ENSIGN JAMALI - 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)



For years, I’d been hearing about Quantico.

Nestled on 385 wooded acres in Virginia, the Marine Corps Base Quantico is home to the FBI’s main training facility, the FBI Academy. Quantico is where new recruits and experienced special agents go to learn and hone their trade. That sprawling campus in Quantico is also home to the FBI crime lab, officially known as the Forensic Science Research and Training Center, and various other programs that support federal law enforcement, including the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, the Technology Services Unit, and the FBI National Academy, which trains law-enforcement leaders from around the world. I don’t think anyone would argue if I said the FBI Academy is generally considered the premier law-enforcement training program in America.

I’d never been to the FBI Academy, I’d seen it in movies and read about it in dozens of thrilling action novels. I had, however, visited the marine side of the base a bunch of times for work. Marine Corps University, which is located there, was one of our Books & Research clients. It’s a secure facility closed to the public. But now, it seemed, after my official blessing from Joe Demarest, the FBI Academy was eager to hear from me. The Oleg Victory Lap continued.

I was invited to lecture at Quantico.

Ava and I flew down to Washington in late April. We stayed at the elegant Mayflower Hotel, famous for many things, including being the hotel where New York governor Eliot Spitzer (code name Client No. 9) allegedly entertained call girls.

We drove from Washington out to Virginia in our rental car, to an anonymous-looking strip mall across from the base. Terry picked us up there and whisked us through a marine checkpoint to a second gate that was manned by a uniformed FBI officer. No one was supposed to know we were there. As far as I could tell, no one did—until the FBI guard insisted on seeing my identification and Terry had to walk into the Visitor Center to sort everything out.

All this secrecy, and I’d been invited!

After that minor holdup, we were back in clandestine mode. We continued walking until we got to a point where an instructor propped open a door to one of the buildings and slipped us inside.

Before I made my presentation, Lisa would speak, providing a detailed briefing about Oleg’s case. I’d be invited in after she was finished, the real-life double agent at the center of the operation. “They will eat this up,” Terry assured me.

While we waited, he took Ava and me on a backstage tour of the Academy. He showed us the library, the dining hall, the three dormitory buildings, the gym, the thousand-seat auditorium, the pistol and rifle ranges, and the stop that got my blood flowing, the pursuit-­driving training track. We saw Hogan’s Alley, a ten-acre town with building facades designed by Hollywood set designers to resemble a small American city. Don’t you know some wild shoot-outs have gone down there! A sign welcomes visitors to Hogan’s Alley. It says that weapons firing and arrests may occur. It also says at the bottom: HAVE A NICE DAY.

As Terry, Ava, and I walked around, recruits in khakis and polo shirts kept running past us. They carried bright orange dummy handguns in leather holsters on their belts. “It’s so they’ll get used to carrying a firearm without actually hurting anyone,” Terry explained.

He pointed out the numerous deer that shared the base with FBI agents and marines. “They are totally desensitized to the sound of gunfire,” he said. Indeed, the ones we saw were nibbling happily at the woodland underbrush, not even flinching at the target practice nearby. These deer would really take the thrill out of sport hunting.

In the gift shop, I met a French police officer looking at the “FBI Fashion” rack. He was from Marseilles and was at Quantico for training. He seemed excited to meet someone who could speak his language. “My mother is French,” I told him.

Jokingly—at least I think I was joking—I asked Terry if it was okay for me to use my Amex card to buy some FBI T-shirts. “Will the Russians wonder if they see that coming up on my bill, ‘What’s he doing in the FBI Academy gift shop?’ ” Terry said he thought it was probably okay.

By then, Lisa was finishing her presentation, and Terry took me into the room.

The briefing was held in a secure conference room, a vault-like enclosure where the agents would discuss secret stuff without the risk of outsiders listening in. This one looked like a classroom without windows and with long rows of stadium seats. They wouldn’t let Ava in to listen, which seemed kind of silly considering how much she knew. That didn’t seem to matter. She had to wait in a nearby classroom.

Before I started my talk, several people came up to say hello, congratulating me and making friendly conversation. “I used to live in Irvington,” one man said. Irvington is ten minutes from Hastings and Dobbs Ferry. I wondered if the people I’d been invited to speak to had been given a Naveed Jamali dossier in preparation or Lisa had given them a really detailed intro. They sure seemed to know a lot about me. “I knew your parents,” said one agent in his early forties. That surprised me, though it reminded me that this journey hadn’t just lasted three years. It was more like twenty-three years since my parents had been approached by members of the Russian Mission and then the FBI.

