SPEEDING UP - 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)



Oleg and I had agreed to continue our Westchester County lunch tour at the Fountain Diner in Hartsdale. He was already in the booth when I walked in that late December morning. After we said hello, he immediately excused himself to use the men’s room.

What was it with these espionage guys and their constant bathroom visits? The agents, Oleg—there wasn’t a normal-size bladder on either side of the post-Cold War. I’d hate to take a cross-country road trip with any of these people. We’d be pulling in to every second rest stop from the New Jersey Turnpike to the Santa Monica Freeway. It would be like traveling with a carload of six-year-olds. We’d die of old age before we ever saw the Pacific.

I picked up the lengthy menu and watched him make his way quickly to the men’s room. If Oleg was wearing a hidden recorder like I was, why run to the men’s room? Couldn’t he press record in the parking lot?

When he got back to the booth, I got right down to business: “I looked for your articles. I have a good idea where to get them. But that’s just two articles. That’s nothing. As I mentioned last time, I think I have a better solution for you.”

Oleg looked at me, but he didn’t look happy. Did he think I was stalling?

“The federal government has a lot of databases. Some are far more interesting than others. They focus on all kinds of different things. One of them, the one I mentioned last time, is called DTIC. It covers some areas I think you are very interested in.” With that, I handed over the coup de grâce: a neatly formatted twenty-page bibliography of articles about the Tomahawk cruise missile.

I gave him a minute to turn through the pages and fully appreciate what he was looking at. “I can get access, but it won’t be cheap,” I warned him. “I don’t know how much, exactly. But for that fee, you will get everything.”

“Everything?” he asked.

“A lot,” I said. “You might find that would be a highly favorable return on your investment.” I might as well talk in business terms.

“Okay,” Oleg said, nodding slowly. “I like that.”

“Say, for instance, you are interested in Tomahawk missiles,” I said. “You tell me, ‘Tomahawk missiles.’ And I can give you a long list like this one. You look at the list and tell me which titles you are interested in. I will get you those. It’s like ordering off the menu at the Russian Samovar. You want the blini or the caviar?”

“Like what?”

“Never mind,” I said.

He was grasping the idea slowly. “You will show me the list,” he said, “and I will tell you what I am interested in?”

“Exactly,” I said.

“I would be interested in that. Yes. I would be interested. Let’s do this.”

I told him I thought the registration cost would be around ten thousand dollars, and then there would be a fee every few months. He didn’t have that much with him, but he said he would give me what he had, twenty-five hundred, with a promise to pay the balance the next time we met.

That was an important milestone. Not the money. I’d gotten money from him before. But he took a step forward without getting prior approval from his bosses in Moscow. He showed his own ego and decisiveness. I gave him credit for his willingness to say yes.

Some of this could take a while, I warned him. First I had to register for the database and get accepted. He had to get me the money for the registration fee. “In the meantime,” I said, hinting at my haul from the trip to Long Island, “I might have something interesting for you from the Northrop Grumman project.”


“It has to do with fighter jets,” I told him.

Damn, I was getting good at this! I knew just what buttons to push.

When the waitress dropped off our food and had moved far enough away for me to continue, I told Oleg, “We have to be ready to act quickly.”

I wasn’t in any big hurry. I was still waiting for the FBI to get me the Northrop Grumman material. But while I was cooling my heels, I wanted more control over the pace. I didn’t want Oleg constantly snapping his fingers every time he was ready for me to jump. “When I get the material from Northrop Grumman, I can’t wait another month or two for you to call. The window is too short for that. I’ll have to reach out to you.”

This was something that had pissed me off for a long time, this whole idea of one-way communication. With the power of phony urgency on my side, maybe I had a chance to build a genuine two-way street. “I need a way to contact you,” I told him. “And I don’t mean email. I am not using email. Too many traces. I have another idea.”

I told him that when I needed to reach him, I would be sending a signal that I wanted him to call me. “We’ll use the Denver Craigslist, the lost-and-found section. I’ll put up an ad saying I’ve lost a black North Face jacket. That will be the signal for you to contact me. Keep checking Craigslist. When you see that, you’ll know I’m ready to meet.”

