AMERICA ATTACKED - 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 knew Ava was going places. So I wasn’t remotely surprised when she was offered a place in a highly selective PhD program at Harvard University in the field of biological and biomedical sciences with a special interest in genetics. Neither one of us especially wanted to leave New York. But Harvard was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and seemed intent on staying there. So Ava and I loaded up our car, a 1999 Pontiac Trans Am Firehawk, metallic navy blue, and headed up Interstate 95, excited to be going off on this new adventure together.

We found a comfortable second-floor apartment on Queensberry Street in Boston’s Fenway section. Ava dove into her graduate program, and I was lucky to land a programming position at Harvard.

Computer programmers aren’t known for being early risers. Noon to two a.m.—those are programmer hours. Most of the programmers I’ve worked with put in long hours, often crazy-long hours. But even at big companies and major universities, the programmers hardly ever start before nine or ten a.m.

As in so many other facets of my life, I didn’t fit the mold at all. I liked to wake up early. I’d have a predawn breakfast with Ava before she rushed off to her lab. Then I’d head to the University Information Systems office at 1730 Cambridge Street, arriving by seven-thirty or seven-forty-five. I’d badge into the building. I’d grab a coffee in the food court. I’d climb the stairs to the UIS nerve center on the second floor. Then I’d weave my way past all the empty beige cubicles and darkened monitor screens, past the beanbag chairs and the dartboard, past the remote-controlled cars and bowls of Twizzlers, to the far side of our large open-plan workspace. I’d settle into my own beige cubicle and my ergonomic Aeron chair. Then I’d get in a quiet couple of hours of code writing before the rest of the animals came in.

The office was basically a frat house for nerds, as casual in its tone as the work was intense. This was Harvard, but preppy it was not. If I wore chinos and a button-down shirt to the office, people would immediately ask, “You going to a wedding, or do you have a job interview?” The same people who provided the tech support for this billion-dollar university would also “Hasselhoff” each other’s computers, replacing all the icons with grinning photos of Baywatch hunk David Hasselhoff. Between eight-thirty and nine a.m., just before most people began trickling in, I’d head downstairs to check in with any other early arrivers.

* * *

September 11, 2001, started out like any other day at the office. But when I wandered downstairs a minute or two before nine, I noticed people clustered around several monitors at the far end of the room. Though I was too far away to make out faces, it was hard not to notice how still everyone was.

As I approached, no one looked up. They were laser-focused on what I could now see was the logo and large-type headline: PLANE STRIKES WORLD TRADE CENTER.

It was a short alert at that point. No explanations. No on-the-record confirmations. Few actual details. No one was saying yet whether this was an accident or something scarier. All they were reporting was that at 8:46 a.m., on a bright and clear morning, an American Airlines Boeing 767 had flown into an upper floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. First responders were on the scene. There were mass casualties.

Looking back, I wish I’d said something insightful, eloquent, or profound. All I said was “Holy shit!” Then I said it again: “Holy shit!”

And that was just the start of it. Soon after the horrifying news broke, there was much we didn’t know. That the plane had taken off from Boston’s Logan International Airport, just a few miles from where we were watching, bound for Los Angeles International Airport. That fifteen minutes into the flight, five al-Qaeda members with box cutters had overpowered the captain and first officer. That one of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had taken the controls and veered the plane south toward New York. That 102 minutes after impact, the North Tower would crumble to earth with devastating results. That this flight was only the first of four planes, two from Boston, that were hijacked that morning, each with its own deadly results.

When the second plane crashed into the South Tower seventeen horrifying minutes later, we knew: This was no accident. It was a coordinated attack on America. But the full scope of the day revealed itself only gradually, to me and everyone. We had TV screens mounted around the office. But all they displayed were network and server loads, not actual TV. As more and more people around the world logged on to the Internet for World Trade Center updates, the CNN site refreshed more and more slowly. After a few more minutes, the site wouldn’t come up at all. Even then, I recognized how ridiculous this was, to be at the technology hub of the greatest university on Planet Earth and, at the worst possible moment, totally unable to follow an unfolding, world-changing event.

We made our way to a conference room on the building’s third floor, where someone found a big-butt 1980s television set with rabbit ears. Thank God for Zenith.

