WASHINGTON — In the gathering dusk of a cold, wet September day, we were sitting on the rear covered balcony of Edward Lee Howard's dacha near Moscow when he finally told me the truth, or some of it.
I thought of that afternoon with a spy a decade ago when reports out of Moscow last week said that Howard had died of a broken neck in a fall in that dacha on July 12. I immediately thought of the steep staircase that led up to a small loft overlooking the spacious living room, the loft where the former CIA officer had a desk, a pale-yellow telephone, a fax machine and a Toshiba laptop. If he did fall, I thought, it must have been on that stairway.
Howard was 50 when he died. In 1985, accused of being a spy for the KGB, he said goodbye to his 2-year-old son, Lee, and escaped from the FBI in Santa Fe, N.M., using the skills he had learned in the CIA. His wife, Mary, was at the wheel of their car that night as he propped up a dummy he had fashioned from a broomstick, a wig and a Calvin Klein field jacket and jumped out as she slowed down rounding a curve. The ruse was designed to lull a tail into thinking Howard was still in the car. In fact, because a young FBI agent on surveillance duty had missed seeing the couple leave their house, bureau agents were not following Howard. Still, the spy trick was useful, because when Mary Howard drove back into their garage, in the dark it looked to the FBI agent on duty as though Howard was in the passenger seat. But he was on his way to Moscow, using, he told me later, his TWA Getaway card. Although Mary Howard had helped him escape, she cooperated with the FBI. She and Howard were later divorced.
Howard was the only known CIA officer to defect to the Russians. He was all set to go to Moscow for the CIA in 1983 when he failed a polygraph test and was fired. Angry, he contacted the KGB and sold information that severely damaged the agency's operations in the Soviet Union.
The path that led me to the dacha in Zhukovka, an hour outside Moscow, had begun in Budapest in 1987, when I met Howard on an island in the Danube and interviewed him over several days for a book I wrote about the case, "The Spy Who Got Away."
In Moscow four years later, I called the ex-CIA man. Over lunch at his favorite Georgian restaurant, he said: "I'm a recovering alcoholic. It's very hard to deal with here. This is a country where people encourage you to drink."
Afterward, we walked along a peaceful lake to the Novodevichy monastery, where former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev is buried. Howard invited me to come for lunch at the dacha the next weekend. On Sunday, he called for me at my hotel in a KGB car, driven by a thin, blond man named Kolya, one of his bodyguards. "I have 24-hour security," Howard said.
En route to the dacha we passed a large apartment building. "That's Tolkachev's house," Howard said, pointing. Adolf G. Tolkachev was a Russian defense researcher who had spied for the CIA. Howard told that to the KGB, and Tolkachev was executed. As we passed the building, I may have remarked that Tolkachev did not live there anymore. There was silence for a moment. Then Howard said: "I didn't bust him, David. I know I didn't bust him." But Howard also betrayed at least two other CIA assets, Vladimir Vasilyev, a GRU colonel, who was executed, and Boris Yuzhin, a KGB officer, who went to prison. All three were also betrayed by Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer who had begun spying for the KGB five months before Howard escaped.
As we were waved past the guardhouse at Zhukovka, Howard said, "It's a KGB town. The whole place is a KGB town." And, in fact, many of the residents, although not all, did work for the Soviet spy agency.
Soon we drove through a high, green wooden gate and were at the dacha, a modern, five-room, red-brick building with a garden in the front and a small cottage where the couple who served as Howard's caretaker and cook lived. The balcony at the back of the dacha overlooked a garden thick with birch trees and roses. In the rear was a guardhouse where two bodyguards slept. The property was surrounded by a 10-foot-high wooden fence that Howard said was topped by a laser security system.
Ostensibly, all this was to protect Howard from the CIA's long arm, but it was apparent that he was a spy in a gilded cage. It seemed clear to me that the KGB security was there as much to watch him as to keep anyone else out.
Lunch was fairly elaborate, the zakuski already on the table, crabmeat salad--the crab was flown in from Vladivostok, he said--fresh tomatoes, pickles, salami, other cold meats and coleslaw. Then a sort of mystery meat, a Salisbury steak with potatoes, and tea. Howard, who had clearly been drinking even before he arrived at the hotel to pick me up, did not make it through the lunch. He lay down on the couch in the living room and fell asleep. Anna Ivanova, the cook, gently unlaced and removed his running shoes.