Retired CIA officer Brian J. Kelley, a veteran counterspy who broke the code on how Moscow secretly communicates with deep-cover agents and who mistakenly was hounded by the FBI as a suspected KGB mole, has died. He was 68.
Mr. Kelley died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack and was found Monday, according to his wife, Patricia McCarthy Kelley.
Pentagon press secretary George Little, a former CIA spokesman, called him “a national treasure.”
“I’m saddened by the loss of this outstanding CIA officer, someone who courageously confronted every challenge that came his way on the job,” Mr. Little said. “He was the consummate intelligence professional, a patriotic American and an inspiration to a generation of younger CIA officers.”
“Brian’s courage and strength of character never ceased to amaze me,” said Michelle Van Cleave, a former national counterintelligence executive who worked with Mr. Kelley. “He gave his heart and soul to improving the profession that had been both his accuser and his calling in life. He was an extraordinary American.”
CIA spokesman Preston Golson praised Mr. Kelley for a distinguished career of service to the United States. “He was a recognized expert in counterintelligence, and he never broke faith with his country or his colleagues,” Mr. Golson said.
Mr. Kelley had a storied career as a counterspy, first in the Air Force and then at CIA, with the often arcane and difficult mission of finding and neutralizing foreign spies.
He was born Jan. 8, 1943, in Waterbury, Conn., and graduated from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont with a degree in political science. He joined the Air Force in 1964.
Mr. Kelley spent 20 years with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, doing counterintelligence work until 1984, when he moved to the CIA and joined its counterespionage branch.
Late in his career, he worked in the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, and retired from active service in 2006.
He earned numerous intelligence awards while in government and was a teacher during retirement.
A landmark in his career occurred in April 1989. While working in the CIA’s classified counterintelligence office, Mr. Kelley figured out a still-classified method used by Moscow to clandestinely communicate with deep-cover agents called “illegals.”
The discovery led to the unmasking of State Department diplomat Felix Bloch, a suspected spy who was photographed meeting a KGB “illegal” officer in Vienna, Austria, and exchanging a briefcase thought to contain secrets.
Bloch eventually got away after Mr. Kelley alerted the FBI that the CIA was tailing the diplomat. It was learned years later that Bloch had been tipped off to the CIA investigation by Robert Hanssen, a longtime recruited Soviet agent working in the FBI counterespionage section.
After CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames was arrested as a spy for Moscow in 1994, the FBI began searching for a second mole and focused on Mr. Kelley because of the compromise of the Bloch probe.
At the time of the Bloch case, the FBI theorized that the only person who could have tipped off the KGB to Bloch was Mr. Kelley, a theory that would prove false but not until years were wasted hounding him and trying to force him to confess to being a KGB spy.
Hanssen learned of that mole hunt in the spring of 1999, at a time when he was supplying secrets to the Russians, according to an FBI inspector general report.
On Aug. 18, 1999, FBI agents grilled Mr. Kelley for four hours in an effort to make him confess. Mr. Kelley refused and told the agents, according to an interview with this reporter: “Your facts are wrong. Your conclusions are wrong. Your underlying hypothesis is wrong.”
FBI agents continued to harass Mr. Kelley and his family for the next two years, sidelining his CIA career.
“It’s one thing to beat me up, come down hostile on me,” Mr. Kelley said in the interview several years ago. “My family was another matter. What the FBI did to my family - the threats, the outright lies, and the intimidation - was inexcusable.”
Another false lead that caused the FBI to target Mr. Kelley was the fact that a KGB officer was spotted in a park near Mr. Kelley’s McLean home. Agents were convinced the KGB was picking up documents left secretly by Mr. Kelley in the park, but failed to realize until later that the park was also yards from Hanssen’s house in the same neighborhood.
The false accusations against Mr. Kelley and his family continued until the FBI bought an audiotape from a KGB defector in 2000. Agents listened to the tape expecting to hear Mr. Kelley’s voice, but identified the mole as Hanssen, who was arrested in February 2001, ending Mr. Kelley’s nightmare.
Mr. Kelley eventually was cleared, and the FBI apologized after being pressured by Congress and not until five months after Hanssen was arrested.
He went back to work at the CIA and continued with the agency until 2006, when he retired.
In an interview in 2006, Mr. Kelley said in explaining his story that “I just want to make sure that what happened to me never happens again to anyone.”
Survivors include his wife, sons Barry Kelley and Brian T. Kelley, daughter Erin Kelley Aldrich and grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending, but a viewing will be held Sunday and a Mass on Monday.