Military history

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YEAR OF THE SPY

When Reagan was awakened March 11, 1985, at 4 A.M., with word that Chernenko had died, he asked Nancy, “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me?” Four leaders—Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev—had guided the Soviet Union over its first six decades. Now it had the third new leader in three years. Perhaps no one really knew at this early point that Gorbachev would become a revolutionary. But at first, Reagan missed the signs. He was blinkered by his own deep anti-communism and his own long-held ideas about the Soviet system, and hampered by lack of good intelligence. To the United States, the Kremlin remained a black box. Reagan and many of those around him could not imagine a Soviet leader carrying out radical reform from above. Shultz saw promise in Gorbachev, as had Thatcher in Britain, but Reagan’s circle was riven by disagreement, and there was no consensus that this was a man they could do business with.

Among the hard-liners, Robert Gates, then the deputy CIA director for intelligence, felt that Gorbachev was a tough guy wearing a well-tailored suit. Underneath, he saw trouble, and did not want to be fooled. In the weeks before Gorbachev took power, in February 1985, Gates wrote a memo to one of the CIA’s leading Soviet experts. “I don’t much care for the way we are writing about Gorbachev,” Gates said. “We are losing the thread of what toughness and skill brought him to where he is. This is not some Gary Hart or even Lee Iacocca. We have to give the policy-makers a clearer view of the kind of person they may be facing.” Gates said he felt that Gorbachev was the heir to Andropov, the former KGB chief, and to Suslov, the onetime orthodox ideology chief. Thus, Gates said, Gorbachev “could not be all sweetness and light. These had been two of the hardest cases in recent Soviet history. They would not take a wimp under their wing.”1

Reagan found this analysis very appealing. The assumption was based on years of imagining a Soviet monolith—that all leaders were alike, that the system could not change. Reagan met with U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Arthur Hartman. “He confirms what I believe that Gorbachev will be tough as any of their leaders,” Reagan recalled. “If he wasn’t a confirmed ideologue he never would have been chosen … by the Politburo.”2

Yet Reagan was capable of holding multiple views at the same time. He still dreamed of eliminating nuclear weapons, even if he had doubts about the new Soviet leader. He mentioned elimination of nuclear weapons as “our common goal” in one of his first letters to Gorbachev.3Reagan also listened to Shultz, who urged him to use “quiet diplomacy” with the new Soviet leader. As Reagan recalled it, this meant “the need to lean on the Soviets but to do so one on one—not in the papers.”4

Five years into his presidency, Reagan was still surrounded by intense feuds and conflicts among those who served him. Tempers were raw over a Soviet blunder in East Germany. On March 24, an American army officer, Major Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., was shot by a panicky Soviet sentry while in a restricted area. As with the Korean airliner, the clumsy Soviet response to the incident made it even worse. The shooting “has to be called murder,” Reagan wrote in his diary.5

At a White House breakfast April 27, Reagan’s top cabinet members argued over whether to allow the secretary of commerce to visit Moscow on a trade mission. Casey and Weinberger were opposed. Shultz wanted to engage Moscow, and thought Reagan did too. “The scene was bizarre,” Shultz said. “Here was the president ready to lead the charge to engage with the Soviets. At the same time, his secretary of defense and director of central intelligence were leading their own charge in exactly the opposite direction.”6 Tired of the disputes, Shultz told Reagan he wanted to resign by summer. Reagan talked him out of it, saying he needed Shultz to deal with the Soviets.7 Reagan decided to let the trade mission go ahead, but sent a tough, private message to Gorbachev.8

