HOOTERS - 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)



Had one tiny thumb drive changed everything? The agents returned my laptop in twenty-four hours. They didn’t seem to find anything troubling on it. But in the days that followed, no one seemed to know where anything stood—least of all Ted, Terry, or me. We were in a holding pattern of some sort. We just didn’t know exactly what was being held and for how long.

“What do I do if he gets in touch with me?” I asked. “What do I say when he calls?”

No one seemed to know. Only one thing seemed to be sure. “You are not to bring the computer,” Ted emphasized.

He’d said it more than once, and it was starting to feel a little insulting. After what had happened, did anyone really believe that I’d put myself back into such a risky situation? Even a child doesn’t touch a hot stove twice.

I was itching to get back to whatever normal was. I hated having heard nothing from Oleg since handing him that document on my thumb drive. If he’d been testing my willingness to hand over anything he chose from DTIC, I guessed I’d passed. But then he went radio-silent. It was nerve-wracking.

Finally, he called and said he wanted to meet with me. We already had the location.

“I’m good to meet him?” I asked Terry.

“Go” was all he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Well, what am I gonna show him when I see him?”

“Just don’t bring your computer,” Terry told me. I’d already agreed to that. “Print out some documents and show them to us first. Our people want to see anything before you give it to anyone.”

I didn’t appreciate the not-so-subtle reminder that I’d given away a report without authorization. I had worked with preapproved paper plenty of times in the past. If I didn’t have the actual DTIC database to dangle again, at least I would have something.

I chose a shady spot in the empty parking lot behind Hooters. Even at eleven-thirty on Sunday morning, it was August-hot along the strip-mall paradise of Route 23 in Wayne, New Jersey. I took a moment in the Corvette’s AC to pull myself together before meeting Oleg. I double-checked the papers I had brought along. The most important one was a fifteen-thousand-dollar invoice for the money he owed me. I pulled up the flap on my G-Shock watchband and pressed the little button to turn the recorder on. But while I was waiting for the red light to blink, I saw Oleg striding purposefully toward my car.

Oh, shit! I thought. I’m not sure the recorder is on.

I quickly lowered my arm to my lap, smiled, and opened the door. I was greeted by casual Oleg—jeans, a brown-and-green polo shirt, and large aviator sunglasses. He looked trimmer than he did in his boxy sport jackets. I hardly recognized him without a trench coat.

The casual attire had a reverse effect on me. I greeted him with an extra dose of formality. “Hello, Oleg. How are you?”

“It’s going well,” he said, big smile as usual.

I had been to Hooters once before. The chicken wings were spicy and the waitresses, too. Our server, in her orange short shorts and low-cut white tank top, gamely tolerated my asshole idiot friends. I suppose that’s the whole point of Hooters.

Before heading inside for the breastaurant’s world-famous hospitality and provocative views, we lingered next to my car in the steamy parking lot and talked some business. Oleg told me that his people in Moscow had finally had a chance to review the stack of Northrop Grumman documents.


“They didn’t find it of any interest,” he told me. “That material has no value to them.”

I knew the manuals weren’t particularly hot items in and of themselves, but was Oleg messing with me? Was his response a ploy designed to undermine my confidence?

Yes and yes. I don’t believe he could help himself.

“But we want to do business with DTIC,” he added quickly.

“Okay,” I said.

Oleg wasn’t done. His friends in Moscow had given some thought to how I might be compensated for my DTIC research. “Here is how we would like to move forward,” he said. “We have a proposal.”

I thought we already had an understanding, if not an ironclad deal—the same one that had generated Oleg’s unpaid bill. With the Russians, no deal was ever fully done. I kept learning that lesson over and over.

“This makes no sense, Oleg,” I told him. “We had an agreement at the last meeting. You already owe me money. Now you’re telling me we’re gonna negotiate that?” Here we still were at step one, two months after I’d explained how he would have to cover the cost of registering for DTIC and how he’d compensate me for everything we got out of that database. I was feeling like a one-man collection agency, but all I could do was roll with it. “What do you have in mind?” I asked.

“You will give me the files,” Oleg said. “I will bring them back. We will analyze them. We will tell you what each file is worth.”

I couldn’t believe he was suggesting this, although I gave him points for taking a stab at naked American-style capitalism.

“For certain files,” he said, “we will pay a hundred dollars. For certain others, we will pay several thousand dollars. The files have different values. The payment will reflect what those different values are.”

