Wednesday, September 9, 2020

77. I SPY

Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

November 1998-January 1999

By autumn, Vladimir Kryuchkov was growing anxious.  Why had I not yet found a publisher for his book?

In fact, with the Bureau's knowledge, I had genuinely submitted a manuscript entitled The Kryuchkov Konfessions to senior editors at several publishing houses in the United States and Britain.  (The Bureau had no interest in whether or not Kryuchkov’s book was published in the United States; only that I do whatever felt natural to further the ruse.)  

The various editors unanimously assessed the former KGB chairman's tome for what it was: dull and uninteresting.

To placate Kryuchkov and keep the ruse going, I created a dummy publishing contract through my own imprint, Enigma Books.  Kryuchkov's modest advance on royalties came from FBI coffers.

On November 13th, Kryuchkov sealed the agreement with his signature.

Two months after that, I returned to Russia with my designated editor, Rick K, a trusted publishing colleague whom I recruited as a witting FBI asset.  

Rick had played roles in some of my private sector intelligence operations; had proven invaluable as an insertion agent and second set of eyes. 

"Don't bring your address book to Moscow," I preached to Rick what I myself practiced.  "Get an index card, scramble whatever numbers you might possibly need on it, carry it in your wallet."

I assumed, as a matter of caution, that the FSB, Russia's security service, perused my possessions while I was away from my hotel room.

"And bring a copy of Publisher’s Weekly," I added.  "Maybe a New York Review of Books."

By this time, the FBI had become accustomed to my flying habits.  Their accountants squawked about my Delta Business-elite fares and $400-a-night hotel rooms.  

But it was the price they had to pay for this stagehand production (stagehand being the Bureau's jargon for sting-undercover operations).

So Rick and I flew from New York's JFK to Moscow in style and toasted our partnership-in-espionage with champagne.  

Many hours later, Moscow welcomed us.

Rick, who met Edward Howard for the first time in the arrival area, was struck by the deep sadness he detected in this traitor's eyes. 

Howard led us to his brand new Volvo sedan, dark blue with black leather interior.  

He'd finally got the new car promised him by Kryuchkov for publishing Safe House

I was lagging, so I let Rick do most of the yakking, break him into the spy game, Moscow in January.  

It was cold.  Bright sunshine reflected off a fresh snowfall and bestowed upon the Russian capital a clean, fresh radiance.

Rick commented on the construction going on everywhere.

"That's democracy for you," said Howard, sardonically.

He dropped us at the Baltschug Kempinski.  Rick and I checked in, and hoofed in slush to Red Square, stopping at GUM department store for a beer.  

We spent the rest of the afternoon, and evening, goofing off, drinking bottles of SchneiderWeiss, first at the Beltschug Bar, then in the lobby, chuckling over whoever might be deployed to keep tabs on us.

Next morning, 9:55, Rick and I found Messers Kryuchkov and Prelin sitting stiffly on wing chairs in the lobby.  

Hotel staff seemed to recognize the former KGB chairman.  (Their manners became impeccable toward Rick and me thereafter.)  

Kryuchkov wore the same navy-blue tie with white vertical stripe.

We elevated to my room, 614.  Lena Orlova (Howard's assistant, our translator) arrived a few minutes later.

Rick set glasses before everyone and poured mineral water.

I provided a status report on the book:  The (dummy) publisher was not happy, I said.  We needed more, to use Igor Prelin's phrase, silver bullets.  And so I had a final volley of questions for Kryuchkov to answer.

The former KGB chairman stirred, smiled and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.  He said he had a few comments to make:  Why was it necessary to answer more questions?  According to simple logic, he said, based on what I had sliced from his original manuscript, from the interview transcripts, the new material he had written, why, it all added up to 400 pages.  Wasn't that the precise number of pages I wanted his book to be?  So why more questions?

I replied that a number of gaps remained.  Plus we had a few new subject categories to consider for inclusion, "to satisfy the publisher."

Kryuchkov turned to Prelin, who had been scratching rashy patches of psoriasis or eczema on his arms.  They conversed in Russian; Lena Orlova did not translate.  (Her loyalty, transparent.)   

Kryuchkov requested that he and his stooge leave the room to continue their discussion.

When the Russians returned ten minutes later and re-rumped their rears, Kryuchkov thanked me politely for my hard work, but declined to answer any further questions.

Prelin argued with him.  Kryuchkov acquiesced.

"Okay, ask a question," Prelin instructed.

 "In our last interview," I said, "you referred to the First Directorate as the White Bone.  Why White Bone?"

"We were called White Bone by other directorates of the KGB," replied Kryuchkov.

"What does it mean?"

"It is Russian for somebody of noble origins," said Kryuchkov.  He looked at Prelin, snapped a few words of Russian, and rose, ready to leave.  What should have been The Kryuchkov Konfessions had become the Kryuchkov Kop-out

I gifted the old goat with bags of Tootsie Roll Pops and Hershey's Kisses for his grandchildren.  It sweetened him a little, but not much.

We descended to the lobby.  While Prelin searched for Kryuchkov's car and driver, I made small talk about U.S. politics with the former KGB chairman.  He expressed a fondness for Colin Powell, whom, he said, he once met.  But, he added, "a black man could never be elected President of the United States."

Prelin returned.  The car was ready.  Kryuchkov got up from his chair and departed.

Prelin remained behind.  He, Orlova, Rick and I returned to my room.

"That went well," I muttered.

