Vitaliy Sergeyevich Yurchenko was dead. The swaggering 49-year old Soviet officer, who had gone over to the CIA in 1985 and then returned three months later to the KGB, had been secretly executed by a firing squad in Moscow. Supposedly, his family was even charged for the cost of the bullets. That was the story put out by the U.S. intelligence agencies in 1986. No sooner did the "news" of his execution go out on the international wire services, then Yurchenko re-appeared in Moscow, "alive and kicking", as he put it in an interview on German television.
The relentless spy war rarely emerges in this manner in the public domain. Occasionally, a defector flashes across the public consciousness like a shooting star-- and then disappears. Inside the netherworld itself, exotic battles for information are cloaked behind three innocuous-sounding terms. Collection. Denial. Disinformation. "Collection" is the euphemism for stealing or intercepting secrets from another nation. This may be done through human agents who infiltrate its power structure, satellite cameras that photograph its terrain from high altitudes, antennas that intercept its signals, or remote instruments that monitor its defenses. "Denial" is the defensive term of art for hiding such data from an adversary. It can be accomplished through arresting spies, camouflaging what can be seen from the sky, and encoding messages that can be intercepted. "Disinformation", the most cunning form of countering an enemy's search for secrets, is based on supplying him with data that will confuse and mislead. Rather than arresting enemy's spies and other collectors , they are purposefully fed misleading data. Such counterintelligence requires that enemy intelligence services remain in a continual sort of dance with each other, each dangling in front of the others' eyes agents who pretend to be traitors.
Yurchenko had been involved in this game when he first came to Washington in 1975. Officially, he was the security officer at the Soviet Embassy. Actually, as described in his CIA biography, he was a KGB expert on "Dangles" or " the insertion ... of agents into western, and especially American, intelligence services". These "dangles" were usually Soviet diplomats who, under KGB orders, contact western agents to misinform them. It was a cat and mouse exchange that brought this master dangler into close collaboration with the CIA. Eventually, he even allowed it to believe he himself had been recruited. In the decade in between, he provided a thread that ran through some of the West's most dramatic losses.
At the heart of the crises was the loss of one of the most valuable agents the CIA had ever acquired in the Soviet Union. He was A.G. Tolkachev, an electronics experts employed by an elite Soviet think tank that researched problems of military aviation and space detection systems. He had been recruited for the CIA in Moscow in the early 1980s, through a third-party. Unlike most other western intelligence sources-- diplomats, attaches or intelligence operatives, whose access to technology was limited, Tolkachev was in a position to pass on to the CIA technical data on the state of the art of Soviet ground and spaced-based radar, which, in turn, revealed the extent to which American submarines and planes were vulnerable to detection. For some three years, up until that Spring, microfilms of these Soviet military secrets were left for an American courier in Moscow in "dead drops". Such hiding places made any face-to-face contact unnecessary.
The Tolkachev "take" was treated with the utmost security. From the CIA's station in the American Embassy, it was hand-carried to Washington. In late Spring, however, the deliveries from Tolkachev abruptly ended. When the American courier, who had diplomatic immunity, went to check the "dead drop", he walked into a trap. He was seized by waiting KGB officers, who photographed the spy paraphernalia from the dead drop, then expelled from the Soviet Union. It was now clear to the CIA that despite all its precautions, Tolkachev had been compromised and captured by the KGB.
In the spy war, the question of how an agent is compromised can be important as the loss itself. In this case, which was extremely tightly-supervised, there were only two possibilities: either Tolkachev, through some slip on his part (or his courier's) had been caught by the KGB through routine police work; or he had been betrayed to the KGB by someone inside the CIA who was privy to this ultra-secret operation. If it was the former, and his capture was due to some sort of KGB surveillance, the entire affair could be chalked up to a tragic accident. But if it was the latter, and it turned out Tolkachev had been compromised by a traitor in the CIA, all the CIA's other agents in the Soviet sphere would be in extreme jeopardy. Indeed, if this mole was strategically enough positioned, the CIA itself would be shown to be the KGB's plaything.
