History Book Club
Intelligence Gathering and Spying in History
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
L to R: Sam, Mark and John Coulbourn and Ron Pomerleau (The Builder from NH), Moscow, 1981
Sam, Mark and John Coulbourn and Ron Pomerleau in downtown Moscow, 1981.
Wednesday, August 28, 2019: Intelligence Gathering and Spying in History: Julius Caesar’s Spy Network; Sun-Tzu, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Espionage Act of 1917, the KGB, MI-5, the OSS, CIA, Pinkerton’s Union Spies, Confederate Spies. . [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]
David E. Hoffman, The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal. New York: Doubleday. 2015.
This book gave me cold chills. I knew it was about a Soviet spy who had delivered tons of spectacularly important information about Soviet weapon systems and radars, and I knew it took place before after and during the time I served in Moscow.
But it really took me back to some scary times, when we didn’t know if we were going to get scooped up by the KGB and hustled off to Lubyanka or some other dismal holding cell. Years after I came back to the States, whenever I would see a car parked near me with a couple of men in it, I started to look for an escape route.
The life we led, as we collected intelligence in the Soviet Union 1981-83 was nowhere near as dangerous as Marti Peterson, the first female CIA case officer to be handling spies in the CIA Station in U.S. Embassy Moscow. But as we traveled from Latvia and Estonia to Siberia, from Turkmenistan to Murmansk, we always had KGB agents following us, and sometimes it got dangerous.
We knew that there might be tiny cameras watching us as we ate supper in our home in the Embassy, or microphones planted in our cars to listen to whatever we said. Our maid surely reported to the KGB, but even so, she was a wonderful woman and a great Ukrainian cook.
The author of this book, David Hoffman, is a contributing editor at the Washington Post. He was Moscow Bureau Chief for the Post, and the Post’s White House Correspondent and he now is also a correspondent for PBS Frontline.
One of his primary sources for this book is Burton Gerber, who served as CIA Station Chief in Moscow in the early 1980s. He and his wife Rosalie were friends of ours in Moscow and later when we were all back in Washington. I still exchange Christmas cards with him. He’s my idea of the ideal intelligence agent: smart, well-read, quiet, and effective. Not a James Bond or any of the spy bosses you’ve seen in movies.
Hoffman describes Gerber’s upbringing in the CIA, joining as a 22-year-old, right out of Michigan State University in 1955. He describes the training he received in secret communications, handling agents, detecting surveillance, finding and filling dead drops, etc.
A very interesting item comes up early in the book when the author tells about James Jesus Angleton, a legendary old hand in the CIA who single-handedly shot down every effort to run spies inside the USSR. During the 1950s and 1960s Angleton was responsible for detecting and preventing apprehension of CIA agents and their spy sources, under Allen Dulles and Richard Helms. When they finally pushed him aside, they were able to link up with Soviet government employees who brought loads of critically important intelligence into American hands.
Marti Peterson came to Moscow in 1975 under cover as an embassy staffer, a job she performed during regular working hours. At night, however, she became the first female CIA operative working with agents in the Soviet Union. In 1977 she went out for a rendezvous with a spy named Ogorodnik. She had a tiny radio receiver for detecting KGB surveillance communications, with part strapped inside her bra with a Velcro strap. The KGB caught her, and soon discovered her wiring, but they were mystified by the Velcro!
I remember once when we were on a photo run, riding a tram by a Soviet naval shipyard in Leningrad, and one of us attachés opened the Velcro on his jacket, the ripping sound to someone who doesn’t know about Velcro sounds like you are ripping your clothes apart. Russians on the tram would all look at us with amazement. When we were there in 1981, Russia was indeed “a third-world country with nuclear weapons”.
However for Marti Peterson the discovery of her role in Moscow meant she was on the next plane back to Washington, and Ogorodnik, the spy she was trying to contact, after being caught, bit down on the fountain pen he had asked the CIA to provide him. It contained cyanide, and he was dead at once.