To make sure Oleg understood, I gave him a Craigslist cheat sheet, a step-by-step explanation of where to look and what to look for. He seemed to think he could follow that.

Before we said goodbye, Oleg told me he was going home to Russia for the holidays. “But,” he added cheerfully, “I look forward to seeing you in the New Year.”

He left the diner with a bounce in his step.

* * *

In late January, I put a message on Craigslist Denver, saying I’d lost a black North Face jacket and I was offering a reward. For a couple of days, I heard nothing. Then Oleg called.

When my cell phone rang, Ava and I and several friends were having dinner at a popular restaurant underneath the West Side Highway called Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Oleg was calling from a 718 number I didn’t recognize. I had a feeling it might be him, so I answered.

“I saw the message on the Internet, but I can’t meet you,” he said.

It was loud in the restaurant. I couldn’t hear everything he said. I asked him to hold a second and walked to a spot that was a little quieter, but it was still hard to hear.

“I am sorry,” he said. “It is not possible. I will be calling you again when I can meet.”

What could I do? I said “okay” and then “goodbye.” But I was not happy at all. I thought I’d made it clear that any attempt on my part to reach him meant I was operating within a small window of opportunity. I’d stressed the urgency several times. And Oleg was blowing me off? Not cool.

Before I returned to the table, I went out to the sidewalk where I could hear, and I called the 718 number. Oleg didn’t answer. Instead, I found myself speaking to a different man with a strong Russian accent. Make that trying to speak. It was a short phone call.

I asked for Oleg. The man knew enough English to respond, “He left.”

When I thought about it later, I concluded that the whole idea of my being able to summon Oleg must have been deeply troubling for the Russians. It gave Oleg no time to alert his bosses in Moscow. It gave them no time to prepare Oleg to meet with me. No time for them to decide how far he could go. No time for whatever their pre-meeting protocols were. If I started calling audibles, I’d be taking away any advantage they thought they had.

Much as I hated it, we were back to snap, jump, meet.

* * *

You do this kind of work long enough, you go a little crazy. That’s what I was finding, anyway. It’s a fact of the double-agent life.

I couldn’t tell anyone what I was up to. I certainly couldn’t expect my friends to keep a secret as juicy as this. By the time I blabbed anything about my secret life to the second and third person, 33—and then 333 more—people would also know. And one of them would surely have a Russian friend.

I told exactly one person about my counterespionage activities. Ava. Even my parents I kept mainly in the dark. They didn’t ask much, and I didn’t say much. From time to time, they asked in the vaguest terms: “Everything okay at the office?” or sometimes “Still hearing from the Russians?” I answered with similar vagueness: “All good.” “Same as usual.” “You know the Russians.” That seemed to satisfy everyone.

But thank God for Ava. She was my outlet, my confidante, the one person I could discuss my fears and frustrations with. As close as I’d grown to Ted and Terry, we mostly talked about tactical and operational matters. We were always jockeying for position, struggling for operational control. Neither party would admit a weakness to the other, that’s for sure. Ava was the only one I could do that with. I always knew I could trust her. But as important as she was to me when it came to admitting doubts or fears, she was also the only one I could afford to be open with about how exciting it was, how proud I was. There were more than a few times when I just wanted to stand up and scream out loud, “Here I am! Look at me! I’m a total fuckin’ amazing espionage badass!” I wanted badly to make a public pronouncement of some sort, roll down the window of my ’vette, and shout it out for the world to hear.

Instead, I got a tattoo.

I felt like I had to do something to prove this whole double-agent thing existed—prove it to myself most of all. Something actual. Something physical. Something undeniably real. Something that connected me to this long, secret journey I was on. It wasn’t like I was going to keep a coffee-table scrapbook of my secret meetings with Oleg or the FBI. It would all be over one day, and what proof would I have?