The Central Intelligence Agency devoted about 45 percent of its analytical manpower to the Soviet Union.9 But for all the attention to weapons and research programs, the agency had little understanding of the new man in the Kremlin. Shultz later recalled that “our knowledge of the Kremlin was thin, and the CIA, I found, was usually wrong about it.”10 Gates acknowledged that the CIA had scant inside knowledge. “We were embarrassingly hungry for details” from the British and Canadians who had met Gorbachev on his visits, and others who knew him, Gates said. These sources described Gorbachev as stylistically more open than Soviet leaders had been, but “unyielding” on the issues. Gorbachev was “an innovative, dynamic communist, not a revolutionary,” Gates concluded. The CIA’s first assessment of Gorbachev, titled “Gorbachev, the New Broom,” was sent to Reagan on June 27. The study portrayed Gorbachev as gambling on a campaign against corruption and inefficiency, but “not radical reform,” at home. The study said Gorbachev had already demonstrated that he was “the most aggressive and activist Soviet leader since Khrushchev.”11 When this paper went to Reagan, however, Casey attached a cover note that was far more skeptical. Casey wrote that Gorbachev and those around him “are not reformers and liberalizers either in Soviet domestic or foreign policy.”12

He could not have been more wrong.

Inside the Kremlin, the tune was changing. Gorbachev demanded a rewrite of a Communist Party program. “It must not be propagandistic babble about endless achievements,” Gorbachev wrote on the document, “the kind of stuff that you used to write for Brezhnev and Chernenko, but rather include specific proposals for a truly radical transformation of the economy.”13 This was just the beginning. Anatoly Chernyaev, the deputy head of the International Department of the Central Committee, who received this note, wondered, “Is this really happening? It’s too good to be true.”

The day after Gorbachev became general secretary, on March 12, he received an important memorandum from Alexander Yakovlev, the reformist thinker who had the soul-searching talk with Gorbachev in the orchard in Canada. The title was simply “On Reagan.”14 In tone and substance, Yakovlev offered a stark contrast to the Soviet rhetoric of the past. Yakovlev’s analysis of Reagan, while imperfect, was pragmatic, not ideological. He described Reagan as striving to grasp the initiative in international affairs, to go down in history as a peacemaking president. He said Reagan had fulfilled his promises to rebuild the American military; Reagan “practically gave to the military business everything he promised.” This reflected an early misconception of Yakovlev and Gorbachev about the power of the defense industry in the United States. But Yakovlev did not make Reagan out to be a reckless cowboy, as Soviet propaganda had done so often. Rather, he said, the president was seeking to improve his political standing, facing off against many different forces, including global competition from Japan, domestic budget pressure and restive European allies. Reagan had invited Gorbachev to a summit, and Yakovlev told Gorbachev, “…from Reagan’s point of view, his proposition is thoughtful, precisely calculated, and contains no political risk.” There had not been a superpower summit in six years. Yakovlev’s advice to Gorbachev was: go to a summit, but not hastily. Make it clear to Reagan, he said, that the world does not spin every time he pushes a button.

This was a moment when Reagan could have used fresh and penetrating insights into Gorbachev’s thinking and life experiences. If he had seen Gorbachev’s notes about radical economic reform, if he had read Yakovlev’s memo, he might have realized immediately that Gorbachev had people around him who were thinking in new ways. The United States deployed remarkably accurate satellites to collect technical data on missiles, but it lacked the textured and revealing intelligence on the new leader that came only from human sources. Reagan would have benefited from knowing that Gorbachev nurtured a lifetime of lessons and convictions about the gap between the Soviet party-state and society. Reagan would have found fascinating Gorbachev’s comment to Raisa that “we can’t go on living like this.” Reagan would have been surprised to know of Gorbachev’s reluctance to use force, and his determination there would not be another Prague Spring.15 But Reagan did not know these things. The United States had never recruited a spy who provided political information at a high level inside the Kremlin.16 And just when the United States could have used some good human intelligence about the new leader in Moscow, the CIA suffered a series of blinding catastrophes.

A month after Gorbachev took office, on April 16, 1985, a man with a mustache and heavy eyeglasses waited at the bar of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington for a meeting with a Soviet diplomat. The man was Aldrich Ames, a forty-four-year-old CIA counterintelligence official who was supposed to be keeping track of, and looking for, Soviet spies working in the United States. Ames often met Soviet officials at downtown restaurants to talk about arms control and U.S.-Soviet relations. This was part of his job in the hunt for spies. Ames was permitted by the CIA to have these contacts, as long as he reported them afterward.

