A Rus­sian spy risked all for the CIA

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Joseph Kanon’s most re­cent es­pi­onage novel is “Leav­ing Ber­lin.” RE­VIEW BY JOSEPH KANON book­world@wash­post.com

Let’s cut right to the chase: “The Bil­lion Dol­lar Spy” is one of the best spy sto­ries to come out of the Cold War and all the more riv­et­ing, and fi­nally dis­may­ing, for be­ing true. It hits the sweet spot be­tween page-turn­ing thriller and solidly re­searched history (even the foot­notes are in­for­ma­tive) and then be­comes some­thing more, a shrewd char­ac­ter study of spies and the spies who run them, the mixed mo­tives, the risks, the al­most in­evitable bad end.

The spy was Adolf Tolka­chev, a mid­dle-aged engi­neer at the Sci­en­tific Re­search In­sti­tute for Ra­dio En­gi­neer­ing (NIIR) with a spe­cialty in radar sys­tems. As part of the hope­ful and then dis­ap­pointed post-thaw gen­er­a­tion who had revered An­drei Sakharov and Alexan­der Solzhen­it­syn, Tolka­chev was so se­ri­ously dis­af­fected with the scle­rotic Com­mu­nist Party of the 1970s that he looked for a way to un­der­mine the regime. He found it in the se­cret weapons re­search pa­pers that crossed his desk ev­ery day. A first at­tempt to con­tact the Amer­i­cans to of­fer his ser­vices — by drop­ping a note through the win­dow of an em­bassy car at a gas sta­tion — met with no re­sponse. Four more at­tempts fol­lowed, again with­out re­sult. The CIA’s Moscow sta­tion, wary of a KGB trap and un­der strict or­ders from Langley to halt per­sonal in­tel oper­a­tions (a to­tal “stand-down”) re­fused to take the bait. Fi­nally a ref­er­ence to a “look-down, shoot­down” radar sys­tem, a cru­cial piece of in­tel, and yet another let­ter per­suaded the CIA to take the risk, and CKSPHERE (Tolka­chev’s code name) was born.

The first clan­des­tine meet­ing was on New Year’s Day in 1979. Twenty more meet­ings would fol­low over the next six years, none of them de­tected by the KGB (the prepa­ra­tion and ex­e­cu­tion of these meet­ings are at the ex­cit­ing heart of the book), and they pro­vided the CIA with in­for­ma­tion so valu­able that its worth (in re­search saved, weapons pro­grams redi­rected, etc.) was es­ti­mated to be in the bil­lions. At enor­mous per­sonal risk, Tolka­chev pho­tographed reams of se­cret doc­u­ments — at one mem­o­rable ex­change, he handed over 179 rolls of 35 mm film cov­er­ing 6,400 pages of doc­u­ments — and even man­aged to smug­gle out blue­prints and cir­cuit boards. He was, by any mea­sure, Moscow sta­tion’s most im­por­tant agent. And then he was be­trayed.

All this would make a good story at any time, but one of the spe­cial plea­sures here is that we are back in the pre-dig­i­tal era, when not ev­ery­thing hap­pens on a lap­top screen with only the dis­creet click of a key­board in the back­ground. We are in­stead in the heady, fa­mil­iar world of es­pi­onage thrillers: dead­drop sites, sur­veil­lance-de­tec­tion runs, minia­ture cam­eras peek­ing through holes in the ceil­ing, sui­cide pills, park-bench meet­ings, agents jump­ing out of cars just as they round the cor­ner. Dis­guises were used, the jump­ing agents re­placed by card­board dum­mies to con­fuse the track­ers two car lengths be­hind. (Taxpayers will be fas­ci­nated to learn that in­flat­able dolls from a D.C. sex shop were con­sid­ered, but — con­sumer alert — they leaked.) On one movie-chase run, the card­board dummy has a spring mech­a­nism by which it pops out of a birth­day cake box.

