OUT AND ABOUT - How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)

How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent (2015)



“Oleg!” I snapped when he showed up again the week after Thanksgiving. “You can’t keep coming here randomly every time you feel like it. This doesn’t work for me.”

I hustled him out to the parking lot even before he’d had a chance to snag a single free book. We stood next to the Acura and spoke for a few minutes. “From now on,” I said to him as firmly as I could, “we have to start meeting someplace different. Do you hear me?”

With the CD, I knew we had crossed some kind of threshold, Oleg and I, even if I wasn’t certain what was on the other side. He had asked for something difficult, and I had delivered it to him with the help of the FBI. He had paid with a crisp stack of U.S. dollars. This double-agent business wasn’t easy, I could see that already. But I was starting to think I might have some talent for it.

Though that delivery was going to seal my credibility with the Russians, some loose ends needed to be tied down. The most pressing item on my agenda was getting Oleg out of the office for good. There was no way he and I could talk there. Every time he showed up was another potential disaster. He never came and went discreetly. Even if he stayed for only fifteen minutes, it felt like he was lurking around. His visits were an obvious focus of curiosity and suspicion for the other employees. They couldn’t help wondering about the weird Russian guy and his coat-pocket garbage bags. And each time Oleg left, I had to go through a routine to avoid their questions: I would busy myself with phone calls that couldn’t be interrupted or meetings that couldn’t be disturbed, hoping that by the time I came up for air, attention would have shifted elsewhere.

There was no need for Oleg to keep popping in like this, especially with his appearances being so frequent. I wasn’t just his vendor anymore. The relationship had already moved beyond what it had been in my parents’ day, a box the New York Russians could check off regularly and report to their minders back in Moscow. I needed to find a way to separate the book business from the spy business.

The Books & Research part of my relationship with the Russian Mission was still part of the equation. Acquiring information, even open-source information in an open society, had genuine value to them. The kinds of reports, articles, and books the Russians wanted might be available, but that didn’t mean America’s longtime enemy had easy access. Almost everywhere the Russian diplomats went, their trench coats, accents, and documents were sure to raise eyebrows and suspicions. Why do you want this? people would ask. Is it legal? Will I get in trouble if I give it to you? Isn’t your country the enemy of my country? Why should I help you? Even when there were no legal prohibitions, our nations had a history that made getting these items maddeningly difficult. Where else were the Russians going to go? This stuff wasn’t stocked at Barnes & Noble. Mail orders left paper trails that could lead to questions of intent. These topics were too technical, too narrow, too arcane for general distribution. And even if no one ever asked directly about their true objectives, my assumption was that the Russians had a near-obsessive desire to operate as discreetly as they could. It was clear they didn’t want the FBI or any other U.S. government entities knowing what they sought. With our experience and contacts, my family’s company was able to get this stuff easily without raising concerns. There were no forms to fill out. No purchase orders in triplicate. And we were based in New York. That allowed Oleg and his predecessors to make in-person visits to a private office. They never stayed very long. They didn’t even like to sit down. Our company offered the diplomats of the Russian Mission an agreeable alternative to the things they most wanted to avoid.

Now things were shifting and growing more complicated. While dealing with my parents had been safe and convenient, I wasn’t just a sporadic asset. I had become someone they were working regularly with—and valued, I hoped.

The decades of business-as-usual civility shifted noticeably when I got grumpy with Oleg that morning in early December. But he was surprisingly agreeable to my change-of-venue demand. Maybe he didn’t like visiting the office any more than I liked hosting him.

Almost immediately, the benefits of being out of the office were made clear. We were able to talk without fear of being overheard. He asked for my cell phone number. I gave it to him. He offered me an email address, a generic Yahoo! account. I wrote it down but told him I probably wouldn’t be using it. “When things go over email, there is always a record,” I said.

“At least you will have it,” he said. I think he liked my caution, though.

It was chilly in the parking lot that morning. A sharp breeze was blowing in from the river. But our conversation felt comfortable and natural. And then Oleg came back to the reason we were freezing outside.

“I have thought about what you were saying,” he told me. “After today, we will meet in different places. If I order books, you will bring them when we meet. I will not come here anymore. Our relationship is changing.”

