VICTORY LAP - 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)



I had a voice mail from Juli. Somehow, I’d missed her call. Before trying her back, I slipped out of the office and rode up to the building’s fourth floor. It was empty up there, perfect for talking on the phone without anyone overhearing. Whatever news Juli had for me, I didn’t want an office full of curious ears.

Juli answered immediately. She didn’t stretch out the drama. “Listen,” she said. “Congratulations. I just found out. You got in.”


Juli’s announcement sounded almost matter-of-fact. My response did not. “Oh my God!” I shouted. “I can’t believe it! Am I really in?” I was loud and excited. If I’d been in the office, everyone would have been staring at me.

This wasn’t a dream. I was in, Juli assured me. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” she said. “But I’m very happy to be the one to tell you. This is quite an accomplishment, Naveed. You worked so hard for this—for six years.”

“Thank you so much for everything!” I said, finally catching my breath enough for complete declarative sentences. “I really appreciate it. Do I get a letter or something? What’s next?”

Juli laughed. “Oddly,” she said, “the navy doesn’t normally send out letters to successful applicants. They only send something if you don’t get in. If you’re accepted, you just get a phone call.”

Whatever. I didn’t care about the communications protocol. They could sail the news to me on a paper airplane if that was what they wanted to do—as long as the answer was yes.

“There is an acceptance letter in the system,” Juli said. “I can print one up for you if you like. The navy just doesn’t see fit to actually mail it.”

“And what about getting sworn in?” I asked.

As Juli explained, the navy didn’t go overboard on commissioning ceremonies, either. “It’s kinda up to the individual,” she said. Some people just signed the forms and mailed them back—no ceremony at all. Others chose to organize a public swearing-in with friends, family members, coworkers, and a big presentation. Juli had another idea for me.

“How would you feel about doing something a little more personal?” she asked. “If you’d like, we could have a private commissioning for you in the office here. We’ve done that before. Your wife could come. You could invite your friends from the FBI. All very low-key.”

I liked the sound of that. I’d certainly gotten into the navy in an unorthodox manner. Why shouldn’t my swearing-in reflect the uniqueness of that path? Ava wasn’t big on pomp and ceremony. This was the woman who’d skipped her own Columbia University graduation and hadn’t heard her name called out as one of the stellar students in her class because she’d gone with me to adopt a kitten. Plus, I really liked the idea that a couple of the agents I had worked so closely with might be there with me. As I had learned in our years together, these guys didn’t like risking any compromise of their secret work. But a small, private get-together in the navy recruiting office? Why not?

* * *

The navy wasn’t the only one planning a ceremony. It turned out the FBI wanted to celebrate, too.

Terry called to say that his FBI supervisors wanted me to come down to their office and accept the Bureau’s formal thanks. I told him I wasn’t sure I needed official thank-yous. I hadn’t gotten involved for that reason. “Oh, come on,” Terry said. I didn’t put up too much of a fight. I appreciated the gesture. And in my three years of working with Terry, Ted, and the New York counterintelligence agents, they had never invited me to their office. We’d always met outside.

“You mean I finally get inside?” I teased Terry.

He just laughed. “You can bring your wife,” he said. “I want you to meet my supervisors. I don’t know exactly who can make it, but we’ll have a couple of senior people there. They’re very excited about getting the chance to meet you.

“Maybe we’ll go out to dinner afterward. You have to eat, right?”

* * *

Ava and I should have taken the subway to our little get-together with the FBI. I realized that five minutes after we left home. As many years as we’d spent getting around New York City, you’d think we’d be experts at avoiding rush-hour traffic. But Ava was five months pregnant. I figured we’d be coming home late. So we grabbed a cab downtown.

Bad idea. Very bad idea.

The Manhattan traffic was atrocious. We were due at 26 Federal Plaza at five p.m. I called Terry with apologetic updates as we inched down the West Side Highway. I repeated several times: “We should have ridden the train, I know.”

It took us an hour and ten minutes for a ride that should have been half an hour. We arrived, tense and a little embarrassed, forty minutes late. What a smooth operator I was! I couldn’t even get to my celebration on time!

Terry met us in the lobby.

“Man, I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it.” He shrugged. “They’ll wait.” He badged us through security and ushered us into a special-access elevator.