I didn’t want to hear any more. “Are you fuckin’ kidding me?” I exploded. “That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard. I give you a file and wait to hear how much you think it’s worth, and then maybe I’ll get paid? Or maybe I won’t. And you’ll decide how much?” I barely stopped to catch my breath. “Oleg, you don’t understand the risk I’m taking. Not only do I have to maintain access to the DTIC system, I have to hide my searches. I have to embed the work I’m doing for you inside legitimate work so it can’t be discovered. My costs are fixed whether I get you five files or a thousand files. The work is the same to me. The risk is the same to me. The individual files have no value to me. It is the time and risk I am taking on your behalf. Don’t give me this bullshit that you’ll analyze the files and tell me how much they’re worth. I can’t believe you’d even suggest that.”

As I barreled on, the Russian looked increasingly alarmed. I wasn’t sure whether this was just his next rehearsed move in a long negotiation: Propose something crazy, display concern over the hostile reaction, end up with 50 percent more than you deserve. Or maybe he’d respect me for not swallowing his first tiny dangle.

“If you want to do business, we’ll do business,” I finished. “If not, you’re wasting my motherfuckin’ time.”

I really meant it. I was so pissed at him, I was ready to climb back in my car without seeing even one deep-cleavage Hooters Girl and drive straight home to New York.

Which I would have regretted immediately. I had a larger goal than maintaining my self-respect with a slippery Russian negotiator. In the big picture, it didn’t matter how strong a bargain I drove with Oleg. I had to keep him talking, keep him wanting, then keep him wanting more.

I remembered what Ted had told me in our earliest conversations. “Be rough with Oleg. Threaten to leave. They have to believe if they don’t treat you right, you really could walk away.” Before joining the FBI, Ted had worked in the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, where he dealt with suspects and ran investigative stings. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to be belligerent. Don’t always be agreeable. It’s okay to walk away. If you’ve laid the right foundation, they will always come running after you.”

I put my hand on the Corvette door and said, “What’s it gonna be, Oleg? We doing business or not?” I held my breath. I was pushing harder than I’d ever pushed and, for the first time, making a deal for something I wasn’t sure I could deliver.

But Ted was right. Oleg moved my way immediately. “Look, look, look,” he said.

I lifted my hand from the door.

“It’s okay, Naveed,” he said. “Calm down. Everything is fine.”

Oleg reached into his back jeans pocket and removed three envelopes. He laid them on the hood of my Corvette. They were thick. This was money, but I had no way of knowing how much. That was when I handed him the invoice.

“I want to get paid,” I said. “You say this is all about trust and goodwill. You can’t even settle your bar bill, and you’re trying to do new things? You have my money?”

“We’ll make this work,” Oleg said. He opened the flap on one of the envelopes. I could see a stack of bills. He handed me that one and the other two. “Here’s something to get started with. It’s eight thousand dollars.”

I did calm down. “Look,” I told him, “you have to understand. There is a huge amount of risk I am taking here. I could go to prison. I could lose everything. This has to be worth my time.”

“I understand,” he said. “Why don’t we go inside, where it’s cool, and get something to eat.”

I put the envelopes in the glove compartment. I made sure the car was locked. I walked with Oleg to the front of the building, then underneath a bright orange awning into the restaurant. Several of the waitresses were milling around the edge of the bar while a hostess in standard Hooters skimpies led us to a table in the middle of the dining room. We’d met in a lot of restaurants, but I found it a little surreal to be walking with a Hooters Girl and a Russian spy to a table. Suddenly, I remembered the scene in Spy Game when Nathan Muir and his protégé, Tom Bishop, are scanning a busy restaurant.

“The man reading the menu,” Muir says. “Threat?”

Bishop doesn’t think so. “Only to the hostess,” he says.

Judging by the way Oleg’s eyes stayed glued on the hostess as she returned to the front of the restaurant, I should have gotten up from the table to warn her.

“Have you ever been here?” Oleg asked me, studying my reaction like he might watch an interrogation through a two-way mirror.

“Not to this location,” I said, leaving it at that.

Before we continued our conversation, I needed to make sure my watch was recording like it was supposed to. Before I could come up with an excuse to get away from Oleg’s attention, the waitress arrived, introducing herself as Crystal. She was tall and blond and—does this go without saying?—massively large-breasted. She seemed nice. “What do you guys feel like today?”

She asked that in a way that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow coming out of the mouth of any diner waitress in America. But the way Crystal delivered the question seemed to carry extra layers of meaning. I ordered a Diet Coke, which, as far as I knew, carried no meaning at all beyond a Diet Coke. Oleg asked for a Sam Adams—how American can you get?—and began to study the menu.