Ames was waiting for Sergei Chuvakhin, a specialist on arms control, who failed to show up. Ames walked two blocks to the ornate Soviet Embassy on 16th Street N.W. and entered. The building was constantly being monitored by the FBI, which Ames knew, but he may have assumed that he would not raise suspicions because he was known to meet with Soviet officials for his work. Inside, Ames went to the reception desk and asked for Chuvakhin. At the same time, he silently handed an envelope to the duty officer at the desk.

The envelope was addressed to Stanislav Androsov, the KGB resident, the most senior KGB man in the embassy. Ames didn’t say so specifically, but motioned to the duty officer that he wanted the envelope given to the KGB boss. Chuvakhin then showed up briefly, apologized for the no-show at the hotel, and Ames departed.17

Ames was a spy hunter, but in the envelope he offered to become a spy himself for the Soviet Union. Inside, he left a note that described two or three cases involving Soviets who had approached the CIA to offer their services. These were double agents. He thought that by identifying them, he would establish his own credentials as a CIA insider who had something to offer. He also included a page from a CIA phone directory of the Soviet and Eastern Europe division that identified him as the chief counterintelligence official in the division. For the KGB, this was a potential gold mine—a person in this position would know the names of all the CIA spies inside the Soviet Union. Ames asked for $50,000, and said nothing more.18

A few weeks later, Chuvakhin called and scheduled another meeting with Ames. On May 15, Ames entered the Soviet Embassy and asked for Chuvakhin, but was escorted instead to another, soundproofed room. There, a KGB officer passed him a note saying they had agreed to pay him $50,000.

The very next day in London, May 16, a cipher clerk walked into the office of Oleg Gordievsky and handed him a handwritten telegram from Moscow headquarters.

Gordievsky had done much to help the West: revealing Andropov’s paranoia about nuclear war with the RYAN operation, and paving the way for Gorbachev’s successful visit to Britain. In April, Gordievsky moved up to become KGB chief in London, in position to do even more for the West. But the message from Moscow hit him like a “thunderbolt,” he recalled. The telegram was a summons for him to come back to Moscow right away “in order to confirm your appointment as resident,” and to meet top officials of the KGB. It was strange—he had already done that a few months earlier.19 He was terrified. He went to his British handlers and told them of the request. They were relaxed and urged him to go ahead with the trip. But just to be sure, Gordievsky rehearsed a plan the British had developed for him to escape if he felt in danger. He left his family behind in London.

On May 17 in Washington, Ames met in a restaurant with Chuvakhin, who handed him $50,000 in cash, in $100 bills.

When Gordievsky arrived in Moscow May 19, he grew even more worried. At passport control, the border guard scrutinized his documents for a long time, made a phone call and examined some papers before letting him pass. When he reached his apartment, a third lock on the door, for which he long ago had lost the key, was turned shut. The apartment had been searched.

On Sunday, May 20, late in the evening in a wooded area of Montgomery County, Maryland, John Walker stopped his van and left an empty 7-Up can by the side of the road, then drove away. At another spot, he left a brown paper bag. For a decade, Walker had run a navy spy ring for the Soviets, feeding them top-secret communications documents stolen from American warships. Walker’s partners in espionage included Jerry Whitworth, who had served on the U.S.S. Enterprise and leaked classified communications from the Pacific Ocean exercises in 1983. Walker did not realize it on this night, but the FBI, after months of investigation, was closing in on him and watching his every move in the woods. When Walker drove away, an FBI agent picked up the 7-Up can, intended as a signal to the Soviets that Walker had left them something and wanted to pick up money. Then the FBI found the brown paper bag, and in the bottom of it was an inch-thick package, wrapped in a white plastic garbage sack. The corners were neatly folded over and taped. Inside were 129 secret documents stolen from the U.S.S. Nimitz and a letter, “Dear Friend,” outlining the activities of others in his spy ring, including Whitworth, using coded letters of the alphabet to disguise their identities.

