SECOND TRY - 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)



As I got deeper with Oleg and the FBI, I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget the reason I was there in the first place—one of the main reasons, anyway. I wanted to join the navy. I had mentioned that to the agents a few times but had never dwelled on it or extracted their promise to help. That ambition just lingered in the background, mostly in my head. But time was passing quickly. I was trusting the agents more, enough to be open with them about my ambition to join the navy and my failed first attempt. As much as I was enjoying my role as a double agent, I understood that freelance spying wasn’t a grown-up career path. Espionage agents don’t normally get pensions and dental plans or regular paychecks unless they’re employed by someone. I liked my furtive maneuvers with the FBI, but what I really wanted was to be on the inside of something important all the time, to live behind the giant curtain, to learn what was really going on. I was eager to do something more meaningful than running the family business. I also wanted to support myself, have a family, drive nice cars, and afford a couple of movie tickets in Manhattan. The best idea I’d come up with—and it was an excellent one, I was convinced—was to join the military as a reserve intelligence officer.

When I tried again, it would be different. It had to be. I was at the center of a real-life counterespionage operation against Russian military intelligence. I was the star of my own story, living a real-life undercover spy drama. Couldn’t this be the practical experience the navy had said I lacked? Fooling a senior GRU intelligence officer had to count for something. And didn’t I have the FBI on my side?

When I brought this up with Ted and Terry, they said three things to me. One, it might not be easy. Two, they could not guarantee results or subvert the navy’s procedures. And three, they would try to be as helpful as they could without divulging any more than they were allowed to. The whole process seemed shrouded in mystery. “It’s just one of those difficult situations,” Ted said vaguely. Still, he and Terry vowed to try. And they did.

Just before Thanksgiving 2007, Ted gave me the business card of a recruiter in New York who handled direct commission applicants. Her name was Lieutenant Juli Schmidt. She was, more or less, the New York Lino. Ted said she came from the south shore of Long Island and had attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. She had an office in the same lower Manhattan building as the FBI office, 26 Federal Plaza.

“Hello, Lieutenant,” I said when I got the recruiter on the phone. “My name is Naveed Jamali. I was told to give you a call.”

“Hi,” she said. “I’m glad you called.”

She was friendly and willing to help. She seemed very bright, I could tell that immediately. Annapolis didn’t accept too many idiots.

She never said how much she knew about my recent adventures with the FBI and the Russians, although the agents told me they had met with her and presumably shared some information. She clearly knew I was an FBI referral. I gave her a bare-bones rundown of the navy and me. “I applied to the direct commission program in 2003 and didn’t get in,” I told her. “And I’d like to try again.”

Ever the double agent, I didn’t broach my involvement with the FBI’s counterespionage operation, and she didn’t ask about it. I just mentioned what I’d accomplished since I had last applied to the navy: I was running a $2-million-a-year business, dealing routinely with high-level federal officials on their complex research needs. That should pump up my résumé, I thought.

“Very interesting,” the recruiter said, sounding like she meant it.

But in the vein of nothing worth having ever comes easily, four years had passed since I’d gotten rejected, so I would have to submit a whole new application and go through all the interviews and tests again. “If you’re up for that, we might as well get started,” she said.

“Let’s go,” I said.

She said I should begin with the navy’s basic ASTB, the Aviation Selection Test Battery. I didn’t want to blow it. It had been a few years since I’d had much practice at test-taking. So while the agents and I prepared for my next meet-up with Oleg, I bought a fat test-prep book and crammed like I hadn’t since eighth-grade history class.

The Friday before Christmas, I went down to the recruiting office and took the test on a computer. It was like the dreaded SATs and GREs, except that all the questions now had an aviation and maritime focus. There were drawings of planes at different angles: “Is this plane turning toward you or turning away from you?”

That wasn’t hard. It was impossible! You had to tell the orientation of a plane in a two-dimensional drawing without the benefit of any frame of reference. There was no way to prepare for those types of questions. I was guessing so I wouldn’t run out of time. I felt better prepared for the questions that required math or memorization. Convert knots into miles an hour? That I could do. Name the different parts of the ship—“Which is the starboard side? What’s a foc’sle?”—piece of cake.

As I was clicking away on my starboard and foc’sle, a loud burst of yelling erupted a few feet from me. Terry King, the office coordinator, was on a conference call with recruiting headquarters, and someone was furious that people weren’t joining the call on time. I couldn’t understand why the person was so angry, but I found his shouts a little distracting as I tried to decide whether yet another fighter jet was banking toward or away from me.

I finished my test and took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure if I had made the cutoff. I walked into King’s office and tried to chat him up. “What was up with that call? That guy sounded pissed. What did the navy do to that poor man?” I teased.

“Do to him?” King asked. “Listen, some people just don’t do well under stressful situations. But there is a way to treat people, and I’m pretty sure he’s doing it all wrong.”

