CHANGE OF PLANS - 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)



“A decision has been made—” Terry began after a couple of lame pleasantries.

That sounded ominous.

“ ‘A decision has been made’?” I shot back, half imitating him. “What kind of bullshit is that?”

I think Terry was startled by the intensity of my reaction. I definitely wasn’t speaking with a smile.

We were sitting in a parking lot squeezed between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River at Ninety-fifth Street. At Terry’s instruction, I had driven there after work one day in late September. I’d parked my black Corvette next to Terry’s government-issue black Ford Fusion, which had replaced his government-issue black Ford Taurus, then I’d climbed inside with the agents.

Terry, who’d been thrown off by my interruption, got back to explaining what he meant. “A decision has been made to take Oleg down,” he said. “We have decided to do it by arresting you in front of him.”

The first part made perfect sense. But: “Arresting me?”

Pretending to arrest you,” Lisa clarified.

The sun was setting over the Hudson. Commuters were rushing home on the highway behind me. In front of me, people were jogging up the riverfront path. Two large sailboats were cruising back to the boat basin for the night. The sky was a rich mix of oranges and blues. But I stared glumly out the front window at the river and New Jersey beyond. Everything felt out of whack. I was getting used to working without Ted. Lisa kept taking a slightly condescending tone: “Naveed, you’re a very intelligent person—we get that.” Her flattery was always followed by a but, spoken or not. And now the plan was to “arrest” me? I seethed.

The agents in the front seat were quiet, waiting for me to absorb what they were saying. Or maybe they just wanted me to calm down.

I wondered what kind of pressure they were getting from above. In all our time together, Ted and Terry had never handed me a script. We’d sit around and piece together whatever made sense, with the agents providing guidance and oversight. But at the end of the day, I would handle Oleg in my way.

My mind went straight to the Miami Vice movie. Crockett and Tubbs are on to an international narcotics network with connections in Haiti, Puerto Rico, Dubai, and Geneva. But the FBI is insisting that the cops focus on some small-time local dealers. “End of story,” says the risk-averse Agent Fujima. “Everything else I’m hearing is speculation masquerading as intel.”

Crockett flips him a set of keys.

“What’s this?” Fujima asks.

“Keys to the boat,” Crockett tells him. “Go do this motherfucker yourself.”

Tubbs cuts in, translating his partner’s fiery words: “What he means to say is he is reluctant to abandon the penetration of a major narcotics trafficking organization.”

“We’re the ones doing the death-defying shit?” Crockett fumes. “And he wants us to give that up? For what? A chump-change bust so he can get his picture in the Miami Herald to impress the slug farm in D.C.?”

Sitting in that parking lot, gazing out over the Hudson, I was feeling like Crockett and Tubbs. Actually, more like Crockett.

I hadn’t heard from the navy. I was very tense about that. After three demanding years in the double-agent business, I was ready to do something else with my life. I’d known that at some point I had to focus on my own career. But I thought we’d been aiming big and thinking long-term, longer-term than this. Out of the blue, Terry was sounding like someone’s ventriloquist, giving me this decision-has-been-made crap.

I calmed myself down. Lisa must have sensed I was ready to listen and continued. “This has nothing to do with the laptop,” she explained, although I hadn’t asked if it did. “Oleg is leaving the country. We know he is leaving the UN, and someone new is coming in to replace him.”

That was news. Oleg hadn’t mentioned it to me.

“It’s just part of their normal rotation at the mission,” Lisa said. “But it gives us an opportunity. We don’t want him to leave without taking action. Now may be our best chance.”

“This is how we want to do it,” Terry said.

Terry and Lisa kept saying we and us. I kept wondering: Did they really mean they and them?

“Based on the fact that Oleg is set to leave the country,” he continued, “we feel this provides an opportunity to make a statement to the Russians.”

I got that Oleg was leaving. I got that the Russian Mission rotation schedule was out of our control. I got that the FBI didn’t want to let him leave the country without holding him responsible for repeated attempts to get sensitive information from me. But I hated the idea of moving against Oleg in a way that would put an end to my double-agent role. If I was grabbed in front of Oleg, the Russians would never trust me again as a source of information, whether they believed the arrest scam or not.

From that day forward, they’d always be worried I was working for the U.S. government, that I’d flipped in exchange for some kind of leniency deal. Wouldn’t they notice that, despite my dramatic arrest for treason, my name never appeared on the docket at Manhattan Federal Court? Wouldn’t they notice I wasn’t on my way to a couple of decades in super-max? The Russians could read a New York tabloid as well as anyone or check the files in the clerk’s office at U.S. District Court. Once we played the little theater game with Oleg, my double-agent days were done.

