COMMANDER LINO - 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 wanted to be Lino Covarrubias. I knew that five minutes after we sat down together at the Imperial Terrace Chinese buffet in Quincy, Massachusetts, and I asked him what he’d done in the navy before he became a recruiter.

“Surface warfare officer,” he said. “A jack of all trades, a master of none. In the Med and the Adriatic. On frigates, cruisers, and an aircraft carrier.”

That was how he spoke—simply, directly, like he had no need to embellish or to brag about anything. I nodded across the spring rolls at him.

“When the Balkans blew up in the early nineties,” he said, “we joined a NATO task force trying to keep weapons out of Serbia and Montenegro. The idea was to draw the violence down by starving out the weapons and ammo. We were out there inspecting ships, stopping black-market arms from coming across from Italy. A few got through at night on cigarette boats going sixty miles an hour. We couldn’t shoot at them. But that was maybe a few dozen firearms at a time. We were focused on the larger ships that could deliver thousands of weapons. It was a miserable winter, the sea so choppy, cold winds blowing down from the Alps. But we kept a lot of arms out of Serbia, I’ll tell you that.”

I was spellbound. I had read all those books about the military. I’d seen hundreds of war movies and TV shows. I’d heard stories as a boy from my French grandfather about his harrowing experiences in World War II. I’d had my short career in ROTC, for whatever that was worth. But none of that made me feel like this did, sitting across a restaurant table from this lieutenant commander in the navy, having adult-to-adult conversation about life on the inside.

“That must have been exciting,” I told him.

“It was,” he said.

* * *

I had taken the steps Lino had asked of me in his email. I’d filled out a whole stack of forms and applications, checking “no” in all the right spots. I had driven the Firehawk to the U.S. Naval Reserve Center at 85 Sea Street. Now it was time to meet the man who’d laid out the steps for me.

Quincy is an old industrial city on Boston’s South Shore. To an outsider, it looks less like its own city and more like another Boston neighborhood on its way to being gentrified. It has winding streets, triple-decker houses, and idle factory buildings turned into offices and condos. But Quincy still has a strong identity of its own. “QUIN-zy,” the old-timers like to say, as if the “c” were a “z.” I had read about Quincy’s place in American history. Settled in 1625, the city got its name from Colonel John Quincy, maternal grandfather of Abigail Adams. Her husband, John Adams, the second president of the United States, was born in Quincy, as was their son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. So was John Hancock, the Massachusetts governor known by children across America for his bold and stylish signature on the Declaration of Independence.

This part of Quincy didn’t look all that historic to me. The architectural style was more like “surplus cinder block.” I passed a couple of strip malls and a Blockbuster, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and a Friendly’s. The brownish one-story navy building looked more like a decommissioned junior high school. I parked the car in the lot and walked inside.

The recruiters shared the building with the MBTA Transit Police Academy. The police recruits were down one hallway, the navy prospects down the other.

“I’m here to see Lieutenant Commander Covarrubias,” I told the navy clerk, doing my best with the five-syllable last name. The clerk nodded, and I took a seat.

I waited about ten minutes as people in blue uniforms came and went. I couldn’t tell what they were doing, but they all seemed busy doing it. I stared at the recruiting posters featuring fit young men and women gazing off ship decks, leaping out of helicopters, and running purposefully through the surf. I could hear the police recruits down the hall.

Suddenly, a stocky man in his early forties breezed into the waiting room. He was wearing a khaki officer’s uniform. He said a quick “good morning” to the people in the blue shirts before looking over at me. He was about my height and had a shock of thick black hair parted on the left side. I counted five rows of ribbons on his shirt. I couldn’t say what all of them were, but I saw silver jump wings, a recruiter pin, and a gold surface-warfare badge.

“Hey,” he said brightly to me, reaching out his right hand. “How’s it goin’? I’m Lino. You wanna grab some lunch?”

His easygoing friendliness caught me off guard. “Yes, sir,” I said, standing up quickly.

“It’s Lino,” he said, brushing off the formality.

“Yes, sir,” I answered. “Lino.” I’d have been just as comfortable calling him “Lieutenant Commander.”

We walked a block to a Chinese buffet, probably chosen for convenience. It couldn’t have been the ambience. The room was dark and mostly empty. The food was all-you-can-eat, that’s the best I can say about it. Lino piled his plate with dumplings and spring rolls, and I did the same.

“So how did you get into this?” I asked him.

I started eating, and Lino began to talk. Even with this dim lighting, I could see the grease shining off his plate.

