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No Letup in Search for 'the 4th Man'

Years after the Cold War's end, CIA mole hunters still pursue an unknown traitor.

June 15, 2003|Milt Bearden | Milt Bearden, a former senior CIA official, is the co-author, with James Risen, of "The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA's Final Showdown With the KGB."

WASHINGTON — Amid the clamor of the hunt for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, another, much older, quieter and equally daunting manhunt grinds on. A dozen years after the final curtain was drawn on the Soviet Union, American spy hunters continue to sift the ashes of espionage operations gone cold in the 1980s, searching for clues that might lead them to "the fourth man" -- to what, it is hoped, will be the final traitor in a quartet of Americans who betrayed so many of our spies in Moscow during the Cold War.

It started in 1985, the Year of the Spy. The FBI and CIA began suffering catastrophic losses of Soviet agents in Moscow who had taken the near-suicidal risk of changing camps and working with U.S. intelligence. One by one, they were apprehended, tried and marched along a darkened basement corridor in one of Moscow's "shooting prisons" until, at some much-feared and never fully unexpected moment, a KGB executioner would step silently out of a dark cranny and fire a bullet into the back of the condemned man's brain.

There were 10 of them, and with each died a complex set of dreams, a mixture of personal hopes and visions for Mother Russia. Even more complex was the mix of human motivations that prompted these men to engage in the riskiest undertaking for any Soviet citizen of that era. In the wilderness of mirrors that was then the KGB-CIA counterintelligence standoff, these human losses became known as "the 1985 problem."

I entered that wilderness in the summer of 1985, just as the CIA was sounding the counterintelligence equivalent of "general quarters" in Moscow. As the new No. 2 in the agency's Soviet East European Division, I was drawn into the vortex of this espionage maelstrom and became caught up in innovative but ultimately failed attempts to flush out our betrayers. We drew ever-tightening concentric circles of protection around our remaining spies in Moscow, but nothing seemed to protect them from compromise and arrest.

Even when we discovered the first traitor in our midst, the strange relief brought by the awful discovery was short-lived.

In 1985, Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA officer who had been on a track for a Moscow assignment when he was fired by the agency, was fingered by KGB defector Vitaly Yurchenko as a revenge-driven turncoat. Yurchenko cataloged the CIA operations that Howard had sold to Moscow. Forewarned, Howard made a daring escape from FBI surveillance, ending up in Moscow and the sanctuary of the KGB.

The instant assessment of Howard's treachery was that it explained the loss of a few of the men in Moscow, but not all. Operations that Howard could not have known about were rolled up by the KGB in the same elaborate style as the operations of those he had betrayed, a sure sign the KGB was going to great ends to protect its source or sources inside U.S. intelligence. To be sure, Howard was part of the problem, but not the end of it.

In fairly short order, another possible solution to the 1985 riddle presented itself. In 1987, two Marine guards at our embassy in Moscow were implicated in a KGB operation against the CIA. It seemed to some at CIA headquarters that the other shoe had dropped. But it hadn't. Neither man proved to be the missing link to our troubles, and we were back to square one.

As the Soviet Union began to wobble in the late 1980s, the search for the traitor at the CIA lost momentum. The 1985 problems seemed all but forgotten as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union disintegrated a few years later. But even against the stunning backdrop of the collapse of America's main enemy, a handful of men and women in Langley, Va., doggedly continued the search for answers. In February 1994, CIA officer Aldrich H. Ames was arrested for treason.

As soon as he was arrested, however, it became clear to his interrogators that Ames alone could not explain the remaining mysteries of the 1985 losses. So the search went on for almost another seven years, until FBI Agent Robert Philip Hanssen was identified as Moscow's man, bringing to three the number of Americans known to be part of the 1985 problem.

But doubts lingered. It soon became obvious to the mole hunters that there had to be another traitor, someone still out there, still living with his treachery. Much like the search for Britain's infamous "Cambridge Five," an investigation that spanned four decades, America's Cold War legacy of spies and the pursuit of the fourth man who betrayed and killed those he was sworn to protect will go on.

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