NAVY DREAMS - 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)



It would take longer than I wanted to make those changes in my life.

We stayed in Boston as Ava made swift progress through her doctoral program. My parents were working hard back in New York, building Books & Research, enjoying their lives in Hastings, feeling satisfaction at all they’d achieved as first-generation Americans. My Pakistani father had even become a U.S. citizen. For him, it wasn’t so much an expression of American patriotism or a question of national identity, although he did love America. He had gotten interested in local politics in Hastings and all riled up about a school-tax increase. He hated the fact that he couldn’t vote in village elections. So he took the U.S. citizenship test—aced it, of course—and was sworn in during August 2001, just before lower Manhattan was transformed into a massive crime scene.

My friends from high school and college were mostly making money on Wall Street or hiding out in graduate school. None of them seemed to be feeling a whole lot of angst about the state of the world. So why did I have this empty feeling?

It wasn’t like my life was in shambles. It was actually going pretty well. I’d been working at Harvard barely a year when I was promoted from a programmer position in the human resources department to managing my own team at University Information Systems. This was a great opportunity for me and something new for the university. It was as if we were running our own business under the umbrella of Harvard. We were allowed to be creative and entrepreneurial—­actually encouraged to be. I could run my team the way I wanted to. And if I did well in this position, I had every reason to think more good things lay ahead.

I had a fine education. I’d been coddled all my life. I had all the benefits of growing up in New York’s affluent suburbs. Ava and I were young and in love. We had a great apartment and the Firehawk. We’d bought a commuter car, too, an easy-to-park black 1993 Honda Civic for quick trips around town. I’d been blessed with all these opportunities and advantages, but what had I done with them, really?

Not nearly enough. Nothing I was doing seemed important at all.

This was a life? Building websites for Harvard president Larry Summers? Sitting through endless meetings with pretentious people discussing initiatives I couldn’t care less about? Was this how I wanted to spend the next forty years? Liberally hiding behind high Ivy walls? It was a nice job with a nice future, cozy as could be. But I felt oddly disconnected. I was Peter Gibbons, the disgruntled programmer in Mike Judge’s Office Space. “We don’t have a lot of time on this earth,” Peter comes to understand. “We weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day.” He was right. I felt totally adrift and out of the action, not that I knew where the real action might be. My great-great-great-grandfather, he knew action. I had the feeling I was wasting my life away. Nine-eleven definitely shone an uncomfortable light on that. My life was all about safety and comfort, and that didn’t feel right anymore. I was twenty-five but acting more like a complacent, settled-down forty-year-old. I had to do something. I had to make a change.

But what? How? Where?

Nine-eleven had not only inspired patriotism. It had reminded a lot of people that there were opportunities to do something worthwhile. The more I thought about it, the more I knew: There had to be something larger and more meaningful I could do. That was when I came up with the idea of joining Naval Intelligence.

* * *

I’d always read a lot about the military. Ever since I was a boy, I had played with toy soldiers and model planes. I’d seen more than my share of war and espionage films. Lately, I noticed, I’d been diving even deeper into that stuff. On the Saturday trips Ava and I made to the Barnes & Noble in Newton, I’d pick up a lot of geopolitical books, titles like Con Coughlin’s Saddam: King of Terror. None of this related to my IT job. I just loved reading about far-off adventures and knotty international crises. I imagined being immersed in some great world event and thought about how I would handle the issues. I read about great leaders faced with great decisions. I devoured books that told the inside stories, the real details that didn’t make the regular history books. I wanted to know how these leaders responded when they were confronted with unimaginable odds and impossible judgments. Did they do the right thing? Did their choices influence history? Did President Kennedy blink during the Cuban missile crisis? No. Would the Berlin Wall have fallen without Ronald Reagan? No. Was General Westmoreland a brilliant strategist, or did he totally botch the Vietnam War? Both. I teased out all these riddles. I rated the successes and failures of supposedly great men. And when my thoughts weren’t on real military, I was as obsessed with the fictional kind. In my mind, I went down all kinds of crazy paths. Which role did I see myself in? Saving Private Ryan or 13 Days? Was I tactical or strategic? Was I the guy kicking down doors and shooting people or the guy sitting back and putting the puzzle pieces together? Both roles are critical. But I was pretty sure my gifts were on the cerebral side.

