EL DORADO - 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)



His face was badly swollen. His cheeks looked almost rubbery. He was slurring even his precise Russian-English words. I knew dental pain when I saw it, and Oleg had a mouthful. As we sat in a booth of the El Dorado Diner on Central Avenue that sullen October morning, I actually felt sorry for him.

“Did you get punched?” I asked him.

I don’t think he found the question amusing. “I punch,” he said without cracking a smile, not that he could have. “I do not get punched.”

“Except by dentists,” I added, unwilling to allow the Russian the final jab in a back-and-forth.

He’d had an abscess, he explained. The dentist had to yank out the tooth. I wondered if he’d been expecting some vodka anesthesia. Back at the GRU Academy on Narodnogo Opolchenia Street in Moscow, Oleg might or might not have received instruction on the tongue-loosening power of tooth-extraction pain, but he had absorbed the lessons on stoicism. Admitting pain, I suppose, was as unthinkable to Oleg as admitting weakness. He swore he was feeling okay. His GRU trainers would have been proud.

I pitied the poor FBI transcriber who had to transcribe this conversation from the recorder-watch. Subject: Rotten Russian Teeth!

This was my first meeting with Oleg since I’d pitched DTIC to Ted and Terry. There hadn’t been any changes to our operation. No one had told me not to meet with the Russian. I hadn’t gotten any directions to pass him off to the marine pilot or to anyone else. In fact, things seemed to have settled back into a state of normalcy.

I did my best to ignore the dental issues and focus on the business at hand. “I have some news,” I told Oleg. “I might be joining the navy.”

“The United States Navy?” he asked.

What other navy would I join? “There is a special program,” I said. “It’s called direct commission. It is very selective. But if you are accepted, they bring you on as officer immediately.”

A small grin swept across Oleg’s pained face. I’d known he would like the sound of that. He was a captain in the Russian Navy, still on duty, assigned to diplomatic responsibilities in New York, also known as spying.

I explained a little more about the direct commission program. It was for the reserves, I told him, so I could keep my day job. “Things wouldn’t have to change for you and me,” I said.

“They might even get better,” Oleg answered. “We may have something new to celebrate.”

I moved things on quickly. “I also want to tell you about the Northrop Grumman project. It will be a large project. It hasn’t happened yet, but it will at some point. They’ll be sending us paper documents. We’ll digitize those, then send them back to the company. I’ll only have a small time frame. I need to know whether you’re interested.”

“I am interested,” he said. “It will depend on what the documents are.”

“Of course,” I said. I handed him the card from the marine pilot. “He’s my contact there.” Oleg slid the card into his pocket and handed me his own stack of papers with two items highlighted. In the margin next to one of them, he had written: “Find out the price.”

I told him I would check. This seemed like the perfect moment to weave DTIC into our conversation. “If I could get you access to a federal database with a wide variety of defense-technology information, including the titles you just asked for, is that something that might be useful to you?” I asked. “If so, that is something we can certainly discuss.”

He lit up. “Yes,” he said, “I would be interested.”

“What I would like to be able to do,” I told him, “is show you a list of documents—maybe a long list—that I might be able to get for you. You can tell me which ones you might want, and I can tell you how much you’ll have to pay for those.”

“You will show me the list, and I will tell you what I am interested in?”

“Exactly,” I said.

“I would be interested in that.”

“We’ll have to work out the money,” I said. “But I think we can do that.”

This was perfect. I’d just offered Oleg the possibility of access to the database that I believed his bosses had been trying to break into for years. He’d be a hero. For both of us, it was very hard not to smile.

He wanted to know more, his gaze told me that much. But it was time to leave that topic and return to the reason I was there. “What I can do with Northrop Grumman is just a small example of what I can get for you.” I don’t know how disappointed he was that I’d taken a step back from the bigger get, but I needed to show that I was in control. “Northrop Grumman, it’s just a start,” I said.

“Just a start,” he said, carefully repeating my words.

* * *

In the diner that day, it wasn’t all about databases. Oleg and I caught up on a few other things. He had his own agenda, too. He mentioned France again. “French is such a beautiful language,” he said. “You are lucky to have a mother who is French.” What was it with Oleg and France? Clearly, he was greasing me up for something. I just didn’t know what. He obviously agreed with my mother, who had told me since I was a boy, “Naveed, travel is broadening.” She and Oleg hadn’t clicked so well in their brief business relationship, but they’d definitely agree on that.

