The arrest of the American diplomat, Ryan Fogle, in Moscow last week, was a journey to an earlier era, a throwback to a quarter century ago when these Cold War cloak and dagger spy games were painfully regular, as the United States and the Soviet Union played out the final act of a long and deadly contest. About the only difference in the handling of the ambush of Fogle by the Russian security service was that the photographic record of his arrest was in sharp, digital color, rather than grainy black and white. It was a textbook takedown. We see Fogle on the ground, arms behind him; then later in FSB headquarters being photographed with all the spy gear he was carrying. The “competent organs” are clearly protecting the motherland.
The reaction back in the United States was immediate. The “CIA has slipped into rank amateurism,” observed any number of commentators. “How could he have been carrying all that spy paraphernalia,” others clucked. The chatty “Dear Friend” letter he had in his possession could not have been real, spy buffs declared.
Not so fast.
I have no direct knowledge of what happened in Moscow last week, but as both deputy and then chief of the CIA’s Soviet East European Division (SE Division) during the late 1980s, I’ve seen all this before, again and again. Whatever did happen to Fogle is immaterial to this narrative, which is an informed tale on how these things actually played out in the 1980s, a tale that shows how little has actually changed. Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his security services have not buried the past. They may be called the FSB now, but the little red KGB identity books are still tucked in the bottom drawers, ready to go back to the hardknuckle games of the past. The Fogle affair is a small, fleeting win, a single blue chip on the Russian side of the table, not much more. That the FSB seemed shocked, shocked that spying is going on in Moscow, belies their full court spying press across the United States. And the “Moscow Rules” may still apply.
Let’s go back, for a moment, to June 13, 1985, when it was all Moscow Rules, all the time. I was just rotating from East Africa to Langley to take the deputy job in SE Division, that awful summer when so many of our Moscow agents were compromised and our officers ambushed trying to meet them.
CIA officer Paul Stombaugh sat alone on a bench in the dark, trash-strewn courtyard of a concrete apartment block in the Moscow suburbs. He had stopped his final counter-surveillance detection run a few hundred yards short of the site where he would meet with Adolf Tolkachev, the CIA’s most prized agent in Moscow. From January 1979 until this night, Tolkachev, an electronics design engineer, had provided the Americans with just about everything they wanted to know about Soviet research and development for its advanced fighter aircraft avionics systems. Tolkachev’s intel had allowed the United States to design its aircraft electronic systems to defeat the Soviet devices. What the CIA did not know that sultry June evening, was that Adolph Tolkachev had been betrayed and compromised, first by CIA turncoat, Edward Lee Howard, and then by Aldrich Ames. Stombaugh was walking into an ambush.
Stombaugh , a former FBI officer in his 30s, who was code-named “Narciss” — the handsome one, by the KGB — had spent hours on checking and rechecking to make sure he wasn’t be tailed. He was convinced he was black — in the spy parlance, surveillance-free. He had come to the quiet, residential street some 20 minutes early, had made one quick pass. Everything looked normal, and as he was instructed to do so in the casing report, he left the area to check his materials and equipment and prepare himself for the intense meeting, just minutes away. The only thing that seemed unusual was a large trailer parked about 50 yards from the meeting point, its hitch propped up on cinder blocks.
He checked his miniature tape recorder — all meetings with Tolkachev were recorded — and his materials. In one large, double-lined, plastic shopping bag, Stombaugh carried 125,000 rubles in small notes, equivalent to almost $150,000. The bag also contained five subminiature cameras concealed in key chain fobs. A second shopping bag was packed with American medicine and eyeglasses for Tolkachev and his wife, English-language study tapes for their son, books with concealed messages, “intelligence reporting requirements” — Soviet secrets the CIA wanted Tolkachev to try to steal — and communications plans, printed on water-soluble paper for added security. Everything he carried was compromising — fatally so for the man he was to meet. He glanced at this watch and decided it was time to move.
