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The KGB's mole master

Vladimir Kryuchkov's death invokes the darkest chapter in the history of U.S. espionage.

December 02, 2007|David Wise | David Wise is the author of "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million" and "Spy: The Inside Story of How the FBI's Robert Hanssen Betrayed America."

When Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the Kremlin's top spy for almost two decades, died in Moscow 10 days ago, little notice was taken in the U.S. media. That wasn't surprising because the Soviet apparatchik-turned-spymaster was hardly a household name. But in the CIA and the FBI, close attention was paid.

It was Kryuchkov who, first as head of the KGB's First Chief Directorate and then as chief of the spy agency, presided over the worst damage ever done to U.S. intelligence, inflicted by two super-moles, Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. In large measure, Kryuchkov owed his job as KGB chairman to Ames, the CIA officer who was paid, or promised, $4.6 million for the secrets he sold to the Russians.

In June 1985, Ames, over lunch with a Soviet agent at Chadwicks restaurant in Washington, handed over the names of every Russian double agent working around the globe for the CIA. Viktor I. Cherkashin, the crafty KGB counterintelligence chief in Washington, had made the dicey decision that Ames was for real and not a CIA "dangle" to fool the Russians.

Over a six-week period that fall, the KGB, acting on Ames' list (and Kryuchkov's orders), rolled up all of the CIA's assets inside and outside the Soviet Union in a lightning strike that left the CIA's top echelons reeling. Ten spies were executed; many others were thrown in prison. Ames was appalled at the arrests, sure that they would point to a mole in the CIA and, worse yet, directly to him, because as chief of the Soviet counterintelligence unit, he was known to have access to the names. Cherkashin was also outraged at Kryuchkov's spy roundup, which he felt had jeopardized Ames' safety.

Interestingly, the Ames affair could have been a disaster for Kryuchkov -- because it revealed that the KGB was honeycombed with CIA spies, and Kryuchkov, as head of the First Chief Directorate, its foreign espionage arm, could have been held responsible and fired.

But the wily Kryuchkov managed to turn potential catastrophe to his advantage. According to Cherkashin, he never told the Politburo that the unmasking of the CIA's agents was the work of a mole. "Kryuchkov made it appear that the exposures resulted from hard work by the KGB under his leadership," Cherkashin wrote in "Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer." Instead of being fired, Kryuchkov was promoted to head of the KGB in 1988.

By then, both Cherkashin and Kryuchkov could take credit for another intelligence bonanza. Less than six months after Ames had contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington, FBI agent Hanssen sent a letter to Cherkashin offering his services as a spy. Over the next 16 years, Hanssen betrayed dozens of vital secrets and operations. He revealed, for instance, that the FBI had dug a tunnel under the Soviet Embassy in Washington to eavesdrop electronically on the Russians, and he disclosed where top U.S. leaders, including the president, would be relocated to in a national emergency. Kryuchkov sent Hanssen four personal letters of thanks, accompanied by cash.

Despite the spy arrests in Moscow that fall, Ames need not have worried. The CIA was unwilling to believe that there could be a mole within its ranks. The first official investigation of the intelligence disaster, ordered by then-CIA Director William J. Casey, concluded that either the KGB had intercepted the agency's communications or that its officers in Moscow had engaged in sloppy "tradecraft" by being observed by the KGB. It took nine years before Ames was caught.

Within the FBI, it was much the same story. The bureau realized that some of its secrets were leaking and that the disclosures could not be attributed either to Ames, who was arrested in 1994, or Edward Lee Howard, a CIA agent who sold secrets to the KGB and had escaped to Moscow, because neither had access to the FBI secrets.

But like the CIA, the FBI was slow to accept the idea that it had a traitor within its ranks. For three years, the bureau pursued Brian Kelley, an innocent CIA officer, mistakenly believing he was the source of the leak. The FBI caught Hanssen after paying $7 million to an ex-KGB officer who provided the crucial evidence of Hanssen's treachery -- a fingerprint and a tape-recording that identified the FBI agent. He was arrested in 2001.

Kryuchkov rose to the top of the KGB through luck and guile. He was stationed in Budapest in 1956, under Ambassador Yuri Andropov, when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolt. When Andropov became head of the KGB, his protege, Kryuchkov, rose within the spy organization, where he headed the foreign intelligence directorate for 14 years.

With his glasses, ruddy complexion and fringe of white hair around his mostly bald head, Kryuchkov looked more like a grandfather than a spymaster. He was fond of James Bond movies and built an elaborate sauna for himself at Yasenevo, the spy directorate's headquarters outside Moscow, sometimes meeting there with other towel-clad KGB generals.

When Diane Sawyer interviewed him in Moscow in 1990 for ABC News, she asked: "Do you have an agent high in the CIA?" Kryuchkov looked up at the ceiling, in mock thought. He replied, "Um, I have to find out about that. I haven't heard about it." At the time, of course, both Ames and Hanssen were spying for the KGB.

In August 1991, Kryuchkov overestimated his power. He led a bungled, abortive coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Boris N. Yeltsin climbed on a tank and rallied the crowds against the coup's leaders, and the KGB chief was thrown in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison. He was tried but, along with the other plot leaders, was granted amnesty. In recent years, he was partly rehabilitated by his fellow ex-KGB officer and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Kryuchkov's passing will not be mourned by U.S. counterintelligence. As for his super-spies, both Ames and Hanssen are serving life sentences in prison.

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