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THE NATION / ESPIONAGE

Enter the Fake Russians

October 18, 1998|David Wise | David Wise is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million."

WASHINGTON — In a London hotel room last month, a short man with a thick Russian accent and Slavic features handed his American visitor $9,000, along with thanks for the top-secret information the source had provided to the KGB in the past. The two men agreed to meet in a hotel at Dulles Airport early this month. The SVR, successor to the KGB, would like to reactivate the American spy, he was told.

According to an affidavit filed in federal court in Alexandria, Va., last week, the cinematic scene in the London hotel room actually took place. But when David Sheldon Boone, 46, a retired Army sergeant who had worked for the supersecret National Security Agency, flew in from Germany and checked into Room 1431 at the airport's Marriott Hotel, the FBI was waiting. Boone was arrested and charged with espionage.

The government says the KGB paid him $60,000 for some extraordinarily sensitive U.S. secrets, including a manual that describes every American spy satellite and another document that revealed the Soviet targets of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

The "Russian" in the London hotel was, of course, working for the FBI. He was an accomplished actor the bureau had used in starring roles in several other spy cases. The FBI has had remarkable success in deploying its stable of bogus Russians. In each instance, the American offering secrets for sale fell for the ruse and believed he was dealing with a real KGB agent. It was a mistake that has cost more than one spy a long prison term.

The Russian impersonator in the latest case is an FBI agent who retired not long ago from the bureau's Washington field office. He was called back for the London caper. The retired agent is a legendary figure inside the FBI for his frequent role as a fake Russian spy. Officials declined to reveal his identity.

"He has a Slavic and Russian background, and is bilingual in Russian," FBI spokeswoman Susan Lloyd confirmed. The ex-agent's language skills were essential in the Boone case: The former Army man had studied Russian as part of his Pentagon training and might have tested the Russian impersonator.

The former FBI agent, Lloyd said, "dresses the part with clothes that look Russian or Eastern European." He learned his undercover acting skills at the bureau's training facility in Quantico, Va., south of Washington. There, in classes specially designed to catch spies, he practiced the role of a KGB man, while another agent played the part of a cautious American with secrets for sale.

"At the training classes, different scenarios are played out," Lloyd said. "If this happened, what would you do? Here is what might happen if you make this or that approach."

The bureau's need for Russian impersonators has increased with the end of the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, U.S. intelligence has had access, for example, to the files of the Stasi, the former East German intelligence service. Defectors from the former Soviet Union continue to turn up in the West. From the files and human sources, the FBI has obtained leads to a number of possible spies, but the evidence is almost never sufficient for an arrest.

Bring on the fake Russians, whose job is to winkle out of the suspects details of what information they had previously passed to Moscow. The suspect might wonder why he needs to repeat all that: Isn't it all in your files? The former FBI agent posing as the SVR man in London crossed that hurdle by explaining that Boone's old handler had retired; he was the new man on the job and presumably needed to know as much as possible to get up to speed.

The ploy was successful. According to the affidavit of Stephanie Douglas, the FBI case agent for the Boone investigation, the former Army sergeant admitted to the "Russian" that he had handed over to his KGB contact, whom he identified as "Igor," United States Signals Intelligence Directive 514. Boone said the "frightening" directive revealed "the targeting of U.S. nuclear weapons" against the Soviets. Boone, it is charged, also gave the KGB the Pentagon's J-TENS Manual, classified "top secret Umbra," a designation above top secret.

Jeffrey T. Richelson, an expert on U.S. reconnaissance programs, said the handbook was a closely guarded document. "The J-TENS is the complete guide to U.S. spy-satellite systems. It would be of great value to a foreign intelligence agency."

Although the FBI's bogus Russians have been successful in several recent cases, sometimes the American spies are still wary. The exact same sting was used on another former NSA man, Robert Stephan Lipka, arrested in 1996. FBI agent Dimitry Droujinsky, posing as a Russian, met with Lipka, who was charged with spying for the Soviets 30 years earlier. Lipka was skeptical when the man who called himself "Sergei Nikitin, from the Russian embassy in Washington" did not know that Lipka had played chess with his former handler.

"Does 'Rook' have any meaning to you?" the sham Russian asked.

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