PARKING GARAGE - 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)



I certainly wore long sleeves for when I met Oleg again. The last thing I wanted was Oleg eying my Morse-code tattoo as I handed over the Northrop Grumman cockpit manuals.

It was the early part of April—two months since our last short phone call—and he seemed unusually skittish. Oleg liked to control things. I understood that. But my Craigslist suggestion seemed to have rattled him far more than I’d anticipated. I told the FBI agents that I thought I’d scared him off completely. Really, Craigslist was just a way for me to reach him in a hurry, but he seemed to have interpreted it as my setting him up.

Whatever he was thinking, it didn’t keep him away from the bundle of goodies I’d been promising. He came back to me with his own new idea.

Instead of getting together at a restaurant or a coffee shop like we usually did, this time he said he would leave his car in the city and take the train to Westchester. That was fine with me. I didn’t care how he arrived, just so he came. The FBI had completed their meticulous examination of the Northrop Grumman NATOPS cockpit manuals and delivered the blue binders to me. I was itching to make the long-awaited handoff. I suggested to Oleg that he get off at the Metro-North station at Hastings-on-Hudson. I would pick him up there, I said, being doubly cautious about how I handed the manuals to him.

“It’s always good to be careful,” he said.

I had traded in a black 2007 Acura RDX, which I hated, for a 2008 Jeep Cherokee. Six months with the four-cylinder Acura had made me hunger for the four-door version of a muscle car.

The picturesque train station offered water views but little privacy. Instead of bringing the fat blue binders in the Jeep with me, I decided I would stash them in an out-of-the-way location and bring the Russian there. I’d let him inspect the binders, then hand him a tiny black thumb drive that contained the same material and would be a whole lot easier to carry back to the city. For our rendezvous, I chose an auto-storage warehouse on the east bank of the Hudson, barely a two-minute drive from the train station. I knew the place because I had stored my cars there. I figured I’d park the Corvette inside, leave the binders in the trunk, and pick Oleg up at the train in the Jeep. Then we’d drive to the warehouse, a giant brick garage without much in-and-out traffic, a perfectly discreet spot to hand everything over.

The early part of my plan went smooth as butter. We met at the train station. We drove to the garage. We easily got inside. I found my way to the parked Corvette.

Yes, there’d been a couple of bumps, literally and figuratively. The radar detector started squealing. I almost killed Oleg with the car trunk—or thought I had.

But the transfer got done, and I didn’t cause him any permanent brain damage. If anything, our trust seemed to be restored by that day.

“I like the way this is developing,” Oleg said to me before I dropped him back at the train station with a tiny black thumb drive in his pocket.

“Me, too,” I said.

And I think both of us meant it.

* * *

My relationship with Oleg was never quite a straight line. The super-spy rush I’d be feeling would evaporate when I didn’t hear a word from him for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes this drove me crazy. Before I knew it, I was channeling my inner Ronald Reagan, asserting my need to dominate him. I swear, the American red-baiters got at least one point right: You’ll never get anything from the Russians if all you do is equivocate. Strength and directness are what these people understand. Oleg obviously cared about working me and keeping me cooperative. He never stopped treating our relationship like a chess match. He didn’t mind having a strong opponent as long as he felt he was one move ahead and the game didn’t come to a stalemate.

So what was the problem with the FBI? Why were they so poky and unfocused? Maybe I needed to be as clear and frank with the agents as I was with Oleg. I half wanted to slam my shoe on the table like Nikita Khrushchev, or dust off my best Reagan imitation: “We begin bombing in five minutes.” After all the time and effort, my patience was running thin. This had to start paying dividends. And soon.

I met Ted and Terry in Riverside Park. It was early but already hot in the park. They were both dressed casually. It was the first time I’d seen Ted wearing his badge on his belt clip. Was that his way of flashing an “I’m in control” message to me?

“This is a lot of work on my end,” I complained. “It’s getting to the point that I’m having trouble justifying it. The returns just aren’t there for me. It is expensive. It is time-consuming. I don’t mind using the company to a degree. But the amount of work to process half a dozen books for Oleg is a waste of money. It’s a hundred-and-fifty-percent profit, but it comes out to like a hundred bucks. People in the office are starting to wonder why we’re doing this.”