Damn, that was easy!

“I must be away for the holiday,” Oleg continued. “But we will have many things to discuss when I return. The next time we meet, will it be okay if we meet in a restaurant?” He went into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Do you know where this is?”

“Uno Pizzeria & Grill,” the card said. “Original Chicago Deep Dish Pizza.” The address was on Central Avenue in Yonkers, on the main suburban-sprawl drag through this part of Westchester County.

We were going to Pizzeria Uno? Was this really where treason was committed these days?

“That will be just fine,” I told him.

“I will call you on your phone when I return,” he said.

“And if something happens and I’m busy and can’t meet you, how will I contact you?”

I worried for a minute that I was asking too many questions, but Oleg didn’t seem to mind. “It will be fine,” he said. “I will wait and if you do not come, I will leave. I will call you. We will meet another time.”

I have to say I was a little disappointed by Oleg’s choice of restaurant. I imagined us whispering at a back table in Manhattan’s glamorously ostentatious Russian Tea Room or conspiring over late-night Iordanov shots at a sleek vodka bar on the far West Side. Pizzeria Uno? Not even close. Instead of a perfect-30 Zagat rating, I was getting a pizza chain with an “ample parking, ample portions” Yelp review. Instead of blinis with sour cream and caviar, I was headed for prima pepperoni and cheese stix. I wasn’t really sure why he chose the pizza chain. Maybe that was all his Russian Mission stingy expense account could cover. And if Pizzeria Uno was Oleg’s idea of fine American dining, that was where we’d go. I was just happy he wouldn’t be coming to the office anymore.

When I told Ted and Terry, they sounded as psyched as I was. “He gave you his email?” Ted asked me. “And you gave him your cell? That’s all good. He’s setting up the structure for clandestine meetings. He’s gaining confidence in you.”

“Yeah, but Pizzeria Uno,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief. “Where are we going next? KFC?”

* * *

Two weeks before Christmas, I met a flatbed truck off Interstate 87 in Yonkers. Strapped to the bed was a new-to-me black-on-black 2006 Corvette Z06. I’d been researching the purchase heavily. In my estimation, the Z06 was everything that was right about America. Confidence. Power. Craftsmanship. Performance. It was powered by an LS7, an old-school pushrod seven-liter, 505-horsepower V8 engine, and a manually shifted six-speed transmission. That’s a lot of get-up-and-go for a vehicle that size. The Z had so much torque. Jeremy Clarkson, of the BBC’s Top Gear, exclaimed that it’s “an actual fact” that the Z06 “will go from a standstill to 175 miles an hour in one gear!” That Corvette clocked better times at Nürburgring than cars ten times the price—and still had modern creature comforts like XM satellite radio, navigation, and dual climate control. It could get you there in a hurry, and you’d still enjoy the ride. This was the rare American car that the boys from Maranello, Stuttgart, and Bologna couldn’t afford to shrug off, much as they’d like to. Just looking at that car made me feel patriotic. I was in love.

In my view, cars were meant to be driven. Any vehicle I ever owned, I used as part of my daily life. Lots of people are enthralled by the chase scene in Bullitt when Steve McQueen overtakes a black Barracuda in a green fastback Mustang. But what enthralled me was that his character drove the car daily and parked it on the streets of San Francisco.

That’s what the Z06 meant to me. It was beautiful and exotic and fast as lightning. And I took great pride in parking it on the streets of Manhattan while all those fussy Ferrari owners parked their beloveds in high-priced garages, too nervous to drive their cars to one of the outer boroughs. If I was going to have a car, I was going to drive it—anywhere, anytime—including hauling my butt around on a counterintelligence operation that required constant navigation between a Russian diplomat and agents from the FBI. I never felt like the money I poured into cars was remotely wasteful. I stood firmly with the great Northern Irish footballer George Best, who famously said: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”

On the long road ahead, the Z would play a consistent supporting role. In addition to serving as my getaway vehicle after many of my meet-ups with Oleg, it would also become a much-needed release for me, helping me blow off some of the pressure that was constantly building inside. Dealing with Oleg could be awfully frustrating. I would learn that over and over again. Dealing with the Bureau could be even more so, as we painstakingly gamed out what I should say and how I was going to say it. I worried about the operation getting canceled, being found out, or worse. In any of these scenarios, I knew the blame would fall on me. I have the kind of mind that dances all over the place, so I thought about every circumstance and how it would play out—sometimes good and sometimes bad. Being able to wipe all that out of my consciousness for even a few minutes at a time, to step on the gas and send the Corvette flying, produced a special Zen for me. I never liked to miss a chance to experience that rush. Tearing up the switchbacks at Bear Mountain. Hitting the apex just right. Gliding confidently into the next left turn.