So on the morning of March 22, as I was starting to prep for my next meeting with Oleg, I pulled on a T-shirt that said “NY DOESN’T LOVE YOU.” Then Ava and I made a trip to Red Rocket Tattoos. I’d never gotten a tattoo. The brightly lit shop was in midtown, on the second floor of a Garment District building around the corner from Macy’s. I told the heavyset biker-looking dude that I wanted the words Green Kryptonite in Morse code on the inside of my right forearm.

“Green Kryptonite?” he asked. “What are you, some kind of superhero?”

“No,” I told him, “although I am thinking of starting a line of capes.”



He looked at me a little quizzically. But from what I’d seen on bulging biceps, beefy necks, and hairy backs around New York, people made all kinds of strange requests at local tattoo parlors.

“All right,” he said, “I can do that.”

I didn’t know Morse code. And I didn’t expect the tattoo guy to know it, either. So the night before, I’d gone online and found a Morse-code chart and carefully mapped the letters out: dash-dash-dot for G, dot-dash-dot for R, dot for E, dot for the second E, dash-dot for N, and so on.

He bandaged my arm, and Ava and I headed home.

On the way back, she asked me, “Did you think this through, Naveed?”

I just looked at her and answered, “Do I ever?”

I said nothing to the agents about my new tattoo. I hadn’t asked Ted and Terry for permission beforehand. They would have objected. As far as I was concerned, they weren’t going to tell me what I could put on my body. And I had to admit, keeping a secret from them felt good.

I’d have to be doubly careful around Oleg. Long-sleeve shirts from now on at Pizzeria Uno! My first bet was that he wouldn’t recognize the dots and dashes for what they were, even if he had learned Morse code in his school days. And what if he did crack my tattoo code? I could only imagine the questions the Russian might ask: What is this Green Kryptonite? Why is the kryptonite green? Are you Superman? There I’d be, trying to explain to him how Green Kryptonite was my nickname in college or that his mom and I got matching tattoos.

Call me immature if you want to. Call me impetuous. I’ll plead guilty. I even went on Facebook and threw up a picture of my freshly tattooed arm with the obnoxious caption “Getting inked up, yo!,” provoking my friend Benjamin Dash to comment: “You what? You got a tattoo? I hope you spelled my name right.”

I had done my share of boneheaded things in my life, but I’m not sure that anything was quite the equal of getting my secret FBI code name tattooed onto my arm, then bragging about it on Facebook—with photographic proof!

But that’s where my head was. That tattoo was my little F-U to everyone. It was like I was rebelling against my parents all over again. You can’t tell anyone, you can’t tell anyone, you can’t tell anyone—after a while, you almost have to tell someone, even it’s a biker-looking guy at a New York tattoo parlor who doesn’t understand what any of it means. I think that’s a normal human response to stress. It was my response, anyway.

Ava hadn’t said she thought getting a tattoo of my secret code name was a great idea. But she hadn’t fought me, either. She knew almost everything. After the maxi-pad incident, keeping secrets from her seemed almost as dangerous as Oleg figuring out what I was up to.

I did wonder what my parents would think of their Harvard-dropout son getting a tattoo. But they’d never connect my dots and dashes to what they’d started so long ago with the Russians. They had inklings, I’m sure, that my relationships with both the agents and the Russians had gone far beyond those they’d had. But they never asked me to tell them how far. I didn’t think they really wanted to know. I didn’t want to involve them. But that also left me feeling very much isolated and invisible.

I’m not complaining. But it can be more than a little rattling, living inside a compartmentalized cone of silence—hiding so much from friends and family, putting in the hours of painstaking prep, avoiding the inevitable questions about my peripatetic whereabouts, strictly maintaining my triple identity. Triple because it wasn’t just my double-agent double identity I was expected to keep straight. I was one person with Oleg. I was another person with the FBI. And I was yet another person with everyone else in my life. Sometimes I had a little trouble remembering what was real and who was me. If you think that isn’t disorienting, you try it sometime.

I had my Green Kryptonite tattoo. I was hoping I would never need one that said “Naveed Jamali.”