Thursday, August 13, 2020


Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

Zurich, November 1994

There exists no finer city for a spy than Zurich in mid-November for evoking a sense of place. 

Cold, dark gloominess contrasted by warmly lit tea-rooms and beer-cellars; old-fashioned trams running up and down the main drag, past shop windows glittering with chocolates wrapped in gold.

A taxi twisted and turned through the city center, dropping me at Hotel Kindli, as recommended by CIA defector Edward Lee Howard.  

The hotel was, appropriately, veiled by gray plastic sheeting (erected to retain renovation dust).

Awaiting me at the registration desk, this handwritten message from Howard:  

Meet in reception 18:00.

I asked for Howard's room number and learned he was not staying at this hotel after all (or if so, under an alias).  I peeked into the drab, depressing room they had reserved for me and returned downstairs.  

"I need a better room," I said.

"It's all we have."

"Then I need a better hotel.  Where's the Savoy?"

She pointed me toward Bahnhofstrasse and I trudged with my carryall in pouring rain.

The five-star Savoy processed me into their heaven compared to Kindli's hell.  And it was secure:  The elevator required a key to ascend, add a vigilant team of receptionists, porters, and concierge.

At 5:40 p.m. I made my way back to the Kindli and left a message at reception for Howard to find me in their restaurant.  That's where I planted myself, sipping nutty Swiss white wine.

Howard arrived a few minutes later; punctual, as in Moscow four months earlier.  I waved from across the empty room and he bounded over.  

Howard's hair was freshly trimmed and he looked relaxed in blue jeans, striped button-down shirt, sneakers, and a brown anorak with faux fur collar.

I told Howard I’d found the Kindli inadequate, so I hadn't checked in.  He confirmed that he, too, was lodging elsewhere—a Swissair Hotel between the airport and city center; that he had arrived two days earlier on Aeroflot "with some Russians" with whom he had business.

Howard ordered a Coke and proceeded to chain Salems. 

"I have to get out of Russia every four or five months," he said, "to keep from going nuts."  

That's why Howard loved my idea to research Spy’s Guide.  It would not only allow him to travel out of Russia but be able to do so on somebody else's tab. 

And that somebody was the FBI. 

Howard dug into his back pocket and produced a fax from Joel Joseph that he'd received just before departing Moscow.  It said, in essence, that due to legal problems over his book, National Press would not pay the balance of the agreed advance.  

Howard was philosophical about it:  At least they were proceeding to publish. 

He also showed me a fax from ABC News' Moscow correspondent David Ensor requesting an interview.  

I took possession of it for the publisher's publicity file and asked Howard what kind of business he was doing in Zurich. 

"I'm introducing Russians to Volksbank so they can open numbered Swiss bank accounts," replied Howard.   The hardest part, he snickered, was convincing Russians to accept Swiss bank interest rates, a paltry amount compared to what they could earn in Russia with highly volatile rubles.  

Aside from that, he had two other clients:  A German trying to collect a debt owed by the USSR, and an Austrian trying to establish a life insurance company in Russia.  Neither client knew Howard's real name or background.

"I'm working at about 60 percent capacity," said Howard.  "It suits me just fine because it leaves me free for book projects like ours."

I asked Howard if he had a favorite restaurant in Zurich; he suggested Movenpick, part of a high-quality Swiss chain, around the corner on Bahnhofstrasse.

We moseyed over, sat upstairs.  Both of us ordered honey-glazed ham; hot tea for Ed, white wine for me.

"Still not drinking?" I asked him.

"I might be tempted to crack a bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve."  It had been just over a year, he said, since he'd touched the sauce.  Now he was working on his smoking habit.  He'd already invested two C-bills on nicotine patches, to no avail.

 I asked after George Blake, the British spy.

Howard smiled and told me he had attended Blake's 72nd birthday party one week before.  "About a dozen people were there.  I was the only Westerner.  George is coming to my place next week for Thanksgiving," he added.

After much effort, Howard said he managed to find a frozen turkey from Arkansas in some Moscow supermarket; that he'd just found a can of cranberry sauce in Zurich.  "Now I'm on the prowl for pumpkin pie mix," he added, not appreciating the incongruity of his scavenger hunt.

I laughed.  It sounded so, well, pathetic.

Blake had become a mentor to Howard, he said, a Dutch uncle.  

"You want to know the secret of Blake's success?  Prison.  Six years."  Howard blew a gust of tobacco smoke.  "He knows firsthand what the alternative to Moscow is like.  He prefers Moscow.  He taught me that when you know your family is okay and taken care of, everything is all right.  Relax.  Enjoy life.  My KGB friends love the Spy’s Guide project," continued Howard.  "They laughed.  They think it's a great idea, and they want to help.  Igor Batamirov wants to help me do Moscow," Howard bubbled.  "And we can get KGB people in all the other cities to give us the information we need."

