GAINING CONTROL - 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)



It was selling time, and the product was me.

When Oleg and I connected in April at Charlie Brown’s in Yonkers, I didn’t wait for him to quiz me. Over a couple of buffalo chicken wraps, I described my plans for the company, how I was committed to turning a modest family business into an international data and research powerhouse. I had large ambitions, I explained. “Ink on paper is so yesterday,” I said. “The world is going digital, and we should, too.” I said I was committed to grabbing far more of the international market share. “We should be a much bigger business than we are,” I told him. “And I am going to make that happen.”

I expounded proudly for my lunch partner. My ego was bulging! There was money to be made! I was capable of anything!

All this had the advantage of being largely true, even if I wasn’t quite on the edge of world financial domination—yet. As I suspected, sticking with the money story was way easier than railing against oppressive American imperialism or quoting lengthy passages from the Koran. To support my young-businessman-on-the-make persona, I buried Oleg in a stack of Excel spreadsheets showing steady growth and increasing momentum for the company. He seemed impressed. The truth, even somewhat exaggerated, is easy that way. The ambitious business talk came tumbling off my tongue.

I told Oleg I’d been writing new software that would make it easier to keep track of what orders were filled. Everything had been on paper before. It wasn’t easy to get an overview. “Now,” I said, “we’ll be able to track and inventory items using bar code technology, checking every single book in and out.”

I mentioned that we might be hired to digitize some large volumes of technical military data. I talked about the National Defense University and some other projects that were winding up. “As we close out these projects,” I told him, “we’re starting some other new projects you might be interested in.”

“Yes?” he asked. He leaned forward, waiting for more.

“Just as a hypothetical,” I told him, “say you were interested in Tomahawk cruise missiles. Currently, you don’t know what information is available out there, right? I might have access to certain databases. It seems like you are missing a lot of stuff here. Hypothetically,” I repeated, “would you be interested in something along those lines?”

“We might be,” he said. The more I spoke, the fewer chances he had to quiz me about my family, my background, and my personal life. “You are very ambitious,” he told me.

Story, motivation, access—the pieces were coming together one bad lunch at a time.

* * *

Before I met with Oleg again, I had my usual strategy sessions with Ted and Terry. We discussed what I could dangle in front of him. I said I was eager to come up with something enticing—and soon. I teased the agents about who was slower and more bureaucratic, the FBI or Oleg. One day while we were hashing over various possible scenarios, Ted slipped in a question for me, Russian-style: “Oh, by the way, would you mind wearing this watch the next time you meet with Oleg?”

He was holding a large black G-Shock wristwatch with a black Velcro band. It was the kind of watch that a special-ops commando might wear, or a SWAT-team member, or an especially flamboyant rapper. It had a digital readout and a built-in compass and—you couldn’t see this last part unless you turned the watch over—a tiny digital tape recorder secreted inside.

Ted’s request didn’t bother me. The way he put it, I didn’t feel like there was any trust issue with him or Terry or the FBI. All along, I’d assumed they were listening in on my conversations with Oleg. I figured they had the table wired or undercovers sitting next to us or—anything is possible, right?—maybe the waitress wasn’t a waitress at all. Maybe she was a special agent with an order pad.

From here to the end, I knew that surveillance and countersurveillance would be part of my life, even if I never knew when or how. I tried not to become too obsessed with it. I tried to compartmentalize. But I couldn’t help wondering as I went about my daily chores: Is that van on my block following me? Is the couple in the next booth listening in? Maybe. Maybe not. But I discovered eventually that if I wanted to keep paranoia from mingling with observation, I had to keep my frisky imagination on a very short leash. If I had a question or a concern, I couldn’t obsess about it. I should note it, report it, and move on. I wasn’t alone. I did have some professionals on my side.

We joked about the watch. “I have a small wrist,” I told Ted and Terry. “This thing is huge. It looks like a Flavor Flav timepiece, to tell you the truth. You buy it off Flav? Was he selling it on eBay?”

“Hey, it was either this or a key fob,” Ted told me.

“A key fob?”

“Yeah, a key fob. One of those little things that hangs off a key chain.”

