BLOWING IT - 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)



Neither Oleg nor I said much more that day. I was feeling even sicker than before, though now the fever was layered with a rising sense of dread. I told Oleg I would talk to him later. He said yes. He handed me a business card for our next meeting location, a Hooters in Wayne, New Jersey. Obviously, Oleg wasn’t making a habit of cooked-from-scratch joints. We were heading back to the generic American chains, albeit an outlet more famous for its bold displays of female cleavage than for its burgers, beers, and chicken wings.

“You have been to this restaurant?” Oleg asked me before he climbed out of the Jeep. “People say it has a good atmosphere.”


Oleg opened the door, got out, and climbed into the LeSabre parked next to us. I hadn’t realized he’d chosen the space right next to his own car. It was the kind of car someone’s dad might drive, a full-size upscale sedan. Oleg’s was a 2005, the LeSabre’s final year of production. Now, that was an American car!

He backed out of his space. Then I backed out of mine. I didn’t like where this was heading at all.

Shit, I thought as soon I was safely out of the garage. What happened? Did I just do something I am going to seriously regret? I’d handed Oleg a document that had not been preapproved by anyone, done it completely on my own. Whatever my reasons, I’d broken one of the protocols I had followed from the start. Dammit!

I got back on the LIE and headed west. There was only one way I knew to deal with the unease I was feeling, not to mention my now-raging head cold: I drove like a crazy person. I wove through the heavy Sunday-afternoon Hamptons-to-Manhattan traffic, finding breaks between the jammed-up vehicles and squeezing in aggressively. After two or three exits of that, I pulled off somewhere in eastern Queens. I waited to be sure no one was following me, although it was hard to imagine how anyone could have. Then I called Terry.

“That’s good,” he said when I told him I’d pulled off at an exit. “Let a little time pass. Make sure no one’s waiting for you. Then come on in.”

I didn’t say anything about the thumb drive or the details of my encounter with Oleg. But my discomfort was definitely intensifying. What was I thinking, handing Oleg that thumb drive? I didn’t need to ask. I knew the FBI never would have approved of that. How the hell was I going to explain it to Ted and Terry? But what choice did I have? All those thoughts were rushing around in my brain.

I’d agreed to meet the agents at the Marrakech Hotel, a Moroccan-­themed budget option on Broadway and 103rd Street. I’d walked by the place a thousand times. All I can say is I hope they got a federal discount.

“Something happened” was as much as I let on to Terry over the phone before I pulled back onto the highway. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get there. I could really use a beer.”

“Okay, sure,” he said. “What do you want?”

“Something shitty,” I said. “And cold.”

“Got it.”

I parked the Jeep in my garage at 110th Street, grabbed my laptop bag off the seat, and walked the seven short blocks to the hotel. My head was pounding with the cold, the anxiety, and the Sudafed.

The Marrakech lobby had low lighting and dark walls. The elevators were just past the desk to the right. As I breezed toward the elevators, I heard a woman’s voice: “Excuse me, sir. Can I help you?”

Damn! I didn’t realize the Marrakech was such a high-security location. I wasn’t looking for a whole bunch of questions from a nosy desk clerk.

“Are you a guest here?” she asked.

“I’m going up to see someone,” I said.

“Name of the guest, please.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to answer that. “Just a friend,” I said. “In 305.”

“Okay, can I have your name?” She wasn’t backing down. “Would you sign the register?”

I was just about to bolt for the elevator and make her come after me when the weekend day manager stepped out from an office behind the desk. “It’s okay,” he said to the clerk. “He’s going to see someone.”

I don’t think the manager had any idea who I was or who I might be meeting or that FBI agents were using his hotel for a postoperation debriefing in a sensitive Russian-espionage case. Or maybe he did. Either way, I appreciated the just-in-time assist.

I pressed the third-floor button in the elevator and made the short ride up. As soon as the car stopped and the door was halfway open, I squinted into the dark hallway and found 305. I knocked. Terry let me in.