Yeah, right—we’d put KGB officers throughout Central Europe on the FBI payroll.

"All I need to do," said Howard, "is pop into a city, meet the local KGB guy, pick up his information, check it out myself, and move on to the next spot."

We spent a good hour in Movenpick developing Spy's Guide.  Howard was ready to get cracking on it right after Christmas.  I agreed to pay him a five-grand advance, half to start, half on completion.  As for expenses, I'd cover everything; Howard would fly cheap on Aeroflot and stay in three-star hotels.  We estimated $500 per city, including airfare.

Said Howard, "It would be nice to be able to pay something to a KGB officer in each city for basic information."

"How much do you think they'll want?" I asked.

"More than I'm prepared to offer," said Howard.  He guessed $500 apiece would be sufficient.

"We can work something out," I said.  "As long as they're prepared to sign receipts."  

(This was a strict Bureau requirement to keep the bean-counters happy.)

"No problem," said Howard.  He asked that I wire funds to a numbered account in Zurich, details of which he scribbled for me (not the same account he gave National Press, so now we had two).  

He also requested that I prepare a questionnaire for his KGB respondents throughout Central Europe.  "They'll need instructions about the kinds of things we want to know," said Howard.

I covered the tab at Movenpick and Howard offered dessert at Cafe St. Gothard, down the strasse.  

That's where we short-listed our Spy's Guide destinations: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia, Bucharest, Helsinki, and Geneva.

Over ice cream sundaes, Howard told me that a couple months earlier he'd visited Lake Baikal in Siberia, one of his favorite places in the world.  He'd been tempted to buy a plot of lakefront land to build a house.  

"Eight hundred square meters (2,600 square feet) for only $5,000!"  Howard's eyes danced.  "I should have made a deal, but I got talked out of it by friends in Moscow.  They said, Why would you want to go way out there?  But they're city people, what do they know?  There's a new air service called Air Baikal.  You can fly non-stop in five-and-a-half hours."

Howard moaned about problems he was having with his dacha.  It needed repairs.  The management was unsympathetic, so he'd gone to his KGB friends and they leaned on management to fix the plumbing, heating, and a leaky roof.

"How are your KGB buddies?" I asked.

Howard told me he was tired of partying with them because they drank too much and moaned about their lives.  "It used to be they'd drink and be jovial," he said.  "But now they drink and complain."

"Why?" I asked.  "What's wrong?"

"Look," said Howard.  "These guys earn the equivalent of $750 per month, and that's fine if you don't mind living like a Russian. It's three times what a Russian earns.  But these guys have lived in Paris and Rome, and they've gotten sophisticated.  They don't want to live like Russians.  So all they do is complain and curse Yeltsin.  Morale is very bad."

Howard added that the best and the brightest had left the KGB.

"What do they do?" I asked.

"They either go into international trade or join the mafia."  Howard lowered his voice.  "What I'd really like is to get some marijuana.  But whenever I talk about it with my Russian friends they're horrified.  I try to explain that marijuana is safer than all the booze they drink, but they don't want to know."

I plucked a small 35mm camera from my pocket and asked a waitress if she'd mind snapping a photo of Howard and me.  

I wanted a memento of the occasion, mindful that I was scheduled, upon my return from Switzerland, to make my first appearance at FBI Headquarters.   

Next day at one p.m., Howard met me in my hotel lobby.  It was raining again; we cut around the corner to a sub-level restaurant called Kropf. 

"So how'd it go with your literary agent?" I asked.

Howard had planned to phone her right after we parted the night before to discuss National Press's plan to scrap the balance due on his advance.  

"Oh, yeah, I want to tell you about that."

A waitress took our order, the lunch special, speck and sauerkraut.

"She tore into Joel Joseph," said Howard.  "She told him that she's fed up, that everyone knew there'd be legal problems when we started, and if they didn't pay up she'd do them for breach.  Yeah, she was really tough."

"What did Joel say?"

"He said, 'I hear you.'  No real commitment.  I said to my agent, 'Why were you so tough?'  She said, 'It's my job.'  Man, all I want is to see my book published.  She asked Joel, 'Are you going to publish or not?'  And he said, 'I don't want to say anything over the phone because I've been advised by the ACLU that my phones are tapped, so I'll Fed Ex you’.”  Howard shook his head in disgust.  "As if the FBI couldn't open a Fed Ex.  It's obvious, Joel has F-D."