As I waited for Terry to introduce me, I glanced at the attendance sheet on one of the desks. I’d assumed the audience would be all FBI agents. But people had signed in from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I didn’t realize this was such a diverse group,” I told Doug, the proctor, when he wandered in.

“Let me just take that,” he said hurriedly, whisking the sign-in sheet off the desk. I guessed I wasn’t supposed to see where the people were from. Or their names.

Terry took the podium and introduced me. “This is the guy we worked with,” he said vaguely. “Over the course of three years, he spent many hours sitting in front of Kulikov. His experience and knowledge from that time is unique.” He looked at me. “With that, I’ll turn it over to him.” It was strange how he never said my name.

Ever the young business guy, I began with a dreaded PowerPoint, explaining to the federal agents my rules for catching a spy.

“I was a proxy in the truest sense of the word,” I said. “My job, in a sense, was to represent both the Russians and the Bureau in a complex negotiation, since neither could speak directly to the other. I had to find the sweet spot. The middle ground that would appeal to the Russians while also limiting the Bureau’s risk.

“But first,” I explained, “I had to develop a relationship with Oleg. By the time I first approached the FBI about getting more involved, my parents had known the Russians for two decades. I had to find a way to change and expand a long-standing relationship. I had to convince Oleg, who then had to convince his superiors, that I was willing and capable of delivering something valuable to them.”

I never knew the full context of what I was doing, I said. The agents felt no responsibility to read me in on that. “I was just the double agent,” I said. “But the whole time I was interacting with Oleg, I had hints of a larger backstory unfolding beyond my view. I kept noticing things in the paper and on the TV news—signs of escalating tensions between the U.S. and the Russians.”

I said I was struck by Moscow’s decision a year earlier to eject two American attachés by yanking their travel permission while they were on a trip. “And in January, the Russians ordered General Henry Nowak to leave,” I said. “He was the senior American defense attaché in Moscow. Things just keep getting tenser.”

The agents and their colleagues seemed to be listening. A couple of them, I noticed, were even taking notes.

“The first step is having access to the target,” I said. “But having access alone is never enough. You have to make the relationship progress. How many of you take the train or ride the elevator with people you’ve seen for years?” Almost everyone nodded or smiled. “In most cases, you know nothing about these people, not even their first names. That relationship has to grow and change. You have to take the person from casual contact to friendly acquaintance to someone you might plausibly grab dinner with. It’s a process. It’s a careful dance.

“You don’t see someone in the elevator and say, ‘You want to have dinner tonight?’ Or ‘You want to do business together?’ Or ‘You want to join me in a conspiracy to commit espionage?’ ” The men and women laughed. “If you believe the person might be interested, you have to build up to things like that. You might strike up a conversation. After a few of those, it might make sense to continue the conversation over dinner or a beer. Now you’re building toward something real.”

Some of this was basic human relations. It applied far more broadly than the world of counterintelligence. But the agents seemed to be listening raptly, as if this were the first they had heard any of it—or the first they’d heard it applied directly by someone in the field.

“This was my approach with Oleg,” I said. “Build slowly. Let him get comfortable. Help the trust grow. Of course,” I added, “it’s even more difficult when the other party is totally paranoid and secrecy-obsessed. The best way to counter that, I found, was to give him the illusion that he was always in control. Our goal was to get him to start tasking me to retrieve intelligence for him—or, if you prefer, spy against my country for his.”

When I looked back now, I said, I saw the progress readily enough. “As we moved from the introductory to the developmental to the operational, each new phase was marked by some key moment—meeting outside instead of inside my office, Oleg accepting the NATOPS manuals, signing on for DTIC—that one pushed our operation to the next, deeper phase.”

The agents had lots of questions. To me, that was the most interesting part of this extraordinary day.

“How much prep did this take?” one of the agents wanted to know.

“A lot,” I said. “For every hour I spent with Oleg, I probably spent sixty with Terry and Ted.”

“What did Oleg think your motivation was?”

