GRILLING OLEG - 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)



That Sunday morning was especially humid, one of those days when, the minute you climb out of the shower, you are instantly sweating again. The window unit in our prewar apartment didn’t have a chance. It didn’t help that my throat felt scratchy. I was getting a cold. But I loaded up on Sudafed D, called Ted and Terry, and let them know I was on my way to Long Island. “I’m not feeling great,” I told Terry, “but I’m going anyway.”

There are no paid sick days in the espionage business.

This was June 22, the second-longest day of the year. My meeting with Oleg was scheduled for noon. This time around, he hadn’t slipped me a business card. He’d given me a take-out menu. I preferred that, actually. I could give some advance thought to what I’d like to order.

We were going to Vincent’s Clam Bar in Carle Place. Vincent’s, I learned from the menu, was known for generous portions of baked clams and a “world-famous” tomato sauce. The place traced its roots to a family-style restaurant that opened in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 1904. It had to be better than Oleg’s usual diners and Pizzeria Unos. At Vincent’s, I figured, they could pour that famous red sauce over everything.

I had several pressing matters to discuss with Oleg that had come up since we’d met in April. I wanted to bring him up to date on my interview with Commander Jeffrey Jones from the U.S. Mission to the UN. I knew he’d be impressed by that.

I’d asked Ted and Terry if I could show Jeff’s business card to Oleg. They’d told me that would be okay. But most of all on that sticky day in June, I was eager to show the Russian the insides of DTIC and explain to him all the material I could retrieve. I knew DTIC wasn’t just the best move we had. It was the only move. I was itching to dangle the database in front of Oleg and see how he responded.

I decided to drive the big black Jeep. The ’vette could get you into trouble and out of it—fast. But it wasn’t happy sitting still. Even idling, that car sounded like a pounding bass drum. It was one mean-looking sports car. And people noticed it. Despite its size and profile, I knew the Jeep would attract far less attention in a Long Island suburban strip-mall parking lot than my high-idling, low-to-the-ground Corvette Z06, with its aggressive camshaft and the lights and badges all blacked out.

I brought along my laptop, a Lenovo T60, made by the Chinese company that had bought IBM’s personal-computing division. I also brought a 3G wireless air card and a battery charger in case the Lenovo needed a boost. Most important, I had a big stack of papers for Oleg.

That was one of the lessons I had learned from my time in both the university and business worlds. People want stuff: papers, reports, printouts, documents, certificates, directions—almost anything. This was true of Oleg. It was also true of the FBI. I liked to bury all of them in paper. It made them feel better. Somehow, all that paper made things seem more serious. When people walk away from a meeting with something in their hands, they can review it quietly later. They can double-check their faulty memories. They can explain things to their superiors and colleagues. They have actual evidence that they were there.

I took the Throgs Neck Bridge to the Cross Island Parkway to the Long Island Expressway to the Northern State. That was the best and quickest route I knew to Long Island from upper Manhattan, though it was busy even on a Sunday morning. Vincent’s was just across Old Country Road from the Roosevelt Field Mall, in a satellite shopping strip, between Toys “R” Us and Petco. We were a long way from Little Italy.

I pulled into the parking lot and pushed the record button on the watch, then climbed out of the Jeep and headed into the restaurant. The lights were low inside. The air-conditioning was humming. Oleg was waiting for me near the bar. “Hey, how are you?” he asked. “Is this okay?”

“This place looks great.” I left the rest of the sentence in my head: compared to the chain dumps you’ve been taking me.

“You want to sit down?” he asked.


The hostess sat us dead center in the dining room. The place was two thirds full, I’d say, a pretty good crowd for noontime Sunday.

The waitress brought us a basket of focaccia and poured some olive oil onto a bread plate. We ordered our lunches—eggplant Parmesan for me, fried calamari for Oleg. Surprisingly, the focaccia was excellent, but the conversation grew tense right away.

“Shall we talk about DTIC?” I offered brightly. Even before I had a chance to explain the extensive reach of the defense-technology database, Oleg began asking questions that made me think he might be running a recorder of his own.

“Tell me what you’re offering to do,” he said.

“What do you want me to do?” I answered. “You want me to get you stuff, right? Things that you’re interested in.”

“What kinds of things can you retrieve with this?” he asked.

“It depends on what you want,” I said noncommittally. This back-and-forth felt more like an exercise than a conversation. Was he trying to get me to incriminate myself without offering anything in return? I started to feel uncomfortable.

I watched Oleg’s face carefully, trying to get a read, paying special attention to the Russian’s eyes. What was he thinking? As I stared, I couldn’t help but recall the day in 2001 when President George W. Bush said he’d looked into the eyes of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” Bush said he’d seen the soul as “very straightforward and trustworthy.”

I can’t say that’s what I saw in Oleg’s eyes. I was more aligned with Arizona senator John McCain, who reacted to Bush’s observation with a sneer: “I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three things—a K and a G and a B.”