Walker expected a payment that night, and was puzzled when his Soviet contact did not leave it. The Soviet man with the money had been in the vicinity, looking for the 7-Up can—when he did not find it, he left without dropping the cash. Walker drove back to the woods later that evening, apparently realizing his brown bag had disappeared. Did the Soviets pick it up? Where was his money? It was late, so he went to the nearby suburb of Rockville and checked into a Ramada Inn. At 3:30 A.M., he was awakened by an apologetic clerk at the front desk of the hotel, saying someone had accidentally smashed into his van in the parking lot. Could he come down with his insurance forms? It was a ruse. At the elevator, Walker was arrested by the FBI. Soon, U.S. intelligence and military officials began to unravel the incredible story of how Walker had given away some of the deepest secrets of the Cold War.

On May 28, in Moscow, Gordievsky took some pep pills the British had given him in London to fight fatigue. At the office, he was summoned to meet agents from KGB counterintelligence who wanted to talk about possible penetration of the KGB in London. Gordievsky was driven several miles from headquarters to a small bungalow, where he met the agents. They had lunch, and a servant poured them all a brandy. Gordievsky took his and passed out. He had been drugged. When he awoke, Gordievsky realized what had happened. He had been interrogated while in a drugged stupor. He was “more depressed than ever before in my life. I kept thinking, ‘they know,’ I’m finished.’ How they had found out, I could not tell. But there was not the slightest doubt that they knew I was a British agent.”

It was not clear how much the KGB knew, or from what source. Gordievsky had no idea how he was betrayed. He recalled in his memoir that during the drugged interrogation he had given no ground, and strenuously denied working for the British. Gordievsky did not know if they had any proof, but the interrogators clearly had some information to start with. The KGB “hounds were hot on my scent,” Gordievsky said.

One of the most valuable human sources the CIA had ever tapped in the secretive Soviet military-industrial complex was Adolf Tolkachev, a quiet, stooped man in his fifties. He was a senior research scientist in a Russian military aerospace program at a Moscow institute, helping design radars, air defenses and new jet fighters. The CIA had given him the code name GTVANQUISH. Tolkachev quietly worshipped America from afar, although he had never left Russia. For seven years, Tolkachev had provided the CIA a huge volume of sensitive and valuable intelligence on military research and development, including plans for the next generation of Soviet fighter aircraft. The information saved the United States billions of dollars and allowed the air force to develop planes that would prevail in any military confrontation with the Soviets.

In April 1984, meeting his handler in Moscow, Tolkachev turned over schematics of Soviet radar systems, rolls of film containing ninety-six frames of secret documents and thirty-nine pages of handwritten notes. He sometimes made the photos of documents in the bathroom at the institute. In October 1984, Tolkachev gave his CIA handler two miniature cameras containing ninety frames and twenty-two pages of written notes.20 For his meetings with the Americans, Tolkachev had worked out a system in which he would signal whether he was ready by opening one of the fortochkas, small ventilation windows above the main window in his apartment, between 12:15 and 12:30 P.M. He lived on the ninth floor of a tall wedding-cake tower that had long housed the Soviet aviation elite, among others.21 The distinctive building was also just down the street from the American Embassy, and CIA officers could check the window on a walk by the building.

On June 5, 1985, the window was open. But when the CIA officer came by, he grew uneasy at what seemed to be heavy surveillance, often a problem for the agents in Moscow, who were constantly being watched. The next date planned for a rendezvous was June 13. Again, the window was open. The CIA case officer didn’t see any surveillance—the only thing he noticed was a woman talking loudly on a pay phone. According to CIA veteran Milt Bearden, the case officer was carrying two plastic shopping bags. One contained 125,000 rubles in small notes, the equivalent of $150,000, as well as five new compact subminiature cameras concealed in key chain fobs, preloaded with microfilm. The other had books with concealed messages giving Tolkachev instructions for communications and secrets the CIA wanted him to steal.22

