CIA ran a ‘bil­lion dol­lar spy’ in Moscow dur­ing Cold War

Agent deep in­side mil­i­tary helped U.S. com­mand the skies

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID E. HOFF­MAN

The spy had van­ished. He was the most suc­cess­ful and val­ued agent the United States had run in­side the Soviet Union in two decades. His doc­u­ments and draw­ings had un­locked the se­crets of Soviet radars and weapons re­search years into the fu­ture. He had smug­gled cir­cuit boards and blue­prints out of his mil­i­tary lab­o­ra­tory. His es­pi­onage put the United States in po­si­tion to dom­i­nate the skies in aerial com­bat and con­firmed the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of Soviet air de­fenses — show­ing that Amer­i­can cruise mis­siles and strate­gic bombers could fly un­der the radar.

In the late au­tumn and early win­ter of 1982, the CIA lost touch with him. Five sched­uled meet­ings were missed. KGB sur­veil­lance on the street was over­whelm­ing. Even the “deep cover” of­fi­cers of the CIA’s Moscow sta­tion, in­vis­i­ble to the KGB, could not break through.

On the evening of Dec. 7, the next

sched­uled meet­ing date, the fu­ture of the op­er­a­tion was put in the hands of Bill Plunkert. Af­ter a stint as a Navy avi­a­tor, Plunkert had joined the CIA and trained as a clan­des­tine oper­a­tions of­fi­cer. He was in his mid-30s, 6-foot-2, and had ar­rived at the Moscow sta­tion in the sum­mer. His mis­sion was to give the slip to the KGB and make con­tact.

That evening, around the din­ner hour, Plunkert and his wife, along with the CIA sta­tion chief and his wife, walked out of the U.S. Em­bassy to the park­ing lot, un­der con­stant watch by uni­formed mili­ti­a­men who re­ported to the KGB. They got into a car, the sta­tion chief driv­ing. Plunkert sat next to him in the front seat. Their wives were in the back, hold­ing a large birth­day cake.

Es­pi­onage is the art of il­lu­sion. Tonight, Plunkert was the il­lu­sion­ist. Un­der his street clothes, he wore a sec­ond layer that would be typ­i­cal for an old Rus­sian man. The birth­day cake was fake, with a top that looked like a cake but con­cealed a de­vice un­der­neath, cre­ated by the CIA’s tech­ni­cal oper­a­tions wizards, called the jack-in-the-box. The CIA knew that KGB sur­veil­lance teams al­most al­ways fol­lowed a car from be­hind and rarely pulled along­side. It was pos­si­ble for a car car­ry­ing a CIA of­fi­cer to slip around a cor­ner or two, mo­men­tar­ily out of view. In that brief in­ter­val, the CIA case of­fi­cer could jump out of the car and dis­ap­pear. At the same time, the jack-in-the-box would spring erect, a pop-up that looked, in out­line, like the head and torso of the case of­fi­cer who had just jumped out.

The de­vice had not been used be­fore in Moscow, but the CIA had grown des­per­ate as weeks went by. Plunkert took off his Amer­i­can street clothes. Wear­ing a full face mask and eye­glasses, he was now dis­guised as an old Rus­sian man. At a dis­tance, the KGB was trail­ing them. It was 7 p.m., well af­ter night­fall.

The car turned a cor­ner. Plunkert swung open the pas­sen­ger door and jumped out. At the same mo­ment, one of the wives placed the birth­day cake on the front pas­sen­ger seat. With a crisp whack, the top of the cake flung open, and a head and torso snapped into po­si­tion. The car ac­cel­er­ated.

Out­side, Plunkert took four steps on the side­walk. On his fifth step, the KGB chase car rounded the cor­ner. The head­lights caught an old Rus­sian man on the side­walk. The KGB ig­nored him and sped off in pur­suit of the car.

The jack-in-the-box had worked.

