SPECIAL AGENTS - 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)



Boston was quickly feeling like yesterday.

Ava and I were New Yorkers on an atomic level. With my hopes of joining the navy on hold, leaving Boston—and with it, my unfinished master’s degree at Harvard—hadn’t been hard at all. At first I debated whether to take a semester off from my studies and then commute or transfer to a graduate program in New York. But even that felt like another excuse for delay.

New York was a new start for both of us. I went back to work—temporarily, I told myself—at Books & Research. We’d barely unpacked when I suggested to Ava that we do something major now that we were back home. “Let’s get married,” I said.

It wasn’t a big wedding. Neither of us wanted that. On February 9, 2005, a week before our birthdays, we went to city hall and said “I do.”

One Saturday morning a few weeks after that, Ava Brent Jamali was reading journal articles as I paced in the living room. “Hey, Ave,” I asked for perhaps the thirty-seventh time, “now that I’m not in school, what do you think if I tried to get some work experience for the navy? You think that would help?”

“Uh-huh,” she replied without looking up.

“Well, I was thinking, you know, maybe I should try and do an internship, like with the FBI, maybe. What do you think?”

I noticed my voice sounded intense and high-pitched. Ava had put down her articles and was looking at me. “Seriously, Naveed,” she said. “Are you scheming again?” The last time I’d decided to join the navy.

“No, just listen.”

“Okay, Naveed,” she said, “why don’t you just call the FBI and offer your services? But in the meantime, if you want to save the world, would you pick up some kitty litter? We’re out.”

Challenge accepted—on both counts.

* * *

That Monday, I asked my mother for the phone number of the latest FBI agent she and my father had been dealing with, explaining that I wanted to see if one of the agents might have some advice for me about the navy. Perhaps pitying me—her little boy was still trying to decide what to do when he grew up—she gave me a number. In her heavy French accent, she said: “Be careful, these are not people to trust.”

A product of the seventies, I thought. Suspicious of “the man.”

Excitedly, I dialed the number my mother had given me. The agent answered on the second ring.

“Is it okay if I call you Bambi?” I asked after introducing myself. I was trying to sound friendly and casual.

“If you want to, sure,” she said, sounding slightly confused. “But if you’d like me to answer, it’s probably better to call me by my actual name. I’m Randi.”

I should have known better than to ask my mother for the agent’s name. With the French accent, “Randi” had come out like “Bambi,” and I’d just made a fool of myself with the agent I was eager to impress. So much for instant rapport!

I explained that I was calling on behalf of my parents. That was true enough and a better opening line, I thought, than “Hi, are you hiring part-time help?” I said that the man from the Russian Mission had stopped by, and I had been the one to take the order. “As you know,” I said, “my parents are getting older. They’ll be retiring soon. From now on, I’ll be the one dealing with the Russians.”

Maybe she was having a slow day. Maybe she just wanted to lay eyes on the idiot kid who’d called her Bambi. But she suggested that I come downtown and meet in person with her and her partner. We settled on a meeting place—outside the FBI’s New York office at 26 Federal Plaza, near city hall and the courts in lower Manhattan. “We can walk somewhere from there,” Randi said.

* * *

It was a beautiful spring morning when I went to see the agents. They seemed happy enough to meet me.

Randi seemed to be a smart and savvy young woman. Her family came from Colombia in South America. She said she had recently returned to New York from Seattle, where she’d been shocked to find that traffic stopped for her the minute she stepped off the curb, whether she had the light or not. “Very different out there,” she said.

Her partner was named Terry. He seemed to be the junior agent. He couldn’t have been much older than I was. He was thin and wore glasses and spoke in a slightly nasal voice. He came from an Italian-American family in Pennsylvania.

We darted across the heavy Broadway traffic to a Dunkin’ Donuts. When Randi warned, “Be careful, Terry,” he teased her about her concern for his street-crossing habits. “You’ve been in Seattle too long,” he said, laughing.

Terry asked if I wanted anything to eat. “No,” I said, “that’s okay. Just some water.”

With a slight smirk, Randi asked Terry if he wanted some fruit. He looked annoyed and didn’t answer. “How ’bout an apple turnover?” she asked. “I hear they have good apple turnovers here.”

Terry just scowled. I liked the fact that, even though they were FBI agents, they seemed to have some personality. They seemed looser than the stereotype. “Terry won’t eat anything natural or with certain colors,” Randi said to me. “Literally, he has not eaten any fruits or vegetables or anything green in years.”

It seemed weird. But Terry shrugged, so I let it go.

He got three bottles of water. We grabbed a table in the corner and had a little talk. I repeated what I’d said on the phone to Randi, that my parents were transitioning out of the business and I would be dealing with the Russians. “I know there has been a long relationship between the Bureau and my family,” I said. “I have been hearing about this for most of my life. The time has come for me to be more directly involved.”