This possibility, as former CIA Director Richard M. Helms put it, " is the nightmare of every CIA Director". Such a "penetration", as it is called in the spy world, would not only serve to paralyze ongoing operations, it would call into question the validity of the information the CIA had already received from sources that it had believed secure but which in fact might have been compromised long ago.
This nightmare seemed more and more reality as one after another western spies came out of the cold, claiming that they had been compromised-- and were on the verge of being arrested by the KGB. First, in India, Igor Gheja , the third secretary of the Soviet Embassy, whom the CIA was secretly developing as a potential mole, defected from his post in March. He suggested that the KGB had become inexplicably suspicious of him. Under these circumstances, the United States granted him asylum.
Then, in Greece, Sergei Bokhan, a Soviet military intelligence officer, who had provided the CIA with valuable insights into Soviet efforts to infiltrate the Greek military, sought protection at the American Embassy in May. He claimed that the KGB had placed him under surveillance. His fears of imminent arrests indeed were so high that he left his wife and seven year old daughter behind. The issue was again whether their detection, as well as that of the CIA's spy in Moscow, had been caused by a leak within the CIA.
Then, finally, in England, came the compromise of Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky. Gordievsky was according to the diplomatic roster the political counselor at the Soviet Embassy in London; actually he was the acting rezidante for the KGB-- the man in charge of its operations in England. That was only half of the picture. In this bewildering world of mirrors, Gordievsky not only was a KGB case officer administrating much of Soviet espionage conducted out of the embassies in these NATO countries, but a British double-agent, in a position to reveal the targets of Soviet operations to Western intelligence. He had been recruited by MI-6 in Copenhagen, and then had been carefully groomed over the years as a mole.
Just as the CIA's agent Tolkachev was compromised in Moscow, Gordievsky's secret liaison with MI-6 was unraveled by the KGB. While preparing to go to Moscow for his summer leave, he realized the KGB was on to him, and hastily organized his escape (abandoning his wife and two children in the process). Telling his British case officers he was about to be arrested, he asked for asylum, and his defection was hastily arranged.
Although British intelligence attempted to put the best face on its loss by expelling the usual suspects among Soviet diplomats, trade officials and correspondents in England, it was an intelligence disaster. It ended a long and expensive MI-6 operation that had begun years earlier, when he was a lowly press attache at the Soviet Embassy in Denmark. (The exact period of his service as a British mole is a carefully guarded secret, protected by a bodyguard of lies, purposely leaked by officials. As one former counterintelligence officer explained, in response to published accounts that Gordievsky had been recruited 15 years ago, "The last thing an intelligence service tells its adversary is an honest date".) MI-6 reportedly had indeed helped advance his career in the KGB, as far as was practical, by giving him bits of information--"chickenfeed", as it is called-- to make him appear more successful. These efforts apparently came to fruition in 1985 when he was promoted, after the British expelled his boss, Yuri Gok, to the position of acting KGB rezidante in London. The final coup for British intelligence would have been keeping him in this position so that he could identify all unknown and new KGB recruitments of British citizens. When instead his cover was blown, and he was forced to escape. The fact that in the months following his defection not a single British citizen with access to state secrets was apprehended suggests that, if the KGB had its share of moles in England, he may not have had the time, or access, to learn their identity. (The Soviet diplomats who were expelled would have been known in any case to MI-5 through surveillance).
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?