Agent who wanted re­venge

In the early years of the Cold War be­tween the United States and the Soviet Union, the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency har­bored an un­com­fort­able se­cret about it­self. The CIA had never re­ally gained an es­pi­onage foothold on the streets of Moscow. Re­cruit­ing spies there was just too dan­ger­ous for any Soviet citizen or of­fi­cial they might en­list. The re­cruit­ment process it­self, from the first mo­ment a pos­si­ble spy was iden­ti­fied and ap­proached, was filled with risk of dis­cov­ery by the KGB, and, if caught spy­ing, an agent would face cer­tain death. A few agents who vol­un­teered or were re­cruited by the CIA out­side the Soviet Union con­tin­ued to re­port se­curely once they re­turned home. But for the most part, the CIA did not lure agents into spy­ing in the heart of dark­ness.

Then came an es­pi­onage op­er­a­tion that turned the tide. The agent was Adolf Tolka­chev, an engi­neer and spe­cial­ist in air­borne radar who worked deep in­side the Soviet mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment. Over six years, Tolka­chev met with CIA of­fi­cers 21 times on the streets of Moscow, a city swarm­ing with KGB sur­veil­lance.

Tolka­chev’s story is de­tailed in 944 pages of pre­vi­ously se­cret CIA ca­bles about the op­er­a­tion that were de­clas­si­fied with­out con­di­tion for the forth­com­ing book “The Bil­lion Dol­lar Spy.” The CIA did not re­view the book be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. The doc­u­ments and in­ter­views with par­tic­i­pants of­fer a re­mark­ably de­tailed pic­ture of how es­pi­onage was con­ducted in Moscow dur­ing some of the most tense years of the Cold War.

Tolka­chev was driven by a de­sire to avenge history. His wife's mother was ex­e­cuted and her fa­ther sent to la­bor camps dur­ing Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s. He also de­scribed him­self as dis­il­lu­sioned with com­mu­nism and “a dis­si­dent at heart.” He wanted to strike back at the Soviet sys­tem and did so by be­tray­ing its mil­i­tary se­crets to the United States. His CIA case of­fi­cers of­ten ob­served that he seemed de­ter­mined to cause the max­i­mum dam­age pos­si­ble to the Soviet Union, de­spite the risks. The pun­ish­ment for trea­son was ex­e­cu­tion. Tolka­chev didn’t want to die at the hands of the KGB. He asked for and got a sui­cide pill from the CIA to use if he was caught.

The Air Force es­ti­mated at one point in the op­er­a­tion that Tolka­chev’s es­pi­onage had saved the United States $2 bil­lion in weapons re­search and de­vel­op­ment. Tolka­chev smug­gled most of the se­cret doc­u­ments out of his of­fice at the lunch hour hid­den in his over­coat and pho­tographed them us­ing a Pen­tax 35mm cam­era clamped to a chair in his apart­ment. In re­turn, Tolka­chev asked the CIA for money, mostly as a sign of re­spect. There wasn’t much to buy in short­age-plagued Moscow. He also wanted al­bums of Western mu­sic — the Bea­tles, Led Zep­pelin, Uriah Heep and oth­ers — for his teenage son.

Tolka­chev be­came one of the CIA’s most pro­duc­tive agents of the Cold War. Yet lit­tle is known about the op­er­a­tion — a comin­gof-age for the CIA, when it ac­com­plished what was long thought unattain­able: per­son­ally meet­ing a spy un­der the nose of the KGB. Elud­ing the KGB

The Moscow sta­tion was a se­cure room the size of a boxcar nes­tled in­side the U.S. Em­bassy. Case of­fi­cers hud­dled at small desks, scru­ti­nized maps on the wall scat­tered with red push pins to mark dan­ger­ous KGB hot spots and metic­u­lously plot­ted ev­ery move.