And what rotten timing! Just as I might be heading into the navy as a commissioned intelligence officer. Just as I could convince the Russians I was so much more valuable to them. Just as Oleg would almost certainly pass me off to his successors with a hearty handshake and a firm recommendation.

On the flip side, it was probably time to move on. A voice in my head—or was that Ava?—kept asking how long I wanted to live this double life. I’d been at it for three years. A lot can happen in three years, and a lot gets put on hold. Ava and I were eager to start a family. It was a time of change for all of us, the agents, too. Terry and his wife had just had their second baby. Ted was off on his new gig.

In all our time together, the FBI had never told me what the end-game was. Now someone above us had made that crucial decision. I wasn’t sure Terry, Lisa, or Ted had been consulted. I was feeling like a passenger along for a very bumpy ride. I didn’t like it. I needed to drive. The more I thought about it, the less I felt the FBI’s decision was the right one.

Terry made the best case he could. “If Oleg believes you’ve been arrested,” he said, “that could be disruptive to the whole Russian espionage apparatus in New York. They won’t know what happened or why or who was compromised or who they can trust anymore. They won’t know who’s on their side and who isn’t.”

If I had any hopes that someone wanted to hear my thoughts, Lisa quickly dispelled them. The decision was final. The agents were already discussing the where and how.

“We want to take you to the location as soon as possible,” she said before I climbed out of the Fusion back into my car for the short drive back home. “We’ll go through the mechanics, all the logistics of how we’re going to do it. We’ll get you comfortable with everything.”

This time there would be a script.

* * *

I had to clear my head.

Instead of going straight home from the parking lot, I took the Corvette for a drive, following a route I’d taken many times, though rarely this fast. I tore out of the parking lot at Ninety-fifth Street, hitting the downhill slope on the southbound West Side Highway and never looking back. That car has six speeds. Third kicks in at 110 miles an hour. I was going fast. Very fast. It was the best way I knew to shove the swirling thoughts of anger off to the sides of my brain. Driving that fast, I couldn’t pay attention to much besides the road. Straight south on the West Side Highway all the way to the Battery, then back to Dyckman Street at the northern tip of Manhattan, where I made another U-turn and turned around and headed home.

I was rocketing well into the triple-digit speeds. I almost wanted to get pulled over, my own fuck you to the FBI. They needed me to do this. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. Did I walk away from the whole thing? Toss them the keys, like Crockett threatened to? Just shrug and say, “Good luck, guys”? Or did I suck it up and follow through on what I’d started? They were playing the odds. The fact that I had done this from the start was reason enough, they believed, for me to play it out to the end—their way.

I pulled into the garage on 110th Street. That car was always hot and loud, and I was beating the crap out of it that day. The engine was so hot that by the time I stopped, it was ticking.

I walked home. I threw the keys in the bowl and walked past Ava, looking down at my shoes.

She looked up from her work. “You’re home late. Everything okay?”

My answer was to order Japanese food.

“What happened?” she said.

“The FBI wants to shut everything down,” I told her. “I can’t believe it. After three years of all this work, and so close to getting into the navy, this is what they want to do?”

“Why do they want to do that?” she asked. “Because of the file?”

“Probably,” I said.

Ava had a way of bringing me back to the basic issue in any situation. She was always good at that. “You have to make a choice here,” she said. “Stop looking for their approval, or just do this and be okay with it. Either one is fine. But decide!”

I said I wasn’t sure how much of a choice I really had. “Basically, the agents are saying, ‘Do this.’ ”

Ava didn’t like that. She thought I was handing over too much authority to them. “Why do you care so much?” she asked. “What difference does it make? Just walk away. Say, ‘It was a nice run.’ Remind yourself, ‘I’ve got to get on with my life.’ Say, ‘This is too much. I have a business to run.’ You don’t owe them anything. You don’t have to do this. You’ve done more than most people have ever been asked to do. It’s okay to walk away from it all.

“Naveed,” she added, “we’ve always said if it reached a certain point, you would just stop. Maybe it’s reached that point.”

I understood that. But I was angry. And her lack of anger toward the FBI was making me even angrier. “Don’t you feel like they’re fucking me over?” I asked.

Ava answered calmly. “It doesn’t seem like you have much of a choice. Your choice is whether to proceed.”

