WHY SPY - 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)



I never had the opportunity to change my name or my basic identity. The Russians had known my family for two decades. Using my real name left me more vulnerable. If the Russians wanted to come and get me, they knew exactly where I was. I wasn’t overly talkative with Oleg about personal details. I never talked about my neighborhood or about Ava, beyond the mere fact that I had a wife. But I had no illusions about protecting my privacy or the Russians’ ability to dig into my life. I assumed they’d already done that. It couldn’t have been very hard. I had a listed phone number. I drove cars registered in my name. A simple records check would tell them where I lived, who my neighbors were, who I was married to, where I went to college, where I used to work, and for all I knew, how many times I’d forgotten to pay my parking tickets until they double and tripled with interest and penalties.

(Just a couple of times. I swear!)

I said to Ted one day: “They must know a lot about me. How much danger am I in?”

He answered in his usual measured way. “Not a tremendous amount, as far as we know.”

“Not a tremendous amount? As far as we know? What does that mean?”

“We have no reason to believe you are in danger. Why would they want to harm you? They’re hoping you’ll be useful to them.”

I knew he was trying to be comforting. It wasn’t working. “Can they check up on me?” I asked.

“They can do open-source searches,” Ted said. “Sure.”

He didn’t specify what he thought that might entail, but I knew more about open-source research than he did. It included LexisNexis and Google and checking out my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts. The Russian could dig up whatever Equifax or the other credit-reporting agencies had on me. Pretty much anyone could get his hands on that. They could talk to my neighbors, my former employers—could they also bug my apartment or tap my phone? Were they following me? What about Ava? “It’s illegal for them to perform surveillance,” Ted assured me, deftly avoiding the question.

Was that really the best he had, that the Russians wouldn’t do anything illegal?

“But Oleg is GRU,” I said. Again, Ted didn’t respond directly, but his lack of denial was enough for me. I went on, “You’re telling me that, against their number one enemy, Russian intelligence doesn’t have resources to burn? Diplomats in this city don’t even pay parking tickets. And they’re going to follow more serious rules? They’d like to follow the guy who’s helping them spy on the United States, but they won’t because that would violate some GRU Boy Scout oath?”

Ted laughed at that.

I was new to all this, but give me some credit. I had to assume that Oleg had people checking me out, even if he wasn’t doing the checking himself. And those people would no doubt attempt to verify anything and everything I said. I’d better not out-and-out lie to him about provable factual details except when I really had to.

I could narrow the frame of reference. I could stretch the truth. I could hide troublesome factoids and focus on stray details. But however I presented my own biography and motives, all of it would be painstakingly examined by the Russians abroad and at home. They would check enough to give themselves confidence in me. So everything I said had to be defensible, even if it wasn’t 100 percent true. There could be no idle chatter. Nothing could be uttered thoughtlessly. Whatever lies I wove had to be supported on a bedrock of truth. The Russians had to believe. It was as simple—and as complicated—as that.

* * *

Though I was stuck with my name and basic biography, my personality and motivations were all up for grabs. Oleg already knew who I was, but it was up to me to show him what I was all about. The double-agent business, I discovered, is not a come-as-you-are affair. In fact, I had to dream up a whole new persona that would serve me better than the real me would. Getting that right turned out to be immensely important and tons of fun.

Basically, I got to be a much bigger asshole with Oleg than I ever was in real life. Constantly impatient. Quick to anger. Cocky. Obnoxious. Self-absorbed. Focused on money above all else. I convinced myself this was the most effective way to be. Oleg was a very tough character. He’d endured the Russian navy and earned a coveted post in the United States and a prime posting in New York. Most impressive, he’d made the transition from Soviet Union to Russian Federation on his feet. Those are not the achievements of a weak or wobbly man. If I was going to hold my own against a guy like that, I thought I had to be one tough motherfucker, too.

For the first time, I was freed from being the friendly, agreeable, decent guy I had always tried to be. With most people, I was self-deprecating to a fault. I liked to make people laugh with me. I wanted them to like me. My alter ego was an amoral, narcissistic psychopath. He got to do all kinds of things I never would have dreamed of. I probably shouldn’t admit how quickly I took to the major-jerk role. When I was in character with Oleg, I didn’t care if he hated me or wanted me to die. All I cared was that my behavior worked, that it kept me focused, sane, and effective under circumstances I was totally unfamiliar with. That can be quite liberating, I found out.

