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Of moles and men

The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown With the KGB, Milt Bearden and James Risen, Random House: 564 pp., $27.95

June 01, 2003|David Wise | David Wise is the coauthor of "The Invisible Government" and author of "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America."

During the Cold War, it was no easy matter for a Russian to volunteer to spy for the CIA. Take the case of Adolf Tolkachev, an aircraft designer in Moscow. Risking his life, Tolkachev tried half a dozen times to approach the agency.

He left notes in the cars of two successive CIA station chiefs in Moscow. He got nowhere. The CIA, it seemed, yawned at the prospect of recruiting an agent at the very heart of the Soviet aviation industry, a scientist who could reveal vital information about the state of Moscow's research into stealth technology. Poor Tolkachev had to do everything but dance the kazachok naked in Red Square to attract the attention of the CIA. Finally, giving up on the obtuse station chiefs, he made contact by approaching the Italian butler at Spaso House, the residence of the American ambassador.

Perhaps the agency had worried it was all a KGB plot. But Milt Bearden, the former chief of the CIA's Soviet division, and James Risen, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, report that Tolkachev, once recruited, turned over a cornucopia of secrets about Soviet MIGs and other weapons systems, saving the United States "billions of dollars" and perhaps five years of research and development time. He was eventually betrayed by Edward Lee Howard, a CIA officer who defected to the Soviets in 1985. Tolkachev was executed a year later.

"The Main Enemy" -- the title comes from the KGB's designation of the United States during the Cold War -- is the product of an unusual collaboration between the veteran former CIA officer and a respected journalist who specializes in intelligence and national security. Their joint authorship created some cumbersome logistical problems: Bearden was required to submit his portion of the manuscript to CIA for clearance, but Risen, not having worked for the spooks, was under no such restriction.

The result, despite the screening by the CIA -- the agency's censors do seem to have wielded only a light pencil -- is a fast-paced page turner, a richly woven tapestry of the spy wars between Moscow and Washington in the fading twilight of the Cold War. For spy buffs, there are delicious inside details: The CIA specialists who prepared instructions in Russian for Tolkachev and other agents are called "poets"; a brief encounter between a case officer and an agent is a "bren"; and the KGB -- not just Saddam Hussein and Hollywood -- used body doubles to mislead onlookers. At one point, the CIA even consulted magicians to learn the art of deception.

As a CIA officer, Bearden was a participant in the games of intelligence played with the Soviets. But the authors were also able to mine high-level sources inside the former KGB. Many of the stories in the book have been told before, but aside from providing new detail, the real value of "The Main Enemy" is that it assembles in one place all the interlocking cases of the period: Howard, Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Ronald Pelton, Vitaly Yurchenko and several others. By pulling the threads together, the authors demonstrate the often complex relationships among the cases. In the wilderness of mirrors, as counterintelligence has been termed, Ames and Howard betrayed some of the same agents, as did Hanssen and Ames. You can't tell the players without a scorecard, and Bearden and Risen have provided one. For students of espionage, and readers who just enjoy a good spy story, the result is an essential guide to the endgame of the Cold War, a sort of espionage Michelin with a lot of three-star stopping places along the way.

More details are disclosed, for example, about "the Gavrilov channel," the fascinating secret meetings of senior CIA and KGB officials that were held when, on occasion, they had matters of mutual interest to discuss. In one such session in Helsinki in 1989, Bearden and Gardner "Gus" Hathaway, the CIA's chief of counterintelligence, met warily with Rem Krassilnikov, the agency's nemesis in Moscow, and two other KGB officers. The official business concluded, the vodka was produced, and apparently the party got fairly raucous because Hathaway lost his wallet, as Bearden reveals with evident glee. The KGB politely returned it: "[T]he thing's probably radioactive from all the photocopying," Bearden cracks. In researching the book, the authors had extensive help from Krassilnikov, whose job it was to catch the CIA's officers and agents in the Soviet capital, and from Leonid Shebarshin, who headed the KGB for exactly one day after the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. Krassilnikov died before the book was published.

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