On Friday morning, October 1st, 1993, I phoned Clair George.
“You know the name Edward Lee Howard?” I asked him.
I knew he did. Clair had been Deputy Director of Operations in 1985 when Howard, an ex-CIA officer, bolted from Santa Fe, New Mexico, while under surveillance by the FBI, and defected to Moscow.
“He wants to write a book.”
“Truly. He’s circulating a book proposal. I’ve been invited to participate. I could meet Howard, gain his confidence and lure him into a trap. What do you think?”
“I’ll call Tom Twetten,” said Clair, referring to the current operations chief.
Two days later, I walked around the corner to Clair’s house and we strategized how best to receive two representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, expected presently.
(The CIA had quickly determined that the FBI held jurisdiction over Howard, a fugitive wanted for suspicion of espionage.)
(The CIA had quickly determined that the FBI held jurisdiction over Howard, a fugitive wanted for suspicion of espionage.)
Let them talk as much as possible, Clair advised me, so we can figure out what they’ve been doing about Howard.
The doorbell rang at two minutes to ten a.m. Clair greeted the feebs, as he called them, and led them into his den. They handed me their business cards: Nick Walsh, a section chief in the intelligence division, and Allyson G, a supervisory special agent. Both were polite and deferential to Clair, who opened the meeting.
“I met Robert around the time I retired from the government,” Clair explained. “He approached me as a book agent and wanted me to write a book. I never did, but he moved into the neighborhood, and we came neighbors and close personal friends.”
Clair cued me.
“My background is book publishing,” I said. “I have a casual relationship with National Press Books in Bethesda, which has a reputation for publishing controversial nonfiction. They received a proposal from Edward Lee Howard, and they asked me if I’d be interested in editing it for them if they buy it. I told them I’m interested. What I meant was, I’m interested in seeing Howard behind bars.”
Said Walsh, “We already know people who have met Howard and reported to us what he’s said. So I’m not sure how much more we’re going to get by giving you questions to ask.”
“Wait a second,” Clair piped up. “If I understand what Robert is saying, it’s not about asking Howard questions, it’s about trying to capture him.”
“Oh,” said Walsh. “This isn’t a Bureau decision. It’s the domain of the U.S. Attorney out in New Mexico. He has to prosecute the case, so he has to decide whether we can use tactics like this, how it’s going to play in court.”
“U.S. Marshals have something called the Curved Frisbee Doctrine,” I said. “If we can lure Howard to the right place, we can nab him.” I pointed out that this was how U.S. Marshals had caught Edwin Wilson, another ex-CIA fugitive.
“What is your deadline on this?” asked Allyson.
“There isn’t one,” I said, “but you’d better move quick or another publisher might enter the picture.”
Allyson jotted my telephone number and said she would convey my offer to the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico.
Clair saw them out, and returned to me in the den, shaking his head. “Typical FBI,” he said disdainfully. “They only think in terms of collecting more incriminating information on Howard. As if they don’t have enough! I can’t believe it didn’t occur to them before they got here that we would be talking about capturing Howard, not asking him a few questions. That’s government today,” he added. “And it’s getting worse. No imagination. No creativity.”
Clair was pessimistic about how this would evolve. “It will sound too complicated, too dangerous,” he said. “Anyone with any clout in government is just a few years away from their pension. They never want to risk that. And wait till the U.S. Attorney hears my name. He’ll say, Holy catfish, what am I getting into?”
One week later I received a telephone call from John H, an FBI Special Agent in Albuquerque assigned to the Howard case, handled from New Mexico because that was where Howard had lived when he fled. John was intrigued by my story and wanted to meet. A few days he later arrived in Washington. We spent a full day huddling over Howard.
John returned to Albuquerque to commence the arduous process of climbing the bureaucratic ladder of unit chiefs and division chiefs, collecting sets of initials. No one, apparently, wanted to take responsibility for such an endeavor.
As Special Agent John put it: “There is a Big Cheese who needs to make a final decision.”
John called a few days later: “It’s going higher than the Big Cheese,” he said, “to the Super Superiors.”
This meant that FBI Director Louis Freeh had been unwilling to green light it himself and dispatched it to the U.S. Justice Department.
It reached one of their Biggest Cheeses, who asked, should we be doing this kind of thing?
“So now it’s coming back down the ladder,” said John.
“Should we really be doing this kind of thing?” said Clair, incredulous, when I brought him up-to-date. “Sounds like the Clinton Administration, all right. It’s over.”
National Press Books set a deadline for me to decide, which quickly expired, so the FBI let it die by default, which probably relieved its non-decision makers.
But then National Press bounced back, more enthusiastic than ever.
I phoned Clair. “Goddammit, I could get this guy.”