“Jesus!” I said to him and Ted. “What did you tell the desk clerk? She acted like I was coming up here for a three-way!”

“You’re not?” Ted deadpanned.

Tense as I was, even I had to smile at that.

* * *

I sat in a black vinyl desk chair in the cramped hotel room. Ted handed me a can of Miller Lite. I fumbled for a place to start.

“That guy is such a fuckin’ asshole,” I said. “He frustrates the shit out of me! We try to get a plan together. At the very last second, he always wants to change things.”

“So what happened?” Ted asked. “Tell us what happened, Naveed. Did he ask about Mexico?”

“No, no,” I said, not expecting that question. “Mexico was the one thing that didn’t come up.” If only the issue were Mexico! “At a certain point,” I continued, “he tried to get me to sign something. A receipt. I didn’t sign it.”

“A receipt?” Terry asked a little incredulously. “He wanted you to sign a receipt for committing treason? That takes balls.”

“He wanted me to sign a receipt for the three thousand he paid me last time,” I said. “Why didn’t he just give me a self-addressed stamped envelope to send to the FBI? That would’ve made the whole thing easier. You guys wouldn’t even need to investigate.”

“When it comes to money,” Ted said, “it’s never quite clear with these guys. Are they padding their own pockets, or are they being directed by some idiot bureaucrats back home? The money is always tricky with them.”

“Yeah,” I said, only half listening as Ted tried to calm my anxiety. Obviously, I was stalling. Russian Mission accounting issues weren’t what had my stomach churning. I knew the real delicate issue was waiting ahead, and I wasn’t rushing to get there.

“I made him show me his ID,” I told the agents. “I said, ‘How do I know you’re not a federal agent? How do I know you really work at the UN?’ ”

Both Ted and Terry laughed at that. “Good for you,” Ted said. He sounded genuinely impressed that I seemed to be holding my own against an experienced Russian military officer who was a professional spy.

The compliment was at least partly warranted, and I felt proud of that. But the good feeling wouldn’t last. I dropped the bomb slowly.

“Then we talked about DTIC,” I said.

Ted asked, “How did that work out?”

I took another swig of Miller Lite. “Not too well,” I said.

They looked up together. Neither one said anything.

“I gave him the papers in the restaurant and showed him everything we talked about,” I said. “Then we walked to the Jeep and went to a parking garage. I was showing him how the searches work, and he gave me back my thumb drive from last time, and there was a document on the directory I was randomly pointing to, and he asked if he could get a copy of the document. I didn’t have a printer or a CD burner in the Jeep, of course, so he said to put the document on the thumb drive, and I did and gave it back to him. Luckily, it was just a document about linguistics.”

It came out like a run-on sentence. I guess I was hoping the response might be gentler if I explained in a single breath. Or maybe I hoped the part where I handed over a DTIC doc would get lost in the rush of other details.

I saw some glancing, but Ted and Terry didn’t speak. They let me finish without interrupting. But their body language—they both sat up stiffly—suggested concern. Was it shock? Was it panic? I couldn’t tell.

Ted broke the tension. “You know, Terry,” he said calmly, “at least now Oleg knows this is all for real. He’ll never doubt whether it’s real or not.”

Terry nodded, but he didn’t smile.

“Look, guys,” I said, trying to get in front of whatever was coming, “I had no choice. If this was real, I would have given it to him. I had to give it to him. What was I supposed to do?”

Terry didn’t sound convinced when he said, “You could have stalled. You could have asked for more money. You could have done anything but give it to him. We never discussed you putting his thumb drive into your computer and taking anything out. Did we?”

“Wait a second,” I said. “That’s bullshit. I had two heartbeats to make a decision. I went with what I thought was right. I thought it was ‘Everything has to be in the moment.’ That’s what we’ve always said.”

“Still,” Terry said.

