NETWORKCENTRIC - 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)



To get their hands on secret information, the Russians liked a technique perfected at American convenience stores by generations of thirsty sixteen-year-olds. In my town, we called it “slipping it past ’em.”

“Okay, I want a Lean Cuisine, a jar of applesauce, two D batteries, a child’s toothbrush, a six-pack of Bud—oh yeah, and an Us Weekly.” We’d say that as casually as we could, hoping the clerk wouldn’t respond, “Hey, wait a second! You’re a teenager! You can’t buy beer!”

They must have had something similar in Russia.

Over the years, I had laughed with my parents when one Russian or another tried to bury a classified document or a restricted report inside a routine order for research books. But the first time I witnessed a Russian slip it past ’em was in 2006, when Oleg showed up at the office in Dobbs Ferry—unannounced, as usual—one steamy August day.

He issued a few awkward pleasantries, then cast his gaze, as he always did, on the book-giveaway shelf. As I went to fetch his order, he began loading the freebies into his plastic garbage bag. Nothing out of the ordinary so far. That was Oleg. After paying me in cash for the order, rounding up generously, he handed me his latest wish list. It contained a dozen or so books and articles, plus a printout about a conference that had been held in Washington earlier that year.

“What’s this?” I asked him with all the charm of a harried 7-Eleven night clerk.

“Oh, yeah,” he said as if he’d almost forgotten. “Are you a member of this organization? Would you be able to get the proceedings from this conference for me?”

I glanced at the printout he’d handed me. “IDGA,” it said. “Institute for Defense and Government Advancement. 5th Annual Conference on Networkcentric Warfare.”


I’d heard of networkcentric warfare. It was a theory of war articulated in the mid-1990s by Admiral William Owens and others in the U.S. Defense Department. The basic idea was that we had far better computer technology than most of our enemies did, so we should try to translate America’s information superiority into practical military advantages for our troops on the battlefield. Network sensoring systems, shared situational awareness, full-spectrum dominance, rapid target assessment, reduced operational pause—those were the buzzwords of networkcentric warfare. It was a hot topic in defense circles when Oleg expressed his interest to me. I knew nothing about this particular conference. As far as I knew, it could be a walk-in presentation open to anyone with a single-ride MetroCard. But I promised Oleg I’d find out what I could.

As much as I wanted to keep a dialogue going, maybe finally crack this guy’s stiff facade, it was a little creepy having him in the office. I noticed a couple of people casting uncomfortable glances in his direction, as if to say, “Oh, him again.”

“I’ll look into it for you,” I promised before he left the office that day. “I will let you know either way.”

He was gone as quickly as he came.

* * *

The IDGA, I vaguely recalled, catered to government officials, mostly from the Pentagon, and people from the technical side of the defense industry. Part networking group, part training platform, part idea lab, the organization and industry events were “dedicated to the promotion of innovative ideas and latest developments in public service and defense.”

Defense wonks trading information for fun and for profit, if you prefer the English translation.

From a quick Google search, I learned that the IDGA’s network-centric warfare conference was held in January at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, one block from the White House. And yes, the conference seemed to be a whole lot more than a gathering of IT hobbyists. It was, to quote the brief hype material I found online, “a unique opportunity to learn from and network with over 800 senior-level military and industry colleagues.” The speakers’ first-string players from this muscular-defense world: General Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave the keynote. John Ashcroft, former U.S. attorney general, also spoke.

I passed Oleg’s request to one of the researchers in the office, as I would any order. I was trying to pretend that Oleg was just another customer. “Get what you can,” I said.

The researcher came back a couple of days later, saying he had tried everything he could think of but had pretty much struck out. “It’s not generally available” was the way he put it to me. “I don’t think we can help with this one. You have to be a member of the organization to get this kind of access, or you have to have attended the conference.” There seemed to be a complicated credentialing process for any of that.