I’d been watching those movies and reading those books and playacting the scenes in my head ever since I was a kid with my G.I. Joe Skystrikers and the Jolly Roger patches on my gray pseudo-flight jacket. As a child, I played those games between homework and bedtime. Now that I was older and had friends who were wearing real air force or navy flight jackets, one thing hadn’t changed: I’d chosen to leave the real adventures to other people.

Not anymore.

I had a plan. It would start with me doing what I was already an expert at—using technology to find out stuff. If there was one skill I had in abundance, it was data mining. I was hoping my technical abilities would loop me back to where I was always meant to be.

We were still on rudimentary search engines like WebCrawler, Dogpile, and Ask Jeeves, and we posted on message boards. The Internet was growing slowly, allowing connections with people we wouldn’t ever be likely to meet. Someone I met in an IRC chat room pointed me toward, where he said I could get all kinds of advice about getting into Naval Intelligence, and fast.

Fast was critical. Patience was not my strongest suit. I wasn’t looking for a twenty-year process. I didn’t want to sit on a ship out at sea. Come on, I thought. My life is almost one third over. I’m not getting any younger here. How much longer can I wait?

The people who posted at—current and former officers and enlisted personnel—knew an amazing amount, and once they decided I was serious, they couldn’t have been friendlier or more willing to share. I wasn’t shy about asking. I said I wanted to be an officer in Naval Intelligence. I said I had a tech background, and I wanted to find a way to do it fast. Several posters mentioned something called the direct commission officer program, which I had never heard of. But it sounded perfect to me. It was part of the U.S. Navy Reserves. This wasn’t the career path for gung-ho eighteen-year-olds fresh out of high school. The DCO program was for people who had already started their civilian careers and had special skills the navy might need. Physicians. Engineers. Lawyers. Chaplains. Meteorologists. I could imagine the local TV weatherman from the eleven o’clock news stripping off his makeup with a baby wipe and racing over to the local base, radioing destroyer captains about squalls up ahead. Hey, why not?

I might not have the background to predict low-pressure systems. But the requirements for Naval Intelligence officers weren’t all that precise. You just needed “significant civilian occupational experience in disciplines related to intelligence or cyber-related professions.” That could mean anything, right? I knew I was on the right track. I had the basic skills to spy.

I’d spent a zillion hours in the computer lab at NYU. Everywhere I’d worked, I was known as a kung fu master at research and turning vague ideas into code. I had brand-name colleges and employers on my résumé—NYU, Columbia, and Harvard—that were bound to impress. I didn’t have to mention my unfortunate time at Hackley or my empty diploma case at Hastings. I was one of those techies who could actually talk to people on both sides of the digital divide, the super-bright code writers who were on my team and the foggy academics who were our clients. And I figured being half Pakistani couldn’t hurt. I didn’t speak Arabic, but I could probably pass on a street corner as someone who did.

The whole idea of naval intelligence called to me. It was a key part of our military strategy. But it wasn’t about overrunning the enemy. It was about outsmarting him. That was a realm I thought I could thrive in.

As much as the idea appealed to the adventure-loving adolescent inside me, I knew that being a real-life Naval Intelligence officer wouldn’t be all car chases, secret drop-offs, and John le Carré. There’d be some grunt research and report writing and all the other boring stuff. But it had to be more fun and more exciting and far more meaningful than working in a university computer lab.

I made a point of learning as much as I could about navy intelligence. Assuming I was accepted into the program—and given my background, how hard could that really be?—they’d whisk me through a two-week indoctrination at the Direct Commission Officer Indoctrination Course in Pensacola, Florida. The day I signed my contract, I’d be a full commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves. No service academy, no ROTC, no Officer Candidate School, no endless waiting around to begin the next phase of my life. As one of the posters at told me: “You’ll be busy on your first assignment. People will be saluting you.”

It was a commitment I was eager to make. I’d have to agree to serve for eight years. That could involve one weekend a month of training and two weeks of summer camp. Or, more likely, given the way things were headed in this post-9/11 world, an extended deployment on a naval base in the United States or in a war zone in Afghanistan, Iraq, or who knows where. Probably a little of both, the people on explained. A path that was perfect for me. An adventure I was right for and ripe for.