Stombaugh took in the street scene with a sweep of his eyes as he rounded the corner of the apartment block. Fifteen yards ahead and on his left, an attractive young woman with dyed red hair was waving her hands in animated conversation in a telephone booth that had been marked as a “taxi phone” on the diagram of the meeting site. Tolkachev’s car, with its familiar registration number, was parked on the far side of the street — the reassuring “safe, ready to meet” signal he was looking for.
Stombaugh began to walk briskly, running over in his mind the actions he had planned for the next few moments when Tolkachev would step out of the shadows, give the verbal recognition code, and then walk with him into the recesses of the nearby woods. There, he would take Tolkachev’s used cameras, still sealed with their microfilm inside, stash them in his jacket, and hand over the two shopping bags. If both men sensed it was safe, there might be some time for the small talk that had always been so reassuring to Tolkachev during these dangerous meetings over the years.
As he passed the phone booth, the world exploded. At least five men burst from the cover of trees and brush. Two grabbed Stombaugh’s arms from behind as two others snatched the heavy shopping bags from his grip. A fifth man forced his head down. He heard the tailgate of the parked trailer slam to the ground. The night air filled with voices of men who had been hiding inside, waiting for the trap to be sprung.
Stombaugh was taken to the infamous KGB headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square, where his spy materials were laid out, photographed, and where he was subjected to a pro forma tirade by the chief of the KGB’s American Department of the 2nd Chief Directorate. Stombaugh had his diplomatic identity card on him — standard operating procedure — and within a few hours he was set free and ordered out of the country.
Aside from the switch to color photography, there isn’t much difference between last week’s arrest in Moscow, and Stombaugh’s arrest in 1985. A successful intelligence operation can be a thing of beauty, the elegant result of serious training, planning, and execution. A compromised intelligence operation, on the other hand, in every respect looks like a bungling pratfall, a clumsy, amateurish misadventure that begs critical review. In my 30 years in the CIA, I had the full mix — the elegant successes and a share of sad failures. It’s part of the territory.
Every item a Moscow CIA officer carried to a clandestine meeting was necessary and thoroughly examined. Tolkachev had been told repeatedly that the money and the other things he demanded would immediately compromise him if anyone were to take note, but he was steadfast. Those things were part of the deal. And we bent over backwards for him: he was a completely vetted CIA asset, a man who had done so much damage to the Soviet Union that there was no question of his bonafides.
But even the best spies can be sloppy. When Tolkachev first attempted to volunteer his services to the CIA, his recklessness was harrowing — dropping notes in cars with American diplomatic plates, or making entirely random approaches to American diplomats or, in one case, an Italian employee of the embassy in Moscow, to pass his letters.
The CIA was finally able to reach out directly to him by getting an officer, surveillance-free, to locate a phone booth near Tolkachev’s apartment and call him at home. The call instructed him, that very moment, to go to the phone booth on the street and pick up a dirty glove he would find lying on the ground a few feet away. Then the CIA officer left the scene. Inside the glove were secret writing materials, a lengthy “Dear Friend” letter (not at all unlike the one Fogle was said to have been carrying) telling him how to prepare his answers to a list of scientific questions, and an accommodation address for him to mail his cover letter (with secret writing on the back) to Germany. He followed the instructions, and for the next six years became one of the most productive CIA agents of the Cold War. KGB counterintelligence never caught on to him until he was betrayed by the spies working in our own house. Adolf Tolkachev was tried and sentenced to the “exceptional measure of punishment.” He was executed in October 1986.
I can’t tell you what happened to Fogle in Moscow last week, I can’t explain how he got sloppy or if he made mistakes at all. But I haven’t seen much that makes me think a lot has changed from the way we, and the Russians, play the game. I for one, would be inclined defer judgment for the time being.
Milton Bearden is a retired senior CIA officer and author, with James Risen, of “The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB.”