WORTHY ADVERSARIES - 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)



“You up for lunch?” Terry asked me.

“Sure,” I said. “Where do you want to go?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

Ever since Oleg and I first left the office together, I’d been laughing with Ted and Terry about the Russian’s taste in restaurants. Oleg had the entire New York metropolitan area to choose from. He had a Russian Federation expense account. And yet he always seemed to find his way to the blandest American chains. Someone back in Moscow must have told him, “Cardboard-flavored foodstuffs are what New Yorkers really love!” I’d hoped Ted and Terry would start springing for some first-class New York dining establishments. They had expense accounts, too. Though that never happened, they had shown a knack for finding their way to tasty local joints.

As we drove east from the city in Terry’s Ford Taurus, he and Ted were oddly vague about where we were headed and the purpose of the lunch. “Just a couple of guys you should meet,” Ted said when I pressed him for more details. “You’ll just tell them a little about what you’ve been up to. Maybe they can be helpful somehow, I don’t know. They just want to meet you, that’s all.”

Did this have to do with the Russian operation? Or getting me into the navy? Or were these people relatives of Ted’s and Terry’s who’d always wanted to meet a Pakistani-French-American who liked fast cars? I had no idea. I assumed we weren’t running a random meet-and-greet campaign. We were trying to keep our activities on the down-low. Whatever. I’d taken another day away from my office and was already in the car. I didn’t feel like I had much choice. Plus, it was almost noon, and I was hungry.

Given all the talk about Oleg’s tacky taste in restaurants, I was more than a little surprised when Ted, Terry, and I pulled in to a Chili’s off the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway in Bethpage, Long Island. Had the agents gotten their hands on a copy of The Russian Diplomat’s Dining Guide to New York? I knew this couldn’t be the pinnacle of Long Island cuisine.

Waiting at the table for us was an agent from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The NCIS has a big job to do, investigating and defeating criminal, terrorist, and foreign-intelligence threats to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. “On land, on sea, and in cyberspace,” as the NCIS agents like to boast. Oh, and on TV, too. Most people knew the organization’s name only as the title of a long-running CBS television program starring Mark Harmon as Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. The real NCIS agent brought along a former marine pilot who now worked for Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor Terry had mentioned. I knew they had a big facility in Bethpage.

It was a very weird lunch.

After we got our Tex-Mex orders in, the NCIS dude went on for about forty minutes about his diet and exercise regime. “I haven’t had sugar or flour in five years,” he declared proudly. Really, he and Terry should have had a bizarre-eating habits throwdown: Processed mystery meat versus shredded lettuce! May the strangest diet win! The man went on to recount how much weight he’d lost, how low his body-fat was, and what great shape he was in, physically and mentally. He did look lean and healthy, but no sugar or flour, how could it possibly be worth it? Obviously, he had no plans to dive into a Southwest quesadilla—another reason to question why, of all places, we were eating here. I was waiting to see if he scraped all the cheese out of the skillet queso dip when it arrived.

Somewhere along the way, the marine pilot, a pleasant enough guy in his late thirties, got to squeeze in a couple of quick battlefield anecdotes about ditching his helicopter over water and getting picked up by “Pedro, the rescue bird.” If he’d had time to tell the story properly, it might have been interesting. He explained quickly that he went to work for the defense contractor after leaving the marine corps.

Sitting there, I felt trapped in a scene from Dogfight, the River Phoenix movie about the group of marines and their fervent competition to bring the ugliest girl out to dinner: Whoever has the homeliest date wins. The marine pilot was brought by the NCIS agent. I was brought by the FBI. We sat there looking at each other politely and not saying much. Finally, the pilot handed me his business card and said quietly, “You can give that to your friend.” I was more than a little surprised when the FBI agents nodded. That smelled like trouble immediately.

It was the first time I’d seen the FBI involve anyone outside the Bureau or my family—any outsider at all—in what we’d all agreed was a highly secretive relationship between me and my Russian spy. It was also the first I was hearing about me playing human conduit between the Russians and anybody else. Wasn’t the whole idea of a business card to deliver your contact information so that somebody could—oh, I don’t know—contact you? In other words, once I handed Oleg this card, he could reach out directly to Mr. Attack Helicopter Pilot, his badass self. After all my conniving and groundwork, was our active operation moving in a whole new direction—without me?

I didn’t make any promises either way. And since the NCIS agent seemed to have completed his diet-and-fitness lecture, we were all free to leave. We climbed into Ted’s car. They weren’t any more charmed by the NCIS guy than I was. “What a fuckin’ asshole,” Ted said. “We drove all the way out here to hear Mr. Jenny Craig?”

“He only eats the things that I don’t eat, and I don’t eat anything that he does,” Terry said. “Why did we meet him again?”