“I know what a key fob is,” I said. But there were all kinds. I’d seen teenage girls with Hello Kitty key chains. Grandmas with fobs that opened their 1990 Oldsmobile 98s. “You were gonna put the recorder in a key fob?”

“We could have,” Ted told me. “But we chose to go with the G-Shock instead. I think it’s cooler. They made it just for you. No one else has this.”

On balance, I agreed the watch was better. Jason Bourne never busted anyone with a key fob.

The watch came with a charging station. I had to leave it plugged in so it would be ready when I went to meet Oleg. As far as I know, he never paid attention to the watch at all.

That watch changed many things. In subtle ways, it changed the character I had created. When I started recording our meetings, I felt like I had become a genuine double agent.

“We’ll have to meet with you afterward and download everything,” Ted warned me.

“I understand.”

“Every time you meet with him, you’ll have to record everything,” he said. “Everything you tell us will be verifiable.”

From that day forward, my FBI handlers would know if I was full of shit. I was already confident they believed what I was telling them. They’d invested enough time and energy in me. But I was strangely happy to relieve any doubt that might be lingering. My debriefings had all been on the level, but only as well as I could remember what was said. Now the agents could independently verify any part of it.

There was one other reason I liked wearing the hidden recorder: It would show Ted and Terry how deftly I’d been handling Oleg, what a crafty negotiator I was. (Ego.) I was proud of my talents as a manipulator, and I didn’t mind for one second that the agents would get to hear me in action from now on.

They got an immediate earful.

Oleg called in early June. We met at the El Dorado Diner on Central Avenue in Scarsdale. Before going inside, I made sure no one was watching and did what Ted and Terry had taught me: I removed the watch from my wrist and pressed the two buttons that activated the recorder. I checked to see that a tiny light hidden on the underside was flashing. That told me the recorder was running before I slipped the watch back on.

I carried a stack of papers in my computer bag. I thought it was important to validate for Oleg two specific points: that the business was experiencing an exciting new-revenue spurt and that I was truly in charge. As soon as I settled into the booth, I set the papers on the table between us and, one by one, showed them to him. Contracts. Government certifications. And most of all, copies of the stock certificates that showed my parents had transferred their shares in the company into my name. I was the owner of record.

Oleg shook my hand warmly. “Congratulations,” he said, beaming. “It looks like we have something to celebrate today!” Though he’d grown up in the collectivism of the Communist Soviet Union, he knew that owner was better than worker any day.

He asked me about France again. “France is nice” was all I said.

Then he asked me about Ava. “What is your wife’s name?” he asked.

I didn’t like him asking about her. But I knew it was public record, and there was no point in attempting to evade his question or lie. When I told him Ava’s name, he came back with a follow-up: “Do you have any children?”

Oleg was quizzing me again and not as gently as before. I didn’t want any part of it, but I told him anyway.

“Well, God is great to bless you with this success,” he said. It was so out of character, so forced. So obviously designed to test if I was Muslim. He was probing to see what might motivate me. I wanted to control that story line. I didn’t want him to. I had to stop the phony-friendly interrogation. Thankfully, my story was thoroughly crafted. For the first time in a public place, I erupted at Oleg. “Look,” I shouted over the clacking plates and shouted orders of the busy suburban diner, “don’t fuckin’ talk to me about my wife.” The waitress glared over. I didn’t miss a beat. “And don’t fuckin’ talk to me about God,” I said. “We are here to do business. I don’t want to talk about my family. We have covered enough of that. Let’s discuss how we can do business.”

Suddenly, I really was in the business. And I got down to it. Remaining deadly serious but lowering my voice, I asked directly, “What can I do for you, Oleg, that you can pay me for? I can’t help you unless you tell me what you want. I’ll tell you if I can do it. I’ll tell you how much you have to pay. You decide. It’s binary. It’s simple and clear. That’s all that matters. That’s all I can do. Anything else, I am not interested in.”

Oleg looked rattled. A couple of seconds passed, and the people in the booth behind us started talking again.

Oleg said, “Okay, okay. Yes, we are here to do business.”

All I was hoping was that the watch-recorder had caught everything.