I asked the researcher if he had any other ideas. He said he didn’t. This wasn’t going to be easy, I concluded. We weren’t likely to get these conference proceedings by simply strolling in the front door at IDGA. And I couldn’t see myself arriving on cables suspended from the ceiling like Tom Cruise did in Mission: Impossible.

But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. I saw Oleg’s request as a golden opportunity. He was asking for material that was clearly off-limits to him. If he’d asked my parents, they would have simply told him no, as they’d told him and his predecessors many times before. Had Oleg picked up on my signals of openness? Or had he decided to roll the dice on me? Either way, I hated the idea of returning to him empty-handed. If I wanted to deepen our relationship, I’d be missing an opportunity.

I was eager to talk to the agents. Maybe they would have an idea. Ted and Terry agreed to meet me in the rose garden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. As long as we had business to do, I thought we might as well do it somewhere nice. That stinky August, the cathedral garden was one of the few pleasant and secluded spots in all of New York.

“I’ve been trying to get these conference proceedings for Oleg,” I explained to the agents. “They’re different from the usual things he’s been asking for. I don’t think that’s by accident. But I’ve basically hit a dead end.”

I told them I wasn’t ready to give up yet. “I have this feeling that he might be probing me,” I said, “trying to figure out what I have access to, what I am able to get for him, how I feel about the rules of secrecy, how far I am willing to go for him. I’m not even sure how much he cares about the conference. I guess what I’m saying is I think he’s testing me.”

“For what?” Ted asked, the obvious follow-up.

“Hell if I know,” I admitted.

Ted and Terry didn’t agree to jump in immediately. But they seemed to like the fact that I was thinking strategically and trying to tease out the Russian’s motives. At least they didn’t dismiss me outright, as I’d feared they might.

“That’s all very interesting,” Ted said.

“I can tell Oleg, ‘Look, I can’t get this for you. I’m sorry.’ But what would I do if this was real, if I really was ready to spy for him? I’d try to get it for him, right?”

Ted and Terry seemed to get my logic. But we ended our rose-garden conversation on a noncommittal note. “Okay,” Ted said, “let’s think about this.”

* * *

There wasn’t any rush. We knew we had three months or so before Oleg would return.

Ah, not quite.

Oleg turned up again at the Dobbs Ferry office in mid-September, less than a month after he’d last popped in. As usual, he came without any warning. I just looked up, and he was there. This habit of his was becoming annoying. He made planning impossible. I didn’t want to miss him. I felt like I had to hang around the office. That was no fun. And he continued to make the other employees uncomfortable. Our customers were spread across the country and around the world. This wasn’t an office where the customers dropped in at random. Besides all that, I wasn’t ready for him.

I hustled Oleg outside as quickly as I could. After some perfunctory small talk, he turned quickly to what I assumed was the reason for his speedy return. “You have those conference proceedings for me?”

All I could do was put him off. I didn’t want to tell him I’d tried and hadn’t gotten the material. “I’ve been swamped around here,” I said, which was true but not the reason. “I’ll get on it soon. I’ll try and get them for you.”

As soon as Oleg left, I was on the phone with Ted and Terry. “He’s still asking about that conference,” I told the agents. “I can try one more time on my own and see if I can get this. But I have to be careful. I don’t want to stir up a whole bunch of suspicion. And I really can’t spend too much time on it. People in the office are already wondering about him. I can’t let this fuck up my business. We should decide if we want to get this for him—and how.”

“So how do you read it?” Ted asked me. I liked that he was seeking my opinion. “What do you want to do?”

“I wish we could find a way to get him that conference material,” I said. “I think it might build some trust between us.”

“Well, give it one last try,” Terry told me. “Let us know how it goes.” I said I would. I thought they could have been a little more helpful, but at least they weren’t telling me my analysis of the situation was wrong.

I found some additional conferences. There was a networkcentric warfare conference in Europe. I could attend that one and report back to Oleg. Traveling abroad sounded like fun. But that didn’t answer his request for the Washington event. I got about as far as I expected on that one, which was nowhere, not that I had very long to try.

