The spe­cialty book­seller who duped a Rus­sian spy.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Car­los Lozada Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Ever watched a spy thriller or a war film and fan­ta­sized about be­ing that un­der­cover agent or hunky of­fi­cer out­wit­ting the evil mas­ter­mind, de­fus­ing the bomb, se­duc­ing the love in­ter­est and sav­ing the home­land?

Naveed Ja­mali has, prob­a­bly far too many times. “Top Gun” and “Point Break.” “Rocky IV” (that’s the one where Rock knocks out Ivan Drago, the Soviet cham­pion) and “Miami Vice” (not the ’80s tele­vi­sion se­ries, but the 2006 movie with Colin Far­rell and Jamie Foxx). He imag­ines him­self as Tom Cruise suspended by ca­bles over a top-se­cret com­puter in “Mission Im­pos­si­ble” and even rem­i­nisces about the un­seen boss in “Mag­num, P.I.” Ja­mali knows dia­logue, char­ac­ters, scenes. You know those guys who trot out a film or TV ref­er­ence for any life event? He’s one of those guys.

But un­like those guys, Ja­mali was lucky enough to live out his fan­tasy. No, the FBI didn’t pay him to learn how to surf, but Ja­mali, a smart, young New York techie, some­how spent three years go­ing toe to toe with a Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer who thought he was de­vel­op­ing an as­set, even though all the while Ja­mali was qui­etly col­lab­o­rat­ing with U.S. fed­eral agents. The fast­paced, oc­ca­sion­ally stress­ful, of­ten hi­lar­i­ous and in­vari­ably self-in­volved story of how it all went down is the sub­ject of “How to Catch a Rus­sian Spy.”

Ja­mali’s mother and fa­ther em­i­grated from France and Pak­istan, re­spec­tively, and met in grad­u­ate school in New York, where they mar­ried and formed a com­pany called Books & Re­search. It spe­cial­ized in dig­ging up ar­ti­cles, re­ports, tech­ni­cal data and books for busi­nesses and gov­ern­ment agen­cies, a sort of “Google for a preGoogle age,” their son ex­plains.

This small busi­ness soon be­came a mi­nor front in the wan­ing days of the ColdWar. In 1988, when Ja­mali was 12, a Soviet of­fi­cial from the U.N. mission in New York came into the of­fice. “You were rec­om­mended by a col­league at the United Na­tions,” said the man, who iden­ti­fied him­self as To­makhin. “My col­league said that you might be able to help us with some ma­te­ri­als.” He pre­sented a list of doc­u­ments he needed: a spe­cial is­sue of the Bul­letin of the Atomic Sci­en­tists, a SIPRIWorld Ar­ma­ments and Dis­ar­ma­ment Year­book, stuff like that. Ja­mali’s fa­ther took the or­der and told him to come back in two weeks.

Half an hour later, two FBI agents en­tered the shop and po­litely asked to see what the prior vis­i­tor had or­dered. “Mr. To­makhin is part of Soviet in­tel­li­gence,” they ex­plained. Ja­mali’s fa­ther showed them the list. “Com­plete his or­der,” the agents said. “Treat him like you would any cus­tomer. When he re­turns — if he re­turns — we will be in touch.”

And just like that be­gan a two-decade col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Ja­mali’s par­ents and a ro­tat­ing cast of Soviet (later Rus­sian) of­fi­cials on one side, and the FBI on the other. Scat­tered among their more in­nocu­ous re­quests, the Rus­sians would oc­ca­sion­ally ask for of­fi­cial U.S. gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments — un­clas­si­fied, but not easy for the Rus­sians to get on their own. (They al­ways paid with crisp $100 bills and never ac­cepted change.) And the FBI kept track of what the Rus­sians wanted to read.

In the mean­time, Ja­mali was dip­ping in and out of col­lege, be­com­ing a pro­gram­mer, get­ting mar­ried and de­vel­op­ing a mus­cle-car fetish. Sept. 11, 2001, made him feel he had to fi­nally find a pur­pose. “‘I want to be part of this,’ I said to my­self. ‘I want to feel like I’mcon­tribut­ing some­thing,’ ” he re­calls. He de­cided to try to be­come a naval in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer but was told he needed more ex­pe­ri­ence in the field.

That’s when he re­mem­bered his par­ents’ Cold War cus­tomers. “Twenty years later,” he writes, “even af­ter the Soviet Union fell and so much else had changed in the world, the Rus­sians were still com­ing to Books & Re­search and the FBI was still keep­ing tabs on them.” So he reached out to the FBI and sug­gested that he take more risks, en­tice the en­emy fur­ther. “My par­ents are get­ting older,” he ex­plains. “They’ll be re­tir­ing soon. From now on, I’ll be the one deal­ing with the Rus­sians.”