As far as I could tell—and as far as Ted and Terry were willing to hint—the NCIS agent was maybe going to connect the agents to the navy for me, and the marine pilot was some sort of contact for us at Northrop Grumman. It would have been nice if Ted and Terry had mentioned that to me going in. Weren’t we working together? Was something bigger at play?

“Why should I give that card to Oleg?” I asked. “Am I the cutout here?”

The agents looked a little startled by my question. “The cutout?” Terry asked.

“I can see how this goes,” I said. “I give the card to Oleg. The two of them start talking. He becomes Oleg’s new connection. Oleg goes with this guy. They don’t need me anymore. I am left high and dry, cut out of the entire operation. What value does any of that have to me?”

“That’s not anyone’s intention,” Ted answered. “The marine is just a contact for us at Northrop Grumman. He might help us get some stuff if we need it.”

“Why should I do this?” I said. “You told the NCIS guy we need to get in to Northrop Grumman, and he decides to send in some military guy who’s already on the inside, and squeeze me out. Suddenly, I’m yesterday’s news.”

The more I talked about it, the more concerned I got. I was slowly convincing myself that the FBI no longer had any use for me. The conversation went on awhile. There was a lot of traffic. We still weren’t done by the time we got back to New York. Neither Ted nor Terry had said anything to make me feel better about adding two strangers to the mix and making me the card-passing conduit.

I was still pissed a couple of days later when I met with the agents at the Metro Diner. I came prepared with a detailed brief for them, an official-looking line chart of our effort and its return.

“Very impressive,” Ted said when he saw my chart. “You did that on your computer?”

“Look,” I said, “this is the level of effort I have to commit to. The business has a commitment, too. There is a cost to my company. It is not my money I am diverting. Now you want me to bring someone else in here? It definitely feels like I’m being pushed out after doing all the heavy lifting.”

“No,” Ted said. “These are just people who might be helpful.”

“Then why am I supposed to give the pilot’s card to Oleg?”

“No one said you had to give him the card. Just hold it. Maybe it’ll be something you can use, maybe not.”

I wasn’t completely satisfied. There was clearly lots going on without my knowledge or involvement, and that put me in a bad position from every angle. I complained some more about the way the entire lunch had been set up and conducted. Ted clearly didn’t love the NCIS agent, I knew I had that on my side. “I’m not defending the guy,” he said. “Let’s just see if he turns out to be useful.”

“If you’d just told me we were meeting some guys who could help us get in to Northrop Grumman, I wouldn’t feel like I was being set up,” I said. “Besides, that NCIS guy was a clown. He’s useless to us.”

“You’re really worried about this?” Ted asked me. “There is no need to be. Nobody wants to replace you. I can assure you that won’t be happening.”

“Good,” I said without much confidence. Now more than ever, I was eager to enhance my value as an asset the agents wouldn’t want to lose. Thankfully, I had an idea: “The future is DTIC.”

For months, something had been nagging at me. All this material the Russians had been requesting over the years, how did they know what to ask for? How did they even know it existed? I asked Ted and Terry: “Have you guys ever looked into how they know the exact titles of things to ask for? It doesn’t make sense. The Russians somehow know this stuff exists, but they can’t get it? Isn’t that a little strange? It’s not like most of this information is ever publicized.”

The agents seemed intrigued.

“I went poking around on my own,” I told them. “I was looking for commonalities in the documents that the Russians asked for. The reports came from different agencies. They were written at different times. Some, though not all, were available for purchase through the Government Printing Office. So what one thing did they all have in common? It took some investigation, but I think I’ve found the link.”

All this information and more, I told Ted and Terry, could be retrieved through a proprietary government database run by the Defense Technical Information Center. “This DTIC system is like an in-house Google for reports,” I said. “It’s a way of quickly combing through millions of ridiculously obscure military-technology titles and, if you have access, getting the actual reports.” Then I leaned forward for dramatic effect and lowered my voice to a whisper: “As far as I can tell, every report the Russians have ever asked for is housed in DTIC. We have to leverage DTIC with Oleg.”

This didn’t have to slow our progress on Northrop Grumman. I made that clear. We should proceed with whatever we could get from the defense contractor and offer it to Oleg. In fact, Northrop Grumman would be a good test run for my DTIC approach. “But the real prize, that comes next,” I said. “From here on out, we have to be the ones defining the options. We have to offer him what amounts to a catalog. This is how we get away from him ordering stuff. This is how we’re the ones who are in control.”

The agents seemed receptive. They agreed to discuss it with their superiors and get back to me. So we ended on a positive note, but what an emotional journey to get there. Sometimes Ted and Terry could really frustrate me. I understood that we were all operating on complicated terrain. But everything seemed so maddeningly slow and obfuscated. And these unexpected sideshows kept popping up. No bullshit.

I finally blurted out, “God, that was exhausting! Ted, you are a worthy adversary! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

He seemed taken aback by that. “A worthy adversary,” he said, letting the phrase hang in the air. “That’s a very interesting choice of words.”