Just as I had in Boston with my first Corvette, I began spending time with a group of like-minded car aficionados who were not looking for notoriety. When they wanted to sound formal, they called themselves the New York Motor Club. They just sought the bliss that pure driving brought. We would meet extra early on Sunday mornings outside the city, then blast up the back roads and rural highways, hitting speeds that would never be possible a few hours later with traffic on the road. It was on one of those weekends, when slower family cars began to clog those back roads, that we descended into the misty Hudson Valley and met in a tiny town to grab a round of coffee and top off our gas tanks.

As we sat together on the curb in front of my wide Z06, my friends Matt and Larry and I started talking about some of the coolest people we’d ever met.

“My uncle worked for the CIA,” Matt said. “He was very quiet. Nobody knew what he did at the time. But he was a total badass, in a highly discreet way.”

“It’s crazy to think that there are people who do that,” Larry said. “But you’d never know. You think he killed anyone?”

As much as I wanted to jump in, I kept my mouth shut except to say: “I doubt it. But he probably hurt a few people’s feelings.”

I stole that line from Robert De Niro in Ronin. I’d been waiting for years to use it.

When we weren’t going to the Lime Rock racetrack or doing early-morning runs, we would hang out and plan what we called ego runs. We’d descend together on Times Square or some other high-traffic, high-visibility spot. We’d park the cars and say nothing. As we stepped aside and watched, the wide-eyed out-of-towners would go crazy, asking questions, posing for pictures. It was embarrassing and exhilarating all at once as strangers shook our hands and begged for rides in our highly polished automobiles.

The car runs and associated lifestyle would become one of the little secrets I hid from the FBI. The agents were becoming so entangled with me, it felt good to have some things I didn’t share. Some people drink. Some people do drugs. Some people jump out of airplanes or hit a dimpled ball over a stretch of well-kept grass. I wasn’t interested in any of that. Instead, I drove like a maniac.

I knew the FBI wouldn’t approve of the recklessness of the driving or some of the car people. It was likely they would see racing as a weakness, evidence that I lacked the reliability or maturity necessary to carry out the plans we were developing. They certainly didn’t want a risk-taker on their hands, especially when they hadn’t had the chance to carefully measure the level of risk.

But what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt me. So on that mid-December morning when that car came off the truck, I took my first drive in the Z and felt the thrill of all that power in my hands. I felt full of confidence. There wasn’t anything I couldn’t learn to drive with a little practice—automobile or espionage.

* * *

Oleg and I met four times in the first half of 2007, all at casual restaurants on Central Avenue. Twice it was Pizzeria Uno, in January and February. In April, we met at Charlie Brown’s, a family-friendly regional-chain steak house. In June, it was the retro—real retro, not ersatz retro—El Dorado Diner. Not a bowl of borscht or a hot Russian hostess at any of those places.

Each time we followed the same pattern. Oleg would call my cell phone and ask if I was available to meet for lunch, usually the following day. Never dinner. Never breakfast. Never cocktails. Always lunch. I always said yes, agreeing to meet him even if it meant rearranging an appointment or canceling other plans. He always set the place and the time, handing me a card or a take-out menu as we were saying goodbye. “This is where we’ll go next time,” he would say. Then I’d wait for his call to tell me when.

It was a long, slow dance between us, progressing a few agonizingly unhurried steps every time we met. There’s a scene in Vin Diesel’s spy thriller XXX in which his character Xander Cage meets with a Russian spy named Yelena, who’s been monitoring suspected terrorists in central Europe. “I’ve been undercover here for two years,” she tells him. He can’t believe she’s been at it so long. “Two years?” he asks. “What was your plan? To let them die of old age?”

He may as well have been talking about me.