And deal he did. At the time, the Rus­sian of­fi­cial com­ing by Books & Re­search was a gruff, short, cheap, mid­dle-aged and mono­syl­labic in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer named Oleg, who Ja­mali thought sounded a bit like Bo­rat. Watch­ing Ja­mali and Oleg try­ing to out­smart each other is the joy of the book, be­cause they’re both so awk­ward at it.

Early on, Ja­mali tries to put Oleg at ease with an old glas­nost joke. (Oleg isn’t amused.) Ja­mali is crushed when he finds that their clan­des­tine meet­ing places are all chain restau­rants in strip malls. “We were go­ing to Pizzeria Uno?” Ja­mali asks him­self. “Was this re­ally where trea­son was com­mit­ted th­ese days?” At one point, Oleg asks Ja­mali to sign a re­ceipt for the thou­sands of dol­lars he was pay­ing the Amer­i­can to re­trieve sen­si­tive doc­u­ments. (I guess spies need to file ex­pense re­ports, too.)

If you’ve watched too much “Home­land” or “The Amer­i­cans,” then “How to Catch a Rus­sian Spy” is a nice cor­rec­tive show­ing how pro­saic low-level es­pi­onage can be. Even the FBI messes up: Af­ter two agents come by Ja­mali’s apart­ment for a morn­ing meet­ing and one of them leaves a tam­pon wrap­per in the bath­room trash can, Ja­mali’s wife finds it and concludes that he’s hav­ing an af­fair. “You’re telling me this just mag­i­cally showed up?” she de­mands. “Well, it isn’t mine!” (Ja­mali ex­plains the sit­u­a­tion, only to get into deeper trou­ble for not hav­ing cleaned the bath­room ahead of time.)

Ja­mali de­cides he can fool Oleg by de­vel­op­ing a trai­tor­ous per­sona based on the fic­tional sto­ries he loved. “I went look­ing for char­ac­ters I could copy and learn from,” he ex­plains. “Then I’d stand in front of the bath­room mir­ror and prac­tice some of the juicier lines,” mim­ick­ing Joe Pesci in “Good­fel­las,” Al Pa­cino in “Scar­face” and of course James Gan­dolfini in “The So­pra­nos.” Be­fore each meet­ing, Ja­mali goes into char­ac­ter as a money-lov­ing Amer­i­can will­ing to be­tray his coun­try not be­cause of ide­ol­ogy or co­er­cion, but for cash.

When Ja­mali de­liv­ers Oleg the pro­ceed­ings of a closed de­fense in­dus­try con­fer­ence— pro­vided to him by the FBI— the Rus­sian is im­pressed. Even more so when Ja­mali teases him with a se­cre­tive de­fense data­base and trans­fers one doc­u­ment to a thumb drive as proof of his ac­cess. Even­tu­ally Ja­mali be­gins record­ing their meet­ings via a watch the FBI pro­vides him, which un­nerves him but makes him feel cool, like “a gen­uine dou­ble agent.” When the FBI agents as­sign Ja­mali the code name “Green Kryp­tonite,” I was con­vinced they were mess­ing with him, but he re­gards it as so “thor­oughly badass” that he gets it tat­tooed on his fore­arm. (In Morse code, of course. You can never be too care­ful.)

When the FBI learns that Oleg is go­ing to be trans­ferred out of his U.N. post, the feds de­cide to wrap up the op­er­a­tion. I won’t give away the end­ing to this spy ca­per, ex­cept to say that it goes down at a Hoot­ers in Wayne, N. J., and in­volves $20,000 in cash, se­cret sig­nals and a trio of gov­ern­ment-owned Ford Fu­sions screech­ing into a strip-mall park­ing lot. And the “catch” in the book ti­tle slightly over­states things.

Nor­mally when I read a book for re­view, my copy ends up full of un­der­lin­ing and margina­lia. Not here. “How to Catch a Rus­sian Spy,” cowrit­ten with jour­nal­ist El­lis Heni­can, is an en­ter­tain­ing and breezy read, with lit­tle to over­think. Ja­mali has sold the movie rights for his book to 20th Cen­tury Fox, which is re­port­edly plan­ning a 2017 thriller. It’s per­fect for the big screen— with one caveat. This tale is more funny than thrilling.

I hope they make it a com­edy.


HOW TO CATCH A RUS­SIAN SPY The True Story of an Amer­i­can Civil­ian Turned Dou­ble Agent By Naveed Ja­mali and El­lis Heni­can Scrib­ner. 290 pp. $26

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