Tuesday, October 02, 2018

The Billion Dollar Spy

In January 1977, CIA chief of station Robert Fuller was filling up his car at a gas station in Moscow when a Russian man approached him, asked to talk with him and immediately dropped a note on Fuller's car seat. In the note he explained that he wanted to discuss strictly confidential matters with a U.S. official and proposed to arrange a meeting. Fuller reported the contact to CIA headquarters. They feared that the man was a dangle, a trap by the KGB to expose CIA operatives. Fuller was instructed to ignore the man.

The Russian man however persisted. He made two more attempts in February, each time dropping a note, proposing a signal and meeting. After being ignored again in May, it seemed that the KGB gave up the dangle. That summer, Gus Hathaway succeeded Fuller as chief of station Moscow. On December 10, the Russian man spotted a car with embassy licence plate, approached the driver and urged him to deliver his letter to a U.S. official. In that letter, delivered to Hathaway, the mysterious man explained that he had access to research into look-down radar and that he could also provide schematics for the new MiG-25 radar.

This information finally tickled CIA headquarter's interest. They assigned the codename CKSPHERE to the Russian man but did not find him worth the risk of exposing a CIA operations officer. Hathaway, by then convinced that CKSPHERE was most likely an engineer at a secret research laboratory, insisted on meeting the man. CIA however again ordered Hathaway to ignore the requests for a meeting.

On February 16, 1978, more than a year after the first contact, CKSPHERE again dropped a note, this time in Hathaway's car. By then, the man was desperate but afraid to reveal more personal information. Meanwhile, the Pentagon expressed to the CIA their great interest in Soviet aircraft electronics and radar. On March 1, the Russian man once again approached Hathaway, who was just unlocking his car, and pushed a packet into Hathaway's hand. It contained all the personal details that convinced the station chief and the CIA that he was a genuine spy.

CKSPHERE now had a name. Adolf Tolkachev, engineer and leading designer at the Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering in Moscow, and he resented the Soviet system. The next seven years, Tolkachev provided a tremendous amount of highly sensitive information on Soviet research related to aircraft electronics, radar and weapons systems.

For Tolkachav it was a race against the clock. He knew that his game would eventually end and therefore tried to pass as much information as possible, often taking great risks with disregard for his own safety and despite his case officers urging him to be cautious. In the end, his information saved the Pentagon and the U.S. Air Force billions of dollars in research and development and made sure the West had a critical technological and military advantage over the Soviets.

The Billion Dollar Spy, researched and written by David Hoffman, brings Tolkachev's story, based on declassified documents and many interviews with the CIA personnel involved in the CKSPHERE case. Hoffman's extensive research resulted in a highly detailed account that isn't limited to the spy story itself but also provides a better understanding in how the CIA handled the case, the events that lead to the fall of CKSPHERE and consequent fall-out, all placed in the broader context.

The book offers a fascinating insight in the modus operandi of CIA station Moscow. It details the tricks of the spy trade, how the case officers set up meetings and performed surveillance detection runs, the various ways they communicated covertly with Tolkachev, and the spy gear the CIA developed and provided him over the course of eight years. The reader learns in detail how they ran such operations in Moscow station.

The book truly excels in the details and background information on the characters involved. You get to know Adolf Tolkachev through the many operations notes and letters with personal information he wrote to his handlers and you discover the reasons why he became so resentful against the Soviet state. Tolkachev was a complex man. He was intelligent and wanted to do things his way.

He declined the proposed use of dead drops or a spy radio. They gave him a SRAC (short range agent communications) to send messages by burst-transmission, and later even provided him with a novel satellite message system, but he never used them. He preferred meetings in person, despite the according risks. CIA gave him the most advanced spy cameras, but he insisted to use his own Pentax camera. He regarded money as a token of respect, rather than a means to get rich, but complained each time when he received too little money for what he believed to deserve.

His fear for getting caught alive contradicted with the ever increasing risks he willingly took. He therefore was worried about his wife and son but had already decided he would never leave Russia. There were also the little things. He often asked his handlers for music records from western bands, books or ink pens and gums for his son.

Hoffmann explains why the CIA, paralysed by James Angleton's paranoia in the 1950s and 60s, was so reluctant to set up operations in Moscow, the frustration of Gus Hathaway with CIA headquarters and his efforts to protect the man behind the source. Tolkachev's case officers, John Guilsher, David Rolph and Bill Plunkert had to operate and arrange face to face meetings despite overwhelming KGB surveillance. The meetings later became so risky that CIA decided to use Robert Morris, a deep cover, to meet Tolkachev. You can't get it more exciting.

The reader gets plenty of backgound information to understand how the CIA handled the cased. Hoffman also delves into the history of other spies, like GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (HERO and YOGA), and Soviet diplomat Alexander Ogorodnik (TRIGON), and tells the stories of Marti Peterson, the first female CIA operations officer in Moscow and the exfiltration of KGB Major Victor Sheymov by David Rolph. Many more relevant people from the intelligence community are given a place in the book.

