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THE YEAR OF THE SPY
Washington, D.C., 1830 Hours, June 13, 1985
There was nothing more he could do, Burton Gerber told himself again. The run had been choreographed like a ballet, of this he was certain. He had imposed his own iron discipline on the night's operation and had personally signed off on every detail, every gesture. Now that the route had been selected, he could close his eyes and visualize each intersection.
Gerber knew Moscow as well as any American, and from the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters half a world away, he routinely insisted on approving each turn to be followed on the operational run from Moscow's city center through the bleak outer neighborhoods. Night after night during his own years in Moscow, he had taken his wife, Rosalie, to obscure Russian theaters in distant parts of town rarely frequented by foreigners. His knowledge of Russian and his reputation as a movie buff had served him well. A good case officer has to learn his city, he told himself.
From his office in Langley, Virginia, Gerber had approved the script for the conversation that was to take place at the end of tonight's run, during the ten-minute meeting in the shadows of the Stalinist apartment blocks on Kastanayevskaya Street that was the sole object of the operation. Finally, Gerber had demanded that rigorous rehearsals be conducted inside the cramped working spaces on the fifth floor of the U.S. embassy in Moscow before the run was launched.
A wraith-thin Midwesterner, Jesuitical in his approach to his work, Gerber was one of the most demanding spymasters the CIA had ever sent against its main enemy, the Soviet Union's KGB. As chief of the CIA's Soviet/East European Division for the past year, he had made his mark. His exacting attention to the details of espionage tradecraft and his impatience with those who failed to meet his standards were legendary. Some critics called him a screamer who berated subordinates, but most respected his single-minded devotion to his job and, in an old-fashioned sense, to duty. Gerber was a complex man who evoked a jumble of emotions from those who worked for him. Longtime Soviet/East European hands studied him with the same intensity they brought to their analysis of the Soviet leaders in the Kremlin. What were they to make of a man whose greatest avocation was for the care, feeding, and preservation of wild wolves?
The truth was that Burton Gerber was a deeply spiritual man, a Roman Catholic who felt a moral obligation to the Russian agents he and his case officers were running. He lit a candle at Mass for each one of his agents unmasked and arrested by the KGB. He had come home from serving as station chief in Moscow three years earlier, so he understood the dangers of operating inside the Soviet bloc better than most at CIA headquarters. He believed that nothing less than perfection was owed to America's Russian agents, and if he yelled at case officers who failed to meet his standards, so be it. Cable traffic between Langley and Moscow was frequently dominated by a tense running debate between Gerber and his Moscow station chief, Murat Natirboff, over the minutiae of operations. There were some in SE Division who whispered that Natirboff was miscast as Moscow station chief, and it was increasingly clear that Gerber didn't trust him to get things done right. He seemed to believe he had to run Moscow operations himself-so much so that to some within SE Division, it sometimes felt as if Burton Gerber had never left Moscow.
But at some level, beneath the rigorous precision so necessary to a successful spy, Gerber also believed in both faith and fate. And so, after he signed off on the night's run, he closed the door to his fifth-floor office at CIA headquarters and smoothly turned his mind to other duties.
It was almost perfect late spring weather in Washington. The day was ending quietly as Gerber left for his home in a graceful old apartment building in Washington's Kalorama neighborhood. He had planned a modest dinner that night, after which he had promised to join a night training exercise.
At the very moment one of his officers would be winding his way through Moscow to meet the CIA's most valuable Soviet spy, Gerber would be watching green trainees playacting espionage on the streets of Washington. Better, he thought, that he devote his time to making certain that the next crop of officers be properly schooled than waste his energy fretting over details of a run he could no longer control. Gerber willed himself to stop worrying, to move on.
This was no routine training course, to be sure. Like the Navy's famed Top Gun school for fighter pilots, the CIA's "Internal Operations" course was the most arduous training program the agency had to offer. It was restricted to a handpicked elite-case officers slated for assignments in Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, and other capital cities in the Soviet empire. These were among the most difficult jobs in the CIA. The physical and mental stresses that came with the constant surveillance, the threat of exposure and arrest, meant that "inside work" was a young case officer's game.