“I know you could,” said Clair. “It’s the damn bureaucrats.”
Clair told me what he’d learned: The FBI was gung-ho but my proposal got stuck with the Deputy Attorney General. “It got turned it over to seven lawyers to study. I’ll call Dick Stoltz.”
Stoltz was another former Deputy Director for Operations at CIA and one of Clair’s closest friends.
Clair called me back a few hours later. “Stoltz talked to Twetten, and Twetten called the number two guy at the Bureau to tell him the Agency is strongly in favor of this operation. I don’t know,” Clair added, “he was probably talking to a brick wall.”
But it worked. Clair’s intercession caused the FBI to rebound.
As Clair conveyed to me: “I just got a call from a Ted Price [Assistant Deputy Director for Operations]. He wanted to get to the bottom of this. So I filled him in and told him about the bureaucratic foot-dragging. Ted said, ‘Jesus Christ, this is one of the most important things we could be doing!’ He’s charging over to the Bureau this morning to raise a ruckus and try to get it back on track.”
“He’d be better off raising hell with Justice,” I said.
“He knows that,” said Clair. “He’s going to take all of them on.”
Soon after, I received a call from Special Agent John H in Albuquerque. “If you’re still interested, it looks like we’re getting somewhere,” he said, a tad puzzled. “I’ve been called to Washington. And I have the power to get you started.”
And that’s how it became my job, through Clair George and on behalf of FBI counterintelligence, to create a sting that would attempt to snare America’s most wanted spy.
Soon, however, the FBI fumbled. They simply could not get it together due to their rigid rules.
But then I experienced an epiphany: I was not bound by their rules. My generous offer had been quagmired by bureaucratic indecision and ineptitude—yet I had no obligation whatsoever to the FBI. I could play this my own way.
My inspiration for this was Alexander Bott, a seventeenth century man of letters, who wrote:
I am not a believer in the foolish system of literal obedience, but rather in that higher form of discipline wherein a subordinate obeys not the order which he has actually been given by a superior, but rather the order which that superior would have given had he known was he was talking about.
I would edit Howard’s book. If the FBI terminated its relationship with me, so be it. I had offered my services in good faith and done everything on my end to make it work. I would establish a working relationship with Ed Howard and, working alone, I would attempt the same goal: his capture.
I phoned John H with my pitch: “If you get a final green light, fine. If you don’t, I understand. But I’m doing it anyway. Feel welcome to call me for updates.”
John was not enthusiastic. “The problem is,” he explained, “those Big Cheeses have big egos. They may say no way about picking it up later.”
“Look,” I said, “I know you’ve got your rules, and you’ve got to stick to them. But I’m not bound by those rules. You and I both know in our hearts I’m doing the right thing. I got into this situation with a view towards helping you guys and I’m sticking to that. But I’ve got to do it my way otherwise it’s going to slip away because your bureaucrats can’t get their act together.”
“Okay,” said John. “Let me make some calls.”
While John made his calls, I lunched with Clair at Melio’s, our occasional alternative to DeCarlo’s in Spring Valley.
I asked his advice on my new stance.
Clair listened, nodded. “F--- ‘em,” he finally said. “If you want to edit the book, do it.”
“Yes,” I said. “But with a view to nailing Howard.”
“No problem” said Clair. “I’ll tell CIA that you’re going to edit this book, that the lawyers at Justice are messing it all up—hell, it probably went to Janet Reno, and she said, why can’t this guy just come home.” Clair shook his head in disgust. “We’ll meet with Dick Stolz this weekend and you’ll tell him what’s going on. He’ll go out to Langley and tell Tom Twetten and Ted Price that you’re going to do this and keep them informed.”
John H phoned. “We’re in agreement for you to do it your way,” he said. “Meanwhile,” he added, “take good notes.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I write everything down.”
Clair phoned. “Dick Stoltz says you’d be crazy not to do this. He says, just go ahead and he’ll sort everything out with CIA.”
Then Clair lunched with Tom Twetten, Deputy Director for Operations, and they discussed my Howard project, concluding I should keep moving full speed ahead, with or without the FBI.
I conveyed to Clair the latest in a series of Bureau “glitches.”
“To hell with them,” he said. “Don’t listen to them if you don’t want to.”
Nonetheless, I continued to feed the FBI updates—and listened to John H hum. Literally. John had taken to responding with hmm to everything I said, a kind of detached deniability if things went wrong.
Soon, Howard sent a letter offering to meet me in Zurich, Switzerland.
I faxed it to John H—and also to Clair, who faxed it to Twetten.
John H responded by saying his pace for getting things approved had slowed down.
I was astonished, not appreciating it could move even slower than before.
Then he called back a few days later, somewhat bewildered. Had I, he asked, shown Howard’s letter to anyone else?