David Rolph, on his first CIA tour, took over as Tolka­chev’s case of­fi­cer in 1980. Late in the af­ter­noon of Oct. 14, he walked out of the sta­tion and went home. An hour later, he re­turned to the em­bassy gate with his wife, dressed as if go­ing to a din­ner party. A Soviet mili­tia­man, stand­ing guard, no­ticed them en­ter the build­ing. Rolph and his wife nav­i­gated the nar­row cor­ri­dors to one of the apart­ments, and pushed open a door al­ready ajar. The apart­ment be­longed to the depu ty tech­ni­cal oper­a­tions of­fi­cer in the Moscow sta­tion, an es­pi­onage jack-of-all-trades who helped case of­fi­cers with equip­ment and con­ceal­ments, from so­phis­ti­cated ra­dio scan­ners to fake logs.

The deputy tech mo­tioned word­lessly to Rolph. The men were ap­prox­i­mately the same height and physique. In si­lence, Rolph be­gan to trans­form him­self to look like his host, known as iden­tity trans­fer. The deputy tech had long, messy hair. Rolph put on a wig with long, messy hair. The deputy had a full beard. Rolph put on a full beard. The deputy tech helped Rolph ad­just and se­cure the dis­guise, then fit­ted him with a ra­dio scan­ner, an­tenna and ear­piece to mon­i­tor KGB trans­mis­sions on the street.

From the door­way, Rolph heard a voice. It was the chief tech of­fi­cer, who had just ar­rived and was de­lib­er­ately speak­ing loudly, as­sum­ing they were be­ing over­heard by KGB lis­ten­ing de­vices. “Hey, are we go­ing to go and check out that new ma­chine shop?” the chief asked. The real deputy replied, aloud, “Great! Let’s go.”

But the real deputy did not leave the apart­ment. The man who left the apart­ment look­ing like him was Rolph. The real deputy pulled up a chair and set­tled in for a long wait. Rolph’s wife, in her din­ner dress, also sat down and would re­main there for the next six hours. They could not ut­ter a word, be­cause the KGB might be lis­ten­ing.

The point of the iden­tity trans­fer was to break through the em­bassy perime­ter with­out be­ing spot­ted. The KGB usu­ally ig­nored the techs when they drove out of the com­pound in search of food, flow­ers or car parts in an old beige-and-green Volk­swa­gen van. On this night, the van pulled out at dusk. The chief tech was at the wheel, Rolph in the pas­sen­ger seat. The van win­dows were dirty. The mili­ti­a­men just shrugged.

Once on the street, the van took a slow, ir­reg­u­lar course. In de­part­ing the em­bassy in dis­guise, Rolph’s goal was to evade the KGB, but over the next few hours he grad­u­ally un­folded a new ap­proach, at­tempt­ing to flush out the KGB. Ul­ti­mately, his mis­sion was to “get black,” to com­pletely shake the sur­veil­lance. But get­ting black re­quired a long, ex­haust­ing test of nerves, even be­fore he would get his first chance to look Tolka­chev in the eyes.

On a sur­veil­lance de­tec­tion run, the case of­fi­cer had to be as ag­ile as a bal­let dancer, as con­found­ing as a ma­gi­cian and as at­ten­tive as an air traf­fic con­troller. The van stopped at a flower shop, their first, rou­tine cover stop, a pause to see if the KGB sur­veil­lance cars or foot pa­trol teams would get care­less and stum­ble over them­selves. Rolph sat still be­hind the dirty win­dow of the van and saw noth­ing.

Af­ter another hour and a half of driv­ing, Rolph be­gan a men­tal count­down. The rule of thumb was to ad­vance to the next stage only if he was 95 per­cent cer­tain he was black. The rea­son was sim­ple: He had the up­per hand in the car. On foot and alone, he would be much more vul­ner­a­ble. Rolph weighed what he had seen on the dark­en­ing streets. He was sure. He looked to the chief tech, who gave him a thumbs up. While the van was still mov­ing, Rolph quickly slipped off the dis­guise and put it into a small sack on the floor. He grabbed the shop­ping bag that had been pre­pared for Tolka­chev and put on a woolen coat. The van halted, briefly. Rolph slid out and walked briskly away.