I didn’t tell the agents what I was thinking. Frankly, I was a little hazy on the details myself. But Russian diplomats, FBI, surreptitious visits, secrets reports—that had to add up to something interesting. I was pretty sure I wanted to be part of it, even if I didn’t know how.

The agents were obviously thinking on a smaller scale. “We appreciate your cooperation,” Randi finally said. “We’d like for it to continue. But it’s entirely up to you. If you want to keep doing this, that’s fine. If not, we understand. Your cooperation is totally voluntary.”

I understood, I said, and I was happy to continue. More like eager to continue. “So how should we proceed?”

“What do you mean?” Randi asked.

“Help me understand what you’re looking for,” I said. “What would you like me to do? I’ll get the lists, but are there other things I can be helpful with?”

The agents didn’t seem to pick up on my ambition to do more than provide copies of the Russians’ shopping lists.

“We have a good relationship with your family, Mr. Jamali. Everything seems to be going well. Keep us informed. Let us know what happens. Just do whatever you’re comfortable with. And please let us know when you hear from them again.”

I promised I would.

The agents were perfectly pleasant and professional. They gave me plenty of time that day. But any ideas I had about getting more involved than my parents had been or buffing up my résumé with intel experience—clearly, that would have to wait. I didn’t cook up any fresh business at the get-to-know-you meeting, and I wouldn’t say they were excited to get to know me. They definitely didn’t suggest an internship. But I did gain a glimmer of intel from that meeting. I noticed, as our conversation wound down, neither agent got up to leave.

“Should I leave first?” I finally asked. The agents nodded together. And I did. Without knowing it, I was getting a glimpse at inside methods of counterintelligence operators, something that would be important to me in the months and years to come. There were many must-know rules, it turned out. When possible, talk in person, not on the telephone. Agents work in pairs. They take a careful measure of the people they agree to work with. Protect the secrecy of the relationship. Trust and comfort are built over time.

Just telling the agents that I’d be taking over for my parents meant I was involved in something covert. I’d collect the list from the Russian man, then secretly turn it over to the Bureau. I was, at the lowest possible level, an FBI asset. I felt like a less bombastic Ed Norton in Fight Club, learning the rules at the same time I was supposed to play by them.

* * *

I stayed in touch with the agents like I’d promised to.

The next time a Russian from the mission dropped off a new order, I called Randi and reported what was on the latest list. I was pleasant. She was pleasant. But that was about as far as it went. When I asked how else I might be helpful, she brushed aside my offers. “We appreciate what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s very helpful.” I don’t think she knew what more I was asking to do. Truthfully, neither did I. Not yet. I didn’t know where any of this was heading, if anywhere.

* * *

Randi and I spoke again three months later. I’d been out of the office this time when the Russian showed up. He’d collected his order and left a new list with my father. When I got back, I reminded my dad that I’d like to be the one calling the agents. He didn’t care.

“I have the info for you,” I told Randi when I got her on the phone. “Can we set up a time to meet?”

Since that first day when I met Randi and Terry, I’d never stopped thinking about how to expand our mundane relationship. At the very least, I knew I wanted to do something with the FBI that would impress the direct commission people in the navy. There had to be something I could do. I kept thinking back to the family dinner-table conversations from childhood, when my parents and I used to joke that the Russian men in trench coats had to be spies. Twenty years later, even after the Soviet Union fell and so much else had changed in the world, the Russians were still coming to Books & Research and the FBI was still keeping tabs on them. There had to be some reason for that, right? On both sides, I was sure. Whatever those reasons were, I kept telling myself, I was in a great spot to do some digging and maybe have something to write to Lino and his colleagues about.

I didn’t want to report over the phone. And I wasn’t thrilled about having FBI agents coming to the office. There were too many people around for us to talk privately. “Would you mind if we met before work near my apartment?” I asked Randi. She didn’t ask why, but we agreed to connect at eight-thirty the following morning before I left for work.

I think I mentioned to Ava that I was meeting with the agents in the morning. Or maybe I didn’t. I’m not sure. Either way, it wasn’t a big topic between us. And she’d already left for her lab at NYU when Terry rang my phone from the street. “We’re in the middle of the block across from your building,” he said.

I rode the elevator down and met the two agents on the sidewalk next to their car, a black fourth-generation Ford Taurus. From a distance, I could see they were laughing, sharing what I imagined was some kind of special-agent inside joke. Terry was wearing a gray suit with a red tie. Randi had on a dark blue pantsuit. They didn’t stand out in our Yuppie neighborhood. They could have been on their way to a job at a bank or a law office. Nobody would’ve glanced twice or thought FBI, much less counterintelligence.