“Are you telling me you don’t have my back with this?”

“We’re gonna have to see how it plays out. I don’t know what the reaction will be.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“The reaction above us,” Terry said.

“So after three years of doing this, all the hard work and respect I’ve earned is forgotten because of a split-second decision I had to make when I was placed in a no-win impossible situation? You’re fuckin’ holding me to an impossible standard. Really, dude, what was I supposed to do? If I said no, he’d walk away unconvinced—or even worse, believing he’d been set up. Luckily, the doc seemed innocent enough. Linguistics? That didn’t feel like anything that could compromise national security. It really could have been so much worse.”

I could tell that my explanation didn’t fully ease their concerns. It didn’t ease mine, either. But these agents had been with me through so much. They were as deep in this as I was—and believed in what we were doing just as strongly. At least that’s what I thought, what I hoped was true.

I didn’t know what else to say. Terry seemed to be struggling with his desire for strict adherence to FBI rules and standards. It was Ted who tossed me a small life preserver.

“There’s a guy in our office,” he said. “He’s about to retire. He’s one of those guys of indeterminate background. He could be Lebanese. He could be Hispanic. You just don’t know. He wears open shirts down to his belly button. Chest hair hanging out. He worked undercover for decades. He’s one of the most prolific undercover guys we have. And he doesn’t get drug-tested. There is an understanding—an expectation, I guess you’d call it—that at some point he might have to solidify the trust of the people he’s dealing with by sampling illegal drugs. This is really not so different than that.”

I appreciated Ted telling me that story. It was a comforting analogy. There was an agent who would have understood why I had to give Oleg that document. I wanted to meet him before he retired. I almost wanted to hug him.

“We understand,” Terry said, sounding a little calmer but no less concerned. His tone, I realized, was all business. “Listen, we’re gonna do a little damage control. The first thing we need is to get the name of the document and any other details you have.”

“No problem,” I said. “I have everything.”

“We’ll have to figure out what was in there,” Terry said. “We’ll have to let some people know.”

It was only when I went back into my laptop that I saw this printed at the bottom of the document I’d let Oleg remove: “Under 22 U.S.C. 2778, the penalty for unlawful export of items or information controlled under the ITAR is up to ten years imprisonment, or a fine of $1,000,000, or both. Under 50 U.S.C., Appendix 2410, the penalty for unlawful export of items or information controlled under the EAR is a fine of up to $1,000,000, or five times the value of the exports, whichever is greater. For an individual, the penalty is imprisonment of up to 10 years, or a fine of up to $250,000, or both.”

I didn’t know what all those statutes and penalties meant or how, if at all, they might apply to me. I’d seen language like that on plenty of government documents, many of which were totally innocuous. But in the frame of mind I was in, it was all a little rattling.

“Fuck,” I told the agents, “I can’t believe I gave him that document.”

We finished our debrief with me handing over the watch. Ted and Terry would take it back to the office like they usually did and download the audio. “We’ll turn it around as quickly as possible,” Terry said. “We’ll see where things stand.”

* * *

As I walked home from the Marrakech, the adrenaline of the past couple of hours was wearing off. The head cold had settled in fully. I was feeling shitty and sorry for myself. With each block north, my self-protective anger was turning more into despair.

I can’t believe this, I thought. They are trying to motherfuck me. I take all the risk. The minute there is something questionable, they’re ready to throw me under the bus—then take turns backing over me. I was Matt Damon confronting Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed: “Just fuckin’ kill me.” I had gone from being the ally of a powerful agency to thinking the agency might turn on me. I’d gone from being livid to thinking maybe I had no one to be mad at but myself.

I walked into the apartment. I threw my stuff down. I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower, all hot. I shut the door and let the room fill with steam and lay on the floor.

A few minutes later, the door opened. Ava walked in with me on the floor and the bathroom filled with steam. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

It was all I could do not to cry. “I screwed things up,” I said. “I can’t believe it. I fucked this up.”