“I can show you the kinds of things I have access to,” I said to Oleg.

KGB, SVR, GRU—it didn’t matter. This was my day to outmaneuver Oleg. I pulled out my stack of papers. I showed him a copy of my registration for DTIC. I showed him a couple of screenshots of the DTIC search engine. I showed him a list of the many libraries that DTIC had access to. I kept my voice low. A crowded family restaurant wasn’t the best place to conduct a full sales presentation on top-secret military data. But I didn’t mind giving a small taste. I hoped he was impressed enough to recognize the value.

“I’d like to move forward,” I told him. “But there are a couple of things we have to resolve first.” Taking charge was the best way to mask my uneasiness. “You have to pay me. You still owe a balance. If we’re going to move forward, you have to settle that.”

He looked at me blankly. Was he truly confused or just negotiating? Negotiating was my bet. And that pissed me off.

“There is significant risk involved,” I said sternly, not giving him the opportunity to slip in another question. “I need an understanding here. We need a business plan. There has to be a benefit for me. You have to pay for the DTIC registration fee. I’m starting to feel stiffed.”

I knew the FBI would eventually get me repaid for the money I’d put out. But Oleg didn’t know that. Cheap as he was, he would understand cheapness from me and assume I wouldn’t want to be floating money to the Russian Federation. They were a semimajor world power. I was just a little guy in New York.

“I can pay you some money now,” he said. “But I’d like to get a better sense of—”

“No better sense,” I cut him off. “I put myself at risk. We had an understanding. I’d like to get compensated for my time. If you want to go forward, know this: I am not going to get into a relationship where, every time I meet you, we have to discuss whether you’re gonna pay me or not.”

I sounded angry. That was my intent. But Oleg wasn’t backing down.

“You have to understand,” he said, “we want to do business. But I need to see what kinds of things we can expect. Tell me what you’re offering to do.” He handed me a receipt. “And you have to sign this receipt.”

That set me off even more. There’d been times when my anger had been a carefully orchestrated act, but not this time. Could he possibly be serious?

“I’m not gonna sign a fuckin’ receipt,” I told him louder than I intended. “You want me to sign a receipt for you saying I’m doing this? This is treasonous. You go to jail for the rest of your life for doing this shit. How do I even know who you are? How do I know you’re not a cop? How do I know you’re not working for the FBI?”

I caught my mistake as soon as the words slipped out. Stupid! But I didn’t give him a second to focus on it. “It seems like you’re trying to trap me,” I finished.

He looked around nervously, checking to see if my outburst had attracted any unwanted attention. Clearly, he wished I wouldn’t talk like that in such a public place. He was right about that part. I needed to calm down. It might be better, I thought, to lower the temperature, mine especially. I needed a minute to collect myself and think. Call it a stall if you want to. Sometimes a short stall is good. The point of this whole meeting, after all, was to show DTIC to Oleg and get us started with the federal military database. Whatever provocative things he might be saying, I didn’t want to derail us. So I threw Oleg a curveball.

“Show me your ID,” I demanded.

Oleg hesitated.

“I’d like to see ID that says you work for the UN,” I said. “I’d like to know.”

He sighed aloud and smiled like a man who’d seen the first spear of light in a dark, dense forest. This was a demand he could answer. He opened his wallet and removed two laminated plastic cards. “Of course, of course,” he said. “This is my UN ID. This is my residential ID.”

I looked at the identification cards. They looked legit to me, as I’d expected them to. If he hadn’t been the real deal, the FBI would have known. But I’d dialed the tension back and maybe thrown him off for a moment. I handed them back to Oleg.

My cold was really kicking in. My throat was getting scratchier. I was feeling feverish. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.

I got up from the table and walked to the men’s room. When I finished at the urinal, I went to the sink and started splashing water on my face. As I toweled off, a thin man came in. He was in his forties and had sandy hair. Something seemed odd about him. He didn’t say anything, so I didn’t hear any accent. But he definitely looked Russian to me. The man stopped on his way to one of the stalls, turned, and stared for several seconds at me. Was I being paranoid? Why did I feel like I was being followed? Maybe I was. Without reacting at all to him, I went back to the table and sat with Oleg. Our lunches had arrived.

“When we’re finished, we’ll go outside,” I told him. “I’ll show you some things I have for you on my laptop.”

We ate in silence, and although the food was good, we both wanted the meal to be over with as quickly as possible. Oleg finished his calamari first and stood to leave. I put down my fork and followed. On the way to the door, he handed the waitress several folded bills—I couldn’t see how much—and said, “This should cover it,” hardly slowing his stride. He and I walked out into the sauna of suburban Long Island to my even hotter black Jeep. The moment he climbed inside, I threw the air conditioner on full blast and drove out of the parking lot in search of somewhere quiet we could talk. The unpleasantness in the restaurant didn’t change a thing: I was still eager to show him what we could do together with DTIC.