He computed the scores and checked them against the required grades. Those few seconds were agonizing. Finally, he threw me a lifeline: “It looks like you did just fine, just fine.”

King seemed relieved that I had made the cutoff. That made two of us. As he filled out paperwork, he told me that some people have a tough time with the ASTB. He mentioned one woman who’d recently started the test on the same computer I had. “We went to check on her, and she was just gone,” he said. “Gone. She’d completed the test, must’ve known she bombed it, and decided, ‘This isn’t for me’—and then she bolted. We never heard from her again. But you don’t have to worry about that. You did fine.”

I wasn’t sure what the ASTB had to do with being an intelligence officer in the navy, except that I had to get past it, and there were about six thousand other tests to go. This was going to be a long, drawn-out process. I went to Navy Operational Support Center, in the Bronx, for my medical screening. I had to do follow-up blood work on Long Island, then back to the Bronx for a hearing test.

The biggest challenge seemed to be finding out what the steps were and getting them scheduled. Invariably, there were cancellations and follow-ups and procedures I hadn’t heard of. If they had a test and it had an acronym, I took it. There was an air of random tediousness to everything. Luckily, Juli seemed to be plugged in to the right people and knew how to keep the process moving.

I was one busy guy. I had a business I was running and all the difficulties that came with that. I had a wife. We were still starting our life together. There were the cars. I couldn’t ignore them. And Oleg, of course. That meant keeping sharp with the split personality. On top of all that, I was applying to the navy again. Some days, I didn’t know where my head was supposed to be and which hat I was supposed to be wearing. Was I the boss? The double agent? The husband? The recruit? The young, fun-loving fast-car enthusiast? Each role demanded something different from me.

To make things even more complicated, although the navy and the FBI were both government entities, they were two totally different worlds. Everything about the navy was highly bureaucratic, with thousands of rules and requirements and endless layers of supervision and no clear answer to anything. By contrast, no one ever told me to study an FBI manual, Chapter 15, Section 10, Paragraph 25, so I would know how to cut my hair or speak to Russians. The agents and I had freedom to maneuver as we saw fit, and nobody was looking over our shoulders, it seemed. Here was the best part: So far, we’d been wildly successful.

While I kept inching my way through Juli’s process, Ted and Terry went off in hunt of some high-ranking allies to help my cause. Ted got me a meeting with naval commander Jeffrey Jones. The commander wasn’t part of the normal recruiting process. He reported directly to a three-star admiral at the Pentagon. I don’t believe he’d ever conducted a reserves-recruiting interview. He was an attaché to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations whose office was at the UN, but he agreed to see me at the recruiting office downtown.

The moment I met him, I understood this was one smooth professional, and it wasn’t just the strong jaw, penetrating eyes, and beautifully tailored dark gray suit. He was scary smart, totally low-key, and as deadpan as the flat-toned comedian Steven Wright.

“I like to get up early,” he announced as soon as I sat down across the desk from him. “Most people get up at five in the morning to make love to their wives. I’m on the road to the office by then.”

He spoke without an ounce of intonation, then waited to see how I would react. I didn’t. This man meant business.

He asked me about my background, my family, where I grew up, where I’d gone to college, what I’d been doing lately, almost everything except what I had done with Ted and Terry. At the same time, I had the feeling that he knew a lot more than he was letting on.

He seemed eager to sell me on the idea of becoming a military diplomat. “You’d be perfect as an attaché,” he told me. “They’ll send you to school. Since you have a French mother and you’ve spoken French your whole life”—thanks, Mom—“you would probably end up in some African country. It’s great. You bring your family. They give you a driver. They’ll pay for school.”

I must have been smiling.

“It isn’t easy to find suitable people for these positions,” the commander continued. “When I go on leave, we have someone fill in for me. He’s a lawyer. Most of the people we have filling in—lawyers, investment bankers, other professionals—are very polished, very cosmopolitan. But they have little idea what it is to do real intel collection, to live in this world. There is a shift in the navy to find people for these roles who are more diverse and more well rounded. You are very polished. I could really see you doing this.”

He said he was set to retire in the next few months and was keen to get his report on me to his admiral before he left: He was driving down to the Pentagon soon and would make his feelings known.

I told him this all sounded amazing to me. “Anything I should be doing now?”

“You can’t apply right out of the gate,” he warned me, trying to reel in some of my let’s-do-this-now enthusiasm. “You have to get into the navy first. But you might look at taking some courses now. You’d find them interesting, I think, and they’d set you up well for the future.”

He told me I should check out the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. I promised him I would. I told him how much I’d enjoyed meeting him and thanked him for his time.

After I left the office, there was no dampening my excitement. I got Ted on the phone immediately. “My bags are packed!” I an­nounced. “He was trying to sell me on the military attaché program. I would totally be into that. When can I start? He made it all sound so exciting, so cool. Commander Jeff Jones—even the guy’s name sounds cool.”

“Sure,” Ted said noncommittally. Then he steered the conversation back to Oleg.