Those were legitimate questions. But my lament went deeper than the paltry return on my time. I’d be willing to expend the time and energy and more if we could move along reeling in the espionage prize. When were we going to dangle something huge in front of him? When was he going to take the bait? I wanted to be a bigger double agent, not a book snitch. I needed something real to pass to him. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to hold his interest. “This all seems so piddling,” I told the agents. “For what we’ve done, we could have left things where they were when my parents were around.” I wanted some sort of conclusion, or at least some sort of action. I knew the famous John le Carré quote from The Russia House: “Spying is waiting,” the narrator Harry de Palfrey says. But all this waiting was getting to me.

The agents took an understanding tone. “Of course,” Ted said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s totally understandable the stress this puts on you and puts on the business. I am very grateful for that. We’re very grateful.

“These things take time,” he went on, as if it were the first time I’d heard this sales pitch. “If you rush it, their suspicions will be raised. They’ll wonder why you’re so desperate to help them. We’ve been pacing it just about right, I think. It’s important that they be the ones who are driving this. It’ll happen. It usually does.”

I appreciated the acknowledgment. It sounded genuine. But while Ted counseled patience, as he’d done countless times before, I was running out.

“Look,” I said, “I get that. I want to help you guys. I understand nothing happens instantly. But there are limits. You have to be respectful of my time. You are expecting me to be here and do this no matter how long it takes. I want to do that, I want to be involved, but I feel like it isn’t taking the course I expected.”

From what I read, I had the impression that things were escalating between the United States and the Russians, and I was sitting off to the side. “It’s like the Russians keep messing with us,” I said. “Did you see that story in the New York Times?” I had printed it out: “Factory Visit Tied to Ouster of Attachés from Russia,” by C. J. Chivers. I handed the printout to Terry.

“The Russians just threw out two American attachés,” I said. “They granted them permission to travel outside Moscow. Once the attachés reached wherever it is they were going, the Russians revoked their permission to travel and threw them out of the country for traveling without permission.”

Ted and Terry laughed. “These guys are bastards,” Ted said. “They rarely play by the rules. When we act, we have all kinds of rules we have to follow. We don’t throw you out until we’ve actually caught you.”

I wanted to steer the agents back to the selfish part—for me. It seemed like we had almost forgotten why I had begun all of this in the first place. “It’s because of the navy,” I reminded them. “Whatever I do with you guys, I want to reference the work for the navy. I want us to achieve something they can look at and say, ‘He did this.’ Do you think we can make that happen? Maybe it’s time we try to get that back in gear.”

Almost on cue, two U.S. Marine attack helicopters came roaring up the Hudson with a couple of Hueys in the mix. They flew in so loud, they almost made the concrete park benches rattle. “You know,” Ted said, “the military is amazing. Every now and then, it is really impressive what we can do.”

“So do you think we can try to rev up the navy process? That would help me justify all this time and effort.”

Ted sounded as soothing as ever and just as noncommittal. “That’s possible,” he said. “Let’s see what we can do.”

While I was waiting, I focused on the success we’d had with Northrop Grumman and the NATOPs manuals. I was still eager to make DTIC a reality. But I couldn’t just walk up to a window at the Defense Department and say, “Hi, I’d like freewheeling access to all of your military, scientific, and technical information.” I needed someone who would vouch for me. I discussed this with Ted and Terry. I knew the authority of the FBI could swing open that access. And it did.

“Our boss, Frank, pushed pretty hard, and we’ve gotten the okay,” Terry told me.

Though I had heard Frank’s name, I didn’t know much about him other than that he was the agents’ supervisor. But I liked his willingness to get behind us. To me, he was Robin Masters, the unseen authority figure on Magnum, P.I.

Under the Books & Research name, I signed a written contract to “provide consultation and research services to FBI Procurement in regards to trends and patterns of federal academic, research, and training institutions on such subjects as catalog management, digitization, and other related topics. The secondary objective will be to provide book and other material procurement services.”

Talk about a mouthful!