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Clair George.”
The Agency had sent Howard’s letter to the Bureau at the highest level, causing the FBI’s bureaucracy to snap, crackle, and pop.
“Sorry,” I said. “I hope it didn’t embarrass you.”
I phoned Clair upon his return from a two-day assignment in Rio de Janeiro and told him that our tactics had backfired.
“Are you kidding?” said Clair. “That’s how you get things done in government! Now somebody is doing something!”
Of course, Clair was right.
John H phoned a few days later. “Looks like we’re getting somewhere,” he said. “I’ve been called to Washington for meetings.”
Finally, the FBI jumped into gear. I worked on Howard’s book, and travelled to Moscow in July 1994 to see the traitor on his turf. A few months later, Howard and I met again in Switzerland.
The FBI invited me to the J. Edgar Hoover Building. I was charmed, of course, because I was not yet aware that most FBI field agents strive to avoid Headquarters.
I would presently discover why.
I’d been working the Howard case for fourteen months by then. It somehow qualified me for an ambush. Faces I’d not seen before—five, to be precise—surrounded me in a conference room.
John H cued me to tell my story: journalism, book packaging, creative problem resolution.
I laughed a lot; the assembled company did not.
After I finished, a man named Dick asked me questions about how I might feel if, after spending time with Ed Howard, he was caught and put behind bars.
I shrugged. “I’m used to pulling ruses like this. The whole point of this project is to capture him.” In fact, it was my idea.
Mildly patronizing, Dick said that people never really knew how they would feel until such a situation was thrust upon them—would I mind taking a battery of psychological tests?
Next it was Bob’s turn. “Why does Ed Howard trust you so much?” he asked suspiciously.
“Because I’m good at what I do,” I replied.
“Who else knows about what you are doing for us?” asked Bob.
“Just one person,” I said. “Clair George.”
It went on, and on.
Later that day, I met with Clair and related to him all that had been said.
He listened, bemused at first, and then incredulous that fourteen months after I’d started working on Howard, the FBI had finally concerned itself with operational security.
As for the psychological tests, said Clair, “Tell them they can shove their battery of tests up their...”
“I already did.”
We laughed, as always.
A new FBI glitch soon materialized: one that had nothing to do with how I would feel capturing Ed Howard nor with operational security, which we had resolved by creating a special telephone number and purchasing a safe for my home.
I heard about it from John H over cappuccino at Au Bon Pain in the shadow of the austere J. Edgar Hoover Building, before re-entering Headquarters, where a couple of Big Cheeses would join us.
The new glitch in a nutshell: The Justice Department was waffling over evidence. They thought they needed more. They wanted a log that they believed was hidden in Howard’s laptop computer—and they wanted me to steal his hidden files, in Moscow.
Clair gasped when I told him what the FBI wanted next.
“This is starting to sound like a s----- novel,” he said. “What about your wife and children? Are the feebs planning to look after them if you get thrown into the slammer for twenty years? No, you’ll be on your own. Tell them this isn’t what you signed on for.”
Howard’s book got published. As his editor, I ensured that sensitive information related to the national security of the United States was deleted before publication. And I slid Howard into a new book of my own making, Spy’s Guide to Europe, which I conceived especially to draw Howard out of Russia, to various Central European capitals.
Eventually, we hit pay dirt. Howard planned a trip to Warsaw, Poland, to research Spy’s Guide—and FBI Legats in Warsaw obtained permission from the Polish government to intercept Howard at Warsaw Airport while he walked from the plane to Immigration through an international corridor.
At the eleventh hour, as FBI agents prepared to pounce, the Justice Department balked and aborted the operation.
The United States could have captured the only CIA officer ever to successfully defect to Moscow—and chose not to go through with it.
The person least surprised was… Clair George.
So the FBI gave up trying to apprehend Edward Lee Howard, and instead I set to work, on their behalf, gathering positive intelligence from Howard and his buddies in the Russian intelligence services.
To that end, I returned to Moscow, twice, to ruse former KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, who wanted to write a book for Western consumption. I also traveled to Havana for a crack at Howard’s buddies in Cuban intelligence.
Departing Havana’s Jose Marti Airport, I bought Clair a Che Guevara Swatch Watch to wear at his next dinner party.
As my missions for the FBI evolved into rusing Cuban intelligence agents stationed in Washington DC and hastening the extradition from France of hippie guru murderer Ira Einhorn, Clair watched with amusement, providing sage advice, when asked.
As always, his best advice was this: “Keep everyone laughing half the time, scared the other half—and always keep them guessing.”
My experience with the FBI reminded me of another Clairism, something he’d told me soon after we first met:
“I’d take you downtown [Washington] and introduce you to the people who run things [in the U.S. government], but it would only scare the hell out of you.”