As I approached, the agents’ demeanor changed. They appeared much more serious.

“Why don’t we go somewhere and talk,” Randi suggested.

“You want to come upstairs?” I asked.

Randi and Terry hesitated. But then they glanced at each other and shrugged. “Okay,” Randi said.

We crossed the street and went into the building. I nodded but said nothing to the doorman as we passed. We rode the elevator in silence till the doors slid open. I unlocked the apartment and led the agents inside.

Common sense and good old-fashioned paranoia should suggest to federal agents that it isn’t wise to meet with an asset at his home. And even if all my parents and I ever did was provide the FBI with Russian reading lists, we qualified as FBI assets. There’s no better way to take the covert out of a covert operation than for the government agent to be seen entering or leaving the asset’s home. But discussing sensitive matters isn’t always easy in public places, and I wasn’t the kind of asset they needed to meet in the shadows. It wasn’t likely the Russians would detect Randi and Terry slipping into my building. And they must have figured if coming upstairs made me more comfortable and helped us bond, it was worth the negligible risk.

So here we were at the ten-seat dining room table while I made my presentation.

“Here is what he ordered… . Here is a copy of the list… . Here is the new stuff… . Here is what it’s gonna cost.” Terry and Randi expressed bland interest: “Okay… . Uh-huh… . Right.”

I watched Randi for a reaction. She was sitting military-straight with a blank expression on her face. Terry was watching her, and he looked worried. I believed I knew what both of them were thinking: We have a good thing going here. It works. Why fuck with it? The Bureau’s relationship with my parents had always been a low-yield return, but it hadn’t taken a whole lot of effort, and it was a return nonetheless. Neither one of the agents said that, of course. But I don’t think my impression was wrong. And who could blame them? I didn’t have that much to report. But since this was my first official briefing, I was trying to be as efficient and thorough as I could. I wanted the agents to think of me as skilled and professional. I was hoping I could quickly convince them I was creative enough to expand the nature of our relationship.

I explained to the agents how my parents’ business was growing steadily, how we would be moving to a new office and hiring more people, how our customer base was expanding and we were breaking into more technical fields and performing more high-visibility projects. I also explained that I needed to be certain that my involvement with the Bureau, no matter what level it reached, didn’t put the business at risk.

Randi waved her hand dismissively at that last part. “Your cooperation is not something that should impact your business,” she said.

I thought about that, then squinted at her with mild annoyance. “I get that it shouldn’t impact my business, but what if it does?”

“Look, you’re obviously a very intelligent and well-spoken person,” she said.

I smiled at the flattery but cut her off. I knew what she was doing, and I had to laugh. “One of the things I’ve learned in dealing with military customers from the South,” I said, “is that you can absolutely eviscerate somebody as long as you end with ‘Bless his heart.’ ‘Tom is a total fuckin’ idiot, bless his heart.’ ” I wanted her to know they couldn’t play with me. “Is that your bless-my-heart speech?”

Terry looked concerned, if not a little confused, and spoke up. “Naveed,” he said sharply, “what are you thinking?”

“I’ll tell you,” I said. I dove in, suggesting a whole new level of involvement with the Russians. I took it as a given that they were engaged in something more than traditional diplomacy. The FBI had told my parents two decades earlier that Tomakhin was Russian intelligence. It seemed reasonable to assume that the present-day Russians were involved in more of the same. “Is there any way to steer the Russian who comes to the office away from the real business? What could I suggest to him that he might find alluring? Something that wouldn’t put me or the business in any real jeopardy? I’d like to think of a new focus here.”

There was another pause while Terry and Randi reflected. Looking back, I should have been more surprised by their response. They didn’t shut me down immediately. They almost sounded interested.

“Take his lead,” Randi said as the tension seemed to abate a bit. “We can’t direct him to one particular path,” she warned. “It has to be from him.”

We talked a while longer, but that was about the extent of it. They didn’t give me any useful guidance. Or a plan. But at least they hadn’t ordered me to back off. As things seemed to be winding down, Randi asked, “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Go ahead.” I pointed her in the direction of our bathroom, which had original subway tile and a window that looked west to the Hudson. “It’s all the way at the end of the hall.”

As Randi left, I looked at Terry, who looked at me. We both sat there as if somebody had just pushed pause. He said nothing, and neither did I. I wondered what he thought of me. He seemed like a careful, deliberate, and observant person. Was this the FBI spin on good cop/bad cop—verbal agent/mute agent?

As I heard the water running, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was Randi rifling through the medicine cabinet and writing down the names of the pills she found? Wasn’t that what FBI agents did? Was she investigating whether I was on Lorazepam? Or was it Cialis? Either way, I was pretty sure that whatever she found was going straight into my personal FBI file. Briefly, I wished I had stuffed some exotic meds in there to fuck with the agents or filled the cabinet with candy: “Asset has a penchant for green M&Ms.”