Waking up with a goal was incredibly invigorating. And it didn’t take me long to head off in search of it.

I filled out the “for more information” form on the navy’s direct commission website. I clicked the box for “intelligence officer.” A couple of days later, I got a reply email from Lieutenant Commander Lino Covarrubias, the officer recruiter in New England for the direct commission program. With titles like that one, it sounded like the navy was as bureaucratic as I remembered the army being when I was in ROTC. The lieutenant commander said he’d be happy to meet with me. But first, he said, I should attend a direct commission ­information briefing for my intended specialty, naval intelligence, at Fort Devens, a reservist military installation near Worchester, ­Massachusetts, about an hour east of Boston. And I should go for a basic navy physical exam at MEPS, the Military Entrance Processing Station, in South Boston.

“The information briefing will be conducted by a navy intelligence officer,” the lieutenant commander wrote. “That’s the best way for you to get an idea whether this might make sense for you. Send me an email after you attend the briefing if you are still interested. We can meet, and I will answer any questions you might have. Maybe I’ll take you to lunch.”

“Rgr that,” I wrote.

* * *

I knew it was a high-end crowd when I saw the cars in the Fort Devens parking lot. A Mercedes. A Jaguar. A couple of BMWs. Strictly in terms of sticker price, my Firehawk was in the back of the pack. I found my way to a fluorescent-lit classroom with time to spare before the seven p.m. information session began. I wasn’t the first one there. A group of what looked like professionals had already gathered, about two dozen people in all, mostly men but three or four women, too. I introduced myself and joined a conversation with two lawyers, a stockbroker, a sales executive, an accountant, and a couple of midlevel corporate drones. No one was old, but I was one of the younger people in the room. And maybe one of the less successful. In the short time since 9/11, the navy had obviously seen some changes in the recruitment pool.

A woman in khaki pants and khaki shirt came in and introduced herself. She was squat, with a no-nonsense helmet haircut. She said she was a lieutenant commander in the Naval Intelligence Reserves. Then she repeated much of what I’d read on the website, only she said it like she was trying to convince us we shouldn’t bother to apply.

“You may have some misconceptions about the life of an intelligence officer,” she said. “It’s not all cloak-and-dagger. It’s not all James Bond. In fact, it’s mostly not James Bond. There is a lot of information gathering. A lot of analysis. A lot of finding out things maybe our nation’s enemies don’t want us to discover.

“My job is not to glorify this,” she went on. “My job is to tell you the truth. The navy appreciates your interest. But we want you to do this—if you decide you want to do it—with your eyes open wide. We are at a unique time in history now.” One of the realities that we shouldn’t take lightly, she said, was the distinct possibility of being deployed overseas. “I know we call it the reserves,” she said, “and I know that’s different from active duty. But let me warn you, there is nothing passive anymore about the Navy Reserves. Do not join if you are not open to having your life turned upside down.”

I knew she meant it as a warning. This lieutenant commander was an expert at discouraging anyone who wasn’t 110 percent certain. But I heard a different message. Turn my life upside down? I thought. Yes! Go ahead!

“If you are accepted into this program, there is a high likelihood that you will be deployed.” She paused and waited for that to sink in. “There are significant costs that you should consider carefully.” She began ticking them off. “There’s risk to your job, risk to your family, risk to your income—people who have high-paying jobs may very well have to take a pay cut.” I noticed several people stiffen. “I saw a lot of fancy cars driving into the parking lot,” she said. “If you like those cars, this probably is not the right program for you. We have people who were stockbrokers, making four or five hundred thousand dollars a year. Now they’re making seventy thousand as an ensign. Prepare for this. Ask yourself, ‘Can you do it?’ No hard feelings if you decide it’s not for you.”

I noticed a couple of people in the room shaking their heads and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I was nodding. Leaning forward. Excited.