Oleg was back again in October, another one-month turnaround. Our rhythm was definitely changing here. I looked up from my desk one rainy Thursday morning, and there he was. This time I walked him out to the parking lot. We stood out there like a couple of drug dealers haggling over gram prices. He got around to the conference soon enough. Clearly, the former Russian military man was not someone who liked to let things linger. The man had to have an iron to-do list!

“I’m working on it,” I told him a little impatiently. “But this isn’t like ordering a book for you. It’s taking time. I think I can get it, but I have to jump through some hoops.” I lowered my voice. “You know, this is different. A completely new category. I’m not even sure I can get it. I may have a friend who might be able to help. But it’s going to cost you something. It won’t be cheap. You understand?”

He said he did.

As soon as he left, I went back to my office and called the agents again.

“Look,” I told Terry. “I have discussed with Oleg the difficulties. I need to be clear on what I should tell him. Are you guys gonna leave me hanging forever? Or can you help me get it?”

“Maybe,” Terry said, making me think he meant probably. “I’ll see what we can do.” I felt relief. Even without any solid assurances that he’d help, we began to discuss how I would explain to Oleg where I’d gotten the documents.

“The logical thing,” I said, “would be to say I relied on someone else to procure them. Either that or I signed up with IDGA, paid the fees.” I was thinking fast, coming up with ideas and tweaking them on the spot when I saw a problem. “Perhaps,” I continued, “just joining would yield results, but that would produce a paper trail, and I couldn’t be sure Oleg’s people hadn’t already tried and knew it wouldn’t work. This could all be a test. It would be better, I’m thinking, to let him believe I had someone on the inside helping me.” I liked the idea of planting the thought that I knew lots of people in lots of places. “To me,” I said, satisfied with my analysis, “that seems like the way to go.”

“We can’t provide you with a script,” Ted said. “You have to be natural. You have to be in the moment, believe what you’re saying. If you don’t believe, why should he?” If Oleg was going to trust me, our interaction had to be real and fluid, like a genuine relationship. There are no teleprompters in espionage. “So the important question is ‘How do you think you would have gotten these materials?’ And don’t forget, it’s okay sometimes to leave it vague.”

“Vague might work,” I agreed. “In the past, the Russians have never asked how I got the books. They just took the stuff we gave them and went away.”

Increasingly, the agents had been making me feel like I was part of the conversation, that we were three smart people trying to dream up a sensible strategy and get our heads around a challenge. It definitely brought out the mentor in Ted. I kept asking him questions. I wouldn’t call him fatherly. We had too much of a smart-ass banter for that. But he seemed to like giving me advice.

Were they working me? Were they flattering me? Or did they actually appreciate what I had to say? Let me put it this way: They made me believe we were on to something.

* * *

A few days later, Terry was on the phone again. This time he was calling me.

“We got you what you wanted,” he said. “We put it all on one CD for you. You gotta see the PowerPoint transitions our guys used!”

“Ugh, PowerPoint!” I said.

I hated PowerPoint. I knew Terry was trying to appeal to my geeky side, but he’d chosen the wrong software to praise. In the hands of a boring speaker, PowerPoint squeezed the life from the very ideas it was supposed to enhance. Whatever the topic—replacing a toilet seat or invading Iraq—PowerPoint imposed its mind-numbing uniformity, turning even an interesting subject into an undifferentiated blob. The famous speech by Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t “I Have a [pause/dissolve/new slide] Dream.” If I had to sit through another list of PowerPoint bullets, I might have to put one of them in my head.

“Come on, Naveed,” Terry said. “You should look at it. There is some nice work in there.”

“I guess that’s why they pay you the big bucks, dude,” I told him. The fancy graphics didn’t excite me. The fact that I had a CD did.