McMahon peremptorily responded that no other hypothesis was necessary. He acknowledged that Yurchenko had not yet provided the CIA with the KGB's "wiring diagram", as the illegal network is termed, but expected that would be elicited from him in the near future. As for the information Yurchenko had provided, not only had it checked out, but it was, as he put it, "dynamite". Among other things, the deputy director explained that he had provided a list of western journalists in Moscow whom the KGB considered "trusted contacts"-- and he had identified two traitors' in U.S. intelligence. As far as John McMahon was concerned, this was absolute proof that Yurchenko was who he claimed to be-- a high-ranking KGB executive, who had changed over to the American side. He then dramatically concluded his presentation by saying, "I would stake my career on Yurchenko's bona fides". It was a statement that he would have cause to regret in 48 hours
The Million Dollar Spy
While the CIA's deputy director sung his praises, Yurchenko actually was silently biding his time in an isolated two story house, surrounded by woods and a lake, some 22 miles outside of Washington . He had become, after delivering his initial messages, progressively less forthcoming. Instead of revealing the much sought after KGB "wiring diagram" of illegal spies, as McMahon had suggested, Yurchenko was stonewalling questions about it. Moreover, his repeatedly claim that the KGB had made no other recruits in the United States or Canada during the five years that he was in charge of the KGB's counterintelligence unit was becoming increasingly less credible. His CIA case officer, who was a veteran of the Soviet Bloc division, determined that the Soviet Union had accepted recruits during this period both in Canada and the United States. The CIA, after all, had sent its own "dangles" to the KGB during this period : both to pass disinformation and test its procedures. These included American diplomats, military attaches and intelligence officers who feigned disloyalty to the United States. Since these double-agents would all be known to and vetted by Yurchenko, if he indeed held the position he claimed, his failure to name them-- even when led in their direction by his case officer-- raised very serious questions about his authenticity as a defector.
Moreover, aside from these American dangles, he claimed total ignorance about the existence of dozens of elaborate hiding places for messages that Soviet illegals had prepared for spies. This was all part of the "wiring diagram" that Yurchenko, as the KGB's section deputy chief for North America, should have known like the back of his hand. The more he was pressed, the more recalcitrant he became. Even the offer of a million dollar contract, in which he would collect generous bounties for each Soviet mole he identified, failed to move him to reveal KGB operations. For the most part during these debriefings, he merely repeated what the CIA already new from other sources. It was even questionable whether his disclosures about Pelton and Howard had done little more than identified Soviet sources that had long ago been spotted by FBI surveillance-- but not arrested because it was judged that the damage of such a move would outweigh the benefits. (Indeed, Howard, who admitted attempting to contact a KGB officer, was never arrested, and Pelton was not arrested until November 25,1985, when disclosures made it impossible to suppress it any longer.) This indeed was indicated by President Reagan himself, who stated, in regard to Yurchenko, "The information he provided was not anything new or sensational".
There were also evident parallels with an earlier defector that had nearly wrecked the CIA's Soviet Bloc Division. He was Yuri Nosenko, a KGB officer, who, after playing games with the CIA for two years, defected in Switzerland in 1964. Like Yurchenko, Nosenko claimed to work in KGB headquarters in Moscow-- a position, in both cases, which the CIA no independent way of verifying. These two defectors were in fact the only ones ever to come from this inner sanctum. And like Yurchenko, Nosenko came with a message that implied that there was no mole, or other serious leak, in the CIA. Instead, he also cited chemical "spy dusts" to explain how the KGB had uncovered an important CIA agent in Russia. As far as human sources went, Nosenko, like Yurchenko, identified only retired and burned-out American agents, who, in any case, no longer had access to secrets.
Despite these similarities, there was a crucial difference in the way the two defectors were treated. Soon after Nosenko arrived in the United States, the head of the Soviet Bloc Division, concerned that the KGB officer might "redefect" to facilitate, as he put in a 1964 memorandum, " a massive propaganda assault on the CIA", ordered him imprisoned in escape-proof quarters.« This was not a mistake that the Soviet Bloc Division was about to repeat in the case of Yurchenko.
