AGENT TRUST - 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 didn’t happen quickly, but I felt like the FBI agents were growing more comfortable with me. I kept getting little signs. One summer day when we met for breakfast at the Metro Diner on Broadway and 100th Street, they came as dressed down as I was—Ted in jeans and a short-sleeved polo shirt, Terry in chinos and a button-down with rolled-up sleeves. Maybe I was reading too much into it. Maybe they were just sick of walking around like a couple of funeral directors on a house call. But as we sat together in a back booth, some of the stiffness seemed to evaporate from our interaction. It didn’t feel so much like I was reporting in to them or they were directing me. It was more like we were talking and trading ideas and giving each other shit.

“You know that guy on Lost?” Ted asked me. The plane-crash TV show had just finished its third season. “That dude who plays the Iraqi guy? He could play you in a movie.”

“That’s racist, Ted,” I told him, trying to look offended. “You’re Irish. What if I told you Colin Farrell has to play you? Or Mickey Rooney? Or even worse, Mickey Rourke?”

In the short time I’d known Randi, everything had been so businesslike with her. Even when she and Terry were teasing, she was a straight arrow with me. But over time, with Terry and Ted as my team, the tone between us loosened up. We often talked the way I talked with my friends. “Seriously, dude,” I said to Terry at the end of the meal, motioning at his plate of neatly piled and completely untouched potatoes, “how are you still alive? Remind me, what is it that you do eat?”

Every single time I had been in a restaurant with Terry, he had done exactly what Randi had accused him of, refusing to consume fruits, vegetables, or anything that didn’t owe its very existence to a chemistry lab.

“I am a finely tuned machine,” he declared with total seriousness as he moved the uneatables around the plate.

“Of processed food!” Ted jumped in.

I looked at my breakfast omelet. “So wait. Do you eat cheese?”

“Yes,” Terry said. “Yellow cheese.”

“No, man,” I objected. “That doesn’t count. That’s not real cheese. It’s as fake as Oleg’s cover story.”

We all laughed. But Terry still didn’t eat his potatoes.

When there was a lull in the laughter, I decided it was time to come clean about something that had been bothering me. “Look, guys,” I said, “there’s something I need to, um, admit to you. I’ve been carrying around this secret for a while now.”

Ted and Terry glanced at each other nervously. I noticed Terry fidgeting in his seat.

“You guys really fucked me over in a big way,” I told them. “Not you, Ted. You weren’t here yet. But Terry was.” I told them about the day that Ava had uncovered the bright yellow maxi-pad wrapper in our apartment.

As I finished telling the story, Ted had a shit-eating grin on his face. Terry’s mouth was just hanging open.

“Really,” I said, “it wasn’t funny. It almost cost me my damn marriage, guys. That was not an easy thing to explain to Ava. Keeping secrets from her is hard, and right now I don’t have a lot of people to talk to.”

“I have an idea,” Ted said, handing me a business card and telling Terry to do the same. “We totally get that this is stressful. If Ava has any questions, anything you think she should hear from us, we would be happy to sit down with her. It’s no problem. We understand the need for the support of your wife. Please, give her our cards.”

“Thanks, I really appreciate it. You probably have a second career in marriage counseling.”

“No problem. And Terry and I promise not to leave our lip gloss and nail polish at your place.”

We had an easy rapport. They were professionals, experienced at working with assets. But I think it was more than that. Maybe this sounds like I’m bragging, but I really do think they got a kick out of me. I was a little different from most of the sources they worked with on the Russian counterintelligence beat. More attuned to pop culture. Perhaps more educated. More Americanized. More like them.

At the same time, I recognized Ted and Terry weren’t really my friends. Even though we were laughing and goofing around and genuinely enjoying each other’s company, they weren’t hanging out with me because they liked my witty banter and cocky attitude. This was fundamentally a professional relationship. Each had something the other wanted. Our partnership would continue as long as it was useful. They wouldn’t hesitate to drop me the minute I did something they didn’t like or if they decided I was more trouble than I was worth. We’d never have another diner meet-up again. If I did something really bad, I assumed they’d arrest me or do something even worse.

The truth is, I had enormous respect for both of them. They cared about doing quality work. They took the rules of the game very seriously. Actually, despite all the strategizing and maneuvering, they never considered it a game. They were working counterintelligence for the FBI, and I never saw them face that responsibility with anything less than the utmost of care. They followed the rules, even those governing how they could treat the Russians. When I asked why they didn’t just throw classified documents at Oleg and then arrest him, Ted replied: “There is a difference between them and us. We don’t manufacture evidence. We do things cleanly.”

“What are you worried about, entrapping him?” I asked.

