Wednesday, October 7, 2020


Undercover with FBI Counterintelligence

March-September 2000

Soon after I returned to Washington, D.C. from London, Alexey Sokolov sent me an e-mail saying that George Blake had agreed to translate everything: 

Sokolov's existing book plus 180 pages of additional material (topics of interest to me and, by extension, the FBI) for $9,000.  

(A few years later, Blake told me that he had actually declined this opportunity.  Reason:  He wanted nothing to do with Igor Prelin, whom he found sleazy.)

But then a hiccup my end.  

The FBI's Washington Field Office was experiencing a budget crunch.  

And I was the one they wanted to crunch.

I learned about it from Special Agent Mike Stuberg over latte at our usual Starbucks in northwest DC, on March 10th, 2000.  

I could scarcely believe my ears.

The problem:  WFO was funding my operations but, aside from my Cuban coversion, their office did not benefit from my work product.  

Tim Caruso

Word was, WFO National Security chief James "Tim" Caruso had gotten tired of subsidizing data destined for Headquarters (positive intelligence from Russia), Albuquerque (Edward Lee Howard), and Philadelphia (another sting operation, upcoming in this serial).  

Said Stuberg, WFO considered me "too diverse."  

Caruso's solution, without consulting Headquarters, Philadelphia, or Albuquerque:  terminate the arrangement.

"You're expensive," said Stuberg.

"I'm good," I said.  "And you guys knew the cost when you took me over from Albuquerque."

Stuberg shrugged.

Was I supposed to just stand everything down? I asked.

"I've been instructed to tell you to stop billing hours effective immediately," said Stuberg, "so that would be the obvious result."

"That's ridiculous," I said.  "Am I supposed to now just ignore everybody I've been rusing for the FBI?"

Stuberg agreed it was ridiculous, but WFO had to expect that a comprehensive stand-down would necessarily result from cutting off my funds.

I considered the situation.  

"Here's what we'll do," I said.  "The Sokolov op is killed, because George Blake wants nine grand to translate, and you don't have nine grand.  The Batamirov lure is killed, too, because he's expecting me to pay for his trip to Washington, once he decides to visit.  

"The others, it's just my time.  I'll keep everything running in passive mode.  I'll keep track of my hours.  If your budget un-crunches, you take care of me.  If it doesn't un-crunch by October 1st (the new federal government fiscal year, six months off) I'm done and you're under no obligation for my time between now and then." 

Stuberg said the arrangement was cool with him, but would be at my own discretion.

"Trust me," I said.  "Everything I do is at my own discretion."

Truth be known, that's part of what irked WFO.

I plodded on, in passive mode.  

But I got my own back come summer when I lunched with the House Intelligence Committee's chief investigator, an old friend who, of course, had no idea I'd been working secretly for the Bureau.

"What would you say if we could have caught Edward Lee Howard and didn't?" I asked him.

My friend was appalled.  "Do you mind if I go see FBI Director Louis Freeh and see what he has to say?" he asked.

"Do I mind?" I said.  "It's about time somebody came up with a straight answer."

And why not take this to the Biggest Cheese?  

After all, Director Freeh had experienced sting-undercover up close and personal.  As a young FBI special agent in the mid-1970s he infiltrated the Cosa Nostra in New York, had been nicknamed Mad Dog because he liked to buck the bureaucracy.
And so at 4:30 p.m. on September 8th, my friend and the Intelligence Committee's chief counsel buttonholed Judge Freeh.  

"Mad Dod" Freeh
The FBI director told them he’d heard that somebody from his shop had gotten close to Edward Howard, but no one ever told him Howard wanted to visit New Mexico, where a trouble-free apprehension could be arranged.  

In principle, Director Freeh expressed great interest in capturing Howard, and surprise that his organization was not actively pursuing this.

Director Freeh, my friend later told me, said he knew how his Bureau treated those who went around the back door, not following the chain of command, however disconnected.  And he was also appreciative that my friend had dealt with this matter in a positive, non-partisan manner.  For that reason, the director promised to handle this situation with great discretion.

The opposite occurred.  

Neil Gallagher
Director Freeh flushed at the top and sent sewage scudding everywhere.  

Neil Gallagher, Assistant Director for National Security, caught it full in the face (as deserved), before it cascaded downward, soiling James "Tim" Caruso (even more deserved), and mystifying middle managers, until Special Agent Mike Stuberg caught some of the crap and brought it to my attention at Starbucks.

Had I (horror of horrors) disclosed my relationship with the FBI to somebody on the House Intelligence Committee?

Yup, I replied.  Sure did.

"This isn't good," said Stuberg.  "Some of our middle-managers will take this to mean you're not a trustworthy guy."

I looked Stuberg square in the eye.  "Tell your middle-managers to go f--- themselves.  They should do their job and catch Ed Howard."

The role of middle-managers at Headquarters is to hammer down Special Agents.  

First, make them travel to Washington and walk the labyrinth of corridors trying to find the right new person who had to sign off on some aspect of a new twist; then make them endure several rounds of cynical meetings designed to make any new initiative appear that it might somehow put the Bureau at risk of (egads!) embarrassing itself.  And if the plan survives the first dozen hurdles, send the Special Agents back to the boonies and give it to a gaggle of Justice Department attorneys to quash, just so they have one less risk to worry about.

John H had walked this walk.  
With exceptional patience and savvy he had been the sole advocate for keeping the Howard case alive.

"You're looking at the new advocate," I told Stuberg.