By then, the second plane had hit the South Tower, and the TV had live pictures of frantic people waving from the upper floors while first responders raced into the buildings just as frantically from the chaotic street.

All the while, people were starting to show up for the day. Some had heard. Some hadn’t. A woman named Susan, who used to work at the World Trade Center, burst into tears, thinking about all the people she knew who still worked there. Someone else mentioned that half a dozen people on the Information Services staff had been scheduled to fly from Logan that morning to a conference.

“Could they have been on one of the planes?” someone asked. No one answered. No one knew. It was too terrible to contemplate.

I called Ava at the lab but couldn’t reach her. I left Cambridge in the Firehawk and put the car in the garage two blocks away from our apartment on Queensberry Street. As I walked home, I saw a young couple on the sidewalk, loading their car with two mountain bikes. Were they totally oblivious to what was happening? Were they heading to the country in a panicked retreat? I wasn’t sure, but I thought I knew. In those earliest hours, the reality had not yet reached everyone’s lives. Not yet.

The city was totally strange. There were people walking around, but no one seemed to be talking. The sky was quiet, too. Planes from Logan flew over the Fenway constantly, but not on this day. The airport had clearly been shut down. I looked up and saw two F-15 fighter jets flying low enough for me to see they had missiles loaded on their racks.

That was when I burst into tears, which I hadn’t done in probably ten years. There I was, a self-conscious adult male, crying as I walked along Queensberry Street. I didn’t care who saw me. I cried the rest of the way home.

I went inside the empty apartment and dead-bolted the door. I don’t know what I thought that would protect me against. It was instinct. I finally turned on a proper TV. The cable was working perfectly. I started flipping around the various news channels, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and the local Boston stations. Every one of them had wall-to-wall coverage. I began calling people in New York. My parents in Westchester. A couple of friends I knew had jobs in downtown Manhattan. I felt like I had to speak to all of them.

America was under attack, and no one knew for certain who was responsible. Our military installations around the world were placed on DEFCON 3, the highest state of alert since 1973’s Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt. When the towers collapsed, U.S. troops happened to be conducting exercises along the Russian border.

We’d had plenty of conflict and numerous enemies over the years. But on 9/11, it was our fiercest and long-running enemy who made the first call. President Vladimir Putin phoned President George W. Bush. The American president was aboard Air Force One when the call came in. Putin offered condolences and solidarity against brutal acts of terror. He told Bush that, given what had just occurred, Russian troops would immediately stand down.

Later, Bush spoke appreciatively about Putin’s call, saying that under almost any other set of circumstances, our heightened military presence would have caused “inevitable tension.” But Putin’s call was “a moment where it clearly said to me he understands the Cold War is over.”

My mind was racing all over the place but nowhere good.

Finally, Ava arrived home. “Is it bad?” she asked.

“It’s bad,” I answered.

We stared at the TV and made phone calls the rest of the afternoon. I finally caught my breath.

Within a few short hours, I’d gone from not thinking at all about my safety or the safety of the people I loved or the stability of American society to thinking of little else.

If someone had told me in that period that the Canadians had armed themselves to the teeth and were taking over America, I would have said, “Why not?” Anything and everything seemed possible. Who knew what normal was anymore?

* * *

Ava had lived through the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. She’d been a student a few blocks away at Stuyvesant High School. If anything, she felt this new attack, far deadlier than the first one, even more personally than I did. She said she felt an overpowering urge to go back home. “Why are we still in Boston?” I asked.

On Friday, September 14, three days after the attacks, we drove south in the Firehawk. Driving was the only option. Commercial planes were still grounded. We had the radio on the whole way. As we pulled onto Interstate 95, Rev. Billy Graham was leading a national day of prayer and remembrance at the National Cathedral in Washington. It seemed like half the American political hierarchy was there, including President George W. Bush.

“We are here in the middle hour of our grief,” the president told the overflow congregation. No one could deny that America’s recovery was very much a work in progress—in the earliest of early stages. That afternoon, Bush flew up to New York. The president reached Ground Zero just as we were heading down the West Side Highway toward the Upper West Side. I turned the radio up as he spoke again.