The star, the “Billion Dollar Spy” in this book, was Adolf Georgievich Tolkachev, born in 1927 in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan. He was the Soviet electronics engineer who provided key documents to the CIA between 1979 and 1985. Working at a Soviet radar design bureau as one of the chief designers, Tolkachev gave the CIA complete detailed information about numerous fighter-interceptor aircraft radars used on the MiG-29, MiG-31, and Su-27; and other avionics.
From January 1977 to February 1978, Tolkachev attempted to approach cars with U.S. diplomatic license plates in Moscow five times, coincidentally approaching the CIA Moscow bureau chief Gardner Hathaway at a diplomatic gas station, but the CIA was fearful of counterintelligence operations by the KGB.
We would often have notes slipped into our cars when we were parked in front of the Embassy, or anywhere else in town, and we would give them to the Moscow Station. Until I read this book, I had never heard that those attempts to contact an American had taken place.
On his fifth attempt the CIA assigned a Russian-speaking officer named John Guilsher to make contact with Tolkachev. The station eventually established his bona fides with intelligence data that proved to be of "incalculable" value to US experts. The U.S. Air Force completely reversed direction on a $70 million electronics package for the F-15 Eagle as a result of Tolkachev's intelligence.
Tolkachev resisted the use of traditional CIA methods including dead drops and radios. He preferred personal meetings, as he enjoyed meeting with agents. Hoffman goes into great detail about the various microscopic cameras the CIA gave to Tolkachev, and how he was able to shoot thousands of frames of documents without detection.
According to Hoffman, Tolkachev was critical of some of the CIA’s tradecraft. He developed different ways to bypass security; he repeatedly found holes in Soviet security, which he exploited.
At first, Tolkachev refused money for his services, feeling that payments would attract the attention of security. However, he asked for art supplies, music and other things for his son, and he eventually agreed to take payments, to be deposited in a foreign account, then began demanding millions. He refused offers to extract himself and his wife and son from the USSR, but then agreed to it. He requested poison pills to take if he was discovered; the CIA resisted and delayed, but finally provided them. Tolkachev was finally betrayed by a failed CIA trainee, Edward Lee Howard, who had obtained knowledge of Tolkachev before he was dismissed from the agency. Howard approached the Soviets through their consulate, and became an asset for them. Tolkachev and his wife were apprehended and he was executed. TASS announced his execution for treason in October, 1986.
The author writes how, when Jimmy Carter became President, he had idealistic ideas about the Russians, but soon discarded those. Carter named a Naval Academy classmate, Vice Admiral Stansfield Turner, as Director of the CIA. Turner had scant knowledge of the world of espionage and was suspicious of all this cloak and dagger business and preferred to use electronic intelligence gathering. This was tough on CIA morale, especially in Moscow Station. I arrived in Moscow just after President Reagan had taken over, which was joyously celebrated in the Station.
It is amazing to me that so much CIA tradecraft is described in this story. I imagine the KGB must make this book required reading for their trainees. Certainly, the CIA should; as well.
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2019
Wednesday, September 25, 2019: El Norte, the story of Spain’s exploration and colonization of North America. Often Americans study the growth of America from the standpoint of English colonization and the push westward. There’s another, very complex story, of the exploration of the Caribbean, Mexico, Florida and onward to California by the Spanish. It’s the story of Conquistadors, Priests and Indigenous peoples who created the Republic of Mexico, the nations of the Caribbean and Central America, and made the first cities in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California and more. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]
Wednesday, October 30, 2019: Charismatic leaders in History. What were the keys to Hitler’s, Churchill's, Mussolini's, FDR's successes? Keen perception of public moods? Oratory abilities? Character, firm ideology? Connecting to the people? How did they deploy their charisma? How could Napoleon manipulate the masses without TV ads? Why were people so perceptive to a madman in Germany? Recurring questions. [Proposed by Janos Posfai]
Wednesday, November 13, 2019 [Two weeks earlier because of Thanksgiving and another conflict] History of Farming in America. Examine the American Indians and their farming techniques, the early colonists and the skills they brought from their home countries; the food discoveries in the New World; Tobacco and Cotton and slavery; Farming and the Dust Bowl; Government and Agriculture; Modern Agribusiness. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]
NO MEETING IN DECEMBER