Wednesday, September 2, 2020


Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

Moscow, June 1997

Next morning in Moscow, Howard arrived punctually at my hotel with his special guests.

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 as if wanting to take flight.

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 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 in Moscow 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 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, finally, 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, asking rhetorically, "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, 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.  

That woulds be 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," Kryuchkov added.

"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 (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 Lee Howard in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"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. He 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."

Stopping once again only for room service sandwiches, coffee and tea, my session with Kryuchkov went on till four p.m.  

I filled three ninety-minute cassette tapes.

We covered Kryuchkov's leading role in the attempted putsch to unseat Gorbachev, for which the former KGB chairman went to prison.

"How did you feel to be so powerful one day, and in prison the next?" I asked.

"It is like existing in another dimension," replied Kryuchkov.  "A nightmarish dream.  Except you don't wake up.  The first night, the first few days, I wasn't feeling anything.  Different emotions were fighting within me.  I felt weightless, had no physical feeling within myself.  I was not thinking personally.  I tell you, I thought very little about my family, my wife and children and grandchildren.  My main concern was the state problem.  I was a Komsomol member at fourteen, a Party member at eighteen, so I was brought up in an atmosphere of heroic ideas.  

"When I entered the cell, other prisoners there for other things were shocked.  It was five in the morning.  They gave me hot tea and let me go to bed.  At six when they turned on the lights, nobody woke me up, so I had a chance to sleep.  The first thing I did when I woke up was my morning exercises.  It's been a habit for sixty years now.  I exercise for one hour.  The guards, other prisoners, looked at me with shocked eyes.  I had decided to do my normal thing."

"I hear that you are now under surveillance," I said.  "How does it feel to be subjected to the kind of treatment you once supervised yourself?"

"I'd be offended if they were not watching me," snapped Kryuchkov.

"I have to ask you about [Aldrich] Ames," I said.

"Have you read what I wrote?"

"Yep.  And I need more.  So far, five books have been written about Ames.  You, the former KGB chairman, must address it in depth for anyone in the West to take your book seriously."

Kryuchkov obfuscated with vague generalities.

I attempted specificity, broaching something Edward Howard had laid on me a few years earlier.  "Could the KGB have rescued Ames?"

"This problem started when I was already out of the business," replied a terse Kryuchkov.  "This is a game, a war, without any rules."

I was getting nowhere fast.  

Another stab:  "Why did you act so quickly to arrest and execute spies identified by Ames when this would probably arouse suspicion that someone in the CIA was tipping you off?"

Igor Prelin jumped into the fray, changing the subject. 

"Why only Ames?" he protested.  "Some agents were identified without his help.  We had to act, big secrets from the KGB and the Ministry of Defense were being given out.  This was a danger and threat to our people."

"Who was the worst CIA director?" I asked.

"The worst for us" said Kryuchkov.  "[William] Casey was the worst for us."

"And the best, for you?"

"[Stansfield] Turner."

"What kind of contact did you have with the CIA?"

"The first contact between representatives of Soviet and U.S. intelligence took place in December 1987, between me and Robert Gates, who was deputy director of the CIA," said Kryuchkov.  "We met in Washington, an unofficial meeting in a small restaurant.  Gates knew which brand of whiskey I drink, Chivas Regal.  We spoke in generalities about Soviet-American relations.  

"A couple of years later, Gates visited Moscow, and we had a meeting at a KGB guesthouse in Kolpachny Pereulok.  Gates asked me if I wish to know the CIA's view of what would happen to the Soviet Union in the year 2000.  I said yes.  In a few carefully chosen words, Gates said he doubted the Soviet Union would still exist.  He asked if I would like to see the CIA's analytical report on the future of my country.  I said I would be grateful to accept such material.  And though we later reminded Gates about his offer, we never did receive the CIA report.  

"I thought about Gates's tragic forecast.  And then, with some mortification, I watched it happen ten years ahead of schedule."

"Ah," said Prelin.  "A silver bullet."

"Let's shoot for another silver bullet," I said.  "Oleg Kalugin has written that John Cairncross is not the fifth man in Britain's Cambridge spy ring.  If not Cairncross, who was it?"

Kryuchkov snarled at the mention of Kalugin's name.

Prelin got excited.  "Why not ask for the sixth and seventh?  There were lots of agents in Britain.  Somebody invented this five."

"Okay, so who were the sixth and seventh?" I asked.

"Aha!" said Prelin.

"Okay, how about this:  Why wasn't the KGB able to prevent Gorbachev from giving up Eastern Europe?"  (Another question from the Bureau's shopping list.)

"We have instilled a feeling among KGB officers that they should respect the laws," said Kryuchkov.  "We were very upset with Gorbachev's actions already, but it was not of an organized character.  I don't write this in my book, but I am telling you now:  I was offered to take all the power into my hands as the KGB chairman.  I refused this, though it was possible, because it would have been a real coup."

"What do you want your epitaph to say?" I asked.

"Just my name, date of birth, date of death."

This was the essence of Kryuchkov:  Except to students of Sovietology and espionage, his conversation and ideas were as tedious as his pen.

As forecasted by Howard, Kryuchkov invited me to be his guest for dinner.   Prelin, Orlova, and the former KGB chairman discussed logistics.

Prelin turned my way.  "I come here for you at six."  He winked.  "The KGB will take care of you."


...with sources to determine their motivation. 

(It is almost always money or revenge—ideology and conviction are like rubber bands)

You’ve got an authoritative source in front of you.

You believe everything he says because it fits with what you already know to be true.

Don’t show it.

Instead, pooh-pooh it.  Be doubtful.  Push for the source to fully explain how he got the information and why he believes it to be true.

Shake your head and say, “It makes no sense to me.”  

Make him convince you.

People like to be believed.  If the source is holding something back, he will, under pressure, come out with it.

There are only two motivations for betraying secrets:  money and revenge.

People think they have conviction.  But they allow it to be stretched when they need money or revenge.

As Johnny Staccato, a fictional creation of jazz critic Mike Zwerin, used to say, “Reality is money.”

Everyone needs it.  If the price is high enough, and the risk diminished, people will sell.

As for revenge, it is human nature for the mistreated to strike back, and human nature trumps conviction and ideology.