“The Russians, like us, know about MICE, the concept that people betray their countries for one of four reasons—money, ideology, coercion, or ego. In choosing the right motivation for me, I settled on money. That’s the one that felt most natural to me. So when I was with Oleg, it was always about money. Not that I needed it but that I wanted more. Lots more. That choice—that clear choice—narrowed the things I had to focus on. It made our negotiations and discussions mostly about how much he was going to pay me. It really came down to answering a single crucial question: ‘What do you charge to sell out your country?’ ”

“What was Oleg like personally?”

“He was a pain in the ass,” I said. “He was so goddamn cheap it was almost shocking. He would overnegotiate.” I told them about the free books he bagged on every visit to the office. “I almost felt he would take the paper out of the printer if he could figure out how to open the tray.”

“Were you scared?”

“Only after a meeting was over. When we were set to meet, I had to get into character. I’d watch movies. I’d read books. I had all these little tricks. The guy who was meeting Oleg had the same name I did. He looked and sounded like me. But he wasn’t the real Naveed. He was greedier, more materialistic, and definitely more focused. He was willing to sell out his country. That was the most diametric difference. Each time I met with Oleg, I had to become that guy who looked like me. He was never scared. He had a goal. And in that crucial moment, it was all mano a mano, just the two of us. No one else was there. All the planning and discussions—go, no go, yes, no—they had all evaporated. They were done. In that moment, there had to be total clarity of purpose and technique. Afterward, when what I had done had caught up to me, I realized the enormity of it all. But in the moment, battling wits with Oleg was all that I could focus on. It was challenging, fascinating, and immensely fun.”

Another agent raised her hand. “So how did you decide how much money to charge him? Did he think you were that greedy for money?”

“My demands always had to be realistic,” I said. “You can’t force it. There has to be some give-and-take.” I paused and took a sip of water. I had to think about the question for a moment. “There was always a strong element of theatrics with this,” I went on. “I built my matrix for cost based on who Oleg thought I was. What I mean by this is that if you show up with a ten-thousand-dollar Breitling watch and then offer to work for a few hundred dollars, they’ll know something is wrong. But if you place your ask too high, they just won’t be able to do it. I understood that they had limited funds. They understood my motivation. It was all about money with an added dash of ego. And once they understood my motivation, it was only a matter of finding the right amount. He knew enough about what I liked to gauge the likelihood of what I’d need. Was the amount I demanded enough to get me motivated, and could they afford to pay? In the end, whatever motivation you choose has to be something you’re comfortable with. You’ll have to defend it time and time again.”

“Are you going to write a book?”

“That isn’t something I’ve thought about,” I said, and I hadn’t at the time.


It was clear to me from the questions—and how many I got—that these investigators rarely got the chance to hear from someone who’d spent so much personal time with a real-life American-based Russian spy. These agents might devote their careers—two or three decades or more—to fighting foreign espionage. But they rarely have the chance to do what I had done, sit for hours with someone committing the crime. I’d had that chance, and they seemed fascinated to know what I had learned. I’ll bet I had racked up more hours with a Russian spy than all of the law-enforcement people in that room combined.

Once the questions ended, I closed with a nod to the agents I worked with. They deserved it. “One of the major reasons that this worked is that I was given a tremendous amount of freedom to answer all of these questions for myself. Ted, Terry, and Lisa shielded me from the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles they faced every day. They deferred to me on many operational and tactical decisions. This allowed me to develop methods and processes that I felt comfortable using, that felt natural, ones the Russians were less likely to detect as duplicitous.

“I know how risk-adverse federal law enforcement can be, and this was a huge gamble. I hope all of you leave here with the impression that taking that risk paid dividends. Also, remember the other reason this worked: The operation was nontraditional, and so was I. We departed from the usual playbook. We didn’t follow a script, at least most of the time. If we had, the Russians surely would’ve recognized the FBI’s fingerprints. Then instead of me standing here with you and Oleg cooling his heels in Vladivostok, things would’ve been very, very, very different.”

I paused for dramatic effect. “Remember,” I said, “take the risk. Don’t shy away from it. If we want to beat these bastards, we have to be creative, and we have to avoid the path they expect to find us on.”

With that, the room broke into loud applause, and I tried not to blush.

* * *

My reflections didn’t end at Quantico. I spent many hours asking myself questions and rethinking the answers I thought I knew. For a long time after my phony arrest, I was convinced the FBI had made a mistake by moving when they did. But I came to understand that, as upset as I’d been with the way we abruptly ended the operation, the timing did make a certain amount of sense. Ted, Terry, and I weren’t working in a vacuum. There had been, I learned, other investigations that intersected with ours. From the inside, I saw one important piece of America’s relationship with the Russians. But mine wasn’t the only one.