I didn’t feel like I had much choice. The guy my friends, parents, and wife knew would be incapable of selling out his country for cash. I had a moral compass. I cared too much about the respect of the people I respected. I liked to sleep at night. If this grand deception was going to be believable, I had to create a character who would plausibly engage in espionage. That character needed to be strong-willed and fully formed. And ruthless. Personality, attitudes, mannerisms, all of it had to shout: “Sure, I’ll sell out my country. But I won’t do it for free.”

The good news was that I had some built-in faults I could draw from. I swore too much. (I plead “native New Yorker” to that.) My sense of humor has often been compared to that of a fourteen-year-old boy, and it’s not usually meant as a compliment. I still laugh when someone says “sperm whale.” My idea of entertainment truly does intersect with that inner fourteen-year-old’s: I’d seen far too many cynical movies and played far too many twisted video games. So in some ways, I had a solid base for building the Naveed that Oleg was getting to know. Imagine how hard this transition would have been if I were a total candy ass!

But my shortcomings weren’t sufficient inspiration. For top professional guidance in becoming a thoroughly amoral prick, I turned to the undisputed experts of the character-creation world: Hollywood. If anyone knew how to make up characters, the people writing for TV and the movies did.

So as I got deeper with Oleg, I began staging my own personal Spooks, Spies, and Double Agents Film Festival on the flat-screen TV in my living room. I went looking for characters I could copy and learn from. There was no shortage of them. Miami Vice, Spy Game, Ronin, Heat, Collateral, Casino Royale, Manhunter, Bullitt—I watched until I grew bleary-eyed and had to go to bed. Movies I’d seen before, movies I’d barely heard of, random episodes of old TV shows. I practically memorized all of it. Then I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror and practice some of the juicer lines like a Stella Adler wannabe cramming myself into an especially challenging role.

“We didn’t come down here to audition for business. Business auditions for us.” Jamie Foxx, Miami Vice.

“The wrong decision is better than indecision.” James Gandolfini, The Sopranos.

“I’m funny how? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?” Joe Pesci, Goodfellas.

This may sound goofy now, but I swear it taught me a lot about building a new, rougher legend for myself. It helped me slide into character like nothing else could. A few rounds in front of the mirror, and I was transforming into this other me. In the thirty seconds it took me to imitate Al Pacino in Scarface—“I always tell the truth, even when I lie”—I could pivot from Naveed Jamali, regular guy, toward Naveed Jamali, pissed-off double agent.

Those were some of the baddest-ass dudes I was emulating. In many of those films and TV shows, the main character played a double of some sort, an undercover cop or clandestine spy. I was fixated on how those characters reacted when they were accused—as they inevitably were—of not being who they claimed to be. As far as I could tell, the best defense was a powerful offense.

I loved the way Crockett and Tubbs (Colin Farrell in the old Don Johnson role and Foxx stepping in for Philip Michael Thomas) react in the Miami Vice movie when the cartel lieutenant Yero demands: “Other than Nicholas, who the fuck knows you?”

“My mommy and daddy know me,” Crockett seethes, his voice dripping with condescension. Then he plops a hand grenade on the table, removes the pin, and begins questioning Yero’s cred. “You want to ‘know’ shit? Who the fuck are you? You got a side deal with U.S. Customs to open up the coast in a few spots. In exchange, you flip them some gringo runners? Like us?”

“You wearing a wire?” Tubbs demands, ripping open the kingpin’s shirt.

“Or DEA?” Crockett jumps in. “The Feeb?”

The agents are suddenly back in control.

I could see myself pulling something like that on Oleg—minus the hand grenade, of course.

There was so much to choose from here and so much work for me to do. Once I had my basic character down—little patience, explosive temper, money-obsessed—I had to learn to act like a criminal. I’d done my share of stupid things, but I had never committed a crime, much less something as serious as treason or espionage. All I had in my arsenal of experience was exceeding the speed limit or slipping into a bar below the drinking age. When I was growing up, that stuff would hardly get you a written warning from the jittery Hastings cops. Definitely not a mug shot and rap sheet.

So what would a real criminal say and do? More important, what would Oleg and the Russians expect a criminal to be like? As a professional military officer and a diplomat, Oleg probably hadn’t had a tremendous amount of exposure to real criminals, either, let alone traitors who were willing to sell out their country for fat envelopes of cash. I assumed that he was building on his expectations from American TV and movies just like I was: I’d always heard that Hollywood is America’s greatest export.

On film, even the soft-spoken criminals had explosive tempers. They were never afraid to storm away from a deal if it didn’t skew sufficiently their way. They had their own language and their own unique set of rules.

In Spy Game, Brad Pitt’s Tom Bishop complains to Nathan Muir, the Robert Redford character, that he let an asset get killed:

Muir: He was your asset, somebody you use for information.