That was my word, not theirs. But that seemed to be the point. “There are rules we have to follow,” Ted said. “It has to be clean.” That was the word they kept using, clean. It was clear to me they wanted to do this the right way. I was still learning the rules. But for me, this meant no shortcuts.

Still, something seemed out of balance. I spent a lot of time thinking about the foreign spies working in my country to undermine, subvert, and attack America. They ignored our laws and international law. But from what I was able to tell, we were constrained by our laws in the methods we could use to combat the people who didn’t play by any rules. We couldn’t fight fire with fire. We had to rely on careful planning and street smarts to outwit and outmaneuver them. As maddening as this felt at times, I also understood that if the agents could have made things up without any evidence, I would have been out of a job.

I watched their investigative moves carefully, constantly learning from them. It was mostly little things. When we were sitting in a diner and the waitress would come over, for example, Ted and Terry would reflexively turn all their papers upside down. Ted kept his driver’s license backward in his wallet. They were always keenly aware of their surroundings, constantly checking: Who is behind us? What can people hear? Do they stop talking when we start talking, as if they’re listening in? And they had certain ways of dealing with me. When we met, they liked for us to come and go separately so fewer people would see us together. And very often, I observed, after I sat with both agents in a restaurant, one of them would excuse himself and go to the bathroom. What was that about? Did they really have to pee that badly? Or was one of the agents going into the bathroom to turn on a recording device of some sort? I wasn’t sure. Maybe I’d read too many spy novels. Or maybe I was getting good at recognizing how this business worked. When I joked about it, Ted and Terry just smiled.

Given what the three of us were trying to do together, paranoia was warranted. The agents were constantly cautious in ways I thought I needed to be as well. Unfortunately, I’d always been an out-there kind of person. Caution didn’t come so naturally to me.

As Ted, Terry, and I talked in the booth that day, a woman came up to the table—not the waitress—and asked for money. She was persistent. She just kept standing there. Ted had already flipped the papers over. I watched the woman and watched the agents. Terry said no for the second or third time, and the woman still didn’t leave.

As the senior agent, Ted seemed to feel like it was his place in the hierarchy to exude confidence and leadership and, even if this was just an unexpected annoyance, be the big FBI man. I guess he could have flashed his badge or subtly shown his gun. He didn’t need to. Sitting there being badgered by this woman, Ted didn’t even raise his voice. For a moment I thought he’d stare the woman down. Instead, he growled at her. Literally. And then again, louder.Even I was intimidated by Ted’s roar. And the woman backed away quickly.

I looked at him, a little shocked and a little amused. But I had to admit, he’d demonstrated that sometimes doing the unexpected gets results.

Ted looked thoroughly satisfied with himself. “Hey,” he said, “did it work?”

This is a man I have to trust, I thought. And truthfully, I did.

* * *

Establishing rapport helped me acclimate to this new world. The agents and I also had some serious issues to sort through. I was certain we’d arrived at a key moment in the operation. I didn’t want to let it slip past us.

“I think it’s fair to say we have Oleg’s attention now,” I told Ted and Terry that day in the Metro Diner. “So how are we going to hold it? And what are we going to do with him?” Before they could answer, I went on, “It’s all about the information.”

I don’t think they knew what I meant. I was thinking about what Cosmo, Ben Kingsley’s computer-hacking mobster character, says in Sneakers, the first major Hollywood movie to focus on the National Security Administration: “There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think … it’s all about the information!”

I smiled to myself. It didn’t matter that the agents didn’t know where I was getting my ideas. “What information do we offer him—and how?”

The way I read our challenge, we had to promise Oleg something juicy enough to maintain his interest without actually handing him any genuinely damaging military secrets. The last thing I wanted to do was compromise U.S. national security. I didn’t think the agents would let me even if I tried.

“So how do we strike a balance?” I asked the agents. “How do we narrow the focus of what we’re doing?”

For months, I had been dropping hints to Oleg about all the new projects the company had been taking on and my resulting access to cool stuff. We were advising the National Defense University on transferring from paper to digital. We were doing a retrospective conversion project for the Department of the Interior. We’d been getting queries from everyone from the Joint Special Operations Command to the U.S. Navy SEALs.

“But everything I’ve told him has been pretty vague,” I said to the agents. “If we leave it undefined, you know he’ll start asking for things we can’t get him or wouldn’t want to. We don’t want him dreaming up stuff on his own. That’s dangerous. We have to deceive him into believing that something fake is real.”

The agents nodded.

“Did you ever hear how the Allies in World War II used thousands of inflatable tanks to convince the Germans that the D-day invasion was not about to happen in Normandy?” I asked. Ted looked at me and shook his head. I continued, “The Allies built this massive fake army that looked real when the Nazis flew over at thirty thousand feet. It wasn’t perfect. But it was real enough to fool them from their vantage point. We need something deceptive like that. Something that fits in with what I’ve told Oleg so far. Something, based on what I’ve fed him, that he thinks might be possible.”

