FAMILY BUSINESS - 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)



The Russians just appeared.

One morning in the spring of 1988, when I was twelve years old, a man walked into my parents’ office suite at 250 West Fifty-seventh Street, near Columbus Circle. He was tall and blond. He had blue eyes and a trim, athletic build. He appeared to be in his middle forties. He was wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a nice beige trench coat.

“Good morning,” my father said. “Can I help you with something?”

“I would like to place an order for books,” the man said.

He spoke in confident English with the slightest East European accent. He sounded well educated, as if he might be a professor or a resident wonk from a foreign-policy think tank. His tone was pleasant but stiff.

“Unfortunately,” my father told the man, “we don’t sell books to individuals. We are not a bookstore, despite our name. I’m very sorry.” The confusion was understandable at a company called Books & Research, after all.

“Of course,” the man said, as if he knew that already. “Please let me explain. My name is Tomakhin. I am with the United Nations. I am part of the Soviet Mission in New York.”

My father gave his own name. The Russian held out a business card—not handing it to my father, just holding the card so my father could read what was printed there. PERMANENT MISSION OF THE USSR TO THE UNITED NATIONS, the card said in raised gold letters. It listed a 212 telephone number and a Manhattan address, 136 East Sixty-seventh Street. The card also said Tomakhin’s rank was colonel.

“I work on weapons proliferation and disarmament,” Colonel Tomakhin said.

My parents didn’t get a lot of walk-in traffic, let alone colonels from the Soviet Mission to the UN. It wasn’t that my dad was especially suspicious. He was just trying to get a clearer picture of who this Tomakhin was. “Can I ask how you heard about us?”

“You were recommended by a colleague at the United Nations,” the visitor said. “My colleague said that you might be able to help us with some materials for a project we are working on.”

My father thought for a second. “Do you know what you want?”

“Of course, of course,” the Soviet colonel said. He was nothing if not agreeable and organized. He reached into the pocket of his trench coat and produced a sheet of unlined white paper, folded in half. The paper contained a neatly handwritten list of academic journals and books.

There were ten items in all, arcane scholarly titles that might be of interest to a graduate student in international relations or, yes, a UN military attaché. They were all what people in the research world call “open source,” not restricted or classified. Any of these items could have been found in a decent college library but probably not across Fifty-seventh Street, at Coliseum Books. This was brainy stuff: the 1987 SIPRI World Armaments and Disarmament Yearbook. A special nonproliferation issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Tables of World Military Expenditures. A Foreign Affairs report called “Reluctant Warriors: The United States, the Soviet Union, and Arms Control.” There were other, similar titles, from Oxford University Press, the Brookings Institution, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, but nothing outside the normal interests of a military-focused diplomat.

After glancing at the list, my father said, “This should not be a problem. What address should we ship them to?”

“No,” the Russian said firmly, “that won’t be necessary. I will pick them up from you. Is two weeks enough time? Three weeks? I will pay you when I return.”

“Two is fine,” my father said before walking the Soviet colonel to the door, shaking his hand, and telling him goodbye.

My father wasn’t sure what to make of any of this. But he felt no particular reason for alarm. He was open to developing new business at the United Nations. All those diplomats on the East Side of Manhattan could be a great profit center for Books & Research, he thought in passing. But he had more pressing matters to attend to. The minute the man was out the door, my father cleared the conversation from his mind, walked back to his office, shut the door, and got busy at his desk.

But not for long.

Barely thirty minutes after the Russian man left, there was a knock at my father’s door. “Two gentlemen are here to see you,” said Usman, one of the account managers. He looked slightly uncomfortable. “They said they need to talk with you in private.”

One man was in his fifties, the other his middle thirties. They both had close-cropped dark hair and glasses. Like the Russian who’d just departed, the two visitors stood in the doorway wearing trench coats. Theirs were dark.

Why all the trench coats? my father thought as he motioned for the men to come in. “Please, have a seat,” he said, closing the door behind them. “What can I do for you?”

The men introduced themselves as special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. First the UN, now the FBI. It wasn’t even noon yet.