It was pretty impressive what the agents had pulled together about that conference. A detailed agenda. An attendees list. Summaries of the panel discussions on “Actionable Intelligence on the Network and Airborne Networking Flight Test Results.” All the PowerPoints. Copies of slide decks. Even the notes from the speakers. So much was packed on that single CD, it was the next best thing to being there. Give the feds this much credit: When they got in gear, things moved.

Ted never told me who the agents had spoken with or what explanation they gave. I’d tried every way I knew to get this information—or even a small part of it—with no results. I consoled myself with the thought that they had operated with a distinct advantage. Quasi-government research is significantly easier when the first words out of your mouth are “Hello, we’re calling from the FBI.”

They got what I couldn’t, and I was very glad they did.

* * *

Oleg kept up his rapid-return rhythm. He was back in November. When I saw him trudging down the driveway to our building, I ran downstairs and cut him off before he ever reached the door.

“Let’s take a ride,” I told him. “I have something for you.”

We climbed into my gold 2005 Acura RL, the latest in a rapid succession of vehicles. We drove toward Cedar Avenue, the main drag in downtown Dobbs Ferry.

“Here,” I said, handing him the FBI’s CD. “It’s got everything from the conference. “I mean everything, right down to slide decks and the speakers’ margin notes. Am I fuckin’ amazing or what?”

Oleg didn’t answer that. Actually, I’m glad he didn’t. But he said thank you, and he seemed to mean it. And he handed me a white legal-sized envelope stuffed with American cash. “Will a thousand dollars be okay?” he asked me.

“Ten would be better,” I told him, “but a thousand will get us started.” I immediately thought I’d accepted too little. “This is not indicative of the cost going forward,” I emphasized, “but it’s a fine place to begin.”

Oleg didn’t press me on how I got the conference proceedings. I never got a chance to trot out my helpful-friend cover story, which was extremely lucky. It couldn’t have withstood thirty seconds of follow-up. Who was this friend? What was his motivation? How much did you pay him? Will he help us again? Can I meet him? “It was a little bit of work” was all I said to Oleg. Mainly, he seemed pleased that I’d been able to get what he’d asked for. He turned his attention to my parking skills.

“That is a very small spot,” he said as I pulled the Acura in front of a bagel shop on Cedar Avenue. “I don’t believe you could park there.”

“Oh, yeah? Just watch,” I said.

Why did I feel so competitive with Oleg? And why would that competitiveness assert itself over a suburban parking spot? All I know is that as I put the car in reverse and eased my foot against the accelerator, a little voice in my head was whispering about American honor. And as I cut the wheel hard to the right, I could have been Sylvester Stallone pounding Dolph Lundgren in the fifteenth round of Rocky IV.

The Acura had very delicate handling and back-up sensors, which I’m not sure Oleg had ever heard before. I don’t want to say I needed the beeps to get into that parking place on Cedar Avenue. I was always a pretty good parallel parker on my own. But I did cut the wheel at the extra perfect moment, and the sensors didn’t hurt. I glided the Acura snugly into the tiny spot. Cue James Brown’s “Living in America.”

“Very good,” Oleg said.

We didn’t stay long at the bagel shop, just long enough to grab coffee and have a short chat. We hadn’t begun to bond. But I wanted to get him used to the idea of leaving the office with me. And I wanted to float the idea that things could be changing between us soon.

“My parents are ready to retire,” I said. “I’m trying to find new revenue streams. Selling paper has a limited shelf life, I think.” Oleg looked intrigued. I couldn’t tell if he understood what I was saying or was afraid to admit that he couldn’t. He didn’t seem to like showing weakness of any sort. “Perhaps this creates an opportunity for you and me?” I asked.

He perked up at that. “Yes,” he said. “I am interested in opportunities.”

What the fuck? I thought. Who isn’t interested in opportunities? It was time to test the waters. “Perhaps there are some things I could do for you?” I suggested.