After searching for some time for new tactics to defeat the KGB's suffocating surveillance in Moscow, the agency hit upon the idea of adding some green officers to the Moscow pipeline, recruits who wouldn't be easily recognized from other tours of duty. The decision to send rookies to Moscow placed an added burden on the IO course. It had to provide the most realistic training possible for officers who had never before faced a hostile opposition, much less the professional spy catchers of the KGB's Second and Seventh Chief Directorates.
Run by Jack Platt, a gruff ex-Marine and longtime Soviet targets officer, the six-week course simulated "Moscow Rules." The new case officers had to pass messages and receive documents from "spies" even as they were being trailed through Washington by teams of FBI agents playing the part of a hostile counterintelligence service. The FBI agents played hard-because the course kept them sharp for following real Soviet spies. Still, the best-trained CIA officers in the course could defeat the FBI, often through the use of sophisticated electronic devices, such as burst transmission equipment, that allowed them to pass messages without face-to-face contact.
But the FBI always had a lesson in store. The trainees-often with their spouses in tow-would go out on what they thought was an ordinary operation and walk into an explosive surprise arrest. They'd be roughed up and charged with drug dealing by FBI agents who were totally convincing in making it seem as though the bust had nothing to do with the IO course. After a few hours of questioning, only the most controlled students had the will to hold back their CIA connections. Invariably, some would try to talk their way out by explaining that there had been some horrible mistake: You see, Officer, I was loitering on a deserted street corner late at night with this woman, who happens to be my wife, as part of a CIA training exercise, not to sell drugs.
Gerber had invited Jim Olson, who had served with him in Moscow, to join him for dinner before they both went and played their parts in the training exercise. Olson, chief of internal operations for the Soviet Division, had amassed a remarkable record in Moscow and was now one of Gerber's most trusted lieutenants. But when he arrived at Gerber's apartment, Olson brought devastating news: Paul Stombaugh had been arrested in Moscow.
Olson's words hit Gerber like a gut shot. He knew instinctively what Stombaugh's arrest meant: The CIA's most important spy in twenty-five years had been rolled up by the KGB. It meant that Adolf Tolkachev, the billion-dollar agent, code-named GTVANQUISH, the man Stombaugh was supposed to meet, had been fatally compromised.
Typically, when an operation was carried off successfully in the heart of Moscow, right in the middle of a rolling sea of KGB surveillance, Langley wouldn't hear about it until the next morning. To keep the KGB from guessing that an important operation was under way, case officers returning from a late-night run would simply "get black," disappear into the city, and wait until the next morning to reinsert themselves into their cover jobs at the embassy. So only when the officer reported to work the next day would he go through a thorough debriefing, while the tape recordings of his brief encounter with the agent were transcribed.
That was when a flurry of messages would come pulsing into Langley, providing the details of how the run had unfolded the night before. Adrenaline would be pumping across the cable traffic, and well into the next day it would infect the small circle in the SE Division managing the case. Days later, the tape recordings of the agent meeting would arrive by diplomatic pouch, allowing senior SE Division managers to hear the tense voices and feel the strained emotions of the Moscow street encounter for themselves. They could then try to gauge the state of mind of an agent most of them had never met, as well as the performance of a case officer trying to ask all the right questions while constantly scanning his surroundings for signs of the KGB.
Success took a while to percolate through the system. But word of failure came quickly. It would originate in Moscow in the middle of the night, a clipped cable chasing the sun and arriving in Washington in the early evening. The first sign of trouble might come from the wife of a Moscow officer, signaling that her husband had failed to return home on schedule. A few hours later, confirmation would come that the officer had been arrested and that a consular officer from the embassy had been dispatched to secure his release from the KGB's Lubyanka Center at #2 Dzerzhinsky. Tonight's message, Gerber knew, meant that Stombaugh, a young former FBI agent now on his first CIA tour, had been ambushed while tracing the run that he had choreographed so carefully.
Gerber made a few quick calls back to headquarters, to make sure that Clair George, Deputy Director for Operations, and others on the seventh floor knew what was going on. After that, he sat down for dinner, determined to go through with his plans to participate in the IO exercises. But even the steel-willed Gerber couldn't keep his mind from wandering back to Stombaugh and to Tolkachev.
He could only imagine how the night's drama had played out eight time zones away in Moscow.