As slowly as I felt things were moving, Ted and Terry’s excitement was clear. They encouraged the dance, sometimes offering vague guidance for their nouveau operative. Their advice mainly consisted of telling me to be natural and to let it “be a conversation.” They offered no opinion on how I should steer Oleg. They just acted like the important part was me reporting back to them.

There were rare occasions when they did offer me clear advice, often consisting of dire warnings. Ted once told me: “Under no circumstances are you to get into a drinking competition with Oleg.”

That’s a funny way to put it, I thought. “What? You mean like beer pong?”

The normally unflappable Ted seemed unexpectedly tense. He repeated his warning with even more emphasis. “For them,” he said, “drinking is not a sport. It is a skill developed and nurtured at an early age. Whatever you think you can do, you cannot outdrink them.”

I wondered if either of these guys had ever been to an American college frat party. But I listened. Okay. Do not drink with Oleg. Ever. Check.

* * *

Armed with that warning, I made my first trip to Pizzeria Uno at noon on a Tuesday in mid-January. Oleg ordered a beer. I ordered an iced tea.

It was a pleasant meeting, but not what I’d expected. I brought his book order in the Corvette and delivered it to him. He showed up in a bland gray business suit with a medium-width red tie. He had a lanyard around his neck with an ID card he’d tucked into the right front pocket of his shirt. He still looked like a business drone but a more comfortable one than the man who had been visiting our office. For the first time since I’d met him, he spoke at length about himself. He told me that he’d grown up in western Russia, not in Moscow. He’d attended the Maritime Academy in Vladivostok, a tough port city not far from Russia’s border with China and North Korea. He said he’d wanted to join the navy since he was a boy. The academy was how he could go in as an officer, not unlike our own service academies or ROTC. “It was tough,” he said. “We had to do running and pull-ups and all these physical activities. I worked very hard. But I was determined. I made it through.”

The way Oleg told his story, he didn’t leave much room for doubt. Despite his outward appearance, when he talked about himself there was some swagger and a lot of pride. And maybe, I thought, a little exaggeration.

He mentioned a wife and a teenage daughter, though he didn’t say either of their names. I noticed he had on a wedding ring and a gold submarine pin, the way a U.S. Air Force pilot might wear mini-wings or a Navy SEAL might wear a trident on the lapel of a suit jacket. “Were you an officer on a submarine?” I asked Oleg. “Yes, a submariner,” he said. “Very important duty.” He said that part of protecting the homeland had involved patrolling the coast of the United States with nuclear missiles pointed at us. He had been stationed in a lot of places, he said. He mentioned Turkey. He’d had a diplomatic posting in Canada, he said, before he came to New York.

And now he was here, very much enjoying the big city. “It is the center of the world, the center of everything.”

I had no way of knowing how much of his story was true, but I had the sense that most of it was. Oleg was a professional diplomat and, as was becoming more and more apparent, a man inclined to spy. I suspected that he had absorbed, in whatever training he had received, the same important lesson about lying that I was learning now: Lies are far better hidden when they are wrapped in demonstrable truth. As far as I could tell, none of this stuff really mattered, so why not tell it mostly straight?

But I did wonder why Oleg was going on like this. He didn’t seem like someone for whom confession came naturally.

He said he liked my parents. He told me how important education was and asked where I’d gone to college. I said NYU and mentioned that I had been part of the ROTC there, but I’d been drawn away into technology. I detected a pattern immediately. He would say something nice to butter me up, then slide in a seemingly innocent question. He said he enjoyed watching American football on TV—bond with the young male American!—and asked if I did, too.

“Cars are my sport,” I told him, promptly skipping over a topic he’d probably studied for my benefit.

It seemed like white noise at first, our conversation in the pizzeria. It occurred to me only later what Oleg was doing. He’d been loosening me up, using his own apparent openness to make me more comfortable revealing myself. His plan, I saw now, was to lull me into a state of ease so that I would reflexively answer his questions. To some extent, I did. It was a testament to Oleg’s skill as an interrogator, I suppose, that while I was there, I felt comfortable and momentarily let down my guard.