My mind, however, already focused on the upside:  

Kryuchkov had thrown a tantrum and failed to cooperate after I'd flown all the way to Moscow.  

Now the dummy publisher could bail from publishing his dull, dogmatic book without offending anyone except Kryuchkov himself, who'd already been sucked for all his worth.  Howard and Prelin would understand.

Prelin dismissed his boss's behavior with a backhand wave, said something derogatory about "old people," and announced:  "I will answer your questions."  

His implication:  that I could us Prelin's words in the former KGB chairman's book as Kryuchkov's own.

I shrugged, why not.  Let's grill this scaly weasel.

"There is no such thing as ugly women," Prelin began.  "Sometimes, there is not enough vodka."  He laughed hard, with a pretentious self-confidence betrayed by the psoriasis or eczema that had broken out on his face, neck, knuckles, and arms.  Then he opened himself up to interrogation.

I began by reminding Prelin about the CIA officer he supposedly recruited and handled before the officer's untimely demise in Beirut.

Prelin refused to identify this alleged spy by name, saying only that he had married, divorced, no children, parents deceased.  He suggested I read a novel he'd published, which he said was thinly veiled fiction of that case.

"Intelligence services worldwide study my novels," said Prelin.

In his dreams.

"Bill Clinton visited Russia in 1970," I said.  "Have you ever seen his KGB file?"

(President Clinton was not on the FBI's shopping list; this was my own curiosity.)

"I was offered $100,000 by American television for information on Clinton's visit to Moscow.  But we wanted Clinton to become the president in 1992, because he was better than the other candidate [Bush, senior] from the Russian point of view."

"You mean, what you knew about Clinton might have led to his defeat if publicly known?"

"Yes," said Prelin.  "That's why we did not give this information."

"A girlfriend?"

"There were some things," said Prelin.  "I wouldn't respect him if he did not have affairs with Russian girls."

"So just sexual adventures?"

"You should have come to Moscow when you were 22 or 23 and KGB was in good shape.  You'd be sitting with Ames, in same prison maybe.  I can only tell you that our information (on Clinton) could have influenced the election."

"Would it be enough to get him into trouble today?"

"Yeah, it could," said Prelin.  "But we're not interested in anything bad happening to Clinton.  With his problems now [Monica Lewinsky, impeachment], the combination would finish him."

"What about Princess Diana?" I asked.  "An accident?"

(Again, my own curiosity.)

"Ha!  It's a great motive for an assassination, for the Royal Family to have somebody in the family who has an Egyptian husband, which means the young princes would have brothers and sisters of different origins.  Diana was going to become a Moslem.  So she'd have Moslem children.  That doesn't strengthen the lot of the British Monarchy, it is strong point against.  So if you examine as Sherlock Holmes taught us, ask yourself a question:  Who gains?  You get the answer:  Royal Family."

"Is British Intelligence capable of doing this kind of thing?"

"Ha!  Better than any intelligence service in the world.  I consider the British the most cruel of the white population.  They are the most cruel nation."

"With your understanding of intelligence," I said, "is this something British Intelligence would take upon itself to execute, or would they require instruction from the Royal Family?"

"You think during the Stalin era we shot anybody without instructions?  You think that Martin Luther King or Kennedy was assassinated without instructions from a higher echelon?"

"What higher echelon?"

"[Lyndon] Johnson knew about it."

"Is that what the KGB believes?"

 "Our organization thinks it was a plot," said Prelin.

"You are familiar with the circumstances of Princess Diana's accident.  How could that have been a staged assassination?"

"Why not?" said Prelin.  "A few days ago the same thing was tried with a Russian provincial governor.  He was driving on a two-lane highway, they detonated a fifty-gram explosive.  It's nothing to damage a car, just a simple explosive.  They were counting on a psychological effect.  The whole idea is to scare the driver."

"Where would the explosive be?"

"In our case, the thing went off too early," said Prelin.  "The driver got scared, but he had time to react.  Now, about Diana.  As far as I know, the experts were considering this.  Some people were blaming the paparazzi, that somebody was taking pictures in front of the car with a flash.  No.  I can put something on the windshield of your car that will have the same effect.  It will flash in an instant, and when the car is moving, when it's dark in the tunnel, such a flash will make you blind."

"What kind of flash?" I asked.

"Some chemicals, manganese and selenium.  It will not burn, just a bright light.  The thing is so weak, no traces.  It would be a tiny thing.  Magnetic.  Where the wipers are.  At the right place, by remote control, flash!"

"Has British Intelligence used this method before?"

"Ha!  They've done things better than this.  The British service were intensely trying to recruit a Soviet scientist.  It was 1976 or '77, he went to London on a delegation, they tried to recruit him.  He was there a month.  They started following him.  He went to our embassy, reported it, and they told him to go to Berne, in Switzerland.  The British followed him there, tried to recruit him again in his hotel room.  They gave him a drug, but they gave him too much and he died.  And they just threw him out of the window.  The Swiss gave the body back.  We examined it.  We found traces of the drug, proved he was dead before he went out the window.  So we know very well about the British."

Here was the old-guard KGB's (big) mouthpiece, telling me in the space of 15 minutes that 1) the KGB had a file on Clinton that could have prevented his election and re-election, 2) Lyndon Johnson conspired to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, and 3) British Intelligence murdered Princess Diana on instructions from the British Monarchy.  

A conspiracy theorist's dream!

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 the 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 was juggling 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'd 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 six 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, 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 22 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, 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 even 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 that he had been 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 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.