In September, Yurchenko asked to be see a Soviet acquaintance in Canada-- the wife of high-ranking Soviet diplomat in Montreal, with whom he represented he was having a romantic liaison. The CIA accommodated this request, and even took him to Canada for a meeting with her. (Ordinarily, according to former counterintelligence officers, KGB defectors on parole are prohibited from contacting Soviet citizens-- both for their own safety and to prevent them from giving any signals to former comrades.« Afterwards, there were few, if any more, interrogation sessions for Yurchenko.
The game finally drew to an end on November 2nd-- exactly three months to the day after his arrival in America-- a cold rainy Saturday afternoon. If the CIA did not actually return its parolee to the Soviet Embassy, his case officers certainly facilitated it. First, they took him to a clothing store in the nearby town of Manassas, and bought him a coat, hat and umbrella. They also gave him the opportunity to make two long-distance call to the Soviet Embassy, and in one he advised the officer on duty he was returning. Then, he was handed over to a lone CIA officer who drove him to a convenient restaurant a few blocks from the Soviet Embassy compound. At this point, he indicating to him that he was free to go, and watched as Yurchenko walked out the door, and put on his new coat and hat. After he was gone, his CIA companion called neither the FBI or Washington police, who could have intercepted him at the gates of the embassy compound. Yurchenko later telephoned a CIA phone number he had been given to advise that he had safely arrived at his destination. Whatever else it was, it could hardly be called an escape.
The affair might have ended then and there if Yurchenko had quietly returned to Moscow on his diplomatic passport. Even if anyone asked about him, the CIA was under no obligation to respond to queries about double-agents.
The KGB, however, had yet another surprise in store for the CIA, and its deputy director, who had already bet his reputation on Yurchenko. That Monday, November 4th, reporters received an invitation to an televised news conference that afternoon. The star was none other than Yurchenko (who, as far as was publicly known, was still the CIA's prize defector.)
Mocking the CIA at every opportunity, Yurchenko egregiously claimed that he had been kidnapped from Rome, drugged and held a prisoner for three months by the CIA. It was not a story that was true or even meant to be believed.
Earlier that week, the State Department had lodged a protest with the Soviet Foreign Ministry charging that in 1977 an American intelligence agent, named Nicholas Shadrin, had been paralyzed with drugs by the KGB in Vienna, and transported across international borders to Hungary, where he died. The source for this assertion, as released to the press, supposedly was Yurchenko. Now, the Soviet Embassy filed an almost identical protest with the State Department, charging one of its officials, Yurchenko, had been paralyzed with drugs by the CIA, and taken across international borders. The source for this story was also Yurchenko. A single KGB officer thus had the distinction, in a five day period, of being the source for both American and Soviet protests; both of which were also denied.
The next day he went to the State Department to demonstrate that he was acting without Soviet coercion. He met there with a half dozen CIA and State Department officials-- as well as a psychologist-- who agreed, after nearly a half hour session with him, that he was returning voluntarily to the Soviet Union.« As he left, he jauntily clasped his hands over his head as a victory sign. By Wednesday, the Soviet dangle man was on an Aeroflot plane heading home-- his mission completed.
As this amazing case unraveled before his eyes, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the vice chairman of the intelligence committee, concluded that Yurchenko was a double agent who the KGB "foisted" on the CIA "This whole thing was very good theater", the President's National Security Advisor told the New York Times, "And, to me, theater is something that is staged." There were indeed two prudent reasons for such a conclusion. Yurchenko trusted the KGB sufficiently to return to its fold; and the KGB trusted Yurchenko enough to permit him to return two days later to the State Department.
The Soviet Union has no history of granting amnesty to, or otherwise forgiving, intelligence officers who betray state secrets. Pointedly, the acronym for its counterespionage arm, SMERSH, stood for its slogan, "Death To All Traitors". As a 25 year old veteran of KGB counterespionage, Yurchenko certainly knew the fate that would have awaited a traitor-- or any KGB officer that had, without proper authority, divulging secret data to the CIA . While there are many cases of ordinary Soviet citizens, and even ballet dancers, intellectuals, journalists and soldiers-- who did not have access to state secrets-- returning to the Soviet Union without facing punishment, KGB officers, who commit treason, fall into a different category. For that reason, any Soviet intelligence officers who returned to Russia, without punishment for his putative treason, was presumed by the CIA to have been acting under KGB orders in feigning disloyalty. In fact, there had never been a previous case-- in least in the public record-- of a KGB officer who, after defecting to the United States, re-defecting.)