Originally, I’d told Oleg I thought the Russians would have to pay me about $10,000 to register on DTIC. It was actually $16,800, and it was paid with a check from the GSA, the United States Government Services Administration. By going this route, I didn’t have to rely on funds from the company or my personal checking account. And I didn’t have to wait for notoriously slow-paying Oleg. As far as he’d know, he owed me a big wad of cash.

Now I had the contract. More important, I had the documentation to prove to Oleg that I had online access to DTIC. An amazing cache of material was waiting for me. There were plenty of mundane charts and memos and reports, but also plenty of files that would have Russian mouths watering.

“Under no circumstances are you ever to give the Russians your DTIC credentials,” Ted warned me. I thought that was a given. I assured him I wouldn’t.

I thought incessantly about how I should present the details to Oleg. Night and day, I asked myself if I were a real traitor, how would I offer something like this? Very carefully, I concluded, focusing obsessively on not getting caught.

I had credentials and permission. I had a license from the FBI, who had paid my ticket aboard. And I had a clever answer when Oleg inevitably asked how I would avoid detection. I knew exactly what to do: I would bury the Russian requests in a batch of innocuous searches. I’d employ the same distraction technique we’d used for buying beer in high school. I would slip it past ’em, hiding my nefarious queries right in plain sight.

I decided to tell Oleg that the documents had to be retrieved in a specific manner, time, and place to avoid detection. That would sound reasonable. It would also protect me from any insistence that I deliver huge armloads of data at a time or hand over my log-in and password.

I discussed all this with Ted and Terry, who reported back to their superiors. There was a real feeling of excitement. We were finally building one hell of a sting to catch some real bad guys.

It was startling how much I had access to, a massive trove of ­government-funded research. Some of these studies had taken years to complete with seven-figure budgets. The data in any one of them could be genuinely damaging to United States security. None of this was intended for hostile foreign eyes. With this new access, even the most technical detail seemed potentially powerful.

* * *

On May 29, 2008, I had an eleven-thirty a.m. appointment in Amityville, Long Island, with David Harris. Like Jeff Jones, he was a commander in the navy. Harris was the officer in charge of the New England region for the intelligence reserves. Through some strange quirk of military geography, that region included New York. I’d had to remind Ted about my navy agenda. But he had come through for me and set this meeting up.

One hour before I arrived at the second-floor office, Ted and Terry had already been there and left. When I showed up, the first thing the navy commander said to me was this: “So these guys with suits came in right before you did, saying, ‘We can’t tell you what he is working on. We can’t tell you anything about it. But we can say he’s a very intelligent and bright person.’ I’m sitting here thinking, ‘Now, what I am supposed to make out of that?’ ”

I said nothing. I didn’t have to. Harris continued, “I’m just a simple sailor who spent the majority of his career chasing Chinese and Russian subs. It’s all very interesting, isn’t it?”

I nodded and agreed that it was.

The two commanders I met could not have been more different. As much as Commander Jones was understated, that’s how bombastic Commander Harris was. They even dressed differently. Harris wore a khaki navy uniform, while Jones had come to our meeting in a pressed gray suit.

Listening to the commander, I had the sense that this was a strange way for a top official to start an important meeting. The commander had said his piece in a matter-of-fact manner. He didn’t follow it with any questions or seek additional clarification. He’d just described his exchange with Ted and Terry and left it hanging, as if repeating an annoying comment he’d overheard that morning in Starbucks—although I couldn’t imagine Harris in a Starbucks. He was definitely more the ship-mess-deck type.

So far I hadn’t been asked to say a thing. This was, I thought dejectedly, less about meeting with a highly decorated navy man than sitting in an office listening to someone talk about me.

I knew Ted and Terry had tried to help, but they’d been so cryptic with the commander that their visit had raised more questions than it had answered and would only raise suspicions about me. I was sure Harris thought the person he was meeting had to be some kind of criminal. Aren’t those the people who end up cooperating with the FBI? People desperate to get out of jams of their own and strike a deal? I wished that Ted and Terry had made clear that I was never in any trouble, that there was a whole operation and it had been my doing, that I’d been the one to take the initiative with Oleg and the FBI and that even pursuing an appointment to the navy was something I’d started on my own. It seemed I’d wasted a trip to Long Island.

