The Spy Who Came Back From The Dead (page 2)

September 1986

by Edward Jay Epstein

While these defections could be trumpeted from a public relations perspective as "victories", which had been secretly won long ago and could now be revealed, they constituted a defeat in the ongoing spy war ,since they diminished the capacity to get secret. Spies are most valuable as sources of when they are in the enemy camp. They then, and only then, have access to its vital secrets. Moreover, they can remove the secrets in such a way that they are not missed. Documents, for example, are not themselves stolen, they are microfilmed or copied, so that the enemy does not learn that they have been compromised. The moment, however, a spy actually defects to the West he negates his past value. Not only do he lose his access to enemy secrets, but he exposes the fact that he has stolen secrets in the past-- which often allows at least part of the damage to be remedied. In the case of Gordievsky, for example, British intelligence not only lost a mole in place, all the previous secrets he revealed would now be known to the KGB-- and, where possible, remedied.

This rapid succession of losses in far flung parts of the world had to be explained: Did the KGB have inside information? Just as the CIA was investigating this ugly--and divisive issue, it received an astonishing message from Moscow. It was from the dangle man, Yurchenko.

The last time Yurchenko had been actually seen in Washington was the summer of 1980, when he was re-assigned to Moscow. Before he left for Russia, the CIA also made its own approach to him, offering him an opportunity to himself become a double-agent for the CIA. It was the sort of a gambit that is commonly made by the CIA on the remote chance that a KGB officer at some future time will run into difficulties that will cause him to accept. That was the last time he was heard from until this unexpected contact.

Now he informed the CIA that, since leaving Washington, he had a meteoric rise in the KGB and was a General- designate in KGB headquarters at Dzerzhinskii Square. He explained that on his return to Moscow he had been assigned to the First Chief Directorate, which had the responsibility for gathering foreign intelligence. Then, because of his successes, had been promoted to the chief of the Fifth counterintelligence department. Here he was responsible for, among other things, investigating, the credentials of foreign agents recruited by the KGB-- a job which involved using "special drugs" on occasion. He also said he had the task of investigating suspected cases of treason among KGB personnel. Moreover, in April 1985, he was again elevated to being deputy chief of the department specifically responsible for organizing espionage operations against the United States-- which included not only supervising Soviet agents but coordination their efforts with those from other Eastern bloc countries. He was, if this incredible self-reported career was authentic, not only the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to volunteer his services to the West, but a man uniquely qualified to definitively answer the questions that had plagued American intelligence for over a decade and, more specifically, the burning ones that had just arisen. As the investigator of treason, he could explain how the KGB had managed to capture Tolkachev-- and zero in on Gordievsky and the other western intelligence spies that spring; as deputy chief of the First Directorate, he could give way the Communist bloc apparatus in North America for recruiting and servicing its agents; and, most important, as the counterintelligence executive responsible for "vetting" the foreign recruits by the KGB , he could identify any and all moles that had been infiltrated into American intelligence.

Although his motive was still unclear, General-designate Yurchenko indicated that he prepared to resolve all these crucial issues for the CIA by divulging the KGB's most closely-guarded secrets: the sources and methods it used. To this end, he offered to rendezvous with CIA case officers in Rome the last week in July.

It was an offer that could not be refused. The initial interrogation took place in a safe house on the outskirts of the city. Yurchenko then told the CIA a message that it had desperately wanted to believe: All the attempted recruitments of CIA personnel, which came under his purview, had failed. There was no mole in the CIA. He could personally attest to that.

Instead of moles, he explained that the KGB had used exotic means of surveillance to uncover Soviet agents in contact with western intelligence. The most effective of these techniques he claimed was a telltale spy dust, which was sprayed on American diplomats in Moscow suspected of being couriers. They would then unwittingly get this dust on whatever they touched including clandestine letters, which could then be detected by machines in the central post office, and traced to the recipient. In addition, he also suggested that the KGB had made use of information it received from a former American intelligence officers code-named "Robert".