I kept thinking about what those three years had meant. How important was Oleg to the Russians and to the security concerns of the United States? How much damage did we do to Russian intelligence? What I had seen—was it the full extent of Moscow’s corruption of the diplomatic process or just the tip of the Russian-espionage iceberg? How closely had the Russians been following me? How badly had we fooled them? What inkling did they have that the young American they trusted was a double agent working with the FBI?

For some of these questions, I would never know the answers. In casual conversations, background briefings, and whispered hints, I began to deepen my understanding. Some of my conclusions I grew confident of. Others, I am afraid, remain only guesses.

For instance, I grew certain that I was not alone as an active source of information for the Russians in New York. I became convinced that Oleg had other Naveeds and the Russians had other Olegs. The Anna Chapman arrests that followed my operation would prove that, with or without official confirmation. Chapman was a glamorous Russian national arrested in New York City in 2010 with nine others and accused of spying for Russia. She quickly became an international celebrity and a hero back home. After pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge, she was deported back to Russia in a prison swap and singled out by Vladimir Putin for her brave patriotism.

Terry told me he was convinced that the Russian Federation is as committed to learning American secrets as their Soviet predecessors ever were. They dedicate as many resources and personnel. The labels have changed, of course. The superpower balance isn’t what it was. But the passion and the commitment, the focus and the dedication, are all equal to anything from the past.

How much did our efforts set back the Russians? Quite a bit, I came to believe. We tied them up. We pinned them down. We learned what they were missing and wanted from us. We didn’t wait for them to stir. We took the fight to them. We followed Terry’s dictum from the day we got the NATOPS manuals. We caught a spy by spying. The agents and I, working together, showed how proactive can be successful when it’s done right. Across our three-year operation, we exposed the techniques, methods, assets, and networks that the Russians employ against a country that is supposedly their ally. Never again can anyone complacently believe that Russia’s so-called diplomats are practicing mere diplomacy. They are spies—some of them, at least. The only question is how many, how often, and where. Whether open-source or closed, the intelligence they are gathering is of value to them and a threat to us.

* * *

Ava and I learned a lesson from our FBI rush-hour-traffic fiasco. I didn’t want to be late for my own intelligence swearing-in. So on the morning of June 5, 2009, Ava and I rode the subway downtown. By now, she was eight and a half months pregnant with our first son. Honestly, it was amazing she could get up and down the subway steps in her Old Navy maternity jeans and stretchy white top. I carried the camera bag and wore my light gray suit: We were headed downtown for serious business, and I thought I should dress the part, even though I was always more comfortable in knock-around jeans, a loose-fitting sweatshirt, and a pair of beat-up Nikes.

We walked slowly from the Chambers Street subway station to 26 Federal Plaza. After clearing security, we rode the elevator—the regular elevator—then walked down the hall to the navy recruiting office, the same one where I’d taken the Aviation entry test and been regaled by the stories of Commander Jeff Jones.

“Come on in,” Juli said brightly when Ava and I got there. Juli was wearing her usual khakis, and her dark hair was pinned up tightly, like it always was. But there was a genuine warmth coming from her that I had seen only glimpses of before.

“You showed a lot of patience,” she said. “I don’t know too many people who worked for this as hard as you did. You waited a long time for the navy.”

I smiled at that but said nothing. If only you knew what I had to do, I thought.

Before we got started, Juli handed me some paperwork. As I have learned since, almost everything in the military starts with paperwork. She sat me down and began handing me forms to fill out. Medical benefits. Life insurance. A full list of my dependents. I’d have another name to add to that one soon. I’ll admit, even the mundane act of signing navy paperwork felt important—especially when I came to the block that asked for “Rank/grade.”

“Ensign/O1,” I wrote proudly.

Terry arrived after I finished signing, though his trip was a whole lot shorter than ours was: He came down by elevator. He was wearing one of his standard-issue dark FBI suits.

“So they decided to take you, huh?” he said. “They said you had to get some experience, and you did. So what? They had to let you in? Is that about it?”

If strangers had wandered in off the street and overheard any of this, they’d have been certain Terry was a total asshole. I knew it was his way of saying how proud he was.

“I think I’m starting to understand,” he said. “To get into the navy, you have to catch a Russian spy.”