Bishop: Ah, Jesus Christ, you just … You don’t just trade these people like they’re baseball cards! It’s not a fucking game!

Muir: Oh, yes, it is. It’s exactly what it is. And it’s no kids’ game, either. This is a whole other game. And it’s serious and it’s dangerous. And it’s not one you want to lose.

Spying is a tough business, all the movies seemed to say. It isn’t for the faint of heart. There is no room for complainers or wimps. It’s like what the grizzled cop Vincent Hanna, played by Al Pacino, says to Neil McCauley, the De Niro bank-robber character in Heat: “My life’s a disaster zone. I got a stepdaughter so fucked up because her real father’s this large-type asshole. I got a wife, we’re passing each other on the downslope of a marriage—my third—because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.”

Says McCauley: “A guy told me one time, ‘Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.’ Now, if you’re on me and you gotta move when I move, how do you expect to keep a marriage?”

God bless the movies and TV.

* * *

Then there was the question of my motivation. Why would someone like me commit espionage? I got busy reading up on what makes people spy. History and fiction, both ancient and modern, had lots to offer on the subject. Spy books, spy movies, spy TV shows—they all have theories about the hidden and not-so-hidden motivations. Early in my research, I came across the theory of MICE.

According to MICE, people commit espionage for four basic reasons—money, ideology, coercion, or ego. Sometimes it’s a mixture of two or three, but people who’ve thought about this far more deeply than I have say that those are the four solid categories. Each is powerful in its own special way. And it’s easy to find examples of all four.

Money may be the most common reason. To supplement income or in a fit of desperate financial need, people have often spilled their country’s secrets. That’s why anyone applying for government clearance is put through a credit and finance check. Many traitors have been revealed by sloppy, lavish spending. John Anthony Walker is a perfect example, though sadly, nowhere near the only one. The former U.S. Navy chief warrant officer convicted of spying for the Soviet Union from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s seems to have been motivated largely by the lure of cold, hard cash. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger acknowledged that Walker’s treason gave the Soviets access to a wide array of U.S. arms secrets—“weapons and sensor data and naval tactics, terrorist threats, and surface, submarine, and airborne training, readiness and tactics.”

Ideology is another common motivation. From early patriots like Nathan Hale to sainted abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, some of America’s greatest heroes were ideological spies. Spying for ideology has been a factor in almost every nation and every war. Name a cause and someone has famously spied for it. Communism: Kim Philby and Klaus Fuchs. Anti-Nazi: Fritz Kolbe and Juan Pujol. Pro-Cuba: Ana Montes. The list goes on and makes for fascinating history.

Coercion, though less common, also plays a role. Torture is the most obvious and extreme example, though threats can work just as well. Once captured, some spies motivated by M, I, or E predictably claim they were coerced. But it does happen, sometimes quite ingeniously. During World War II, Mathilde Carré, working with the French Resistance, was captured by the Nazis and threatened with torture or worse unless she became a double agent. Svetlana Tumanova was told by the KGB that her family in the Soviet Union was in peril unless she played ball. To somewhat greater skepticism, Ronald Humphrey claimed he helped North Vietnam only to smooth the release of his Vietnamese wife. For centuries, military officers and diplomats were coerced to spy by the threat of being outed as gay. Worried about this possibility, intelligence agencies routinely investigated the sexual histories of applicants, fearing that “deviants” might be subject to blackmail. That kind of coercion is mostly a thing of the past, but anyone in a sensitive position is still a potential target of espionage blackmail.

Ego, excitement, thrill, arrogance—call it what you want to. Lots of people spy because it’s so much fun, even when other motives play a partial role. Robert Hanssen is a prime example. An FBI agent who spied for the Soviet Union, he was involved in what was called “possibly the worst intelligence disaster in U.S. history.” He was truly propelled by his own cockiness. Jonathan Pollard was another one. A civilian American intelligence analyst, he was convicted of selling secrets to the Israelis, but he couldn’t imagine that someone as brilliant as he was could ever get caught. Christopher Cooke, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant who slipped Titan II missile data to the Soviet embassy in 1981, suffered from the same outsize ego. He was so fascinated with espionage that he could barely stop himself from diving in. At least that was what he told unsympathetic investigators.

So what was going to be my motivation? Was I an M, an I, a C, or an E? I had to have something. It had to be believable, and it had to be me. I was certain that Oleg had read as much about MICE as I had. He knew what to look for. Wasn’t all that restaurant conversation designed to pin this down? He wasn’t just enjoying the cheese stix!