At the exact time of the planned meeting, 9:40 P.M., the CIA case officer was jumped and seized by more than a dozen KGB personnel in military camouflage uniforms, who had been hiding in nearby bushes. The case officer, Paul M. “Skip” Stombaugh Jr., was taken off to Lubyanka, the hulking prison and KGB headquarters. Once there, in front of him, the packages that he was planning to deliver to Tolkachev were opened piece by piece, with a video camera rolling. A note in the package thanked Tolkachev for the “very important written information” he had provided earlier, but added that due to low light, some of the photographs he had made could not be read. The note suggested that the CIA could get Tolkachev a new security badge, fabricating it “as we did in 1980.” That was the end.

Tolkachev had already been arrested. He was later executed.

On the same day Stombaugh was seized outside of Tolkachev’s apartment in Moscow, the CIA’s Soviet operations suffered another devastating setback in Washington. Ames arrived at a small restaurant, Chadwicks, located on the Georgetown waterfront. Ames had wrapped up five to seven pounds of classified messages in his CIA office and carried them out of the headquarters building in Langley without being stopped.

Ames carried the documents into the restaurant in a plastic bag. He was met there by Chuvakhin from the Soviet Embassy, and Ames gave him the bag. It held the largest batch of sensitive documents and critical information ever turned over to the KGB in a single meeting. Ames identified more than ten top-level CIA and FBI sources who were then reporting on Soviet activities. Among them were Gordievsky and Tolkachev. If the KGB had earlier been suspicious about them, they now had proof.

Two days after Ames gave away the bag filled with secrets, Gordievsky, still fearful and uncertain, went to a KGB sanatorium outside of Moscow. He was told to wait there while the KGB decided his fate. Gordievsky’s family was safely headed to their summer vacation in Azerbaijan. Despite the risks, Gordievsky decided to escape. He returned to his apartment in Moscow and retrieved from his bookshelf an English novel that had his exfiltration instructions on a cellophane sheet under the flyleaf.

The instructions were: signal to the British that he had a message, and then meet a British agent in a “brush by” encounter that would be unobtrusive. Frantic, Gordievsky gave the signal that he had a message. Then he went to Red Square, crowded with tourists. He went into the men’s room at Lenin’s tomb, closed the door to the stall and wrote a note to the British. “AM UNDER STRONG SUSPICION AND IN BAD TROUBLE. NEED EXFILTRATION SOONEST. BEWARE OF RADIOACTIVE DUST AND CAR ACCIDENTS.” The last line referred to common KGB methods for following people or eliminating them. Gordievsky failed to deliver the note—he couldn’t find the agent.

At the next assigned meeting, he was looking for someone who would have an unmistakable British look, and would acknowledge having spotted Gordievsky by chewing something. After twenty-four minutes of waiting on a designated street corner, Gordievsky noticed a man with a British appearance carrying a dark-green Harrods bag and eating a Mars candy bar. “I gazed into his eyes shouting silently, ‘Yes! It’s me! I need urgent help!’”

Gordievsky then took a train to Leningrad and a bus almost all the way to the border with Finland. Thatcher approved a daring plan to whisk him away from the Soviet Union. Gordievsky said he was picked up by British agents in a forested area near the border and driven out in the trunk of a car. Passing through checkpoints, he cowered inside the trunk, but it was not opened by Soviet guards. When the lid finally popped open once safely in Finland, Gordievsky recalled, “I saw blue sky, white clouds and pine trees above me.” Thanks to his British handlers, he had escaped. “I had outwitted the entire might of the KGB! I was out! I was safe! I was free!”23 For a while, however, the British kept to themselves the news of their triumph.

On August 1, in Rome, Vitaly Yurchenko, forty-nine, a beefy KGB official who had recently been named deputy director of the department that ran spies in the United States and Canada, went for a walk and never came back. He called the U.S. Embassy, said he wanted to defect to the United States and in a matter of days was flown back to Andrews Air Force Base, in suburban Maryland, outside of Washington. Yurchenko had previously spent five years in KGB counterintelligence.