The men said they worked in counterintelligence. My father had no trouble believing that. They seemed extremely somber, as if they were carrying some great burden they couldn’t speak about. They wasted no time on small talk, as if they might be trying out for the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. role in a remake of the 1960s TV show The FBI. The younger agent pulled an eight-by-ten glossy photo from a manila folder and placed it on my father’s desk. It was a head shot of the colonel from the Soviet Mission.

“Mr. Jamali,” the older agent began.

They know my name, my father thought. They know my name!

“A short while ago,” the agent continued, “this man came to your office. What did you speak with him about?”

The question came just like that, plain and direct, without any buildup or icebreaking pleasantries. The agents didn’t detail the extent of what they knew or how they knew it. But their approach strongly suggested that my father might as well answer, since they already know everything.

My father knew so little, he didn’t even know what everything might entail. “He was here earlier. He is from the Soviet Mission at the United Nations. He showed me his card, but he didn’t leave it. He ordered some books from us. Is there a problem?”

The agents didn’t answer the question directly. “We’d be interested in knowing what he ordered,” the older agent said.

My father didn’t see much percentage in arguing. “I have the list right here,” he said.

He handed it to the younger agent, who read it carefully and passed it to his partner. They both nodded knowingly.

“Can we get a copy?” the older agent asked. Like most of his questions, this one didn’t end with a question mark.

“Certainly,” my father said. “Can you tell me a little more about what this is all about? I’m not used to this sort of thing. Who is this man?”

“Mr. Tomakhin is part of Soviet intelligence,” the agent said.

“Soviet intelligence?” my father asked.

“Soviet intelligence,” the agent repeated. “We would like your help with him. Would you be willing to help us?”

For my father, that question wasn’t as simple it might be for some people. He loved America in the special way that many immigrants do. He had come from around the world and chosen to make America his home. He had no particular affinity for the Soviet Union. But he also came from a country where helping the authorities keep an eye on someone was fraught with implications. My father had never thought of himself as the informant type.

“Is it dangerous?” my father asked.

“No, not at all,” the older agent assured him. “There shouldn’t be any danger whatsoever.”

“Well, what do you want me to do? Should I fill his order?”

“By all means,” the agent said. “Complete his order. Treat him like you would any customer. When he returns—if he returns—we will be in touch.”

My father wasn’t sure how he felt about the agents and their request. But for now, he decided he would go along. Before shaking hands and saying goodbye, each of the agents handed my father a business card.

“Mr. Jamali,” the older agent said, “we very much appreciate your cooperation in this matter.”

* * *

What a morning!

My mother, who had been out of the office for an appointment, returned soon after the FBI agents had left. By then, my father had taken a few minutes to collect himself. He told my mother about the visitors. He’d just come face-to-face with both sides of the Cold War, he explained to my mom. “It’s all so spy-versus-spy,” he said. And both sides seemed to have agendas right here on West Fifty-seventh Street.

“How do you feel?” my mother asked.

“Well, it’s kind of exciting, I have to admit that,” my father told her. “But it was unnerving, too.” He didn’t have to tell my mother he wasn’t the kind of man who was eager to report on someone to the government, any government. And he certainly didn’t want to dive into the middle of some Soviet-American tug-of-war. “Honestly,” my father said, “I don’t know exactly what to make of it.”

My mother had a thousand questions. “How did the Soviet man find us?” she asked my father.

“He said a colleague gave him our name.”

“Who?” my mother asked.

“He didn’t say, exactly.”

“And you didn’t ask him?”

My father didn’t answer that. He didn’t have to.

“Is any of this illegal?” my mother asked.

“I don’t think so,” my father said. “The FBI is involved.”

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

* * *

“Nice to see you again, Naseem,” Colonel Tomakhin said when he returned in two weeks. Give the man this much, he had a quick familiarity. “I came to see if my books have come in.”

My father told him that they had. He walked back to the storeroom and returned with an unsealed cardboard box. The books and journals were packed neatly inside, along with an invoice for $163.75.

Tomakhin handed my father two crisp hundred-dollar bills.

