- - Sunday, July 5, 2015



A question frequently asked by hard-core critics of the American intelligence community is, “What are we getting for our money? Does the product of our spies warrant what we spend?”

In a nutshell, Yes. Such is the conclusion of David Hoffman’s account of perhaps the most productive spy in CIA history, Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet aeronautical engineer. Over six years, from 1978 to 1985, he gave CIA officers thousands of pages of top-secret documents. The key revelations dealt with two key Soviet weapons systems: ground radars that defended against attacks, and radars on warplanes that provided the capacity to attack others.

Gus Hathaway, one of the CIA officers who handled Tolkachev, asked the Air Force how much Tolkachev’s intelligence saved the United States on research and development costs. The answer was “somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion.”

Further, the intelligence revealed just how far the Soviets lagged behind the United States in weapons development — permitting President Ronald Reagan to enter into arms agreements knowing that American national security would not be endangered. What the military learned also potentially saved the lives of American pilots who might have faced the Soviets in the event of war.

Mr. Hoffman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, benefited from access to CIA cables on the Tolkachev operation — material from the clandestine service seldom seen by outsiders. He also gained access to the principal officers. The result is a rare inside look at one of the more important CIA operations ever, even the tradecraft that made Tolkachev’s spying possible. (Studies in Intelligence, an in-house CIA journal, published an unclassified account in 2003.)

A key part of the book is how a handful of talented CIA officers broke down decades-old barriers that had made Moscow an intelligence backwater. Mr. Hoffman’s opening declaration might surprise many Americans. “In the early years of the Cold War ,” he writes, “the Central Intelligence Agency harbored an uncomfortable secret. The CIA had never really gained an espionage foothold on the streets of Moscow. “

There were several reasons. The closed society of the USSR, policed by the ever-watchful KGB, made contacts perilous. Several Soviets who volunteered or were recruited abroad continued to report information when they returned home. But, as Mr. Hoffman writes, “for the most part, the CIA did not have to lure agents into spying in the heart of darkness.”

Another obstacle was within the CIA itself: James J. Angleton, head of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974, who feared that Soviet “walk-ins” were provocateurs. Many officers accused Angleton of “poisonous distrust and second-guessing.” Eventually, director William Colby forced him out. Then came another problem: Adm. Stansfield Turner as director. Fearful that the Moscow station has been penetrated, Adm. Turner ordered “a total stand-down” on operations in Moscow. The station “was told not to run any agents, not to carry out any operational acts.” Potentially valuable sources were turned away.

One person who seethed at the stricture was Robert Fulton, station chief in 1977. A furtive Soviet several times thrust notes at him; one offered information on a radar development. Air Force analysts said the material was valuable. But Adm. Turner, fearing entrapment, forbade any follow-up. “Do nothing,” he ruled.

Meanwhile, Burton Gerber, a brainy operations officer who had dealt with Soviets in Eastern Europe, doubted the wisdom of a blanket rejection of walk-ins.

As Mr. Hoffman writes, “With a small staff, and acting entirely on his own hunch, Mr. Gerber began a systematic study, pulling the files of every person who had volunteered information in Moscow, going back a decade and a half .” He concluded that Angleton’s blanket suspicions were wrong, that “the CIA had been routinely turning away genuine volunteers, throwing away what might be valuable intelligence.” Then-director Richard Helms endorsed Mr. Gerber’s findings, and Moscow station’s shadow ended.

Fortunately for the CIA, the man later identified as Tolkachev kept making approaches. (He spotted CIA officers because of their license plate numbers.) Eventually, he passed Gus Hathaway enough material to establish his bona fides. Case officer John Guilsher made the first in-person contact. In a brief telephone talk Mr. Guilsher arranged to hide a construction worker’s glove containing further contact information behind a trash can. And the operation was underway — more than a year after the first approach.

At first Tolkachev bravely smuggled documents from his office, then the CIA supplied him with sophisticated mini-cameras that enabled him to provide thousands of pages. His motivation: a failed communist system that made life in the USSR miserable. He accepted money, but such was not his primary interest. In the end, he was betrayed by a turncoat CIA trainee named Edward Lee Howard. He was executed.

The lobby of the CIA’s Old Headquarters Building displays a portrait of Tolkachev clutching a 35mm camera, photographing a secret document. “One of the bravest ever,” concludes a retired case officer who worked with him.

Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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