Chadwick’s is a smokey neighborhood saloon tucked in under the Whitehurst Freeway at the foot of Wisconsin Ave., the sort of place where everyone seems to know everyone else. The front window table provides a splendid view of a much-potholed stretch of K St. NW (which dead-ends within a few yards) and a shabby fence enclosing a parking lot. In Espionage 101, Chadwick’s would rank high among places NOT to have a first meeting with someone from a rival intelligence service who is offering to sell information. Too public, no easy egress — its limitations are many.
Nonetheless, that exposed table is where CIA renegade Aldrich Ames launched his secret career of treason. He did so at a 1985 meeting with Victor Cherkashin, the head of KGB counterintelligence in Washington. The story of how Mr. Cherkashin served as the handler for Ames and another traitor, Robert Hanssen of the FBI, is ably told in Spy Handler (Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer, Basic Books, $26, 338 pages, illus.).
Both treacheries been the subject of perhaps a dozen books. Now we hear the story from the KGB side. At Chadwick’s, Mr. Ames professed to be a patriotic American, but one who felt that CIA “was putting one over on Congress and the American people” by overestimating Soviet strengths. But his decision was a business one: He needed money. He asked only that his identity be concealed from CIA sources within the KGB. Name them, a surprised Mr. Cherkashin demanded. Whereupon Mr. Ames pulled out a notepad and wrote a list of names.
“That piece of paper,” Mr. Cherkashin marveled, “contained more information about CIA espionage than had ever before been presented in a single communication.” Mr. Ames also handed the Soviet agent a plastic bag that “contained intelligence reports disclosing even more about CIA operations. Six months later, Mr. Cherkashin scored another big recruitment: that of Robert Hanssen.
Aside from the fresh details about Mr. Ames and Mr. Hanssen, Mr. Cherashin’s book is a primer on KGB tradecraft — for instance, how he managed to elude omnipresent FBI surveillance teams when he wished to meet an agent in Washington. He also has somewhat gossipy accounts of bureaucratic infighting in Moscow. Now that the Cold War is no more, Mr. Cherkashin enjoys professional friendships with many of the Americans with whom he once jousted. (A photo shows him in a boat in Russia with Milton Bearden, who ran anti-Soviet operations for CIA.) Which does not mean that Mr. Cherkashin has shared all his secrets. He teases that CIA and the FBI have yet to find yet another mole as valuable as the two who are the subjects of this book. Deliberate disinformation? Who knows?
Given the abuse heaped on CIA in recent months — some but surely not all of it deserved — it is a pleasant diversion to read an account of an operation that actually worked. Veteran case officer Gary C. Schroen led a team that went into Afghanistan in the days after September 11 to prepare for the U. S. invasion that ousted the Taliban from power. He gives us a true-life adventure story in First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (Ballantine, $25, 379 pages, illus.).
Mr. Schroen, 59, was 11 days deep into CIA’s 90-day Retirement Transition Program, winding down a 35-year career in the Clandestine Services, at the time of the attacks. He was immediately tasked with assembling a team to go into Afghanistan and establish contact with the Northern Alliance (NA), one of the main resistance groups opposing the Taliban. Mr. Schroen had spent years with the NA and other groups, so he eagerly took on what proved to be the most dangerous and challenging assignment of his career.
“First In” is a superb case study of how efficiently the CIA works when things go right: the ability to find and equip the needed experts (in communications, weaponry, even medicine) and zip them halfway around the world on short notice. Need outdoors gear for the coming Afghanistan winter? Give each member of the seven-man team — code?named JAWBREAKER — $1,500 cash, and proceed to an outdoor-equipment store near CIA headquarters in Northern Virginia. Buy dried foods (Power Bars, Tabasco sauce to spice up freeze-dry foods, saltines, cheese spreads) at the local supermarket. And then clamber into transport planes crammed with computers, communications gear and three cardboard boxes containing $3 million in hundred dollar bills (“all used and none in sequence … packaged in bundles of $10,000 … .”) to be used to secure the support of and buy arms for the resistance fighters.
The first part of the operation went smoothly. Working with NA officers he knew from previous tours, Mr. Schroen set up observation posts overlooking Taliban positions. Coordinates of the main resistance points were plotted and sent to the officials planning air attacks. But things suddenly dipped downhill. To the dismay of Mr. Schroen and the NA, the Pentagon chose not to attack what they considered to be most important targets — the artillery directly to the front — but concentrated on areas far to the rear. Here politics seemed to be involved. The planners of the war did not wish to permit the NA to seize power by conquering Kabul and other cities before American troops were on the ground. Hence support of the NA was sparing.
Mr. Schroen is even more scathing in his descriptions of the ineptitude of faraway strategists who planned helicopter-borne assaults on varied Taliban positions. The distant planners seemingly had no concept of the terrain and altitudes involved, and several times they ordered missions that were tantamount to organized suicide. Further, Mr. Schroen found that time and again, persons back at headquarters simply did not read their mail — that JAWBREAKER was asked to provide information that had already been transmitted. He was infuriated when a staff officer at Langley demanded that he fly in a 1,000 pound safe to secure his steadily mounting stacks of $100 bills that eventually topped $10 million. His most frightening moment, of many, came when an American drone aircraft spotted two figures in the open and identified one of them as Osama bin Laden. A frantic warning called off the strike: The men were with JAWBREAKER.
Despite the many frustrations, JAWBREAKER succeeded. Massive air strikes, followed by a flood of Special Forces troops and other ground soldiers, blasted the Taliban out of existence. Mr. But Schroen rightly concludes that much more is needed — including a decision to obliterate terrorist strongholds on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Otherwise, he fears, what is happening in Iraq is a mere sideshow. A good and fast read that details CIA’s seldom-discussed paramilitary capabilities. A serious book, to be sure, but one that also can be enjoyed as beach reading.
Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.