“I want you all to know that America today, America today is on bended knee, in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here, for the workers who work here, for the families who mourn,” he said through a bullhorn to a group of construction workers and rescue personnel down in the smoldering pit. “The nation stands with the good people of New York City and New Jersey and Connecticut as we mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens.”

The president was interrupted right there. “I can’t hear you!” one rescue worker called out from the back.

“I can hear you!” Bush called back through the bullhorn. “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people, and the people who knocked these buildings down, will hear all of us soon!”

The workers erupted in a loud, throaty chant. “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” They went on for a good long while.

As we pulled off the highway and onto the streets of the Upper West Side, Boston felt like a thousand miles and a lifetime away from where the real action was. Ava and I knew then and there that we had to move back to New York.

The next morning, we left her parents’ apartment and started the long, winding walk downtown. The streets weren’t quiet or empty. But everyone seemed to be in the same different, uncomfortable mood. The farther south we got, the stranger everything seemed. At Twenty-third Street, we turned west and walked the edge of Chelsea and Greenwich Village along the Hudson River waterfront.

That was about where the smell got strong. The pit, we knew, was still smoldering. It would for several more weeks. Ash and bits of paper floated in the air, which had an acrid smell, the sky a hazy glow. As we walked down those blocks, our eyes burned. So did our lungs.

Most of the way, we walked quietly. Not saying much to each other. Totally lost in our thoughts.

We’d heard about the tight security. We assumed that at around Houston Street or Canal, police or National Guardsmen would turn us back. But as we walked the edge of the West Side Highway, no one told us to stop.

We kept walking south until we got to Ava’s old high school. Outside Stuyvesant was a line of battered New York police cars parked on the street. Some of them had their windows blown out. All of them were caked in dust. First responders frozen in time.

Ava knew the neighborhood well. We walked east, then north, then east, then south again. From where we stood, we had a straight-on view of the twisted steel and massive rubble pile of the collapsed towers. Four National Guardsmen were standing there. They had rifles and gas masks. They looked really young and really scared. So were we.

We turned north, then headed back up to Canal Street.

At Canal, there were huge lines of people trying to get south, unaware that they could loop around and avoid the barricades.

We kept walking north until we reached Washington Square. We finally stopped walking and began to talk.

“It’s like a city without people,” Ava said. “Like there’s no more civilization here.”

“The signs are what really get to me,” I said. All over lower Manhattan, frantic people had taped up posters, desperately searching for information about missing friends and relatives. Most of them, we knew already, would never be found. We headed west and then north for the long walk home.

As we passed St. Vincent’s Hospital, we saw people lined up to give blood. That was the hospital where the survivors would have gone. But the emergency room had been eerily quiet that day.

Around Fourteenth Street, we turned west with four firefighters in uniforms that didn’t look familiar. Clearly, they weren’t from the NYFD. We asked the men where they were from.

“Australia,” two of them said.

“San Bernardino, California,” said the other two.

“Thank you, thank you,” I said, shaking all of their hands.

You couldn’t help but be impressed—all these people coming from so far, so quickly, for no reason other than to help, bringing their talent, their experience, their energy, and their drive.

What could anyone say but thank you?

* * *

My experience of 9/11 was similar to that of many Americans. My loved ones all came home safely that day. But every little thing seemed magnified. Fear and worry were palpable. Cell phones were working only intermittently. Many people in New York, with no way to get home, were crashing with friends or coworkers. It took us several days to find my cousin JD, who worked in the Financial District. He was fine, but that was rattling.

I realized that morning there was no such thing as a safe world. This cocoon I’d been living in—skipping ROTC, working at Harvard with the Twizzler bowls and the Aeron chairs, our cozy apartment in the Fenway, the cushy job and the safe career, the decent money and nice cars—none of it could guarantee our safety. The world could change dramatically in a heartbeat. In fact, it just had.

That’s what I was feeling. Then I started thinking: What the hell can I do? I had a sense that there was real work to be done out there somewhere, and I was home watching it on TV.

“I want to be part of this,” I said to myself. “I want to feel like I’m contributing something here. I want to feel like I am making the world safer. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines anymore.”

Over the subsequent months, I made the full transition from dude who enjoyed a good time to dude who realizes there is something he wants to be part of that’s bigger than he is. The only question was how.