“Let me see if I can find some change for you,” my father said.

“My friend,” the Russian colonel said, “don’t worry about it. That’s fine. Consider it a thank-you for getting these to me so promptly.”

The two men traded some small talk before the Russian said goodbye. My father could banter with anyone.

“So how goes the disarmament business?” my father asked.

“A work in progress,” the Russian said with a half-sigh, half-laugh. “It’s always a work in progress. But we keep trying.”

“We wouldn’t want to put you out of business,” my father said.

Before leaving the office, the Russian handed my father another list of journal articles and books. This one wasn’t so different from the first one, except for one small wrinkle: The last two items were not books or articles but official U.S. government publications.

Again, nothing top secret. Nothing highly sensitive. Nothing that couldn’t have been found in the library at Columbia or NYU. But for Books & Research customers, these items had to be ordered through NTIS, the National Technical Information Service, a massive clearinghouse for technical reports produced by the federal government. It’s reasonable to assume that the UN mission of a hostile government would have had a difficult time opening a purchasing account at NTIS.

“I will be back in a month or so,” Tomakhin said.

“I should have your order by then,” my father assured him.

The FBI agents hadn’t asked my father to call when the Russian colonel returned. They’d said they would be in touch. Three days later, the younger agent was on the phone. Somehow, my father thought, the FBI must be keeping tabs on the colonel. Or is it close tabs on us?

“He was here,” my father said.

“We know,” the agent said. “Do you have the titles?”

“I have them,” my father said.

“Mr. Jamali,” the agent said, “as always, we appreciate your cooperation.”

For these agents, that was just another way of saying goodbye.

* * *

So began a strange two-decade relationship between my family and the government of America’s sworn enemy number one, the Soviet Union—a nation that children from coast to coast had grown up loathing and their parents often feared. The Cuban missile crisis. Bomb drills in schools. Underground bunkers in suburban backyards. The Soviets inspired nuclear panic and Cold War nightmares.

And so, too, began our family’s parallel relationship with the FBI, as America’s top counterintelligence agents were never far behind. As those two relationships would unfold, the earliest cracks would begin to show in the great Soviet empire. Russian troops would retreat in defeat from Afghanistan. A strike would break out at the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks in Nowa Huta, touching off months of labor unrest across Poland. Demands for freedom would be heard in Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Perestroika, the promise of greater openness from Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, would turn out to be not nearly enough to quell the call for change. Democratic uprisings would sweep across Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall would fall. The Soviet empire would shatter like a Fabergé egg. Capitalism, a uniquely Russian capitalism, would become the order of the day.

The Russians would insist loudly that they were now our friends. And through the fits and starts of world-changing upheaval—the ups and the downs, the encouraging signals, and the dashed hopes—men with the accents of Moscow, Odessa, and St. Petersburg would keep showing up at the New York offices of my parents’ Books & Research company.

Regime change in Moscow, the Soviet empire’s utter collapse, damaging compromises by U.S. agents like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen—my parents’ relationship with the Russians would survive it all. All those years, my parents had been in a strictly reactive mode—waiting for the Russians to return, tipping off the FBI, then quickly getting back to work. They weren’t looking to grow or build or expand. It was status quo, always. That might have been one of the reasons the relationship lasted so long.

If such a scenario arose today, it’s hard to imagine it would have gone down so casually. But those were different times. My parents didn’t seek advice from a lawyer. They didn’t demand anything in writing from the FBI. They had no board members or shareholders or outside consultants to weigh the issues with. Their biggest worry was how their participation might affect their livelihood. They had some fleeting concern about their safety. But beyond that, there was no debate at all. My father, a classically trained ethicist, saw no moral ambiguity or dilemma. Nor did my parents feel threatened or pressured in any way by the FBI. They simply viewed themselves as grateful new citizens of their new country, a country they loved and one where they had started a home and were raising a family. Both had been born at the conclusion of war and violence. They never took for granted the safety and security the United States. gave them. What was there to discuss? What was there to worry about? As far as they were concerned, this was just the right thing to do.