The Billion Dollar Spy

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John F
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The Billion Dollar Spy

Post by John F » Wed Jul 29, 2015 9:47 pm

That's the title of a new book by Daniel E. Hoffman, about an engineer high in the Soviet military industrial complex who voluntarily spied for the United States in the late '70s and the '80s, and eventually paid for it with his life. The man's name is Adolf Tolkachev. I'd never heard that name before - have you? But I don't think I will forget it.

Again and again I was reminded of John Le Carré's spy novels. The main differences: this is not about British intelligence but the CIA. There were no masterminds, no George Smiley or Karla. And, of course, Hoffman's story in all its details is not fiction. Tolkachev's revelations enabled the US to build jet fighters that exploited the weaknesses in the Russian MiGs for many years; in the war against Iraq, American planes shot down 48 MiGs without a single loss. All this at a savings of years of research and development which our military estimated in the billions of dollars - hence the book's title. He was betrayed by a disaffected American whom the CIA had trained for service in Moscow, then fired. The book actually contains a photo of Tolkachev's arrest by the KGB, presumably taken by a KGB man (but how did Hoffman get it?).

Here's the review after which I got the book out of the library as soon as I could, and read it cover to cover including the footnotes:

Review: In ‘The Billion Dollar Spy,’ David E. Hoffman Recalls a Cold War Spy
JULY 5, 2015

In an era of suicide bombers and ISIS beheadings, the spy dramas of the Cold War can seem tame, almost polite affairs. Central Intelligence Agency officers who worked in the Soviet capital complained about operating under “Moscow rules,” meaning the relentless scrutiny of the K.G.B. And they knew that any Soviet citizen caught spying faced certain execution. Still, there were rules.

Those rules may actually be a reason that David Hoffman’s “The Billion Dollar Spy,” about Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet radar expert who spied for the C.I.A., is such an engrossing tale. The story played out over several years, almost entirely on the streets of Moscow, in a twilit chess game that pitted American intelligence officers against their Soviet counterparts. Each side knew exactly what the other was trying to do and was determined to thwart it.

In the middle was Mr. Tolkachev, an electronics engineer in his 50s, a man of unassuming manner but titanium will, who was determined to do as much damage to the Soviet Union as he possibly could. His job gave him access to highly classified details of military technology, a coveted prize for the United States. The title “The Billion Dollar Spy” refers to the research and manufacturing costs saved by the United States as a result of Mr. Tolkachev’s revelations from 1978 to 1985; the actual savings were estimated to be more than $2 billion.

The Tolkachev story has been told before, notably in a C.I.A. monograph and in the epic 2003 book “The Main Enemy,” by Milton Bearden, a former C.I.A. officer, and James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times. But it has never been told in such detail. Mr. Hoffman, a former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post and the author of “The Dead Hand,” a 2009 book on the last years of the United States-Soviet arms race, had the assistance of C.I.A. veterans eager to relive the good old days. Even more important, the agency shared 944 pages of declassified documents, including the cables sent between C.I.A. headquarters and the agency’s cramped station inside the American Embassy in Moscow.

Mr. Tolkachev must have been the most determined volunteer spy in history. For more than a year, at huge risk, he scouted out the cars of American diplomats and thrust notes through the windows, offering his spying services to the baffled drivers. The Americans ignored his approaches, worried that he might be a K.G.B. “dangle” seeking to entrap them. Only after he gave them 11 handwritten pages, including his full name, job description and family details, did the C.I.A. bite.

As often is the case in espionage, with its combination of flagrant betrayal and true belief, an intriguing question was motive. The traditional possibilities were in the old C.I.A. acronym MICE, for money, ideology, compromise (i.e., blackmail) and ego. Mr. Tolkachev seems to have been driven by all but compromise. His wife’s parents’ appalling suffering under Stalin was one source of his burning desire for vengeance. He had also become deeply disillusioned with what he called the “hypocritical demagoguery” that he believed the Soviet Union had come to represent.

He was, he told his first C.I.A. contact, “a dissident at heart.” In one of his long, often introspective notes to the C.I.A., he explained that the examples of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov had inspired him. “Some inner worm started to torment me,” he explained. “Something had to be done.” Yet he also wanted money, lots of it, perplexing his C.I.A. case officers by simultaneously demanding millions and saying he had little use for it. He seemed to see capitalist cash as a palpable measure of his own significance, a reassurance that he was not just another dreary technocrat but someone extraordinary.

In return, he delivered thousands of top-secret documents, usually spirited out of his institute at lunch hour, taken home and photographed with a Pentax camera clamped to a chair. At other times, he hid in a men’s room stall at work, using a C.I.A. Tropel camera hidden in a key fob. Then he had to meet C.I.A. officers to hand over film and pilfered electronic parts. In a Moscow crawling with surveillance, the task required not just courage on his part but wiliness on theirs. Mr. Hoffman’s book particularly shines in cinematic accounts of their anxious encounters.

Managing Mr. Tolkachev “was undertaken with the concentration and attention to detail of a moon shot,” Mr. Hoffman writes. C.I.A. officers realized they could spot surveillance cars because the K.G.B. carwash left a distinctive triangle of dirt on the grille. They studied how to operate in “the gap” — the moments when a car or a person turned a corner and disappeared briefly from view. They used the J.I.B., or jack-in-the-box, a spring-loaded cardboard cutout of the C.I.A. officer in the passenger seat, which would pop up and take his place when he jumped from the car. (The driver was often the officer’s wife; the intrepidity and patience of C.I.A. spouses is a recurring theme.)

The chief of the agency’s Moscow station, meanwhile, was often fighting a rear-guard action against headquarters in Langley, Va. Bosses there long rebuffed Mr. Tolkachev’s urgent requests for an “L-pill,” a lethal cyanide dose hidden in a pen, even after his contacts decided it would give him critical reassurance. Likewise, headquarters insisted on giving him a new communications device called Discus, over the objections of officials in the Moscow station.

A poignant detail in “The Billion Dollar Spy” is what Mr. Tolkachev asked for besides money and banned books. Like many Soviet couples, he and his wife, Natasha, had one child in whom they invested their hopes. Oleg, 14 when the spying began, shared the fascination of Soviet teenagers with Western rock music. Later, when he entered architectural training, he wanted decent drawing and drafting equipment. His father, risking his life in every exchange with the C.I.A., nonetheless asked repeatedly for items that he thought would please his son: a Sony Walkman, albums by Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper, and “pencils of various hardness.” For this lonely, driven man — and therefore for the C.I.A. — such trivial things had become invaluable.

The title of Graham Greene’s great 1978 spy novel had it right: the key to espionage is always “the human factor.”

A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
By David E. Hoffman
Illustrated. 312 pages. Doubleday. $28.95. ... r-spy.html
John Francis

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