BEST OF ENEMIES: THE LAST GREAT SPY STORY OF THE COLD WAR
By Gus Russo and Erick Dezenhall
Twelve, $28, 342 pages
A quiet but deadly game is constantly waged in Washington and environs between CIA and FBI officers and their Russian counterparts.
The goal is to persuade the adversary to switch sides in the age-old game of spying. How often do such overtures succeed? Such secrets are safely sequestered in vaults.
That such contests could evolve into friendship is perhaps unspeakable. But at hand is a truly remarkable account of one such bonding, with an outcome of international significance — a highly readable work that is headed for Hollywood.
At first glance, John “Jack” Platt and Gennady Semyovich Vasilenko were an unlikely match. Born in San Antonio, Texas, Platt served a hitch in the Marines before joining the CIA. His daily western garb earned him the nickname “Cowboy.” A self-described third generation alcoholic, he knocked back 12 to 14 beers daily — plus nips of harder stuff — during a series of agency jobs.
Boisterous and profane, Platt, had a knack for recruiting that propelled him up the ranks, with assignments abroad. A study of defector motivation created a list of vulnerabilities stated in the acronym MECMAFO — “Money hunger, Ego, Criminal acts, Midlife crisis, Addiction, Family trouble and Outcast loners.”
Although CIA domestic operations are limited, officers can work with the FBI on “Soviet recruitment operations.” Based in the Air Rights Center in Bethesda, officers target the Soviet embassy.
One promising prospect appeared in 1978, when an FBI officer reported meeting a Soviet named Gennady Vasilenko who claimed to be a diplomat — but who seemed to have an inordinate interest in sports (volleyball and basketball) with Pentagon workers.
The CIA identified him as a KGB officer, and one who made contacts in a hurry — for instance, he and his wife shared dinners with a four-star general.
Platt and Vasilenko exchanged introductory sniffs, and decided early on that neither was a likely turncoat. They discovered common interests — sports (including Harlem Globetrotter basketball), guns and booze. And they became close friends.
Platt eventually decided that Vasilenko loved the United States but an unsuccessful pitch showed him to be an unlikely defector. On retirement in 1992, Platt started a private security company. He and Vasilenko stayed in touch. Platt even met his friend in Guyana.
Then, disaster. The KGB obtained a tape in which Platt made a futile recruitment pitch. Vasilenko was arrested and severely beaten, and for a time he was convinced his “friend” had betrayed him. Platt put up the money for a Russian gangster to bribe him to freedom, but failed.
Meanwhile, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a longtime KGB agent retired and started his own security and expert company.
Authors Gus Russo and Erick Dezenhall give the man the name “Anatoly Stepanov.” However, the recently deceased espionage writer David Wise, in an audio book released in October, identifies him as “Aleksandr Shcherbakov.” (Mr. Russo and Mr. Dezenhall knew the real name, but contrived a pseudonym.)
In any event, in 1991, the man was tasked with helping KGB dispose of old files that could cause embarrassment in high places. He saw a box labeled in Cyrillic writing which translated into “LINE KK/US TOP SECRET.”
Curious, he looked inside and found a trove of materials ranging from documents to floppy disks of U.S. origin.
He knew in an instant he had found “the KGB’s official file on their prized second traitor inside U.S. intelligence.” He hid the box in a janitorial closet and eventually sneaked it out of the building.
His reference was to a series of blown CIA operations resulting in the deaths of several Soviets recruited as agents. The exposure of counterintelligence officer Aldridge Ames did nothing to stop the flow. The agency let it be known that it would pay upwards of a million dollars for the identity of a suspected second spy.
The promised riches caused “Stepanov” to make his move. He knew he had to get to the United States and speak with someone of authority. He had met Platt years earlier, and he “knew that Cowboy Jack was just such an American authority.”
There were clandestine meetings in Europe. And, with Platt’s help, the Russian met a CIA officer in New York in 2000 and cut a deal. The amount is an official secret but $7 million is not denied.
The tapes, when they arrived at the CIA, contained the damning voice of the traitor — FBI agent Robert Hanssen. He is in prison for life. The CIA’s mole agony ended.
Vasilenko gained freedom in 2010 in a trade for Russian agents. Although he played no direct role in exposing Hanssen, his relationship with Platt was part of the revelatory skein. Thus the unlikely friendship produced valuable results for the U.S. intel community. And Vasilenko now claims America as his home.
• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence matters.