“You like to travel?” he asked. “Do you like to travel abroad?”

His grasp of small talk was either very poor or very transparent. Who doesn’t like to travel? What was he getting at? “Sure,” I said. “I like to travel. It’s a little harder now that I have a company to run. But I like it, of course.”

“Are there places you have always wanted to visit?” he asked.

I knew this was dumb the second I answered. I blurted out, “Mexico.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said that. But for some reason, as he was questioning me, I was thinking about The Falcon and the Snowman, the Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton movie about a couple of well-off California kids who sell classified documents to the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Their exploits take them to Mexico, where bad things occur.

“Ah, Mexico,” Oleg said excitedly. “Mexico is a wonderful country. We should visit there sometime.” Great! Had he seen the movie?

Did I really want to go to Mexico with Oleg? There I was, looking at the puffy aftereffects of his dental procedure and imagining what Russian intelligence officers might do with me off American soil: I was in a dusty Mexican village. A hulking man was wiping his hands with a towel after extracting the first two of my teeth, trying to get me to talk. I’d stumbled blindly into my own imagined version of Spies Like Us, where the Russian interrogator, played by James Daughton, is questioning Chevy Chase’s suspected spy Emmett Fitz-Hume. “Every minute you don’t tell us why you are here, I cut off a finger,” the interrogator declares.

“Mine or yours?” the Chevy character asks.



I still couldn’t believe I’d suggested Mexico.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said dismissively of Oleg’s perked-up interest. “Next time we meet,” I said, steering as far away as possible from any visits south of the border, “perhaps we can talk more about DTIC. And we’ll see what happened with Northrop Grumman.”

“Yes, good idea,” Oleg said.

After we finished and he paid the bill—in cash, as always—we walked outside together to the diner parking lot. That was when he got his first glimpse at my new Corvette.

“Look,” he said excitedly. “You got a new car. A beautiful Mustang.”

He might as well have yanked a molar out of my mouth with a pair of rusty pliers and no Novocain right there in the parking lot.

“A Mustang?” My voice dripped with revulsion. “Did you say a Mustang?”

His eyes widened and his jaw dropped. He had no idea what he had said that was wrong.

“Do I look like somebody who dates his sister?” I asked him. “It’s a Corvette, Oleg. Don’t insult me like that. A Corvette.”

“Yes,” Oleg said. “Obviously. A Corvette. I like it very much.”

“It’s a Corvette,” I said again. “A Corvette. Not a Mustang.”

“A Corvette,” Oleg said.

When I met with Ted and Terry later that afternoon, they loved the Corvette bit. Especially Terry, who had his own Corvette. “Good for you,” he said. “You told him. Who the hell confuses a Mustang with a ’vette? It’s a Corvette.”

“Yeah, fuck him!” Ted said.

The agents were not as happy about Mexico. When I recounted that part of the conversation, they got serious.

“Whose idea was Mexico?” Ted asked. “Yours or his?”

“It was mine,” I admitted. “But couldn’t you guys come with me? If you can’t come, can’t you assign an agent to protect me while I’m down there?”

“What is wrong with you?” Terry shot back.

Time to break the tension with humor, I thought. “You could send a female agent to pretend to be my wife,” I said, “like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.”

“I’ll have to check,” Terry deadpanned. “But I think we’re using her with someone else.” Ted just shook his head.

The agents made clear that under no circumstances would I be leaving the country with Oleg, especially not to Mexico. For one thing, the FBI’s jurisdiction in a case like this one was carefully limited to the United States. “Just imagine,” Terry said, “if the Russians have some suspicion that you’re working with the FBI. This is their plan. The first thing they’ll want to do is move you out of the country. Away from the Bureau’s protection. Where no one is watching you. Out of our reach.”

Now I had something new to worry about. Was that why Oleg had brought it up?

“Oh, yeah,” Ted said to Terry. “It’ll be great. We’ll just turn him over to the ‘Christian Inaction Agency.’ ”

I had never heard that nickname for the CIA, though I was sure it carried decades of bureaucratic rivalry.

“Trust me,” Ted said. “You don’t want to work with those guys.”