But Hoff­man never loses sight of the fact that what may be fun for the reader was deadly se­ri­ous to the par­tic­i­pants. The CIA had never re­cruited an agent in Moscow be­fore Tolka­chev (the oth­ers were con­tacted abroad). It was sim­ply con­sid­ered too dan­ger­ous. The KGB had al­most un­lim­ited re­sources at its com­mand, not to men­tion the home­court ad­van­tage. But Tolka­chev changed all that. Most of his 21 meet­ings with his han­dlers were held right un­der the nose of the KGB, within three miles of its head­quar­ters. For Moscow sta­tion, long par­a­lyzed by coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence chief James An­gle­ton’s para­noia and then the Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion’s wari­ness of hu­man source in­tel, this was an es­pi­onage tri­umph.

Few writ­ers have bet­ter cre­den­tials to write this story than Hoff­man. A for­mer Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post (now a con­tribut­ing editor) and the au­thor of “The Dead Hand: The Un­told Story of the Cold War Arms Race,” for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, he knows Moscow well and does a first-rate job of putting the events here in his­tor­i­cal con­text. His nar­ra­tive is based on 944 pages of de­clas­si­fied CIA op­er­a­tional files, pri­mar­ily ca­ble traf­fic be­tween Langley and Moscow sta­tion; on per­sonal in­ter­views with the par­tic­i­pants; and on other sources (pre­sum­ably Rus­sian), all backed by scrupu­lous notes that in­spire a rare qual­ity in es­pi­onage writ­ing: trust. “The Bil­lion Dol­lar Spy” may of­ten read like a thriller, but Hoff­man never pan­ders, never tries to punch up the ma­te­rial with nov­el­is­tic touches to make it more dra­matic. It is al­ready dra­matic, and, a good re­porter, he lets it speak for it­self.

In this he has the great ad­van­tage of Tolka­chev’s own voice, speak­ing to us through his ops letters — quar­rel­ing with the CIA over money, wor­ry­ing that he’ll be caught, de­mand­ing a cyanide capsule, ask­ing for Western records for his teenage son (Led Zep­pelin, Uriah Heep). It’s an au­then­tic and oddly touch­ing voice as he tries to nav­i­gate his own con­tra­dic­tory im­pulses: He loves Rus­sia, yet is be­tray­ing it; he knows he will prob­a­bly be caught, yet re­fuses to con­sider ex­fil­tra­tion. There are even mo­ments of un­ex­pected warmth: the de­sire for hu­man con­tact with his han­dler.

Hoff­man catches all this with­out ital­i­ciz­ing any of it, just as he gives us the day-to-day feel of Moscow sta­tion, the of­fice pol­i­tics, the frus­tra­tions. This is le Carre ter­ri­tory, spies fight­ing over bud­get al­lo­ca­tions and chaf­ing un­der mis­guided or­ders, and Hoff­man draws it with the same open-eyed know­ing­ness. But it’s re­ally at the end, with Tolka­chev’s fate, that he achieves a nov­el­ist’s sen­si­bil­ity. I wouldn’t dream of ru­in­ing Hoff­man’s story by telling you what hap­pens to Tolka­chev ex­cept to say that Hoff­man han­dles it beau­ti­fully and, like the best Cold War nov­el­ists, shows us that in the se­cret world, peo­ple are un­pre­dictable and of­ten be­have badly, and that one can never un­der­es­ti­mate what Graham Greene called the hu­man fac­tor. This is a ter­rific book.


A paint­ing of Adolf Tolka­chev, a Rus­sian engi­neer turned U.S. spy, hangs at CIA head­quar­ters. Tolka­chev pho­tographed scores of se­cret Soviet doc­u­ments.

THE BIL­LION DOL­LAR SPY A True Story of ColdWar Es­pi­onage and Be­trayal By David E. Hoff­man Dou­ble­day. 312 pp. $28.95

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