I needed a new lure.  Since Howard was no longer flush with cash, he would probably be willing to meet a movie producer to discuss a hefty sum for film rights to his book Safe House, wouldn't he? 

"I'm there," said Howard.  And speaking of books, his old KGB handler Igor Batamirov was thinking about writing one.   

Next day, Rick set off with Igor Prelin to meet a couple of old-fogy generals about their own scribing for publication.  He returned to the hotel and joined me for a 6 p.m. meeting with Igor Batamirov, as arranged by Howard, who'd cautioned, "Don't tell Prelin about this--he wants a piece of everything."  

Batamirov cut a formidable presence in sport coat, V-neck sweater, slacks, and English driver's cap, overcoat and woolen scarf.  His large, doughy face sat heavily upon a wide-girth double chin.  

Batamirov wore a six-piece gold puzzle ring he had acquired in Kuwait.  When I mentioned I’d once bought a similar ring, an eight-piece, at the souk in Beirut, Batamirov smiled.  His best years, in the early 1970s, he said, had been spent in Beirut. 

This former counterintelligence chief, who had run both Howard and Ames, exuded a low-key self-confidence.  He was, he knew, a master-of-the-kingdom.  Unlike Prelin, he had no need to toot his own horn.

Batamirov gazed into space as he spoke decent English, lapsing into quiet, reflective moments that added to his authoritative air.  He told me he retired from active service in 1994, after five years as counterintelligence chief.  Soon after, he divorced his wife of many years and married a woman with whom, he said, he'd enjoyed an intimate relationship for twenty-two years. 

"It was always my plan to marry this woman," said Batamirov.  "But two things had to happen first:  One, my children had to grow up, and two, I had to retire.  Otherwise it would have ruined my career." 

Batamirov knew I’d come to town to see his former boss.  He'd read Kryuchkov's book, as published in Russia, and found it "very dull." 

As for his own book, Batamirov told me of his fascination for what he called "the phenomenon and psychology of betrayal." 

"Excellent," I said.  "Sounds like a whole chapter, maybe a book unto itself." 

Batamirov responded to my questions in a deliberate, thoughtful manner, avoiding eye contact until strategic moments, when he would use such contact to conclude an important point or assess its impact on his listener.

I asked about Ames. 

Batamirov confirmed his involvement as Ames's handler. 

I asked about Yurchenko, and told him that Kryuchkov seemed to believe Yurchenko's version of his defection.

"Yurchenko is a liar," said Batamirov.  "And Kryuchkov is a fool." 

I coached Batamirov on the basic elements of a book proposal.  He listened carefully, and said he would be willing to visit the United States and meet prospective publishers. 

I knew the FBI was going to love this one.  

Edward Howard drove Rick and me back to the airport next day.  We agreed that our next meeting would take place in Havana, where Howard promised to introduce me to his Cuban intelligence pals. 

Rick and I were the only passengers flying Business Elite back to New York, a whole cabin to ourselves.

Hearing the aircraft door clunk shut was, for me, a golden moment. 

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