She was right, but I knew in my heart what my choice should be: I had made a decision to do this, and now I would see it through, even if the ending wasn’t the one I had imagined. Yes, I wanted to tell them to fuck off. But I wasn’t ready to walk away. I wanted to be involved in these last few moves. The way the FBI had it planned, I was done one way or another.

“Sleep on it,” Ava said. She didn’t say “Face facts.” She didn’t say “It’s over.”

By morning, I had decided it was better to be involved. I wasn’t ready to end my espionage days cold turkey. Reluctantly, I told myself I’d be arrested in front of the Russian. I told Terry as much when he called.

* * *

That Saturday, Terry’s black Fusion pulled in front of my apartment building. This was scope-out-the-scene day. He and Lisa were driving me to the Pizzeria Uno in Wayne, New Jersey, where Oleg had decided our next meeting would be.

As usual, I didn’t know when Oleg would call. I just knew that when he did, I wouldn’t have much advance notice. He’d want to meet with me the following day—two days later, max. So whatever planning or preparation the agents and I needed to do, we couldn’t afford to wait.

Things were tense when I got into the car with Terry and Lisa, and I wasn’t the only one feeling it. That morning, traffic was backed up outside the Lincoln Tunnel. We crept down Eleventh Avenue a few car lengths at a time. Just after we inched our way through the left turn onto Fortieth Street, a young woman in an NYPD uniform appeared at Terry’s front passenger window and gave it two stiff taps. He ignored her. She tapped on the window again, a little more insistently.

Terry slowly lowered the window. “What?” he said more than asked.

“License and registration,” the officer answered, speaking every bit as curtly as Terry had.

Terry didn’t reach for anything.

“It is illegal to have tint on the front windows,” she said.

By this point, the look of plain irritation on Terry’s face had contorted into something far more resembling, “Are you a fuckin’ idiot?” He still didn’t say anything. But he grabbed the FBI parking placard sitting faceup on the dashboard ledge and thrust it toward the officer’s face.

“Oh” was all she said before turning and stepping away from the car.

The air in the car was so sour that I didn’t say anything. But two thoughts did go racing through my head: What an asshole Terry was being—and I sure wished I could placard my way out of my next traffic infraction! But his slap-back at the cop didn’t seem to bring Terry any pleasure. If anything, it made him more irritable. I got the sense that he didn’t like the direction we were heading any more than I did.

We made it through the tunnel eventually. Terry took Route 3, the Secaucus Bypass, weaving in and out of traffic all the way to the Willowbrook Mall and the Pizzeria Uno parking lot off Route 23. There was very little small talk in the car, but we got down to business once we were there.

Lisa and Terry showed me where I should park when I came out to meet Oleg. They’d chosen a corner space across the shopping-plaza exit road from Pizzeria Uno. We walked into the restaurant together and got a table on the far side of the dining room. Terry and Lisa already knew where they wanted me to sit. They’d clearly been to the restaurant and sorted it all out. They were counting on me to direct Oleg to a table, even if he preferred another spot, probably one with the hottest waitress.

The restaurant was mostly empty. A waitress brought us soft drinks and we ordered lunch. Then the agents laid out the scenario for me.

The idea, as I understood it, was that FBI agents would be waiting at other tables, keeping an eye on things, as Oleg and I spoke. On my signal, the agents would approach and pretend to place me under arrest. Oleg would have no idea what was happening or what it might mean. We hoped he would be thrown into some kind of panic. Then? Apparently, no one had decided for us yet. I didn’t like the open-endedness of the plan.

“We want to move in while you’re both sitting at the table,” Terry said. “We can control the environment much better that way. It will be harder for him to move abruptly.”

“Make sense?” Lisa asked cheerily.

“Absolutely not,” I said, startling them. “What if somebody recognizes me? I don’t want some random person I know seeing me getting arrested by the FBI, and then they hear nothing else. No way. I’m not comfortable with that. We have to come up with something better.”

I felt like the agents knew the broad strokes of what we were supposed to achieve—put on a big show that would dazzle and rattle Oleg—but they were expecting to work out most of the particulars on the fly.

“Once you arrest me, what are you going to do to Oleg?” I asked Terry.

“We are waiting for guidance,” he said.

“Will you arrest him?”

“Probably not,” Lisa said. “He has diplomatic immunity.”

“Will you be able to question him?”

“We’re not sure. We’re waiting to hear back on that.” This wasn’t making sense. Why arrest me and let Oleg go?