To meet Yurchenko at the airport, the CIA assigned several people, among them its own top Soviet counterintelligence expert, Ames. However, Ames was late arriving at Andrews, and his behavior was odd. When he saw Yurchenko, in a crowd of CIA and FBI officials, Ames went right up to him and delivered a pompous greeting: “Colonel Yurchenko, I welcome you to the United States on behalf of the President of the United States.” Bearden speculates that Ames did this because he was afraid Yurchenko might already know he was working for the KGB. Ames then sat in the car with Yurchenko as the defector was driven to a townhouse in Oakton, in the northern Virginia suburbs, for debriefing.24

The debriefings were, in retrospect, one of the most bizarre chapters in the Cold War. Ames had just recently given the KGB the largest dump of secrets in the CIA’s history. He was sitting across the table and debriefing one of the most significant defectors ever to come offering the KGB’s secrets to the United States. The details Yurchenko told them were then being transmitted by Ames back to the KGB, and the CIA didn’t know it.

Yurchenko made two stunning disclosures. The first was that a former CIA trainee was selling secrets to the Soviets. Yurchenko said he knew the contact only by his KGB code name, “Robert,” and one identifying characteristic: he had been slated to go to Moscow but did not. A thunderbolt hit the CIA. The description could only fit a disgruntled trainee they had fired in 1983, Edward Lee Howard.25 Then came a second bombshell. The KGB, he recalled, harvested a rich crop of secrets from a walk-in to the Soviet Embassy in 1980, an employee of the National Security Agency, which ran American global electronic eavesdropping. Yurchenko said he only knew of this agent as “Mr. Long,” and gave his debriefers some details. He said Mr. Long sold to the Soviets the details of the U.S. operation to tap the Soviet undersea cables in the Sea of Okhotsk. This was the monitoring operation known as Ivy Bells, which had been discovered and removed by the Soviets in 1981. (A second undersea cable-tapping operation in the Barents Sea had not been compromised.) The FBI launched a manhunt for Mr. Long, and four months later arrested Ronald Pelton, a communications specialist with the NSA who sold the classified data to the Soviets for $35,000.

Casey, the CIA director, took huge delight in the Yurchenko defection. “Casey was like a child with a new toy with Yurchenko,” Gates said. “Not only was he eager to hear, virtually on a daily basis, about the debriefings: he also could not help bragging about this great CIA coup. He met with Yurchenko, had dinner with him, couldn’t get enough of him.”26

On October 1, 1985, Robert Hanssen, an FBI analyst on Soviet intelligence, dropped a letter into a mailbox in Prince George’s County, outside of Washington. Hanssen was based in the New York office but was working that day in the capital. The letter was addressed to the home of a KGB operative, Viktor Degtyar, who lived in Alexandria, Virginia. The letter arrived October 4. Inside an outer envelope was a second envelope that Hanssen marked “DO NOT OPEN. TAKE THIS ENVELOPE UNOPENED TO VICTOR I. CHERKASHIN.” The KGB man took the letter to Cherkashin, the second-ranking KGB official in Washington at the time, who was already running Ames.

When Cherkashin opened it, he found a second letter:

DEAR MR. CHERKASHIN,

SOON, I WILL SEND A BOX OF DOCUMENTS TO MR. DEGTYAR.

THEY ARE FROM CERTAIN OF THE MOST SENSITIVE AND HIGHLY COMPARTMENTED PROJECTS OF THE U.S. INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY. ALL ARE ORIGINALS TO AID IN VERIFYING THEIR AUTHENTICITY. PLEASE RECOGNIZE FOR OUR LONG-TERM INTERESTS THAT THERE ARE A LIMITED NUMBER OF PERSONS WITH THIS ARRAY OF CLEARANCES. AS A COLLECTION THEY POINT TO ME. I TRUST THAT AN OFFICER OF YOUR EXPERIENCE WILL HANDLE THEM APPROPRIATELY. I BELIEVE THEY ARE SUFFICIENT TO JUSTIFY A $100,000 PAYMENT TO ME.