* * *

I did have some concerns about my physical condition. One concern, actually. On the navy’s official health-screening form, I was able to check the “no” boxes for cancer, heart disease, and a long list of other dire and not so dire ailments. No, I am not addicted to heroin, cocaine, or other narcotics! No, I do not suffer from a brain tumor! No, I don’t have flat feet! But the truth was, I wasn’t in such great shape. Working at Harvard wasn’t so different from being at a lot of tech jobs: We put in absurdly long hours. We sat at ergonomic workstations in ergonomic chairs, constantly on guard against repetitive-stress injuries. We chain-guzzled high-sugar, high-caffeine beverages. Hardly anyone went out for lunch. The whole workplace was designed to keep us at or near our keyboards, updating system architecture, building next-generation websites, writing never-ending lines of programming code. The heaping bowls of Twizzlers, the humming cappuccino machines, the twenty-four-hour buffet table—they were all designed to keep us there and sedentary but not starving. There was such a thing as a free lunch at Harvard—a free breakfast and dinner, too. It was our waistlines and cholesterol that paid.

I knew that could be a problem for me. So right after getting the email from the recruiter, even before I went to see the great dissuader at Fort Devens, I’d put myself on the Atkins Diet and started working out again. I weighed about 177 pounds when I got started. I am five-seven. The height-weight chart said I had to get myself down to 168. I got busy doing that the Atkins way. I ate bacon, hamburgers without the bun, and endless plates of broccoli. I ate no bread or pasta or anything with carbs and, truthfully, not too many other vegetables. What I sacrificed in variety, I made up for in determination.. The night before I had my MEPS appointment, my bathroom scale said 168.

I was due in South Boston at four a.m. This was so crazy early that Ava agreed to drive in with me. She had just gotten the proofs back for an article she’d submitted to a science journal. She said she would wait in the car, doing her proofreading, while I went inside to be poked, probed, tested, and barked at. Ava was encouraging, but I thought I saw her smirk at what I was putting myself through.

I gathered up all the paperwork I needed—my health survey, my immunization card, a copy of my high school diploma, a state-issued ID. We left Fenway at three-fifteen and drove the easy-to-maneuver Honda into South Boston. MEPS was at 495 Summer Street, near the mouth of the Ted Williams Tunnel.

“Good luck,” Ava said as I kissed her goodbye.

I couldn’t help but notice how different the cars in this parking lot were. These were aging Chevys, Toyotas, and Fords. I saw a couple of minivans and a dented pickup. And instead of stockbrokers, lawyers, and accountants, it was mostly eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds in the waiting room. Several of them were talking about the night they’d just spent at a Holiday Inn Express, possibly their first time alone away from home. More than a few seemed somewhere between excited and terrified. These guys were there to join the real navy. Assuming they got through MEPS, they’d be shipping out the following morning to basic training.

The staff here seemed different, too. Instead of a lieutenant commander patiently answering condescending questions from after-work stockbrokers, the brusque MEPS personnel didn’t seem like they’d put up with anything. If Fort Devens was An Officer and a Gentleman, MEPS was Platoon.

I was shuttled through MEPS as if through an automatic car wash, station by station by station, each with a special function, until every square inch of me had been attended to. Muscle tests. Joint tests. I was given an eye exam. They checked my hearing, too. I went upstairs to have my blood drawn. Urine and blood tests. Drug and alcohol tests.

“Walk like a duck,” one of the proctors said to us. And a whole line of recruits did just that, duck-walked across the room.

I carried my stack of papers in a large manila envelope. The weigh-in was at the end. That was the station I was most nervous about. A corpsman with a clipboard stood by a beat-up Toledo doctor’s-office scale.

“This is where it all ends for me,” I said, trying to manage a charming smile. “Any advice?”

He was not about to be charmed. “Up” was all he said, and I climbed on the scale, recalling all those bunless burgers and bacon sides.

He slid the smaller weight to the right until the metal arm balanced at what looked like exactly 168 pounds. “Where are you headed?” he asked me.

“Navy,” I told him.

“Then you’re fine,” he said. “We’ll put it down as 167.”

He stamped my card and sent me on my way. It was past six-thirty by the time I got out of there. Most of Boston was still in bed, but my girlfriend had waited in the car for me almost three hours. I couldn’t wait to tell Ava I had passed the weigh-in. And I had one request: Could we please make a quick stop at Au Bon Pain? Finally, I was free to eat a mouthwatering toasted bagel with way more than a schmear of scallion cream cheese.

When she asked how it went, I said, “Fine. And please don’t ever ask me to walk like a duck.”