Yurchenko had another surprise. Rather than returning to Moscow, as had been expected, he announced that wanted to defect to the United States. He also expected to be paid handsomely for his future discloses.

The KGB general-designate thus began his curious odyssey. On August 1st, he applied for political asylum at the US embassy in Rome. The next day he was bundled aboard a military courier plane, and flown to the United States. Officially, he entered the United States on CIA parole.

Once ensconced in safe house, he began his debriefings. Questioned more intensely about the mystery agent "Robert", he explained that the ex-CIA officer had visited the Soviet Embassy in Washington in 1983, and subsequently he had traveled to St. Anton, Austria for a meeting with the KGB. These details immediately focused suspicion on an ex-CIA employee who had been previously spotted by FBI surveillance at the Soviet Embassy in 1983--Edward Lee Howard.

Howard had joined the CIA in 1981 at the age of 29. He was groomed over the next two years for an embassy job in Moscow. Before undertaking the assignment, however, he made damaging admission about drug-taking during his lie detector examination. After his career ended at the CIA, in June 1983, he made a telephone call to a Soviet diplomat, hanging up without speaking; and then he walked by the gates of the Soviet Embassy several times-- as if he was trying to make contact. This suspicious activity exposed him to surveillance by the FBI, which routinely maintains around the clock surveillance on the Soviet Embassy with a large team of "watchers" and "listeners". When he was subsequently questioned by the CIA's Office of Security, he admitted that he had gone to the Soviet Embassy with the idea of giving them secrets, but denied he had made contact. Whether or not this latter assertion was true, it certainly provided fair warning that he might make future contacts with the KGB, which he did in Austria the following year.

Howard eventually moved back to Sante Fe where he got a job as an economic analyst for the state of New Mexico. After Yurchenko's pointing to "Robert", The FBI questioned him, and he freely acknowledged that he had met with Soviet officials in St Anton, Austria. Since the date of the meeting coincided with the one Yurchenko described, it was clear that he was "Robert" .

The real issue was not whether Howard had contacted the Soviets, but whether he was in a position to have betrayed Tolkachev. When Howard left the CIA in 1983 he was hardly more than a trainee, and not privy to the CIA's closely-held "need to know" secrets, such as the identity of its top agent. It was, however, always possible, that he could have picked up some telltale clue which would have, two years later, pointed to Tolkachev. Before this crucial question could be resolved, Howard disappeared from his house in Sante Fe, under the very eyes of the FBI agents watching the house. He boarded a commercial flight to Austin, Texas. There the trail ended-- until he resurfaced in Moscow in 1986.

Yurchenko also furnished leads pointing directly to Ronald W. Pelton-- an ex-employee of the National Security Agency, a super secret code-breaking unit, which is the US equivalent of the British GSCC. Five years earlier, on January 15 1980, Pelton had spoken to Yurchenko at the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C., and then met there and in Austria with other Soviet intelligence officers. Pelton had been an incredible catch for the KGB. He had served at the N.S.A. as a specialist in interception equipment used to eavesdrop on, and record, Soviet underwater communications, and, in this capacity, had access to one of America's most tightly-sealed "compartments"--intelligence-gathering operations involving submarines planting listening devices in Soviet waters. Yurchenko would have been fully aware of the value of Pelton's secrets: He had himself coincidentally worked at an earlier point in his career on Soviet countermeasures to US submarine detection through exotic surveillance.