“At least one,” I answered.

“I don’t remember seeing that in the regs,” he said. “But it must be in there somewhere.”

“Thanks, Terry,” I said.

Juli looked up at the mention of “Russian spy,” but she never asked for a fuller explanation. Frank arrived, and everyone was there.

“You ready?” Juli asked me.

“Let’s do it,” I said, “before someone changes their mind.”

Nothing is ever entirely a joke. I really did have the feeling that at any moment, this could all be snatched away. I certainly didn’t want to risk that.

Juli showed me where to stand, next to a large navy seal on the bright blue carpet. An American flag stood in the corner to my right.

She asked me to raise my right hand. Without referring to notes, she led me through the U.S. Navy Oath of Office, speaking clearly and firmly the whole way.

“I, Naveed Jamali,” she began.

“I, Naveed Jamali,” I repeated.

“Having been appointed an ensign in the United States Navy … ”

“Having been appointed an ensign in the United States Navy … ”

And I repeated everything else she said: “Do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic … that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same … that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion … and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter—so help me God.”

Then Juli turned to the other three and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the newest ensign in the United States Navy, Naveed Jamali.”

There were only three of them, but they all flashed giant smiles and applauded furiously. I smiled so hard I thought my teeth might crack.

Juli went to her desk and retrieved a framed copy of the commissioning letter that she’d pulled off her computer, the one she’d told me the navy doesn’t usually bother sending anymore. “Here,” she said.

I told Juli how impressed I was that she knew the Oath of Office by heart. She laughed. She was clearly proud of that.

“I want you to promise me something,” she said. “When you get assigned to a unit and you start to issue the oath for reenlistment, please don’t read off a paper. The oath isn’t that long. Memorize it! Reading takes the seriousness and majesty away.”

She had a point, I thought. I liked that she understood the deep importance of joining the military, even if she couldn’t possibly know every recruit’s inspiration, what monumental steps were taken, and what dreams led each individual to this place. I promised her I would never read an enlistment oath as long as I was in uniform.

Ava had taken out the camera and was taking pictures. A picture of me with the framed letter. A picture of me in front of the flag. “I need a shot of Naveed and Juli,” she said.

As Juli and I posed together, I noticed Terry scampering away, making sure he wasn’t in the shot. “I don’t want to ruin the pictures,” he said. Even in the safety of the navy office, the agents didn’t like being photographed.

I don’t know how I could have been more grateful or more thrilled. I had set a goal, and I had achieved it. I had picked up where my parents left off—they are real heroes for serving their adopted country—and built on what their twenty years of patience had achieved. I had helped my country and was beginning the next chapter of my life. I was celebrating all of it my way with some of the people who had helped make it happen. This day, this appointment, was what I’d been aiming for.

Now, I was convinced, I could do for the navy what I had been doing for the FBI. Going undercover. Fighting espionage. Officially attached to a program this time. Serving as a full-fledged team member, not someone hanging out there on his own.

“This is gonna be awesome,” I told Juli. “I know it is.”

Anything was possible. Maybe I’d end up in Singapore or Brussels or some coastal nation in Africa like Commander Jones had suggested, or maybe I’d be assigned to Oleg’s old turf, the United Nations.

I had always heard people say, “Try to turn your passion into a career.” I was doing that. And going forward, I wouldn’t be an affiliate with no official connection. I’d be doing it for the U.S. Navy. The double agent, retired, was truly coming in from the cold.

Ava gave me a giant hug. Terry and Frank shook my hand and patted me on the back.

“I really want to thank both of you for everything …” I said, trailing off.

“Listen, Naveed,” Terry said sternly. “You did this. This is your accomplishment. We helped make some introductions. But this is all you.”

He was being nice, but I was certainly proud. I had done something for my country that no one could have expected me to do. I had looked inside myself and found talents I never knew were there. I had stayed strong, stuck with it, and put myself on the line. I had beaten the Russians, helped America, and made some lifelong friends. Now I was heading off on an amazing new adventure. There was only one thing missing. Too bad, I thought, Lino wasn’t here to share what he had launched.

As all those thoughts were rushing through my head and everyone was standing around, Frank gently pulled me aside. “You know that oath you just took?” he asked me.

“Yeah?” I said.

“We take an oath very similar to that one,” he said. “Welcome to the team, man.”

God, I’d been waiting a long time to hear somebody say that.