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Neither U.S. Spy Nor KGB Foe Could Turn the Other

Cold War: Soviet quit the effort, but CIA agent persisted. And a remarkable, nearly fatal, friendship developed.

December 30, 1997|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A spy is a fabulist, a spinner of false tales, a maker of unreal worlds. A spy is a seducer of reckless hearts and broken souls, and a voyeur of the carnage left behind.

A spy is not true.

But Gennadiy Vasilenko and Jack Platt never lived strictly by the rules of their profession.

Platt, of the CIA, and Vasilenko, of the KGB, were assigned to corrupt each other. Instead, they reached across the minefield of Cold War espionage to forge an extraordinary friendship.

For years, they tried to maintain their brotherhood in the wilderness of mirrors that was the game between the CIA and KGB. Ultimately their relationship fell victim to a coldblooded act by another spy, one devoid of loyalties: Aldrich H. Ames.

In this previously untold tale of betrayal and post-Cold War redemption, Gennadiy Vasilenko emerges as an uncounted victim of the CIA's most damaging spy case in its 50 years. Once Ames exposed Vasilenko to the harsh judgment of the lords of the KGB, his friendship with Platt very nearly cost him his life.

Yet through it all their friendship remained constant. And, in a stranger-than-fiction ending that teaches much about the march of capitalism, they are now pooling their CIA-KGB spy talents in a bid to get rich on the Wild West business scene of post-communist Russia.

If it hadn't been for an early shoulder injury, the tall, lean and hawk-nosed Vasilenko might have gone on to glory as a Soviet volleyball star rather than into a hidden life as a KGB spy. When injuries ended his hopes of making the Soviet national volleyball squad heading for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, he found himself steered instead into a slot in the KGB's training program.

Vasilenko eventually joined the KGB's elite First Directorate, which handled foreign intelligence, and in 1976 was assigned to "Line KR," counterintelligence, in the KGB's premier overseas station, Washington.

He enjoyed at least one major success, serving as the KGB's first case officer for former National Security Agency employee Ronald Pelton, one of Moscow's most important spies inside the United States.

After Pelton walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington in January 1980 to volunteer to work for the KGB, Vasilenko dressed him up in a disguise and put him on a bus crowded with Russian embassy employees to sneak him out without being detected by the FBI.

Pelton ultimately exposed the so-called Ivy Bells project, in which the Navy and NSA had installed eavesdropping equipment on an underwater Soviet military communications cable off the Siberian coast.

Pair Get Acquainted on Similar Missions

Vasilenko's days in Washington also brought him into contact with his opposite number on the American side, Jack Platt, a rumpled and gruff former Marine who had joined the CIA in 1963 and who by the late 1970s was a hardened veteran of the CIA's Soviet Division. They became acquainted while trying to lure one another into committing treason.

Based in Washington, Platt was trolling for KGB officers in 1977 when a Soviet defector, a former classmate of Vasilenko's at the KGB's training institute, identified Vasilenko as one of the KGB officers working under diplomatic cover in the Soviet Embassy.

Platt took the first step, arranging through an intermediary to bump into Vasilenko at a Harlem Globetrotters basketball game in Washington.

Almost immediately, Platt found that despite his secret mission to recruit Vasilenko, he was being charmed by the Russian. "Halfway through the game I realized, I really like this guy," he recalled in an interview.

Platt persisted, even though Vasilenko showed no interest in the American's blandishments.

"I never stopped trying to recruit him," sighed Platt. "But he never crossed the line." The best evidence: Vasilenko never told Platt about Pelton, who wasn't caught until he was compromised by a Soviet defector, KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko, in 1985.

Instead, Vasilenko tried to turn the tables, asking Platt to work for the KGB, with dismal results. Platt recalls telling Vasilenko: "What in the hell can you offer me?"

Through their awkward espionage courtship, Platt and Vasilenko gradually discovered they were soul mates--streetwise risk-takers who shared a voracious love for the spy game and a disdain for the faceless bureaucrats back at headquarters.

Before long, they were meeting quietly at cafes around Washington for dinner and drinks; finally, they worked up the nerve to go off hunting and shooting together in the West Virginia forests. By the end of Vasilenko's tour in Washington, Platt had helped Vasilenko buy a new car and was even going home with Vasilenko for dinner with his wife and two children.

The friendship grew so strong, Vasilenko recalled in an interview, that they finally called a truce. "We told each other, don't try, let's be friends, let's have a good relationship, forget about the task. That was the agreement. It was good times, that's why we continued."

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