As I’d been chatting, he’d been operating. I had to step up my game. There was an obvious potential for danger. I’d heard stories that I hoped Ava wasn’t aware of, like the chilling tale of Alexander Litvinenko, the investigative journalist and fugitive Russian FSB officer who was poisoned to death the previous November in London. Oleg was thoroughly unassuming and assertively nondescript. But he did work on the same side that was suspected of killing Litvinenko, and I had no illusions of what his countrymen were capable of.

I couldn’t linger on that. I’d never again be that unguarded. I had work to do. But I wouldn’t let myself be paralyzed by my dark imagination.

I also decided that just as Oleg seemed intent on learning more about me, I needed to know more about him. The information he’d shared about his time in the navy had been enlightening but was intentionally orchestrated to encourage me to open up. There was more to this man who bragged about being a Soviet submarine captain turned Russian diplomat, and I wanted to know everything.

The first time I’d told Terry his name, I’d gotten a clear sense that Oleg was someone our government was keenly aware of and interested in—someone very much on the FBI radar. The agents weren’t quick to share the biographical details. But when I poked around on the Internet, checked some public databases, and made a couple of educated guesses, I pieced together that Oleg wasn’t just any Russian diplomat. He served on the United Nations’ Military Staff Committee. In that role, he interacted at a high level with military diplomats from countries around the world. And my instincts about his special focus had been right all along. Oleg was an officer in the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation—the GRU, which stands for Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye.

The quiet, slightly awkward man in bad suits and worse trench coats was a middle-to-high-ranking officer in Russian military intelligence. And there was more. He was a case officer, my case officer. He’d been trained in the management of human agents and the recruiting of prospective foreign assets. His mission was to spot people whose knowledge and access might be of value to the Russian Federation—and then to work diligently on bringing them into the fold.

People like me.

I was familiar with the title case officer from books and articles I had read. It was a special role in the Russian military-intelligence service, a real upwardly mobile position. At least one had gone on to the highest heights of all: During his time with the KGB, as he worked his way up to president, Vladimir Putin had been an intelligence-­service case officer.

* * *

As January turned into February, I grew increasingly impatient for Oleg to call. What was he doing? What had I told him? Had I discouraged him? Had he just disappeared? During the day, I busied myself with work, trying not to dwell on my budding double-agent career. But I didn’t try too hard. Each night I’d read books on spies like Ames, Hansen, and Pollard. I analyzed the tactics they employed and wondered if I could do better than they had. In many cases, it was their arrogance that had done them in. It had given them confidence at first, but then it made them sloppy. The more I thought about this espionage business, the more I came to see what a huge challenge fooling someone at this level was—truly the ultimate challenge. And the more I read about and dissected the methods used by these renowned spies, the more eager I grew to be back in play with Oleg.

While I waited, I had several long meetings with Ted and Terry. As eager as I was to press forward with Oleg, I also didn’t want to get myself killed in the process. I didn’t think Ava would like that. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t, either. There was a thrill to living close to the edge, but I didn’t want to fall over it. Slowly, clumsily, in fits and starts, I tried to find a balance I could live with.

In one of my FBI meetings, I brought up one nagging concern. “You think he’s armed?” I asked Terry.

“I would say probably not,” the agent answered.

“Probably not?” That probably stood out.

“I don’t think they’d risk having a high-ranking diplomat carrying a gun with him. What sense does that make?”

“So why aren’t you sure?” I said. “What’s probably about it?”

“In this business,” he said, “probably is all we get.”

* * *

When Oleg did call, it was on a freakishly warm Thursday morning in February. He asked if I could meet him for lunch that day, and I said yes. Thirty minutes before our appointment, I stopped first at my parents’ house and threw up. Radioactive poisoning. Guns. My brain was working overtime. I splashed some cold water on my face and pulled myself together. Then I drove the Z06 like a madman, trying not to be late. On my way there, I made one last call to Terry and let him know I was off to see the man—“just so you know.”

“Just be cool,” he told me. “You’ll be fine.”

Despite my aggressive noontime driving, I was fifteen minutes late for Oleg. I found him sitting near the hostess stand, feigning interest in an Uno’s menu.

I saw a glimpse of anger as I walked in, but he quickly gained control. Whatever he was really feeling, he assumed a look of relief as I stepped toward him. “My friend,” he said with a smile, vigorously shaking my hand. “It is good to see you!”

