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The Revenge of the Spook : THE SPY WHO GOT AWAY by David Wise (Random House: $18.95; 288 pp.)

May 22, 1988|Ronald J. Ostrow | Ostrow covers the Justice Department, FBI and investigative assignments in The Times' Washington bureau. He is co-author of "Taking Care of the Law" with Griffin B. Bell and of " The FBI and the Berrigans " with Jack Nelson

David Wise has written the most important book on intelligence since he wrote "The Invisible Government" in 1964 with Thomas B. Ross. Much as the earlier work raised fundamental questions about the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in a democracy, his latest work produces equally troubling questions about the CIA's ability to protect its own house--and thus the United States--from Soviet penetration.

Wise's chronicling of Edward Lee Howard, the CIA agent who severely damaged his country's espionage apparatus in Moscow to exact revenge on the agency that he had reason to believe treated him shabbily, reveals a spying organization so caught up in bureaucratic self-protection that it ignored repeated signals that Howard had gone bad.

At the same time, Wise establishes that the lack of cooperation between the CIA and the FBI, symbolized in 1970 by the aging J. Edgar Hoover's breaking off relations with the CIA, continues to hamper U.S. counterintelligence efforts. The "CIA cover-up," as Wise describes the CIA's handling of Howard's bizarre behavior, is more insidious than Hoover's temper-driven decision to end liaison between the two agencies.

In Howard's case, the CIA as an institution deliberately chose not to inform the FBI for nearly a year that a fired agent with detailed knowledge of CIA operations in Moscow had confessed he was on the verge of revealing those secrets. By failing to notify the FBI, which has the statutory responsibility for counterintelligence to prevent such damage, the CIA set the fuse on an intelligence time-bomb.

Wise also discloses in detail for the first time how the FBI's own ineptitude helped Howard escape its surveillance net, raised only belatedly thanks to CIA stonewalling, and eventually make his way to the Soviet Union.

He does so by persuading Howard's wife, Mary, to break her long silence and Howard himself to submit to lengthy interviews in Budapest. Wise does not accept Howard's claim that he had not sold agency secrets before fleeing and demonstrates without the aid of a court record why Howard's assertion is incredible. The author builds on the interviews of the Howards with a painstaking reconstruction of Howard's life through the testimony of those who served with him in the Peace Corps, private industry, CIA and the staff of the New Mexico legislature.

Edward Lee Howard did such vast damage to U.S. intelligence operations in Moscow that the late CIA Director William J. Casey, on whose watch the destruction occurred but who was not noted for confessions of error, testified that "we screwed up" in a secret session of the House Intelligence Committee. There have been official inquiries into what went wrong with the assignment, firing and investigation of Howard, but they remain secret and have been reported only in part. Wise cites their conclusions but makes a much stronger case of his own with meticulous fact-gathering.

He relates these facts with the suspense and tension-building that you expect in John LeCarre's fiction. Along the way, Wise discloses fascinating details about the workings of the CIA and its Soviet counterpart, the KGB. For one example, Wise relates how the CIA and KGB approve each other's station chiefs in Washington and Moscow, with the result that the Soviets--but not the American public--know who is running U.S. spy operations in the Soviet Union.

For another, he reports that the fear of the polygraph is so pervasive at CIA headquarters that piles of quarters can be found atop vending machines, left there by agency employees who think that pocketing money mistakenly returned by the machines could give them trouble during periodic polygraph examinations.

In the way of mild criticism, Wise's reporting is so exhaustive that he tends to over-footnote, apparently unable to discard a hard-earned fact. For example, one footnote relates that the former wife of a key witness later "married a Dallas lawyer whose brother, also a Dallas lawyer, was already married to her identical twin sister, Missy."

Wise is careful not to try to answer questions beyond the reach of his fact-gathering. He writes, for example that it is not possible to resolve the conflict between what a former Howard friend told him and what the same witness told the FBI.

The existence of a former CIA mole was disclosed by Vitaly Yurchenko, the high-ranking KGB defector who later re-defected to the Soviet Union. Wise emphasizes that the FBI learned of the mole because it took part, along with the CIA, in the debriefing of Yurchenko. Yurchenko did not know the man's name but did relate sufficient details--that the agent had been set for an assignment to Moscow that was aborted--so that the CIA interviewers had to know the identity of the man he had in mind.

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