“Pretty nice elevator,” I said after the doors had closed and we began our express ride to the FBI executive suite. “Is this what you take to the office?”

“In all the years I’ve been at the New York office, I’ve never taken this elevator,” he said. I think he was being serious. Ava shot me a nonverbal “That’s weird.” But Terry’s elevator comment was just my first indication of how unique our visit would be. Green Kryptonite and his handlers, clandestine to the end.

Terry led us into a large empty conference room. There was an American flag in the corner and a large TV. There was plush blue carpeting on the floor. Lisa and a photographer were waiting when we got there.

From the conference room, I could see a large cube farm of desks and file cabinets sprawling out across the open floor. So late in the day, most of the desks were empty. Frank and Jerry joined us. Then a tall, trim bald man came in. I didn’t know who he was at first, though I noticed that the other agents seemed to defer to him.

As he made small talk with the others in the room, Terry whispered to me that this was the number one FBI man in New York. He was assistant director of the FBI in charge of the New York field office, the largest FBI field office in the country. That made him responsible for some of the Bureau’s highest-profile and most important cases. He had at least a thousand people working for him.

“How’s it goin’?” he said to me brightly, reaching out to shake my hand. “I’m Joe Demarest. I heard you had some trouble with the traffic.”

“A little bit,” I said sheepishly.

Despite his elevated duties, Demarest couldn’t have been more gracious or appreciative. “It’s so nice to meet you,” he said. “I’m so happy you could make it here today for this special occasion.”

He seemed especially eager to speak with Ava. “You should be proud of your husband,” he told her. “He did a very important thing for his country. He made a unique contribution. I hope you understand how important this is.”

“I guess now I do,” Ava said.

The two of them spoke for several minutes. I didn’t hear all of it. But what I heard was extremely flattering. I appreciated his talking to my wife that way. I don’t know if he thought I’d left Ava in the dark about everything I’d been up to or if he realized how much she already knew. I hadn’t always gone into detail with Ted, Terry, and Lisa about what I had shared with her. But the big boss seemed eager for my wife to know that the role I’d played was highly unusual and that it mattered a lot.

Until that ceremony, I’m not sure I realized how big a deal the FBI considered what I had done. I’d always thought it was huge. But that was just me. Now, hearing it from someone with such standing in the FBI, I began to realize how uniquely huge it was.

The whole thing felt surreal, to be standing around in this conference room with the head of the FBI’s New York field office, hearing what wonderful things I had done. I wasn’t used to this kind of attention. I’d spent three years undercover, for God’s sake. No one could know what I was up to. The fact is, I wasn’t used to any attention at all.

“Okay, let’s do this,” Demarest finally said.

As I stood beside him and the photographer snapped away, the assistant director began to speak. “On behalf of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he said, “we want to thank you for all your cooperation and assistance. This was truly remarkable. You did a great thing.”

He handed me a framed letter that I didn’t have time to read, and then he said, “And I want to give you a check.” It was for fifteen thousand and change, made out to me. The amount was no coincidence. It was the amount of the last pile of money that Oleg had given me and I had turned over to the agents.

He looked at Terry and Lisa and added: “We have something else for them, right?”

Terry said they did. Smiling broadly, he announced, “A mug that says, ‘The FBI Always Gets Its Man!’ ”

I knew that J. Edgar Hoover had said that. Tim Curry, playing the undercover FBI butler in the movie Clue, had said it, too. And now I had a mug that said it. I loved the message, so clear and unequivocal. This time, I thought with pride, I had helped to make it true.

I thanked Demarest for his generous comments and the others for showing up. “I would have arrived sooner if I’d known I was getting such a cool mug,” I said. Then I told Demarest and the others what an honor it was to have been involved in a case as important and interesting as this one and how lucky I’d been to work alongside these agents. “As a civilian,” I concluded, “I know how rare it is to be invited inside like this. Thank you all very much.”

Demarest smiled and nodded. “At the very least,” he said before telling us all good night, “I think you guys deserve a decent dinner out of this.” He turned to Lisa, Ted, and Jerry, Frank’s boss, who reported to Demarest and carried himself like a linebacker: “You gonna take Mr. Jamali and his wife somewhere good?”

“Absolutely,” Lisa said.

Then Jerry, Lisa, Terry, Frank, Ava, and I headed out for dinner at a French restaurant a short walk from the office. On the way, I had a chance to read the framed letter that Demarest had given me. It was written on official letterhead, U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation stationery.