"Yeah, F-D," said Howard.  "Federal Disease.  I've seen it happen, many times."

"Federal Disease?"

"Yeah, it's when the feds turn up.  It makes people nervous, jumpy.  They get scared.  Joel's definitely got F-D."

This took us into the FBI.  Howard told me they would still love to capture him.

"After all this time?" I asked.

"It's an institutional thing," said Howard.  "I embarrassed the FBI.  I escaped before their eyes.  I'll tell you this, the FBI agent who hauls me in will get promoted to GS-16 overnight."

Clear skies greeted us outside Kropf.  We walked across the river to Zurich's old town.  I asked Howard if he thought he was being watched by Russians looking out for his safety.

"No," said Howard.  "If anyone's following me, it would be Swiss Intelligence, to see what I'm up to, but I doubt it.  My lawyer once made representations to Switzerland, and the answer we got back was, We have no interest in Mister Edward Howard."

We nipped into a tearoom for Viennese cream cakes.  Howard voiced a thought about Jonathan Pollard, the American who spied for Israel, got caught, convicted, and imprisoned.  "My KGB friends laughed so hard," said Howard.  "They thought the Pollard episode was the funniest thing they'd ever seen."

Marion Penitentiary
"They've got Pollard down in Marion, Illinois," I said.  "He hangs out with John Walker and Edwin Wilson."

"I wonder where they'd put me if they had a chance?" said Howard.

I suggested Leavenworth.

Howard snickered.  

Back at Hotel Savoy, we found a cozy corner on the mezzanine for a final session on Spy’s Guide; an outline and appendices.

"You've got to do a chapter on tradecraft for the traveling spy," I said.

Howard concurred.

"And what about the things every spy should carry on the road?" I added.

Howard nodded.  "Why not."

"Do you ever carry a weapon, Ed?"

"Never.  I'm not a weapons man.  I only know what they taught us at The Farm:  use a briefcase, or anything else you can grab."

Next:  False identity documents, and how they could be purchased on the Russian black market. 

"I could get you a genuine Russian passport for $500," said Howard.  "It only takes a month.  You know, I've got another book idea."

"Yeah?  What?"

"How to Sell Government Secrets.  A handbook for double-agents."

I laughed.  "Cool.  Is that the title?"

"No," said Howard.  "I'd call it Spy’s Cookbook."


"It would drive the CIA and the FBI nuts."  Howard grinned.  "I've already worked out the chapters."

"Let's hear it. Mind if I take notes?"

 I scribbled while Howard dictated an outline.


Chapter One: Making the Decision to Turn.

Chapter Two: Formulating the Plan and Valuing your Information.

Chapter Three:  Making the Approach.

Chapter Four: How to Negotiate.

Chapter Five: How to Hide your Money.

Chapter Six: Secure Communications.

Chapter Seven:  The Weakest Link (A Woman).

Chapter Eight:  Getting Caught: Deny Everything, Admit Nothing.

"Gee, Ed, you've really thought this through."

"Yeah," said Howard.  "I'll include cases where guys screwed up:  Boyce, Walker, Pollard, Ames.  Espionage is a dangerous game, like playing with heroin.  If they ever got their hands on me, they'd probably hold Spy’s Cookbook up in court and say, 'See, he must have done it.'  It would probably get me an extra 20 years. Ha-ha-ha!"

Howard rarely laughed, let alone crack his own joke.  

A moment's reflection here:

This is no joke.

Howard really did offer to sell secrets to the KGB; they accepted his offer; he delivered.

Howard provided sensitive intelligence that got at least one valuable CIA spy executed and compromised several important, very costly operations.

He was a fugitive, a defector, and a traitor.

His motives were greed and vindictiveness, and
Howard deserved to be captured, prosecuted and imprisoned for his actions.

Nothing I write here is meant to make light of Howard's malicious treachery.

American defectors suffer a grim life in Russia. 

They never adjust; depression and suicide hover just over the horizon. 

Just ask Edward Snowden. 

I have no doubt he would love to make a deal to return to the USA.

And like all defectors, he thinks maybe he can make a deal that precludes prison time.

He won't. He can't. That's not how the system works.

If you're a fugitive, and especially if you're a defector, you have to come home, get arrested and be placed in a cell before any plea bargaining can commence.

Or stay where you are and remain in the cell you've chosen for yourself, becoming less and less relevant, more and more bitter, more and more homesick. 


a) you commit suicide, 

b) they trade you for political favors, or 

c) they kill you "by accident" because your presence  becomes inconvenient.