But then, unexpectedly, Harris seemed to put aside the FBI intro and started talking with me. “I can see you’re one of those guys who’s totally into reading a lot of stuff,” he said. “You like to sit back and absorb as much as you can about whatever is happening, someone who wants to understand the root cause of things. Am I right?”

Well, yes, I told him. I’d been imagining what the commander might assume about someone named Naveed Jamali interested in joining the ranks of navy intelligence. Given the odd prep and my Middle Eastern name, I was betting he thought I was tied up in terrorism. I believe I managed to dispel any of that. Whatever preconceived notions he might have started out with, I think he was pleasantly surprised to hear that I was reasonably well read and well spoken and well versed in both military and world events—and most important, after some direct questioning, he knew I had no obvious criminal or terroristic connections. As far as I could tell, he seemed to enjoy our back-and-forth.

That didn’t mean I’d forgotten the awkward opening minutes. As soon as I got out of there, I had to talk to Ted. “Dude,” I said, “you gotta stop showing up in suits, talking to these people in the navy, and saying cryptic things about what I’m doing for you. They’re starting to think I’m a drug dealer or a criminal or a terrorist. If this is help, I don’t want it.”

Ted let me go on, like he often did. After a while, he said, “I get it, but I can’t promise anything.”

* * *

On a sunny Saturday morning in late July, I was summoned to Fort Hamilton, a joint army and navy base on the Brooklyn waterfront, for interviews with the regional selection board. I met Juli in the base parking lot. She led me into a waiting area where six other nervous-looking young men were sitting uncomfortably. These were the other intelligence finalists from the New York area. I had some impressive competition: people who’d actually done stuff. A lawyer. A couple of men with law-enforcement backgrounds. Two air marshals, one of whom had a law degree. One guy was working on his PhD. Several had prior enlisted service in the navy.

Despite the seriousness of the occasion, we had all been told not to wear suits and ties or uniforms. Only one lieutenant, who seemed to know Juli, must have missed the casual-dress memo. He was wearing his navy-issue pressed khakis with several rows of ribbons on his chest. “I told you,” Juli snapped at him loud enough for the rest of us to hear, “they don’t wear uniforms here.”

I sat next to a finalist named Thomas. From a quick glance, I could tell that he and I were the only “ethnics” in the waiting room. He was Indian-American. We bonded instantly.

“So you here for a green-card interview, too?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied without missing a beat. “I’m here to audition for terrorist number three on 24. Is this the right place?”

“I don’t know. But if you and I are seen speaking to each other for another two minutes, we could be considered coconspirators, and the LT over there can legally shoot us.”

With that, we laughed and shook hands. Thomas was my age, recently married, with a young daughter. He had started at the NYPD before becoming a federal air marshal. Like me, he seemed impervious to insult. The fifteen minutes we spent BS’ing that day cemented a friendship that would last for years.

One by one, all seven of us were called into the conference room and invited to take a seat at a long oak table with shoreline views. The last time I had been at a table like this—for my board interview in Boston—I had ultimately lost out to applicants with deeper résumés, many of them boasting strong operational experience. Again, I was up against some seriously credentialed competition, but I was older now. I was running a company now. And I was an actual double agent now, even if we had to be careful in revealing some of the details.

The chairman of the regional selection board, Captain Gary Golomb, didn’t ask me a lot of technical questions. He didn’t want to know what a foc’sle was or show me any drawings of turning planes. He seemed interested in talking about current events. He asked for my opinion about U.S. relations with Iran. We got into a long discussion of one element of the Bush Doctrine, the notion that a nation harboring terrorists is just as guilty as the terrorists themselves and should be held just as responsible when it comes to a U.S. military response.

The Bush Doctrine wasn’t really invented by George W. Bush. Similar arguments were made in the “Red October” days of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and their proxy states. But it’s been a key concept in America’s effort to combat asymmetrical threats since 2001—plausible deniability, WMDs, the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11—and it keeps coming up. Terrorists exist because states allow them to exist by not trying to stop the extremists and by providing material aid.

I love talking about that stuff, and it showed. As I expected, the board didn’t ask me anything at all about my activities with the FBI and Russians.

I was thrilled. I was still in the game.