The fall of CKSPHERE is credited to Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA officer in training who was assigned to Moscow station but was fired before his departure to Moscow. He offered his services and all his knowledge about Moscow station to the Soviets. His downfall is also written down in this very comprehensive book that reads like a spy thriller. If you like to know the real deal, this well researched book is it.

The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman, ISBN 9780345805973.

More book reviews at my website.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

OTP Radiograms 101

Last year, I wrote about the fascinating life of the Jack Barsky, a former KGB agent who lived and operated in the United States from 1978 to 1988. After his cover was blown, he decided to stay in the United States and broke his ties with the KGB. It still took the FBI nine years to put all pieces together and catch him in 1997.

One of the tricks of the trade that Barsky used was the reception of radiograms that contained operational instructions. These messages were encrypted with one-time pad and broadcast by the KGB in Morse through a so-called numbers station. This is a most secure method because the radiograms are unbreakable and you cannot trace the receiver as anyone at any locations can receive the broadcast. That's why numbers stations are still in use today. TAG Cyber Media just published a video interview with Jack Barsky where he explains the reception and decryption of these numbers messages.



Also check out Jack Barsky's KGB Radiograms and Family Tales to find that the life of an illegal can take quite a toll on his social life. You can read my review of Jack Barskt's book Deep Undercover that details his extraordinary life and career. More in depth technical and historical information about espionage and communications are found on my web pages about numbers stations and one-time pad. Jack Barsky also talked about other aspects of espionage during the TAG Cyber interview.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Podcast Nuggets part 4

We're back with another series of curious events from both sides of the Iron curtain. This time, we catch a spy that should have been catching spies and we take a detour around the moon with the Soviet Lunik 3 mission. There's also the spicy mix of sex and espionage and you can listen how the Russians, barely, managed to keep the Mir space station in orbit. Clean your ears and listen very carefully!

SPYCAST - The Robert Hansen Spy Case is one of the most damaging cases ever for U.S. intelligence operations. In 1979, FBI counter-intelligence agent Robert Hansen approached a Soviet GRU intelligence officer and offered his services. For two decades, Hansen provided the Soviets with crucial information about American intelligence operations and betrayed Russians that work for the CIA. Senior FBI Supervisory Special Agent David Major talks about Hansen and his motives.

DAMN INTERESTING - Faxes From The Far Side is the stunning story of U.S. spy balloons, the precursors of the spy satellite, and how the Soviets were able to capture some of these spy balloons. They removed the temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film to re-use it for their own Lunik 3 mission to capture the dark side of the moon. Recycling on a Cold War space level.

SPYCAST - Sexpionage tells the story of sexual entrapment and emotional blackmail by intelligence organisations. The Soviets and especially the East-German intelligence service HvA were masters in the art of sexpionage. Keith Melton explains who did it, how they did it, and some of the great successes of the Russian honey traps and the Stasi Romeo agents.

CURIOUS MINDS - The Awful and Wonderful History of Mir brings the chilling story of several near fatal accidents that occurred on the Russian space station Mir. Collisions, fires, power cuts, breaches. You name it, they had it. Mir was the first modular in space assembled space station, in orbit from 1986 to 1999. It stayed up eight years longer than the American Skylab but that also had its consequences.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky

Imagine driving on the interstate on a Friday evening with a great weekend ahead. You just passed the tollgate and a state trooper waves you over. The moment you get out of the car, an FBI agent approaches and tells you he would like to talk to you. You and I would wonder what on earth the FBI wants from you. Jack Barsky didn’t wonder. He knew his life would never be the same anymore.

If you dream of joining the secret service and operate as an illegal agent in foreign countries, you better think twice. It is indeed fascinating work but there’s little glory or 007 excitement. Only lots of stress and worries. Ask Jack Barsky, formerly known as Albrecht Dittrich.

In 1970, Albrecht Dittrich was a talented student at the university of Jena with a promising career in chemistry until a knock on his dorm room changed the course of his life. Scouted by the Stasi, Albrecht was asked by the KGB to join the almighty Soviet secret service and defend the communist ideals as a secret agent. And honestly, you and I would have been honoured to do just the same in similar circumstances. This book explains the how and why.

Albrecht grew up during the harsh post-war years in East-Germany. As a brilliant student he was destined to join the league of men who would define the future of his country and socialism. His childhood shaped his character and ideals, and when offered to serve the socialist cause in the secret service he eagerly took the challenge.

They called it serving but in reality it meant sacrifice. He left family, friends and love to be trained in Moscow as illegal agent. He told his mother he worked in diplomacy and many loved ones were told other fake stories in the next decades. Serving as illegal non-registered agent of the KGB in the United States - the main adversary - is arguable the highest rated mission in intelligence work and more a calling than work, but it had its downsides.