She came back from the bathroom. We said goodbye, and they left the apartment.

I had the impression that our Venn diagram wasn’t quite intersecting. Where was the common ground here? We hadn’t found it. Not yet. Randi and Terry seemed happy enough with the way things had been going. I was tense and impatient and fidgety, itching for things to change and develop and grow.

My cell phone rang. It was the office. I didn’t have time to wrestle with my questions. I had to get off to work. I grabbed my laptop and headed to the garage to get the car.

* * *

I spent the day tied up in the boring duties of work and pretty much forgot about my meeting with the FBI agents. When I got home, it was already dark outside, and the lights were on in the front room of our apartment, so I knew Ava was there. I kicked my shoes off in the living room and called out, “Hello.” She didn’t answer. I walked back to the bedroom, which was where we spent most of our time. Ava was just standing there. Arms crossed. Looking really, really pissed.

Uh-oh, I thought. This can’t be good.

“What’s going on?” I asked her, hoping I sounded casual, hoping I was wrong.

“I don’t know,” she said. “You tell me.”

Now, I knew that was a trick question. I wanted to be careful answering it. What have I done? What do I admit to? Did I leave the apartment a mess in the morning? Should I not have told the fart joke at her lab dinner? At a time like this, there is no right way to answer, no way to dig yourself out of whatever hole you don’t even know you are in.

“Something you want to say?” Ava asked again.

Did I miss a birthday? What the hell did I do?

I was desperately trying to step around all the land mines in my head. A couple of possibilities came to mind. The one thing that did not register at all was the visit I’d had that morning with the federal agents.

We had a set of bookshelves in the bedroom. As she turned, I noted on one shelf a conspicuously out-of-place bright yellow plastic wrapper. Ava walked over and picked it up. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was. “What is this?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” I really didn’t. I just knew it played a part in whatever wrong thing I’d been caught doing.

“It’s a maxi-pad wrapper, you dolt.”

Now I was even more confused. How did it get there? It’s a female thing. Why does this involve me?

“Did you have anyone over today?”

“I’ve been working all day,” I said, which didn’t exactly answer the question but had the benefit of being technically true. When in doubt, start with the truth. Did I leave the keys with anyone? Did we have workers in?

“You’re telling me this just magically showed up?”

“I don’t know about these things, Av—”

“Well, it isn’t mine!”

We kept going back and forth. I was stalling for time, hoping I could think of something.

Then it hit me.

Terry and Randi had been in the apartment. And Randi had used the bathroom.

How do I explain this? Will Ava believe me? What bold assertion of mine would ease the wrath quotient? Should I say I’m having an affair? I have a weird maxi-pad fetish? I don’t like to get up to pee and I find women’s hygiene products more convenient than using a Coke bottle?

I wondered how crazy it would sound if I just said, “Ava, baby. I swear. I was just meeting with two FBI agents who were debriefing me about someone who may be a Russian spy.” The truth sounded more preposterous than any stupid lie.

But I did tell her the truth. “I was meeting the FBI agents Randi and Terry this morning. I thought I mentioned it. I told them to come up here. We talked in the dining room.”

“You brought them up here?” Ava demanded. “They saw our house? You let them use the bathroom? Did you clean the bathroom first?”

“No, I didn’t clean the bathroom.”

Ava was mortified. No longer at the maxi-pad wrapper or the imagined orgies I was conducting in our apartment in the middle of the afternoon. Suddenly, the issue was housekeeping. I hadn’t exactly jumped from the frying pan into the fire, but I’d sure landed in a second frying pan—and this one was just as sizzlingly hot.

In my head, I cursed the FBI. This was their famously deft investigative technique? Their idea of being discreet? Strewing feminine hygiene products everywhere they went? What would be next? Getting made by the Russians because I had toilet paper stuck to my shoe?

“Did you make them take their shoes off?”

Oh, yeah. Right. As if I was going to insist that a couple of armed federal agents remove their shoes before they’d be allowed inside! But I was floating helplessly, so I grabbed for the life preserver of a little white lie. Trying to sound as stung as she had, I said, “Of course I made them take their shoes off. I did.”

That day was just the first of many when the various parts of my increasingly complex life collided. My job, my wife, my career, my parents, the Russians and the feds, my obsession with cars—I had quite a few balls in the air. They sometimes placed competing demands on me. And I wasn’t always perfect at juggling everything.

But I learned two very important lessons that day. First, never again lie to Ava Jamali. Period. It’s not worth it. It’s really not. And second, when building cover for a counterintelligence operation, you have to build layer after layer after layer. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes skill. And it can all be undone in a heartbeat by something as trivial as a feminine hygiene pad.