“It’s what I always knew I’d do,” he said. “You meet some of the greatest people in the navy. It’s something you really feel part of. I had some amazing times out there.” He started ticking off the ports that he and his shipmates had visited. “Toulon, France. Málaga, Spain. Corfu in the Greek Islands. Haifa, Israel.”

“Was that totally amazing?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. It is. There is nothing in the world like the Atlantic fleet coming into a port after a couple months at sea. We’re a dry navy, you know. No alcohol on board the ship. In a lot of your other navies, as long you’re off duty, you can have a beer or a rum, watch a movie, and go to sleep. In the U.S. Navy, no. You’re weeks or more at sea with nothing to distract you. So you’ve just hit port. You haven’t had a beer in a month and a half. That first beer hits you in the head like a rock. That picture of U.S. sailors out drinking, it’s quite true. Two or three days in port, you get in as much as you can.”

The way Lino told it, he made even the bad things sound good. No beer on the ship—for no matter how long—sounded like no big deal when he described the raucous camaraderie of another port call. The sailors, he told me, did more on land than drink, womanize, and unwind. They also tried to help people wherever they could.

“We would build a playground,” he said. “Or we would rehab an orphanage. We bring money into the restaurants and bars, but we also do these projects. People appreciate it. Most of the places we’re sent to, people are very happy to see the U.S. fleet come in. Most people like Americans.”

He seemed happy enough to talk, like it was a relief to have a recruit who was asking questions about him. I knew we would get around to discussing the direct commission program and my chances of getting in. But I kept pumping him about his own background.

“Covarrubias—is that a Greek name?” I asked him.

“Spanish,” he answered. “My family is Mexican-American. I grew up in Southern California, outside El Centro. It’s a pretty poor area near the Mexican border. There’s a Naval Air Facility in El Centro. It’s the winter home of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. You’ve heard of them?”

Of course I’d heard of the Blue Angels, the legendary acrobatic flying team. “As a little kid through high school, I watched the Angels every winter,” Lino explained. “They had air shows at the base. I was sold on the navy from the very start. It was the only thing I wanted to do. That was the way to get out of the poverty of the barrio.”

He enlisted right out of high school in 1984. After basic training, he was tapped for the BOOST program (Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training). “The navy needed more officers,” he said. “BOOST was for enlisted personnel from the fleet, a one-year prep school in San Diego that would prepare you for a Navy ROTC program at a college somewhere.”

Lino must have done well in BOOST. He was one of only ten students in his class offered a place in the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. But he wasn’t sure it was what he should do. He’d also been accepted to the ROTC program at UCLA. He’d seen the full-color brochures of the Los Angeles campus. It looked pretty sweet.

“My chief pulled me aside,” Lino remembered. “He said to me, ‘Covarrubias, you come from a poor background, right? Your parents, they don’t have any money. ROTC pays for tuition and books, not room and board. Who’s gonna pay for room and board? Your parents will pay for that? Most people have to work. I tell you what you’re gonna do. You’ll be flipping burgers. You ever been to Maryland?’ I hadn’t traveled anywhere. ‘Best seafood ever. You don’t have to work. Everything is paid for. It’s twenty-four/seven navy. No flipping patties.’

“The reason I went to Annapolis wasn’t because it was a fine institution or a prestigious school or anything like that. I went because my family couldn’t afford room and board, and I didn’t want to flip burgers.”

He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1989 and headed out to sea, this time as an officer with a big career ahead of him.

Our conversation shifted. He started asking questions about me. I told him about my own background. The French mother, the Pakistani father, the techie son now dating a brilliant Jewish woman from New York.

He seemed to like all that. “America is a nation of immigrants,” he said. “I particularly like candidates who come from immigrant families in the first generation or two.”

I told him that when 9/11 happened, Ava and I both felt bad about not being in New York. When she finished her doctoral program at Harvard, we would probably move back there.

That was fine, he said. If I got accepted into the program, the navy would tell me where to report, but they wouldn’t care where I lived in my off time.

As we talked on, he repeated some of the things I already knew about the extreme selectivity of the program, and he emphasized that the most selective specialty was Naval Intelligence.

“We need skilled people for that,” he said. “A lot of the surveillance we’re doing now is with computers. We need techies. Maybe next year we’ll have too many techies and we’ll need people who can think. Then they’ll be telling me, ‘Send us all those professors and PhDs.’