In 1978, after extensive training in secret communications, counter-surveillance, English language and learning his new identity, Albrecht Dittrich finally arrived in the U.S. to shake off his past life and start a new one as Jack Barsky. It was a formidable task to go from zero to hero. His book gives an excellent insight into what it takes to establish a new identity, acquire a fictitious but credible past and the trouble to transfer that fiction onto genuine official documents.

It’s an account of many tricks of the intelligence trade, learning to adapt to the culture and particular habits of an unknown country, getting a university degree all over again, loneliness, the pressure of evading counter-intelligence, improvising solutions to problems that the KGB didn't take into account, missing his wife and child and eventually alienate from his loved ones.

Despite these challenges, Jack Barsky managed to live the American but fictitious Dream and rose from bicycle messenger to successful manager in a large software firm. At the same time, he was challenged in a way that every illegal agent has to cope with. As he began to appreciate the opportunities, given to him by the United States, his dedication to the communist cause faded and he reluctantly decrypted his weekly received radiograms with instructions from KGB headquarters. Eventually, he fell in love and married a woman in the U.S. but his double life took a toll on his marriage. And just when his covert life finally seemed to have embedded perfectly in the land of the main adversary, he was waved aside at the tollgate...

The book is a real page-turner. How Albrecht Dittrich was made a spy, his training, how he embedded as Jack Barsky, what ended his spying career, how he was finally catched and his surprising redemption. But the book doesn't merely provide a fascinating account of espionage tradecraft. It's also a very personal story about the psychological and emotional burden of living a covert life. It unravels the reasons why a self-confident and a bit arrogant young man becomes a dedicated spy who sacrifices his real life in exchange for a fictitious one, how it is to even lose that fabricated life and how he eventually finds a new purpose in life.

You cannot but imagine how you would feel when you had to choose between loyalty to your country, wife and children, cope with building a new future in a country far away and then see everything falling apart. Could you live that covert life, knowing that it can all be over in a blink of an eye?

Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America, Jack Barsky, ISBN 1496416821

More on Jack Barsky on this blog post and on Jack Barsky's website. You can find more book reviews at my website.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Podcast Nuggets part 3

This month another batch of treats for the ears from around the Internet. We have a CIA officer with an incredible career that spans three decades, a secret nuclear powered military base in Greenland and military missions in Germany that kept the Cold War from getting too hot.

SPYCAST - Cuba Libre Part I, Part II and Part III are a series of fascinating interviews with Felix Rodriguez, a former paramilitary operations officer of the CIA's Special Activities Division. In 1961 he was the leader of the CIA counter-intelligence operation and entered Cuba weeks before the Bay of Pig Invasion. In 1967 he headed and trained a team to track down Che Guevara. Two years later he enlisted in the US Army and flew countless intelligence mission in Vietnam for special CIA units and even got caught up in the Iran-Contra affair. No wonder that they needed three episodes to get his story recorded. Check out Part I, Part II and part III.

STUFF THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW - Project Iceworm is the construction of a secret U.S. military base on a remote icy plain in Greenland in 1960. The United States had obtained permission from the Danish government to build an arctic research complex to conduct experiments of construction under arctic conditions, the use of small nuclear power plants in remote environments and various other scientific experiments. A least, that was the official version. The real reason for this arctic adventure in the height of the Cold War was less scientific. Camp Century was part of the top secret Project Iceworm, the construction of an underground, or rather, under-ice network of nuclear missile launch sites. This would enable medium-range nuclear missiles to hit Moscow in the event of a nuclear war. See also Camp Century - Greenland Going Nuclear.

SPYCAST - The US Military Liaison Mission in East Germany was one of four Liaison Mission, established after the Second World War. The British, American, Soviet and French allies agreed to accredit military liaison missions near the headquarters of each others occupation zones in Germany. These military liaison missions continued throughout the Cold War until 1990. Initially implemented for economical monitoring and a communications channel between the different allied powers in occupied Germany, the liaison's mission gradually changed into a military intelligence mission when tension rose between the West and the Soviet Union. Major General Michael Ennis, a specialist on the Soviet Union, was one of the officers who spied in East Germany as part of the US Military Liaison Mission. See also The Military Liaison Mission for more information.


MALICIOUS LIFE - Seasons 1, 1.5 and 2 are Ran Levi's fascinating series of podcasts about malware, hacking, cyber crime and war. Season 1 covers the early hackers, spamming and state actors. The whole season 1.5 is dedicated to Stuxnet, the virus that crippled Iran's nuclear gas centrifuges by infecting their control systems with a highly sophisticated worm virus. Season 3 is all about the state actors and cyber war, whistleblowers, propaganda and fake news, North Korean hackers and hacking as a weapon.