Yurchenko's voluntary return could be explained in two ways. Either he had not been a traitor but a KGB officer sent on a mission; or he had been a traitor and he was acting completely irrationally in putting himself in the hands of the KGB-- even though it meant facing death or imprisonment.
The possibility that Yurchenko was crazed, irrational or even unstable on November 4th does not satisfactorily explain, however, the Soviet Embassy's next move in the drama-- its decision to send Yurchenko back to the State Department for an interview where he would be examined by CIA representatives, psychologists and state Department officials. At any point during this interview, he could again offer to defect. If he had been upset at the handling of his case by the CIA, or disturbed by the threat of unanticipated Soviet reprisals against himself or his family, the CIA could conceivably find some way of reassuring him. If he had indeed been a traitor who had changed his mind, he could, at least from the Soviet perspective, change it again under American persuasion. The Soviet embassy could have kept Yurchenko in its confines indefinitely. It was under no obligation to place him back into American hands on November 6th, and give him another opportunity to save his life by defecting again. Such a risk would be inconceivable if Yurchenko had actually been a traitor, and divulged secrets from KGB headquarters for three months because Soviet intelligence would need to exhaustively determine from him in precise detail every iota of information he revealed -- or even knew. This kind of damage assessment would require intense interrogation of Yurchenko, by experts familiar with the cases in which he had been involved for a quarter of a century. This meant that the KGB would now have to keep tight control over him-- until he was squeezed of every drop of information.
Under these circumstance, Yurchenko would not have been returned to America officials if he was unstable, deranged or untrustworthy. The KGB could hardly trust a traitor, especially one who changed sides irrationally. Indeed, it could only be fully confident that he would return from the State Department if it knew Yurchenko was a well-disciplined KGB officer who had already proven himself loyal by carrying out his provocative assignment. The fact that he was allowed to go to the State Department, and to give a press conferences in Washington D.C., showed that the Soviets had full confidence in his rationality.
After Yurchenko returned to the KGB in Moscow-- where he added insult to injury by holding yet another press conference-- the CIA acted to submerge the spy war from public sight. It simply declared that Yurchenko had been a "bona fide" defector -- a term used by the CIA when a defector demonstrates his good faith and loyalty to the United States by his subsequent actions. In previous cases, it took defectors years to earn them. In this case, Yurchenko had betrayed U.S. intelligence by returning to Moscow and divulging, publicly and presumably privately, secret details of his CIA debriefing. Never before had a defector earned his "bona fides" in such a perverse manner.
The end play of this double sting had shattering implications for the CIA. Not only had its deputy director tied his own credibility to the validity of this temporary defector, but the Director of the CIA, William Casey, also pronounced him to be "real" prior to his embarrassing return. Far more important, his re-defection threatened to rekindle the entire issue of whether or not the KGB had been duping American intelligence. The re-defection also left unresolved the mystery of the betrayal of the American agent in Moscow. If Yurchenko was nothing more than a double-agent, dangled by the KGB in Rome and then reeled back again in Washington, it had then to be assumed that the message he delivered also came from the KGB and, even if factually accurate, it was a red herring, designed to confuse its investigation of the betrayal. He had pointed investigators in the direction of a new Soviet surveillance device, the so-called spy dust, and a "spent" ex-CIA employee. If this was the wrong trail, it meant that the KGB had other means of learning the identity of western agents, and it was going to great lengths to protect it. The search for this important source, especially if it included the possibility of an active mole in the CIA, threatened to again pry open a pandora's box of suspicions and troubles.