In both cases, however, Yurchenko had only told U.S. intelligence what he, and Soviet intelligence, could presume it already knew. As the security officer at the Soviet Embassy in 1980, Yurchenko certainly was aware that Soviet telephone lines were tapped by the FBI, and that visitors photographed by the FBI. In both cases, it could be presumed that had been picked up by FBI surveillance in 1980. In Pelton's case, The FBI , had indeed received advanced warning of the visit--twice-- when Pelton had called the Embassy to arrange the meeting. Moreover, as the Soviets knew from the conversation, he had effectively identified himself over the tapped line as a U.S. Government employee with information to give. From its photography and visual surveillance, the FBI could further determine his general physical characteristics-- white, moustached, middle-age and male. With these clues, it would only be a matter of checking through the few hundred photographs of recently-discharged men that fit this description before the FBI would across Pelton, who had left the NSA in July 1979 . The KGB could presume alarm bells would be set off when the by his classified status. Further, even if it had not assumed that Pelton had been compromised from the beginning-- or tracked down soon afterwards by the FBI-- the fact that he had failed to show up at a schedule meeting in Vienna in April 1985 would have suggested that, if not caught, he had little further value to the KGB. In the case of Edward Howard, the KGB could have learned from Howard himself during its long interrogation of him that he had been detected, questioned and made a limited admission to the CIA's Office of Security before he actually met with Soviet intelligence officers. He was, in any eventuality, a burned-out case since 1983-- caught by FBI surveillance, fired from the CIA and he had no further access to secrets. Whatever the value of Yurchenko's redundant tips,, the CIA decided to play these "revelations" as a trump card in its relations with Congress.

In this context, John McMahon, then the CIA's Deputy Director, paid an extraordinary visit to the office of Senator Malcolm Wallop (Republican, Wyoming) On October 31st 1985-- the eve of Halloween. McMahon, who had headed the clandestine side of the CIA in the previous administration, had found himself the target of the influential Senator's criticism. Indeed, that evening Senator Wallop began by recalling to him that his visit coincided with the sixth anniversary of the CIA's Halloween Massacre-- a wholesale computerized purge of its Directorate of Operations, which was responsible for gathering and analyzing secret intelligence.

The Deputy Director responded, knowing he held trump, by asking him why he assumed these re-organizations had an effect on operations. Wallop explained that his concern was that the CIA`s function of evaluating and testing intelligence had been so seriously degraded by these " purges" that the CIA was no longer conceptually capable of recognizing disinformation planted among its Soviet sources.

McMahon replied judiciously that the CIA had acquired a source, so high up in the KGB, that he could assure Senator Wallop that his concern was ill-founded. As Wallop listened in amazement, he sprung Yurchenko on him. He explained that this former deputy head of the KGB's key espionage unit had already provided the United States with an unprecedented insight into the spy war.

Yurchenko's revelation that KGB had acquired all its secrets about the CIA from a few ex-officers, such as Howard and Pelton-- put to rest the long and debilitating debate about moles in the CIA. According to him, the KGB had failed during the past five years to recruit a single active CIA officer. If it had, he insisted he would have known it. Even more reassuring to the CIA, Yurchenko claimed that the KGB had not managed to dupe the CIA with "dangles"-- or false defectors.

This was the startling conclusion that McMahon presented to Senator Wallop. As far as he was concerned, Yurchenko's revelations demonstrated that his long-standing concern over the penetration of the CIA was unfounded. And that the CIA had more than able to deal with the KGB.

Although McMahon's purpose in this Halloween visit was to end any lingering doubts this influential Senator might have about the CIA,Senator Wallop was still not entirely satisfied. He asked McMahon whether the CIA had considered any "alternative hypotheses" about Yurchenko, or the information he had provided. Was it possible, for example, that Yurchenko had been sent over by the KGB to misinform the CIA by telling it what it- wanted to hear? Was his purpose in giving away inactive agents, who no longer had any value to the KGB, such as Pelton and Howard, to divert attention away from still active KGB agents in American intelligence? Was he really who he said he was in the KGB or might the career he reported to the CIA be nothing more than a legend designed to enhance his credibility? And indeed he held the position of "deputy head" in the KGB, why had he not provided the CIA with the complete list of the KGB's illegal assets-- ie. or the agents it had who were not under diplomatic cover in North America?


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