Soon, on another broad av­enue, he walked di­rectly into a crowd wait­ing for one of the elec­tric trol­ley buses that prowled Moscow’s ma­jor ar­ter­ies. He scanned the trol­ley pas­sen­gers, tak­ing care­ful note of those who boarded with him. Then he abruptly stepped to­ward the door and jumped off at the next stop, watch­ing to see who fol­lowed. No one.

On foot, he be­gan the fi­nal stage. Rolph was phys­i­cally fit, and his head was clear, but sur­veil­lance de­tec­tion runs were gru­el­ing. The late au­tumn weather felt raw, moist and heavy. His mouth grew dry, but there was nowhere he could safely stop. The ra­dio scan­ner was quiet but for the usual pat­ter and static. At a small theater, Rolph pushed open the doors. This was his sec­ond cover stop. He checked out the posted sched­ule and no­tices on the wall. His goal was to force the KGB men to do some­thing out of char­ac­ter, to slip, so that he could spot them be­fore they could call in re­in­force­ments. Rolph left the theater with tick­ets for a show he had no in­ten­tion of at­tend­ing. Rolph walked to an an­tiques store, far from his usual rou­tines. Still noth­ing. Then he en­tered a nearby apart­ment build­ing and started climb­ing the stairs. This was cer­tain to trig­ger a KGB am­bush; they could not al­low him to dis­ap­pear from sight in a multi-floor apart­ment build­ing. In fact, Rolph had nowhere to go and knew not a soul who lived there. He was just try­ing to pro­voke the KGB. At a land­ing on the stairs, he sat down and waited. No one came run­ning.

Rolph turned around. For 31/2 hours, the KGB had been nowhere in sight. Still, to make sure, he walked to a small park lined with benches. Rolph looked at his watch. He was 12 min­utes from the meet­ing site.

Time to go. He was 100 per­cent sure. He rose from the bench.

Sud­denly he was jolted by a squelch in his ear­piece, then another and a third. They were loud, clearly from the KGB’s sur­veil­lance teams. He stood frozen, rigid, tense. The squelch could some­times be used as a sig­nal, from one KGB man to another. But the noise could also have been a ham-fisted op­er­a­tor who hit his but­ton by mis­take.

Rolph of­ten re­peated the words “when you’re black, you’re black.” In his mind, it meant that when you are black, you can do any­thing, be­cause no­body is watch­ing you.

Noth­ing. No sign of any­one in the park. Rolph let his shoul­ders drop and took a deep breath.

When you’re black, you’re black.

The meet­ing with the spy went per­fectly. Tolka­chev passed 25 rolls of film con­tain­ing copies of top-se­cret doc­u­ments. Rolph re­turned to the Volk­swa­gen van, donned the beard and wig, and they drove back to the em­bassy. The guards didn’t give them a sec­ond glance. The gate opened. A lit­tle while later, the Soviet mili­ti­a­men in the shack took note that David Rolph and his wife left the em­bassy din­ner party for home. Adapted from David E. Hoff­man’s “The Bil­lion Dol­lar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Es­pi­onage and Be­trayal,” pub­lished July 7 by Dou­ble­day. A se­lec­tion of de­clas­si­fied CIA ca­bles from the Tolka­chev op­er­a­tion are posted at davide­hoff­


Adolf Tolka­chev, shown in 1984, met with CIA of­fi­cers over six years.



CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP: A paint­ing of Adolf Tolka­chev, by Kathy Krantz Fieramosca, hangs at CIA head­quar­ters; David Rolph took over as Tolka­chev’s case of­fi­cer in 1980; a V sig­nal that Rolph spot­ted in 1980 can be seen on the cen­tral pil­lar, which led to the be­gin­ning of the op­er­a­tion; and the build­ing that housed the U.S. Em­bassy at the time of the op­er­a­tion, with the CIA sta­tion on the sev­enth floor.




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