Terry stared at his plate and looked up. “A project that looks real but isn’t, a project that can’t easily be checked on,” he said.

“Exactly, but what are the rules?” I asked. “What can I do? How far can I go in enticing him?”

Terry stopped me. He had his serious face on. “Everything has to come from him,” he said. “It can’t come from us. It can’t come from you. I’d rather have him say ‘I want you to get that for me’ than you saying ‘Let me get it for you.’ We have to create an environment where he’s the one who’s doing the asking.”

“But don’t we have to focus him?” I asked. “God knows what he might ask for.”

Ted stepped in. “If you’re going to dangle something in front of him, it has to be bright but not too bright. It has to be good without being Holy Grail good. They want information only slightly more than they want to control everything.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant in practical terms. I sipped my coffee, and for a moment I didn’t say anything. Great, I thought. I need to get this guy interested without entrapping him and do that before he loses interest and decides to walk. Good luck.

Making him believe I had something valuable for him without entrapping him. That could be a subtle distinction. I had to be careful about offering something while giving him enough information so that he’d request it. Where was the line? It was a distinction that Ted and Terry kept harping on. We could dangle things, but it was up to Oleg to take the assertive steps forward.

“Whatever we put out there,” I asked, “does it have to be real? A project I’m actually working on?”

Ted thought. “Not necessarily,” he said. “Just don’t offer anything you can’t deliver.” He said he had tremendous professional respect for Oleg. “They’re warriors just like us, devoted to their country. They have their own command-and-control structure. They live under many of the same pressures we do. And they have their own resources.”

Although I hadn’t thought much about it, what Ted said was true. Oleg had to brief a boss who, in turn, had to brief another boss and so on. All of them, straight up the line, would most likely look to validate anything I told Oleg. And they had time on their side. They were setting the meeting schedule. They were establishing the pace. They could hold off on meeting with me till they could check out everything I said. I knew that convincing Oleg was part of the battle. But getting past the sniff test in Moscow was the victory that mattered.

Now, at least, I felt we’d agreed on the makings of a plan. I could continue to use my company as a cover and an explanation for why I had access to things Oleg might want. I had proved to him that I was real. The trap was set. Now we just had to bait it.

I recalled how eager Oleg was to get the reports from the networkcentric warfare conference and how much effort the agents had to put in to reconstruct all that data. “Maybe I could attend some conferences for him,” I suggested. “Instead of struggling to get the minutes of months-old conferences, wouldn’t it be easier to have me go? I could take notes on the major presentation and scoop up every handout in the room. You guys could vet them and make sure I’m not giving away anything damaging. Or we could throw in some purposeful misinformation and mess with him.”

I thought that was clever, actually. It would also be another way of increasing my involvement, and it sounded like it might be fun. “Wouldn’t that be easier than reconstructing later?” I asked. The agents nodded, but more in a yeah-we-can-consider-it way.

That wasn’t my only idea. In fact, it wasn’t my best idea, even if it was the only one that would force me to go to places like Finland, Portugal, and Australia. Closer to home, I’d been thinking of the possibility of dealing through a government contractor instead of the government itself. From my years of working with so many of them from around the country, I knew that private companies had a much easier time keeping secrets than the government did. I had some government contracts with me that day that helped prove the point.

I handed one to Ted and one to Terry. “The problem with government contracts,” I said, “is that records exist. They are public. Many of them are indexed by Google. If we made up something that supposedly the government produced, the Russians could check pretty easily. It wouldn’t take more than a cursory look before they’d see that what I was offering them was phony.

“But,” I continued, “what if we’re dealing with private company records? There wouldn’t be traceable public records.” I paused to let that sink in. “So maybe we should be thinking business-to-business instead of business-to-government. It limits the need for theatrics.”

This was something I knew about. Because many of our customers were agencies of the federal government, those contracts were available for anyone to see. If we wanted to operate in the shadows with Oleg, it would have to be work we were doing for a private entity—real or imagined—something he and the people in Moscow couldn’t easily confirm.

The waitress came over to top off our coffees. Ted yawned and held his papers up to cover his mouth, while Terry slid his stack of papers into his lap and smoothly reached with his other hand for his toast. I began shuffling the papers in front of me, pretending to look for something. The minute the waitress left, the papers were out and our conversation continued. We didn’t skip a beat.

It was Terry who first mentioned Northrop Grumman. The large defense contractor was headquartered outside Washington, D.C., but had a good-sized engineering and manufacturing operation on Long Island. “They keep archives,” he said. “Maybe you could be working on something like that.”

Now, that made sense to me.