I MUST WARN YOU OF CERTAIN RISKS TO MY SECURITY OF WHICH YOU MAY NOT BE AWARE. YOUR SERVICE HAS RECENTLY SUFFERED SOME SETBACKS. I WARN THAT MR. BORIS YUSHIN (LINE PR, SF), MR. SERGEY MOTORIN (LINE PR, WASH.) AND MR. VALERIY MARTYNOV (LINE X, WASH.) HAVE BEEN RECRUITED BY OUR “SPECIAL SERVICES.”27

Hanssen then described a sensitive intelligence collection technique used by the United States. He told the Soviets that he would be in touch. He didn’t sign the letter. On October 15, Degtyar received in the mail, at his home, a package from Hanssen containing a large number of classified documents. The next morning, Degtyar was seen by FBI agents carrying into the Soviet Embassy a large black canvas bag that he did not usually carry. About ten days later, Degtyar received another letter from the agent, whom the KGB was calling “B,” in an envelope postmarked New York City. This letter proposed a dead drop site under a wooden footbridge in Nottoway Park in northern Virginia, near where Hanssen had earlier lived. On Saturday, November 2, the KGB put $50,000 for Hanssen under the bridge.28

The CIA moved Yurchenko to a new, larger safe house on a piece of wooded lakefront near Fredericksburg, Virginia. But Yurchenko was increasingly disillusioned. Word of his defection had leaked to the press, even though he asked the CIA to keep it secret. And his hopes to be reunited with a Russian woman he had known years earlier were dashed.29 When he defected in August, Yurchenko thought he might have been suffering from stomach cancer, although later tests in the United States showed he was not. On November 2, while at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant in Georgetown, Yurchenko simply walked away from his inexperienced CIA handler. When the CIA man realized what had happened, the agency and the FBI launched a manhunt all over Georgetown. They didn’t find Yurchenko. On Monday, November 3, he showed up at the Soviet Embassy, where he held a strange press conference in which he claimed he had been abducted in Rome, drugged and held against his will. “Something smells fishy,” Reagan observed in his diary on November 4.

Yurchenko boarded a flight back to Moscow on November 6. His defection and return have long been one of the unsolved puzzles of the Cold War. Was he a deliberate plant by the KGB? For what purpose? Or did he just grow disillusioned with his treatment by the CIA? The truth is unknown. His return to Moscow brought with it one grim footnote. On the plane escorting Yurchenko home was KGB agent Valery Martynov, the officer in the Soviet Embassy working on Line X, stealing Western technology. Both Ames and Hanssen had, by this time, identified Martynov as a spy for the United States. Martynov was arrested the day he arrived in Moscow, and later executed.

American intelligence operations in the Soviet Union were collapsing, but the CIA was not aware of the enormous damage it had suffered in 1985. Ames and Hanssen had only just begun their espionage, which went on for years. Later investigations showed how severely the American intelligence operations in Moscow had been compromised. Gates said that Howard was the “CIA’s most devastating counterintelligence setback up to that point,” and “many of our Soviet operations were compromised and either rolled up by the KGB or shut down by us.” According to a damage assessment by the CIA, nine of the agents whom Ames identified on June 13 were executed. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence later found that more than twenty operations were compromised, a “virtual collapse of the CIA’s Soviet operations.” John Deutch, the CIA director, told Congress that Ames not only caused the execution of agents who worked for the United States but “made it much more difficult to understand what was going on in the Soviet Union at a crucial time in its history.”

The year of the spy, as 1985 became known, blinded American intelligence operations against the Soviet Union just as Gorbachev was coming to power. Reagan simply did not have the assets to help him understand what was happening behind the Kremlin walls. In the end, there were more powerful agents of change than the agents of espionage. Those forces—rooted in Gorbachev’s convictions about what his country needed, in the overpowering burden of the arms race, in Reagan’s desire to eliminate nuclear weapons—were about to unleash a momentous revolution.

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