I smiled back faintly. That brief flash of anger had made me nervous. I couldn’t help glancing for a bulge in his waistband. I didn’t see anything. “I am so sorry,” I said. “Something got tweaked at work, and it took a little longer to sort out.”

He looked confused at that. “Tweaked?” he asked. I guess he hadn’t heard the word before. I noticed he hadn’t let go of my hand. Was that just a matter of social awkwardness? Was it a test of some sort? Was he feeling if my pulse was racing as I tried to explain why I was late? Nothing Oleg did seemed like an accident.

“We had an unhappy customer,” I explained. “It took a little longer on the phone.”

He looked at my face maybe a fraction of a second too long, smiled, and let my hand go. “Shall we sit down?” he asked.

Once we did, Oleg continued the friendly banter from our last lunch at Uno’s, offering tidbits from his own life and seeking some from me. He said his daughter was studying French in school and recalled that my mother came from France. “Do you speak French?” he asked me. “Do you have a French passport? Do you travel there?”

“I speak it,” I said, leaving my answer at that. I didn’t have a French passport, though I’d traveled to France many times with my parents. I got the feeling Oleg was asking the travel questions for some reason beyond curiosity.

But he didn’t press the point. “French is a beautiful language,” he said. He didn’t point out that my father was Pakistani or ask if I spoke Urdu.

I had prepared a tidbit of my own that I wanted to mention—the fact that my wife had a relative who was somehow related to Trotsky, the Marxist revolutionary theorist and first leader of the Red Army. I thought Oleg would like that, and he did.

Leon Trotsky?” he asked, lighting up at the name.

“The one and only,” I said.

I’d impressed him. But quickly, he was back in control. He asked me if I was an electrical engineer. “Was that your subject in college?”

“No,” I explained. “Computers. My background is technology.”

All these questions seemed harmless enough. He wasn’t asking for anything I wouldn’t divulge in small talk with a stranger sitting next to me on a plane. And that made it difficult to keep up any defensive wall. He asked innocent-sounding questions, and I couldn’t think of any good reason to lie. Part of me really welcomed the openness. I wanted to bond with Oleg, as he wanted to bond with me. But with each new query, the knot in my stomach grew tighter. It wasn’t that I was divulging secrets. It was more that I recognized how single-handedly he was driving the conversation. I was committing myself to a specific, detailed biography without knowing what the endgame was. At the very least, I would have to remember what I had told him so I wouldn’t contradict it later on. The tone remained cool and friendly. But the longer we talked, the more nerve-­wracking it became. I felt like he was leading me somewhere, and I knew that couldn’t be good. My whole life, I’d never been comfortable in the passenger seat, especially when I didn’t know where I was going, much less the route.

I called for the check. Oleg paid it in cash. It was always in cash. As we stood to leave, his wallet slipped out of his hand. I caught the falling wallet in midair and handed it back to him. “Thank you, thank you,” he said.

I was thinking again: Was that a simple accident? Was it a test? Was he checking to see if I’d casually try to look inside? Was there something he wanted me to see? Am I being paranoid? His benign-sounding questions had my mind racing. If it was a test, I guess I’d passed. But every time we were together, I came away with the feeling that Oleg was trying to climb inside my head. And if placing a hint of paranoia in there was one of his goals, he was succeeding.

* * *

I had to find a way to take some more control. These meandering quiz sessions weren’t only stomach-turning, they were too risky for me. With my vague but honest answers, the Russians wouldn’t be able to figure out what to do with me, and then I’d have wasted all this time. Or just as bad, before I could make a move, they’d come up with some request or plan that I wouldn’t like at all. I could only imagine: Okay, we’ve figured it out. We want you to rent a van and drive around Washington taking pictures of sensitive buildings. No, forget that. We want you to marry this redheaded woman named Anna so we can get her a green card. No, thank you very much! I had to be in the driver’s seat.

“They are opportunists,” Ted warned me when I shared my concerns. “They probably don’t know yet what they can do with you. When they figure that out, believe me, they will try.”

That rang true. When they did make a decision about what they wanted me to do, I needed to be sure it was something I could deliver—or, more precisely, make them think I could.