Money was the answer for me. Of all the plausible motives for my treason, money was by a mile the most believable. If I was going to pretend to spy, nothing else felt true enough to act out. I wasn’t an ideologue. I wasn’t an Islamicist any more than my father was. I wasn’t up for endless discussions with Oleg about religion or communism or the glory of the Russian Empire or anything like that. I didn’t have passionate feelings against the United States—quite the opposite, in fact. I didn’t belong to a single subversive organization, unless you counted my fast-driving club. I wasn’t a card-carrying member of anything except maybe the public library and Blue Cross Blue Shield. I didn’t even have a Blockbuster card anymore.

Money was simple. It was clean. I understood money. Like most people, I liked what money could buy. Leisure time. The comfort of my family. And really fast American cars. I thought if I exaggerated my desire for money, it would be something that Oleg could understand. He’d grown up in the Communist Soviet Union. For decades they’d derided Americans for greedy capitalistic ideals. But he seemed to have adjusted to the wide-open capitalistic jag his country now seemed to be on. I suspected he, too, liked money, and he could easily see how I lived—the cars, the clothes, the job—as much proof as he wanted.

As did a lot of real spies, I added some E to my primary motivation. There is something fundamentally arrogant about deciding to commit such a grave act, the kind I was pretending to. Pollard and Hanssen were arrogant. So were most of the others. The real me—and the double-agent me—shared some of that. I couldn’t deny it. Adding a dose of superiority to what I wanted the Russians to believe was my motivation, that was easy. Around Oleg, I constantly wanted to convince him that I was smarter than he was. Lots of times I played the same head games with the FBI. And not for a second did I doubt my ability to outwit both. Like my real-deal role models from espionage history, I knew I was craftier than my trackers were.

That was a character I could play, money-hungry and abundantly sure of myself. It wasn’t me exactly, but it was close enough.

* * *

These movies and books might not have been the perfect teachers. But along with Ted and Terry, they were the teachers I had. Luckily, I had those agents to bounce my self-taught methods off. Before I saw Oleg again, I shared with Ted and Terry what I thought I had learned.

“It’s gotta be about money for me,” I said to the agents, “with a little arrogance thrown in. Nothing else makes any sense. I’m not a Communist. I don’t hate America. I just like stuff. I can’t pretend to be a nuclear physicist. I just won’t be able to pull that off. I can talk about most things. But I can’t convince a genuine subject-matter expert that I know more if I don’t. There’s no way of knowing what secret vaults of knowledge Oleg has hidden away. Wanting money is a story I can always keep straight.”

“I like it,” Ted said.

With their seal of approval, I climbed into the car and got to work.

Once I was out of the apartment and away from the highly observant Ava, I made the switch. Only then could I see firsthand how much about me I’d changed. My demeanor. My strut. My aura. The way I drove. (Okay, maybe not the way I drove. I never drove bashfully.) Though I was unarmed, I had to ooze confidence and display no hint of fear. So even though I wore my regular clothes, left from my real apartment, drove my actual car, and gave the Russians the only name I had, I adopted the mannerisms and personality of somebody who was fully manufactured for Oleg.

To complete my transformation, each time I’d drive to meet Oleg, I had a carefully chosen playlist of music. It really did help to psych me into my new character. On my way there, I listened to a lot of things that amped me up—Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” Audioslave’s “Shadow on the Sun.” On the way home, as I eased back into real Naveed, I would substitute the harder-edged stuff for mellower music to cool me down—Eddie Vedder’s “Hard Sun,” RJD2’s “Ghostwriter,” and a dash of Wilco. “Theologians” was perfect for that.

I’d have a packet of documents at my side, props I could use to enhance my credibility. Those papers gave me the confidence that I had something tangible to trade and the arrogance that my brain was worth more to the Russians alive then dead.

By the time I pulled into a parking spot, I was a different person. Any fear had evaporated. It was like I had flipped a switch. I turned on an almost clinical out-of-body view of what I had to do next.

Yes, playing a double agent was unfamiliar territory, but I didn’t mind the newness of the experience. I was actually wired for it in more ways than one. My technology training served me well: I was used to using new technology. In my industry, that was the expectation. Whether it was a query, a loop, an object, or a select statement, if you understood the basic concepts, it just needed to be applied to the latest format.

It was the same with spying and counterspying. I didn’t know much about espionage. But I knew human nature, and I knew I could learn. This was just another new experience with its own basic concepts and language. And I was learning to adapt.

When I put it all together, I knew I had what it would take to convince the Russians I was the real deal.