I was feeling jumpy. The Flavor Flav watch felt heavy on my arm. I tried not to stare at it. Glancing around the restaurant, I waited for a moment when I could excuse myself. I was sweating and wanted to splash some water on my face. I also had to pee. As Crystal went to get our beverages and Oleg preoccupied himself with watching her, I excused myself and found my way to the men’s room at the far end of the bar.

The restaurant was mostly empty. It wasn’t even noon. The day’s preseason NFL games hadn’t started yet. As I crossed the room, I noticed the giant TVs were playing yesterday’s baseball games.

There was no one in the men’s room. I used the urinal, checked my watch, and saw that the red light was blinking like it was supposed to. I walked to the sink to wash my face and hands. Just as I turned on the cold water, the men’s room door flew open and a middle-aged white man came rushing in. He was short and fat and wearing a brand-new Jets cap. I could tell the cap was new because it had a packing crease across the top.

He looked at me. I didn’t look back, but I kept him in the corner of my eye. He quickly turned his head the other way and walked into one of the stalls. He didn’t close the door.

Like the man I’d seen at Vincent’s Clam Bar, he didn’t speak, and I had no opportunity to detect an accent. But he kept glancing over his shoulder in a way that seemed odd and awkward. He looked like a man you’d see sitting on the boardwalk in Brooklyn as the sun went down on Brighton Beach. Did Oleg suspect me of slipping out to the men’s room to make a phone call? Had the fat man rushed in when he realized belatedly that I’d excused myself from the table? Had he gotten the fresh Jets hat from a Russian Mission wardrobe assistant who’d assured him confidently, “This is exactly how American men dress when they go to Hooters”? Or was I being overly suspicious? I had no time to contemplate it. I had to get back to Oleg.

* * *

After I returned to the table and we gave Crystal our food orders—a plate of sliders for Oleg, a green salad with grilled chicken for me—I noticed that Oleg was staring up toward the bar. The big guy in the Jets cap was at a table near us in the dining room, facing in a different direction. Something else had caught Oleg’s attention. It was one of the Hooters Girls, a petite African American.

Oleg leaned in close as if to suggest some grand new spying proposal. But he didn’t mention espionage at all. “Look,” he said, smiling and nodding toward the waitress. “They have black ones, too.”

How was I supposed to react to that? I stifled a laugh and tried not to spit out my Diet Coke. Then I replied straight on. “Yes,” I said with my best Ron Burgundy Anchorman sincerity. “We had the civil rights movement. People marched so pretty black women could work at Hooters.”

I don’t think he got it. I glanced at my menu and allowed myself one last dig. “You know, Oleg,” I said, “I hear the Wayne, New Jersey, Hooters is the United Nations of Hooters. You’re used to diversity, right?”

I’m no prude. I’d been to places a lot seedier. If people choose to work in a restaurant like Hooters, why would I care? If the customers want to have their chicken wings served by ersatz strippers in incredibly tight T-shirts, it’s a free country, you know. But sitting there with Oleg on that Sunday afternoon, I felt physically uncomfortable—as if my boss were holding the office Christmas party in a whorehouse or my uncle were having his sixtieth birthday party at the Hustler Club.

I’m trying to conduct some international espionage here. C’mon, Oleg, stop ogling. Ewwww!

As if that weren’t disturbing enough, I was recording all of it for the FBI.

The conversation didn’t turn back to business the whole time we sat there. His attention was far more focused on the greasy burgers and the attentive waitstaff, with a few random grunts in my direction. It wasn’t until we got back outside that Oleg was able to focus again.

“So do we have an agreement or what?” I asked him. “You’re gonna pay me regardless of the documents. None of this pay-by-the-article bullshit.”

Oleg sounded confident that he’d be able to make that happen. But he said he’d have to get the arrangement blessed by others. He said he’d have a firm answer for me the next time we met. Then he handed me a card for a Pizzeria Uno location across the parking lot from Hooters. Oleg’s America, it seemed, was one long strip mall of bad chain restaurants. I figured I was getting close in his stack of cards to the ones that said Olive Garden or Cracker Barrel. How could we have missed Applebee’s and Johnny Rockets?

Before we parted, he laid out his next round of requests. “Here is what I would like you to do,” he said, handing me a sheet of paper. “I would like you to search the DTIC for several categories—general categories. Show me what you can find.”

“Categories,” I said. If the FBI was still on board with my DTIC idea, I could work with categories. Any category that Oleg suggested, I could plug in to the search engine, then compile for him whatever it was that DTIC sent back.

