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 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 Tolkachev 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. Visit the Billion Dollar Spy website that contains the prologue, additional photos and Original CIA documents.

The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman, ISBN 9780345805973. More book reviews at my website.

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