For the FBI and whatever other federal agencies they were coordinating with, the upcoming climax was obviously a complicated matter. Terry and Lisa made that clear. They seemed to be under a high-powered microscope. I don’t think they liked it any more than I did. But the agents needed my cooperation. They needed me to follow their instructions. They needed me to play along cleverly. Unfortunately for them, I was adamantly against being fake-arrested in a crowded restaurant in front of a bunch of people I might or might not know. Would customers take pictures? Put them online? What if the Eyewitness News team happened to be grabbing a slice at the next table?

We nibbled at our lunches when they arrived. I had a grilled-chicken sandwich and green salad. Lisa had just a salad. Terry got a burger with nothing green anywhere on the plate. And then the three of us got busy concocting Plan B.

“Some things can’t change. If we’re going to arrest you,” Terry said, “you and Oleg have to be together. It doesn’t make any sense to arrest you if he isn’t there to witness it.”

Terry had a point there.

“So we’ll have to walk outside together,” I suggested. “You’ll do it in the parking lot.” I couldn’t have Oleg wandering out of the restaurant before or after me, like he often did in his own version of FBI-surveillance caution. That would be like showing up for a Broadway play on a dark Monday night. He’d miss the show. I figured I would use the same strategy I had used at Vincent’s, when I’d lured him to my Jeep to talk about DTIC.

“I have to tell him I have something in the car that he will find very enticing,” I told Lisa and Terry. “That’s the only way this will work. It’s gotta be something pretty good. I’ll have to make him want it badly.”

Both the agents seemed to like that.

“So you’ll get him out to the car,” Terry said. “We’ll have agents inside and in the parking lot. You’ll give us some kind of signal. We’ll move in.”

“What kind of signal?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You’ll have a cap on. You’ll take your cap off. You think you can do that? You can remember to take your cap off?”

For the first time all day, Terry was loosening up, enough to try to mess with me. That was a language I understood far better than script-reading.

“Fuck you,” I said. “Yeah, I’ll take my cap off. I’m just not doing it inside.”

* * *

Oleg called my cell phone on Friday afternoon, October 10. He had a time he wanted to meet with me. “Sunday noon,” he said.

Finally, the show was about to begin.

Since we’d already done our Uno’s walk-through, Terry and Lisa decided we didn’t need to meet again. But all day Saturday, the agents and I were on the phone, reviewing everything. Then, at dinnertime on Saturday, something changed. I got another call from Terry.

“Don’t go tomorrow,” he said.

“Don’t go?”

“Don’t go,” he said. “We’re putting it off. Tomorrow is off. Don’t go.”

He didn’t give me a clear explanation. Just that a decision had been made—that again!—that I shouldn’t meet Oleg on Sunday as he had asked me to. Maybe the FBI wanted to make Oleg sweat a little. The only thing Terry was clear on was that I must not—must not!—go to Uno’s as planned.

Instead, he told me to meet him and Lisa at ten-thirty the next morning, just when I would have been driving to Jersey, in the parking lot of the Fairway supermarket in Harlem at Twelfth Avenue and 132nd Street. I guess they wanted to be certain I didn’t take a one-man joyride out to Wayne.

Sunday morning was beautiful. We had a fine view of the Hudson River from the Fairway parking lot. The day seemed bright and clean. But I was feeling more like a churning thunderstorm.

“This is awful,” I told Terry and Lisa. “I want it over with. I don’t understand why we can’t just do it. Can’t you guys get your act together?”

We sat there. The time ticked on. I could easily imagine Oleg cooling his heels at the restaurant, surveying the other tables, glancing out at the parking lot, wondering where the hell I was and what my absence might mean. There was no way for me to call him. That was never how we did things. We both knew: If one of us couldn’t make an appointment, we’d go on as usual, and I’d wait for Oleg to be in touch.

With the sit-down off, there didn’t seem to be much point in my spending hours with the agents except for them to be sure I didn’t get a sudden urge for thick-crust Chicago-style pizza.

“It’s just a delay,” Terry said, trying to calm me down and pass the time. He still wouldn’t tell me why we were on hold. “We’ll be ready when Oleg calls again.”

“What happens if he doesn’t?” I asked. “What happens if this is it? What if he doesn’t reach out to me? What if we’ve totally blown it? What if he gets spooked or called back home or— Shit, it could be anything.”

Finally, Oleg did call. It was two Fridays later. He didn’t sound any different than he usually did. He didn’t mention the Sunday morning I’d left him waiting. He suggested we meet that Sunday at the same agreed-upon spot.

This time the agents said, “Let’s do it.”