Friday, June 19, 2020


National Press Books had its offices at Artery Plaza, a contemporary commercial building at 7200 Wisconsin Avenue, the corner of Bethesda Avenue, above Montgomery's Grille.

I strolled into their suite of mercury vapor-lit shoe-boxy rooms.

Joel Joseph thrust Edward Lee Howard's book proposal at me.  

"Our photocopier is on the blink," he said.  "Read it here."

I took a desk chair and perused the proposal, entitled Safe House.

A page about publicity suggested that all the biggies in TV media (60 Minutes, Nightline) had all, at one time or another, wanted to interview Howard.  

But the CIA defector was holding out until he had something to sell.

This is partly what he was selling:  

While serving on CIA's Neutral Countries Desk in Washington D.C. (1983), Howard had learned various things, as itemized in his proposal, which, if ever revealed would likely harm U.S. relations with several European countries.

But Howard's piece d’resistance, what he called My Big Secret, was couched in this question:  

"Why is the CIA so hot to get me after all these years?"  

Howard's answer:  "Because of the one project that has never been revealed to the public, but will come out in my book:  The Black Box."  

He revealed this operation's codename, which remains classified, and details of the operation, which also remain classified.  

Edward Lee Howard at the Black Box site outside Moscow

Howard had been trained by the CIA specifically to undertake this secret mission in Moscow.  

But he never made it to his target country.  

That's because Howard was fired after failing a series of polygraph examinations, revealing drug use, only weeks before he was scheduled to depart for the Soviet Union.  

Few disagree that Howard's dismissal had been poorly executed:  

He had been summoned to an appointment, summarily fired without opportunity of appeal, relieved of his company car keys, and maybe offered bus fare home.

A mindless bureaucratic local government job was arranged for Howard back home in his native New Mexico.

(In other words, he went from potential super-spy to provincial clerk in seconds.)

Howard started drinking too much, stewed bitterly in alcohol, and ultimately came to this errantly fateful determination:  

They trained me to be a spy, so a spy I’m gonna be.