I looked at his list. I wouldn’t call it bashful. One item said “Future Combat Systems,” the U.S. Army’s principal modernization program of the early and middle 2000s. Another was “F-22 Raptor,” a fifth-generation supersonic fighter aircraft built for the U.S. Air Force by Lockheed Martin. One in particular caught my eye: “Cruise Missiles.” Oleg had taken my suggestion!

“These are some very broad topics,” I told him. “What I can do is generate a bibliography. That way, you will have a list of documents that should be available.”

“These we would be interested in,” Oleg said with some enthusiasm, though perhaps not as excitedly as he had surveyed the Hooters Girls.

* * *

After leaving Oleg, I drove straight to Manhattan. I had agreed to meet Ted and Terry for an immediate debrief at the Marrakech Hotel. This time I breezed past the desk to the elevators.

Up in the room, I told Ted I’d followed his advice and threatened to storm away unless Oleg paid his past-due bill and agreed to my compensation plan.

“He started backpedaling fast,” I said.

“Good for you,” Ted said. “I told you he would.”

At that moment, especially, Ted’s approval meant a lot to me. I trusted his experience and judgment. Ted always seemed to know what he was talking about.

I told them what had happened in the Hooters parking lot. Ted and Terry shook their heads at Oleg’s half-assed we’ll-tell-you-what-it’s-worth proposal. They got a huge kick out of Oleg and the Hooters Girls and the awkwardness of it all for me. “He really said that about the black woman?” Ted asked. “Has he been living in a cave?”

“He said it,” I assured them as they broke up laughing. Not since I’d told the agents about the Russian’s book-grabbing habit had they laughed so hard at an Oleg report.

It had been a rough two months, but the briefing that day did a lot to ease the tension I still felt. Ted and Terry did a wonderful job of making me feel like I was back at the edge of genuine acceptance into an exclusive club, though I understood that I wasn’t an FBI agent and therefore would never be a full-fledged insider, no matter how close I got to them.

Over time, I came to understand what a mind-fuck that can be. The FBI, the Russians, these are massive organizations with their own agendas, their own cultures, and their own clout. They will work with you or not as it suits their interests and their resources. But when you’re in a position like I was, you have to look out for yourself. You’re never sure who has your back—or if anybody does. You can just as easily get swallowed up by either side.

That’s why Ted’s departure came as such a blow to me. I got that jarring piece of news just after Labor Day. Ted was taking on a new assignment and moving with his wife to Washington. I loved Ted. He was a talented agent and a very good guy. He’d been a huge supporter of mine from the day he replaced Randi. He appreciated my drive and creativity, even when he wanted to strangle me. Despite what you might have heard about robotic, driven FBI agents, he was a human being. Ted, Terry, and I—we were a team in every sense of the word. Even when I felt totally frustrated with them, I knew we had a personal bond. And when things weren’t going like I wanted, I had the impression that higher-ups were to blame. I figured Ted and Terry would always do what they could.

Ted was never one for ceremony, so we didn’t have any weepy embraces or send-off meals. He just said goodbye and good luck. “I’ll check on you,” he said. “It’s been a real pleasure, man. You’ll be in very capable hands.” I knew he was tired. So was I.

Those “capable hands” belonged to an agent named Lisa. She had been involved in the operation on the periphery, I learned, conducting surveillance of Oleg’s wife and daughter on the days when he and I met. Soon after Ted left, Terry took me and Lisa for a get-to-know-you lunch at Harvest on Hudson, a fancy restaurant in Hastings. I tried to be open-minded.

Lisa looked like a long-distance runner. She had a short, stylish haircut and a wholesome midwestern look. She was a West Point graduate serving in the army reserves. While on active duty, she had served with the 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii. She was friendly and obviously smart. I couldn’t think of any reason to object to her except for the fact that she wasn’t Ted. I was happy Terry wasn’t going anywhere.

At lunch, I expressed lingering concerns that the thumb-drive incident seemed to have changed the operation more than I was being told. I didn’t like feeling out of the loop. Both Lisa and Terry tried to reassure me. Nothing would be done behind my back, they said. I’d have a chance to weigh in on everything. They emphasized how important it was for me to remain a “team player.”

“Of course I will,” I said. But I also remembered the scene in Spy Game when Nathan Muir says how much he hates being told to be a team player: “Every time my coach told me that, I knew I was about to get benched.”

“I don’t want be benched,” I told Terry and Lisa.

“You’re not being benched,” Terry said.

Maybe not benched. But hadn’t a new player been added to the roster? Some rules of the game had changed. Others were being reinforced as if I were a stone-cold rookie. This had to mean something, right?