THUMB DRIVE - 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)



“Why don’t we go into the parking garage,” Oleg said.

The garage was on the mall side of Old Country Road. After I pulled the Jeep past the entrance, Oleg said, “Drive up to the second level.” From there, he directed me to an empty spot a third of the way down the left row: “Pull in here.”

I glanced left, right, and behind me, as I had learned. Just making sure we were alone. I noticed a gold Buick LeSabre parked beside us. There was no one else around.

“Let me get the computer on,” I said to Oleg as I turned the Jeep engine off. “The wireless card should be fine up here. What I want to do is show you all the things that are available through DTIC.”

Just then, a mall cop came up the ramp toward us. Growing up in the American suburbs, I knew you never had to fear the mall cops. They might have official-looking uniforms. They might even drive cruiser-looking cars. But the square tin badges they wore carried zero legal authority. There wasn’t anything a mall cop could do to you.

I’m not sure whether they had mall cops in the Soviet Union’s Moscow suburbs when Oleg was a teenager, but he looked a little spooked when the Roosevelt Field officer pulled around in his white Chevy Cavalier with flashing amber lights. “Let’s just wait,” Oleg whispered to me.

I shut the lid of my laptop and didn’t move. The mall cop rode smoothly past us. “Goofballs,” I mumbled as I opened the laptop again.

“By the way,” Oleg said, reaching out his hand to me, “I brought this back for you.” It was the black plastic thumb drive I’d given him in April, the one with the Northrop Grumman cockpit manuals.

I wasn’t sure why he was returning a twenty-dollar thumb drive. But I took it and dropped it into the cup holder by the Jeep’s gearshift and said, “Thanks,” before turning back to my DTIC demonstration on the laptop.

“The nice thing,” I told Oleg, setting up the sales pitch, “is we can browse through this directly. I can set it up to run automatic searches. It can store articles in a bibliography for a period of time.”

I showed him the basic search function and then a list of articles. “You can do it by date range,” I told him. “By a string, if you like.” I showed him how each article was coded with a number and accompanied by a brief abstract. “I’m the one doing the requesting,” I explained. “Here’s the bibliography that it’s stored on. Here’s the actual article. Here’s how the information in the article matches the bibliography.”

I didn’t call up any individual files. I showed him how the application worked. Totally at random, I slid the cursor to an article from a long list of search results. I noticed it was from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and had something to do with linguistics. I didn’t read the full title at first. But I knew it had to do with teaching foreign languages. This wasn’t out of the ordinary for DTIC.

DARPA is the Pentagon office that funds research into new technologies for the U.S. military, and that can mean almost anything. DARPA was created in 1958 in response to the Soviet Union’s first Sputnik launch. President Eisenhower wanted to make sure that the U.S. military technology was more sophisticated than whatever our potential enemies had. But DARPA isn’t all missiles and programming code. Many DARPA-funded technologies are now commonplace in the civilian world, including computer networking, hypertext, early versions of GUI (graphical user interface), and the latest language-training techniques.

“Can I get a copy of this?” Oleg asked.

“You want a copy?” I said. “Sure, I can get you one later.”

“Can I get it now?”

“I don’t have a printer here,” I said. Uh-oh! I was stalling. I wasn’t sure he knew it, but this was starting to feel like a problem to me.

I read the title more carefully: “Final Technical Report, March 2008. Robust, Rapidly Configurable Speech-to-Speech Translation for Multiple Platforms.” I didn’t know what that referred to, but it clearly had to do with language translations. It didn’t sound like much of a beach read. Boring was the word that came to mind.

Oleg seemed to have chosen the article entirely at random. It was the one my cursor happened to land on. I suspected he just wanted another piece of paperwork to pitch to his superiors on the value of what he was doing for them, further evidence of his new American contact’s impressive access.

I didn’t dare look at him directly. From the corner of my eye, I could see that his facial expression hadn’t changed. But I still had the sense he was excited—just trying not to show it.

Ted and Terry and I had discussed many scenarios as we planned for this meeting with Oleg. But we hadn’t discussed my giving Oleg any actual files. Not before they’d vetted every document. The issue hadn’t come up in our conversations.

“Do you mind putting it on the thumb drive? You can copy it there,” Oleg said.

Oh, fuck! Oh, fuck! Oh, fuck!

What was I supposed to tell him? What was I supposed to do?

Panic was starting to rush through my veins.

The whole point of this exercise was giving Oleg access to DTIC—or making him think I was. But everything I gave him had to be approved by the FBI.

Stop. Think.

A file about linguistics—how sensitive could that be? The Defense Department equivalent of a junior high school Spanish lesson? He wasn’t asking for the U.S. nuclear missile codes! Those wouldn’t have been on DTIC anyway.

I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t let Oleg see any hesitation. Hesitation was weakness. I had to act like his request was no big deal. If I were a real spy, I wouldn’t give a shit about handing over a linguistics file. If I were a real spy, I’d be cocky, arrogant, eager to demonstrate what I could offer. I wouldn’t give him my log-in and password. I wouldn’t give him my PIN at the bank. But for a spy, this was a benign request. I was only establishing that I was real.

I hadn’t discussed it with the agents, who had layers of protocol. I was out on a limb. Roll with it. I had to. All along, the agents and I had agreed: “There is no written script, no list of boxes to check off every time. We always want to know where we’re heading, but an effective double agent has to think calmly on his feet.”

Wasn’t that what made me good at this?

The evidence exploded in my mind. The odd questions at Vincent’s had been a clue. The seemingly innocent return of a disposable thumb drive had been another. Oleg was testing me. I didn’t want to blow all the trust I’d built with him, not over a single innocuous article from DTIC. I needed an answer—now. I had Ted’s voice ringing loudly in my head: “There can be no hesitation. You almost have to believe what it is you are saying. You cannot show him any doubt.”

Oleg plucked the thumb drive from the cup holder. He handed it to me. I suspect he was just as nervous as I was, but he didn’t show it, and I don’t think I did, either. He was watching me closely. I could hear my breathing and his. He was paying careful attention to every single twitch.

I was moving on survival instinct. I was thinking, Just make it real. Don’t let on to anything. Don’t blow your cover. Do what you have to. Keep the pace steady and slow.

I took off the plastic cover and slipped the thumb drive into the USB port on the side of the laptop. I saw a tiny red light flicker on. Then a little window popped up on the laptop screen, asking what I wanted to do next:

Import Pictures and Videos?

Open Folder to View Files?

Use This Drive for Backup or Speed Up My System?

I didn’t want to do any of that. So I clicked the window out.

Think three or four—not twenty—steps ahead. Stay in the moment. Be believable.

I had Windows Explorer already open. I copied the linguistics-file PDF from the DTIC directory. I dragged and dropped the file onto the thumb drive. And I clicked out of Explorer.

Just stay in control.

Casually, I reached down and slid the thumb drive out of the port. I slipped the cover back on and handed the thumb drive to Oleg.

The whole maneuver lasted maybe six seconds. Those six seconds almost ended my double-agent career.