EASY LIES - 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)



Ted and Terry said hardly anything in the car.

Two weeks before Christmas, the three of us were heading east again in Terry’s Ford Taurus, on our way to Northrop Grumman. Something about the Long Island Expressway seemed to strike these agents mum. The agents mentioned that we’d be stopping first at a nearby motel, where we could map out an action plan.

An action plan?

“So what’s this all about?” I pressed as we sat in heavy traffic somewhere in eastern Queens.

“We’ll discuss it when we get to the motel,” Terry said firmly. Then he quickly changed the subject, describing how he’d gotten his car cleaned that morning, inside and out. “I even went for the Armor All.”

“Good for you,” I mumbled. Nothing he did would ever make a Taurus look good.

I was feeling nervous about our little field trip. I had a sense the agents might be nervous, too. By now they had to know I did not like surprises.

The Meadowbrook Motor Lodge billed itself “Long Island’s premier property for budget-conscious travelers.” I’d say the emphasis was more on “budget” than “premier.” Ted went into the office and got the room key. Then he, Terry, and I went inside. Terry and I both grabbed chairs. Ted sat on the edge of the bed.

“So here’s what’s gonna happen,” Ted said. “We’ll drive over to Northrop Grumman and drop you off at the building where they have their archives. It’s just like a library. People are there to help you. You go in and get whatever it is you get.”

This was not calming me down. I had no idea where I was going once I got inside, who I was going to meet, what I was going to ask for, or even what I was going in to get. When I realized Ted was finished laying out his “action plan,” I asked, “What am I getting there?”

“I don’t know,” Ted said. “That’s up to you.”

Why did they always answer like that? Maybe they didn’t know any more than I did. So much for having our marine on the inside.

“So I’m just going to walk into this place and ask for stuff? What stuff? Why do I say I’m there? Do I tell them I’m with the Literacy Board and I’m there to check for dangling participles?” Okay, that was dumb. But I did feel like I was flying blind. “Can you at least tell me if they’re expecting me?”

“They know that somebody may be coming by,” Terry said. “Just do what you do well. Tell them a story about research and digitizing and needing some technical manuals.”

I was starting to think I might need my own plan—for getting safely out of there. I remembered what Sam, the Robert De Niro character in Ronin, said after stashing his gun in an alley behind a mobbed-up restaurant: “Lady, I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.” Was I about to violate the Ronin rule? I was glad I had two hundred dollars in my back pants pocket and 666-6666, the number for Carmel Car Service, programmed into my phone.

I knew how the agents felt about keeping these interactions organic. Like me, they were reluctant to be nailed down by detailed scripts. But how about a little guidance here, guys? “I’m guessing that I can’t mention why I’m really there, right?”

“That would be a correct assumption,” Terry replied.

I looked at Ted. The way he was sitting on the edge of the bed, his left foot was on the floor, and his right leg was resting on the bed. I had a perfect dead-on view of his nine-millimeter Glock model 20 semiautomatic handgun poking out of the bottom of a leather holster—angled straight at me. I knew that was the gun he carried. I’d just never had such a clear, down-the-barrel view.

I’m sure that was an accident—right?

“Look, Naveed, this is totally voluntary,” Ted said. “You should only do what you feel comfortable doing. We don’t want you to feel this is something being forced on you.”

I didn’t acknowledge the gun, though I could have sworn Ted had a twinkle in his eye. “Voluntary? So I could voluntarily get up and walk out of here?”

Ted’s eyes stopped smiling.

“What happens if somebody starts asking questions about why a random guy is walking in and walking out with a pile of company documents?” I asked. “What happens if they call security?”

Terry said, “We’ll be waiting in the parking lot.”

I thought about it for another second. So I was expected to walk into a place where the people were, at best, vaguely expecting someone but not me specifically. I would then sweet-talk my way into getting something—I had no idea what—we could use for the op. Once again, the FBI didn’t want their fingerprints on any of this. It was command-and-control from thirty thousand feet—or at least a hundred yards into the parking lot. On the flip side, I was pretty sure that if things went south, Ted and Terry wouldn’t let me rot in jail. They were the FBI. They must have friends in law enforcement, even on Long Island.

So I agreed. Despite my misgivings, I trusted myself. And I trusted the agents. I wasn’t willing to give up on Oleg yet.

I smiled and got up from the motel-room chair. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go shopping.”

* * *

Terry drove to the parking lot. As we stopped, he pointed out the building where the archives were. Ted turned around to look me straight in the face. “We trust you and your judgment,” he said. “Just be careful. These little guys can talk. If you’re not careful, you’ll be in there for hours.”

“Yeah,” Terry added, “they’re mostly retirees in there. Volunteers. They have plenty of time on their hands.”