“After nine-eleven,” he said, “my phone started ringing with all these people who never would have thought about joining the military. Professional people. People with Ivy League degrees. People who’d already had good careers. They’re saying the same things: ‘I’ve had a great life. I have a great family. I have a great education. I’m making a great living. But I haven’t done anything for my country, and that doesn’t seem right.’ Any of this sound familiar to you?”

I told Lino he was reading my mind.

“You might be a good fit for this,” he said.

He told me he’d gone over my application. Nothing was guaranteed, but he thought I had a solid chance of getting in. “You have good paper,” he told me. “You have strong technical skills. Working at Harvard is nice. You have the diversity piece. You seem to be doing this for all the right reasons. You know what you’re getting into.”

He said he did have some concern about the depth of my work experience. “You are really just getting started in your career,” he said. “But I think you’ll be a competitive candidate. As far as I’m concerned, you make the initial cut.”

Lino kept talking. And I kept asking him questions. About the great people he’d met in the navy. How serving had brought meaning to his life. About all the fun he’d been able to have. He lit up as he described one memorable cruise across the Mediterranean and an exchange program with the Turkish Navy. “There’s just a lot of opportunity to contribute,” he said.

Up until that point, I’d had no idea what an intel officer did day to day. There wasn’t much explanation in the official paperwork beyond the fact that applicants needed a college degree. The rest I’d tried to learn in military chat rooms, though I’d noticed the intel officers weren’t big on sharing details until they really trusted you. I asked Lino if he had dealt personally with any intel officers. He nodded without saying too much. “They’ve always been professional.”

I asked what specifically I might be doing if I got in. “You’ll know better once you are attached to a command,” he said. “They’ll tell you what you’ll be doing.” It was all a little vague, all very Maverick in Top Gun: “It’s classified. I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” But I liked the fact that he spoke as if I was likely to be accepted. “When you get in,” he said, “you might want to choose a unit to drill with that’s close to home so it won’t impact too much on your home or work life. The reserves are very compatible with having a normal, civilian career.”

He didn’t get much more specific, and I couldn’t tell how much he really knew. I asked if he thought I could get pilot training while I was an intelligence officer. He was very good at not saying much while still sounding encouraging. “It’s not impossible,” he said. “No doors are closed. A lot of different things can happen.”

I didn’t want the lunch to end. I looked up and noticed a couple of other people in uniform in the restaurant. “I’ve heard good and bad about navy food,” I said. “You’ve been around. Where is the best?”

“The submarine service has the best food,” he said without missing a beat. “Those guys have long hours underwater and not a lot of distractions.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

I could have listened to Lino talk all afternoon. But the main thing he left me with was the sense that as a navy intelligence officer, I would immediately be doing something important to help the country and that I had a good shot at getting in. That was all I wanted to hear.

I knew I was in the company of one bad-ass military dude. I wanted to do what he had done: spent his young-adult years running around the world to exotic hot spots as part of the world’s greatest navy. That sounded pretty enticing.

By the time I walked out of that Chinese buffet in Quincy, I was hooked.

* * *

The letter reached Queensberry Street on Saturday morning, June 7, 2003. Ava was with me when I got the mail from the lobby box. The return address said Navy Recruiting Command, 5722 Integrity Drive, Millington, TN 38054-5057. The envelope was thin.

Walking upstairs to the second floor, I remembered what my high school friends had said when they were waiting to hear from colleges: You always want a thick envelope, packed with course selections and housing forms and moving-day tips and return-mail envelopes. When it comes to news-bearing envelopes, thin is never good.

“Dear Mr. Jamali,” the letter began.

“Your application for appointment to the U.S. Navy Reserve Direct Commissioning Program has been carefully reviewed, but regrettably, due to program restrictions, you were not selected.”

I read the first paragraph again. It didn’t get any better the second time.

The usual happy horseshit followed. “Your application will remain on file for two years with this command. You should maintain contact with an officer recruiter should the program reopen in the future. He or she may request reactivation of your application should that occur.”

And then the don’t-feel-too-bad-about-this part: “Please be assured that your nonselection is not an adverse reflection on you, but an indication of the intense competitiveness of the Naval Reserve Program.” And finally: “I regret a favorable decision could not be made in your case. Your interest in obtaining a commission in the Naval Reserve Intelligence Officer Program is greatly appreciated.”

The letter was signed, “Sincerely, S. M. Heller, Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve.” His title continued: “Head, Inactive Reserve Section, Officer Programs Division, Operations Department.”