He smiled. “Naveed,” he said, “I am so glad we were able to leave and get coffee. It is a good way to discuss business, drinking coffee.” He raised his paper cup as if toasting with a crystal glass of chilled Russian vodka. “Now, tell me, how would you like to do business?”

Uh-oh. It hit me that I hadn’t thought this through. I’d violated the rule that every baby lawyer learns, hopefully before walking into a courtroom for the first time: Never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. Now that I’d opened the door, I had no choice but to walk through it.

“My goal,” I told him, expanding on what I’d said earlier, “is to switch from ink on paper to more technology projects. I’d really like to change the direction of the business a little bit. We are working on some different projects for the navy and other parts of the government, mostly with military data. There is a lot of opportunity there for you and me. I am convinced of that.”

“Very interesting,” Oleg said. “That could be very interesting.”

“We also have some library-related projects,” I said. “Do you think you can help me find a librarian in Russia I can speak to?”

He didn’t come up with a name for me, but he didn’t seem perturbed by the question, and he didn’t shut me off. “I will think about that,” he said. “So do you like working in this business? Is this your—how do you say it?—your profession?”

“Well,” I said, taking a breath before I tried to explain how I’d gotten drawn into technology. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw somebody watching me. I vaguely recognized the older gentleman as someone I knew through my father. I tried not to make eye contact with him, knowing he would invite himself over. But it was too late. With a smile and a wave, he was making his way toward us.

“Naveed, right?” he said. “Naseem’s son? How is your father? How’s business? I thought you were in Boston!”

“Things are really great,” I said. “You should give him a call.”

I didn’t introduce the man to Oleg, and Oleg didn’t say anything at all, but I could tell he was paying attention. He was leaning forward without actually leaning forward. He seemed to enjoy my flustered expression.

“I’m sorry,” I told the man. “I’m just in the middle of some business right now. Let’s catch up later.” I gave him my card and all but told him to leave. He looked at the card, realized he had interrupted something, and backed away.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to Oleg after the man had left. “This is the difficulty with small towns—they’re small.”

Oleg waved away my concern like he would a tiny mosquito. But he seemed to have lost interest in continuing our conversation. He was out of his seat before I could finish my sentence, pulling his jacket on.

I already knew that this was a crucial day in my growing relationship with Oleg. The lead-up hadn’t been easy, but the rewards were going to be great. I’m not sure what would have happened if the FBI hadn’t gotten the conference proceedings. I’m just glad they did. Message delivered. Thank you very much.

I knew from the beginning that if Oleg and I were ever going to commit espionage together, our interaction would have to change. He’d need to become more than a customer to me, and I’d have to become more than a vendor to him. We’d have to get out of the office. The subtleties would have to end. I’d have to betray my own country, and he would have to ask me to.

The agents and I had dangled the bait that Oleg found enticing, and he had bitten.

* * *

A few days later, I met with Ted and Terry. They told me to bring the white envelope Oleg had given me. I was glad to hand it over, along with the thousand dollars. For as long as the Russians had been ordering books and paying us—always a little more than the invoice—any extra money we got from them just went back into the company.

But the dollars were growing, and I knew I couldn’t just pocket the money. This was more than simply ordering books. I didn’t know the right way to handle it. So I asked Ted and Terry.

“You can’t take money from the Russians,” Ted told me. “Give it to us. We’ll voucher it. You’ll sign a receipt. We’ll give you the same amount of money back.”

So that was what we did. It was all very official. Terry handed me the receipt to sign. “What if I don’t want to sign this?” I asked him.

“Then we can’t give you the money.”

That seemed fair enough to me. I hadn’t gotten into this for the money. Given all the time it was taking, I’d have been better off putting an ad on Craigslist for babysitting work. But I was incurring expenses. Our growing operation was taking time away from my regular work. I couldn’t have Books & Research financing the counter­intelligence efforts of the United States. And Ted and Terry seemed to like the idea that, in a roundabout way, the Russians were paying me to double-cross them. I liked that, too.

“I’ll sign,” I told Terry.