“Just tell me what happened,” she said.

I told her all about Oleg and the thumb drive and Ted and Terry and how they’d reacted and how I was pretty sure I had ruined everything.

She just stood there, hands on her hips, looking stern. “That’s it?” she finally said. “That’s what you’re worried about? Look, if they’re gonna pull the plug, they’re gonna pull the plug. You’ve done more than most people would have. More than most people would do in a lifetime, in a hundred lifetimes. You’ve had a great run. But this operation isn’t real life, not our real lives.”

“But I really don’t want it to end yet,” I said. “I’m not ready. If it’s gonna end, I want it to end on my terms.”

“Naveed,” she said sharply. “With all the work you’ve done for them, do you really think they’re gonna pull the plug? What would they gain by that? This may be a game to them, but it’s an important game. This is all about manipulation. I’m completely confident this is not the end of the story. By the time it’s over, something big is going to be achieved. I promise you. I don’t know what, but it will be.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Ava wasn’t finished. “But you have to look at this for what it is,” she said. “There is no future in this. There is no career. You have to find a way to be at peace with that. You do this because you want to do it. But it will end when it will end. You won’t have control over that. This doesn’t define who you are as a person. This is just something that you did.” Ava’s voice softened, “I promise you, Naveed, this won’t be the only accomplishment in your life.”

I stared glumly into the steam.

* * *

Early Monday morning, while I was driving to the office in Dobbs Ferry, Ted got me on the phone. He sounded a couple of notches more serious than he had the day before.

“You know,” he said, “they can do bad things with thumb drives. They could have put something on your laptop that lets them trace everything you do on there. We need your computer.”

I pulled over to the side of the road. “I don’t want to give you my computer,” I said. “I don’t understand what the problem is.”

“We need your computer,” Ted said again.

“I don’t want to give it to you.”

It was my computer. I used it for my real work. I brought it home at night. I had personal things on there. I had my mail. My banking. Personal stuff. This seemed invasive to me, to have someone looking into my life like that. I wanted to know that, if I ever wanted to walk, I could walk. This felt just like Oleg asking me to sign a receipt: Sign here if you want to be caught doing something illegal. From the start, I had thought of myself as the agents’ civilian partner. Now I was feeling more like their target.

“Are you saying I have to? You’re going to force me to?”

“Look,” Ted said, “no one wants to go down that road. Let’s do this the friendly way.”

What was the alternative? Bright lights and rubber straps? Weren’t we all on the same side? Again, I didn’t feel like I was being given much of a choice.

No one threatened me directly, certainly not Ted or Terry. But I was definitely being told there were no other options. They never said explicitly what would happen if I refused to turn over my computer. But isn’t the fear of the unknown always greater than the actual thing?

Finally, I agreed to give it to them. And they agreed to take it for one day, image it, and give it back to me.

I got to the office and did what every perp in history has done when he thinks someone is coming after his computer: I spent the rest of the day trying to wipe everything clean. I deleted my personal email. I removed the battery. I disconnected the laptop from my work and home networks. I formatted the hell out of the whole machine, which I knew was unlikely to make much difference but I did anyway. They’re the FBI. They can retrieve anything they want to without much trouble, even data that’s been theoretically deleted or overwritten. I went through the motions anyway. I had to assume the Russians had compromised the laptop. I would have preferred to trash the hard drive the second I got home.

I met Terry at Ninety-fifth Street on June 27. He gave me a piece of paper that looked like a warrant. It wasn’t. It was more like a please-and-thank-you warrant.

The document was quite specific. “Agents will take possession of the computer for a period of one day,” it read. “Two copies of the hard drive will be generated. There will be a review of the imaged drives. The FBI will search for any evidence of a potential computer intrusion by a foreign intelligence service.”

“Voluntary surrender,” the document said at the top. But none of it felt very voluntary to me.