At the bottom was one last line: “By direction of the Commander.” That made the rejection sound even more official.

I’ve heard people say that when they got bad news, it felt like they’d been kicked in the gut. Well, I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut by a Clydesdale.

“You really wanted this, didn’t you?” Ava asked, sounding very concerned. “At first I thought you were just playing around with the idea, like you thought it might be cool or it just sounded interesting. I figured you would lose interest along the way.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more in my life,” I said. “How do I go back to work Monday? Everything seems so pointless.” I was oozing self-pity and acting like a victim.

Ava’s reaction was not to throw me a pity party. Instead, she grabbed my hand and made me look her in the eye as she spoke firmly. “Hey! What happened to the kid who didn’t get into college and then applied and got himself into NYU? Did that kid give up? Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re going to do just what you did at Hunter. You’re going to put one foot in front of the other and try again. If this is what you want, it doesn’t matter how many times it takes or how long. You. Don’t. Give. Up.”

For a brief minute I thought she might punch me. But then her face broke into a giant smile. “It’s beautiful outside, and I don’t need to be in the lab. Why don’t we take the T-tops off the ’hawk and go for a ride by the shore?”

* * *

I called Lino on Monday morning. He’d already heard. “Don’t take it personally,” he told me.

I knew he would say that. I also knew I would take it personally. How could I not?

“What do you think happened?” I asked him.

“It’s probably the work experience,” he said. “You haven’t been out of school that long. You’re just getting started in your career.”

I’ve been out for five years already, I thought. How long am I supposed to wait?

“Geography might have something to do with it,” he said. “For a program like this one, New England is probably the most competitive. It’s not just Harvard. It’s MIT, Yale, Brown—I mean, there’s a lot of them. Maybe if you’d come from Texas, it would have been easier. There’s a lot of good paper here.”

He repeated what he and others had told me, that not getting in the first time was not that unusual. He said I had several other options. I could enlist in the navy, gain some experience, and move into intelligence work that way. Or I could get more experience on the outside and then apply again.

“If you want something bad enough,” he said, “you keep trying. You may not be selected the first time. I know people who haven’t been selected the second and third time, and they kept trying and finally got in. They wanted it. They did what they had to. They got it done.”

He asked if Ava and I were still planning to move back to New York. I told him we were.

“Here’s what I would do,” he said. “The most important thing is you need to get experience that is relevant to this program. Being an IT person at Harvard is great. But just because you are Harvard, that isn’t enough. What you really need is experience in the intelligence field, something that would make you more competitive against these applicants. You might consider working for the State Department or the FBI or a law-enforcement agency that does intelligence. You should apply for that kind of stuff. We have people who are dual-agency, who work in other state or federal law-enforcement agencies, and they’re also in the Navy Reserves. That works out great for everyone. It doesn’t have to be that, exactly, just something so you can show ‘I have some actual experience in the field.’ Does that make sense?”

“Okay,” I said, trying not to sound too discouraged.

“And Naveed?” Lino said before wishing me luck and saying goodbye. “Let me hear from you, okay? Let me know how you do.”

* * *

I knew Ava and Lino were right. I couldn’t give up. Immediately, I started trying to figure out what I should do next. The obvious thing was to get a master’s degree. When in doubt, hide in graduate school. Since Harvard offered free tuition at the Extension School, I thought, Why not? So I applied and, much to my delight, was accepted into the master of liberal arts program. After reading Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, I decided to focus my studies on state sovereignty and the concept that some crimes are so heinous, they justify its breach. I debated passionately with my fellow classmates about when evil is so profound, it permits or even compels military intervention. This was during the early months of the war in Iraq and growing condemnation of U.S. imperialism. I can say that my prointervention arguments were not too popular on the Harvard campus. Additionally, I decided to take on the role of Harvard freshmen academic adviser and found myself helping a gaggle of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds navigate an unfamiliar campus. I traded in my old 1999 Firehawk for a silver 405-horsepower fiftieth-anniversary Corvette Z06. I dove deeply into the car scene in Boston, doing track days at New Hampshire International Speedway and Lime Rock Park and weekend car cruises across New England.

To anyone halfway paying attention, it would have seemed I’d settled back into my pre-9/11 contentedness. But I still felt that these were all poor substitutes for what I really wanted: a commission as an officer in the United States Navy. I was still going nowhere. In January 2005, after Ava was awarded her doctorate in genetics, the newly minted Dr. Brent and I loaded our two cats into a box truck and headed with all our worldly possessions back to the city of our birth.