“I am pleased to join my fellow New York Agents in thanking you for your significant contribution to our Nation’s national security,” the letter said. “Over an extended period, you dedicated your time and resources to facilitate our efforts to protect our country. Your ideas, enthusiasm, and dedication enabled us to achieve success in this vital area of our responsibility. You can take pride in the role you played and the success achieved.”

The letter was signed Joseph M. Demarest, Jr., Assistant Director in Charge of the New York Division of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation.

We had a great meal. Ava, who’d heard so much about the agents—Terry especially—finally got to spend a little time with them. I learned some things. I found out Frank lived in Westchester, not far from where I’d grown up. He had a daughter at SUNY Purchase, he said. Lisa, who I knew was a West Point graduate, talked about her time as a captain in the army, deployed in Iraq. While serving there, she’d adopted a stray kitten, then managed to bring it home with her. That couldn’t have been easy, from what I know about military bureaucracy. It was a softer side of Lisa I hadn’t previously tuned in to—or maybe she’d never shown.

Jerry told us how he’d once worked in France, how he drove a BMW, and how well the car handled.

A Bimmer? I smiled politely and thought, Buddy, you have no idea what good handling is.

Jerry asked questions of everyone—Ava, me, and the other agents. He didn’t seem to know them well. He had a lot of people working for him. Even after the years I’d spent with the agents, I felt a strange combination of awkward and thrilled to be sitting at dinner, laughing and talking, being treated as an equal by this FBI counterintelligence supervisor. I’d worked with them. I’d considered them my teammates. But I’d never really been one of them. I almost thought someone might come to the table and question me: “Sir, this table is for FBI only. What are you doing here?”

Terry and I had our usual banter. I told him that the restaurant bathroom was probably nicer than his living room. And though I wasn’t going to give him too hard a time around his bosses, I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few jabs. “You want carrots tonight?” I asked him. “You want some legumes? You’d probably prefer the steak frites. Frites means french fries. I think you’re safe there.”

“Nothing green, please,” he said.

“Nothing healthy of any sort, you mean. You’re the only person I know who drinks regular Coke. To you, Diet Coke is health food.” Terry didn’t have much of a comeback, but I had trouble giving it up. “It’s been so long since you’ve eaten anything healthy, I don’t think your body could take the shock to your system. The bad guys don’t need to poison you with anthrax. You could be felled by a solitary pea.”

At one point, Frank pulled me aside and said, “You know, every time my guys would meet with you, they’d walk back into the office with their heads hanging down. They would plop down in their chairs looking extremely frustrated and exhausted. They always felt like you were worth it, but they also knew that nothing would ever be easy with you.”

Frank didn’t seem to be complaining. He was just laying it out there. I understood there had been certain challenges to having me as a partner: I was learning as I went. I didn’t always like the rules the FBI had to play by. I insisted on being way more involved than your typical helpful civilian would be. That was all part of my charm but also part of what made me a pain in the ass.

“Your ability to frustrate the crap out of them was unparalleled,” Frank said.

Now, some people might have been insulted by that. Not me. I considered it one of the most sincere compliments I’d ever received in my life and one that I was proudest of. “Thank you, Frank,” I said. “That’s very kind of you.”

I don’t think that was the reaction he expected.

Before we headed home that night, I had something I’d been waiting to share. I’d been reluctant to mention it earlier, not certain how the agents would respond. Now the danger was behind us. The case was officially over. We had no more need for secrets.

I was ready to show them my tattoo.

“You wanna see something?” I asked Lisa and Terry before we got up from the table. I rolled up my sleeve, and they looked closely at my arm. “You know what it says?”

“Is that Morse code?” Terry asked. “Dots and dashes, right? It’s been a long time since I was in the Boy Scouts. What does it say?”

“Green Kryptonite,” I said. “In honor of Ted.”

“Wow,” Lisa said. “You tattooed ‘Green Kryptonite’ on your arm? You must be really committed. Gotta give you that.”

Terry just shook his head. “I am so glad I didn’t know about that before,” he said. “We’d have been filling out forms and answering questions from the bosses for at least three months.” He paused and looked more closely at me. “You tattooed ‘Green Kryptonite’ on your arm?”