Great. Now I had to look out for elderly rambling conversationalists. I got out of the car and went inside.

I introduced myself using my real name, not knowing if that would help smooth the way or not. Then I gave them a story that, like most good ruses, was rounded partially in truth. I told them I worked for Books & Research, a government contractor and information firm. We were working on a digitizing project and needed some research material that we could test the system on.

“Do you have any material we could scan?” I asked the helpful clerk.

“I’m sure we do. What do you want?”

I knew that Northrop Grumman had built some of the leading jet aircraft in the U.S. arsenal. Back in the 1960s, they’d even built the Apollo lunar-landing module. Despite the heated U.S.-Soviet space race that had come to symbolize the Cold War era, I didn’t think Oleg had much interest in space travel.

But there were plenty of other items in the Northrop Grumman catalog to choose from. “Some of the military aircraft the company is so respected for?” I suggested with a small note of flattery.

The clerk didn’t hesitate. He mentioned several jet fighters I had heard of, the F-14 being one of them. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see those.”

It went on like that, with the clerk proudly throwing out names of Northrop Grumman product lines and me saying, “Can I see those, too?”

I didn’t sign for anything. I didn’t show any ID. I didn’t promise to return anything. I did give them my business card, which said “Books & Research,” but anyone could have printed that up at Kinkos. No one mentioned they’d been expecting me. No one said anything about the marine pilot I had met or whether he had somehow vouched for me. No one mentioned the FBI. I truly got no indication one way or the other whether the FBI had greased the way for me.

Either way, I left Northrop Grumman with a shopping list of enticing documents about America’s frontline military aircraft, enough to fill a large cardboard box and, I hoped, to catch a Russian spy. I walked back out to Ted and Terry, who were right where I had left them in the defense contractor’s parking lot. It would now be the agents’ job to fill my order.

Driving back on the LIE, traffic was terrible. I reviewed the material I had received. It all looked pretty impressive, I had to say.

Traffic was in a choke hold at the Queensboro Bridge. “Fuck this traffic,” I said to Ted and Terry. “Can’t you turn on a siren or something?”

The car was at a standstill. They both turned around and looked at me.

“We can’t,” Terry said.

“What do you mean, you can’t? You’re the FBI. Why can’t you? Who’s gonna know?”

“We’d know,” Ted said.

I didn’t think he was joking. He didn’t crack a smile.

* * *

When we finally reached my street, Ted pulled up to the curb in front of a fire hydrant. The plan was to leave the box of manuals with the agents for now. Before I could get out of the car, Ted stopped me, saying we had some paperwork to take care of. “Why don’t you give it to him,” he said to Terry.

It was a three-page typewritten document. “Code of Conduct,” the page on top said. The document was fairly detailed. It included a long list of items I was expected to agree to. Promising I wouldn’t represent myself as an agent of the FBI. Acknowledging I was subject to all federal, state, and local laws. Saying that anything that I received in the course of the investigation would be turned over promptly to the FBI.

There was more, but Ted didn’t wait for me to finish. “Okay,” he said, “there’s a place to sign at the end.”

I flipped the pages, looking for the signature block.

“You’re not gonna use your real name,” Terry said.

This was new. I’d used Naveed Jamali since we’d begun the operation. “Okay.”

“You’re gonna sign it like this,” Ted said. “Green Kryptonite.”

“Green Kryptonite?” I asked him. “What the fuck is that?” Had I just gotten a code name?

“Yeah. It’s a pretty fuckin’ cool name,” Ted said proudly. “I checked. It wasn’t taken yet.”

I guessed they had a no-doubling-up-on-code-names rule in the FBI. I knew Ted was a fan of superhero comics. I was sure he hadn’t stumbled onto this one by accident. I knew enough about kryptonite: In its presence, Superman turned weak and nauseated. His veins popped out and his skin grew dark. He lost his superpowers and even risked death. That kryptonite was one powerful substance!

“So Wonder Woman and My Little Pony were already taken?” I teased. “I know you’re looking to evoke fear in the hearts of our enemies. But Superman? This sounds like a name that was chosen by some forty-year-old guy who lives in his mom’s basement and plays a lot of World of Warcraft. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Ted groaned. But the truth was, I couldn’t stop smiling now that I’d been given my very own FBI identifier.

Wow, I thought. A code name. That was pretty cool. I totally forgot about all the concerns I’d been feeling earlier. Who cared about danger and threateningly pointed Glocks and grabbing secret documents from a government contractor? I was a grown man, and I had a code name. If only my six-year-old self could see me now!

And though I would never admit it to Ted, he’d made a pretty awesome choice. Green Kryptonite sounded thoroughly badass to me.