The Fourth Man: The Hunt for a KGB Spy at the Top of the CIA and the Rise of Putin’s Russia
THE PROBLEM WAS how to find a KGB operative in Moscow who didn’t want to be found. He deliberately hadn’t given the CIA his Moscow phone number or address. He wasn’t listed in any Moscow directory the CIA possessed. And there was no way anyone from the CIA was about to knock on the KGB’s door to ask for him: The CIA wanted to have a word with the man in private, not give the KGB cause to arrest him for espionage.
Since KGB surveillance and counterintelligence were all over the CIA in Moscow, it was going to make running him to ground all the harder. Even after the Soviet Union came crashing down in 1991, the Cold War declared over and Russia now aligned with the West (on paper, that is), it’s not the way the KGB saw things. It never for a moment stopped looking at the United States as Russia’s sworn enemy and at the CIA as primed to sabotage Russia any way it could. With CIA operatives tailed around Moscow, trying to buttonhole any Russian, let alone an intelligence officer, was highly risky if not impossible.
The KGB operative the CIA wanted to talk to was a tall, gaunt, mustached ethnic Georgian by the name of Alexander Ivanovich Zaporozhsky. He joined the KGB in 1975 and since then worked in the counterintelligence directorate of its foreign intelligence service, the First Chief Directorate. After Yeltsin broke up the KGB in 1991, his service was renamed the SVR.
Although Zaporozhsky in his dealings with the CIA always considered himself more accomplice than spy—an agent, as the CIA calls them—he’d started to drop intriguing hints about KGB double agents in American intelligence. To the handful of people who knew about him inside the CIA and FBI, Zaporozhsky was known as Max.
The first time the CIA ran across Max was in 1988 in East Africa. The occasion was Max’s heavy-handed recruitment attempt of an American official assigned to the embassy there. After the embassy official informed the CIA about Max’s suspicious overtures, the CIA decided the best course was to let Max know face-to-face that it would be best to back off. As choreographed in advance, a CIA operative—a case officer, in CIA parlance—by the name of Mark Sparkman crashed a dinner between Max and the official. The official quickly stood up and excused himself, leaving Max and Sparkman to continue with dinner. Without missing a beat, Max said he knew exactly where Sparkman worked, the CIA. But Max wasn’t put off; rather, he found the turn of events amusing. Why spoil the evening by bolting?
It wasn’t a surprise Max knew Sparkman was CIA. The East African country he was assigned to in those days was an obedient Soviet ally that kept the KGB informed about American officials assigned there. Nor were the circumstances of the first meeting between Max and Sparkman all that unusual. In Africa, the rules of engagement between the KGB and the CIA were pretty much made up as you went along. While fraternizing was mostly borne out of sheer boredom, one unintended consequence was to turn Africa into a happy hunting ground for both the CIA and the KGB. Any Russian who wanted to defect or volunteer to spy for the CIA knew exactly whose door to knock on, and vice versa.
Max and Sparkman weren’t alone at their first encounter. One of Max’s duties was to train the local intelligence service in spy tradecraft. As part of an exercise, Max that night tasked an undercover team to spread out around the restaurant and discreetly observe his dinner with the American embassy official. Who knows what they thought about an uninvited American showing up, but since Max didn’t seem to mind, neither did they.
Sparkman suspected he might have a fish on the line for the very reason Max hadn’t bolted, which should have been standard protocol for a KGB officer ambushed in this fashion. Instead, they sat for the next couple of hours ironically running through tired Cold War talking points. Sparkman’s easygoing Southern charm helped blunt the awkwardness of the first meeting and polish the night. At the end of dinner, they agreed to keep in touch. When Max peeled out of the parking lot, Sparkman knew he was dealing with a conflicted man. He definitely wasn’t your usual tight-lipped, ramrod-serious KGB apparatchik.
After a series of CIA case officers met Max, there came a point when he started to drop hints about his service’s possessing two double agents in American intelligence. He didn’t know the true name of either, but he heard one was in the CIA and the other in the FBI. He’d seen one of their files on a colleague’s desk, he said. He even knew which safe it was kept in. But he wasn’t in a position to get his hands on it. In the KGB’s world, curiosity kills the cat. But what Max was absolutely certain about is that both double agents were still in place and, from what he’d gleaned, spilling their guts. Max also provided the KGB code names for the two agents in American intelligence. (I would have noted them here, but the CIA has asked me not to.)
Keep in mind, Max’s allegations about double agents in American intelligence were made years before CIA and FBI spy catchers concluded there in fact were any. There’d been devastating, unexplained losses of CIA Russian agents in 1985 and 1986. And there certainly were those who suspected the problem was a mole. But there was nothing in the way of airtight evidence to support the theory.
Sparkman’s station chief in East Africa, a man I once served with, wasn’t convinced Max was the real thing. Or at least not in the beginning. An old-school cold warrior, he had been at the receiving end of enough KGB disinformation campaigns to be wary of Max. His position was that until Max turned a corner and started to provide hard intelligence about the double agents, he’d treat him as what the CIA calls a “dangle”—a triple agent programmed by Russian intelligence to drive the CIA into a paranoid frenzy about the enemy within. There’s little the KGB takes more joy in than muddying the water and fouling the air at Langley.
In fairness to Max, the CIA didn’t exactly handle him with finesse. One case officer sent out to the East African country to meet him had a well-deserved reputation for being an unapologetic prick. Max took an immediate dislike to him and made up stuff out of pure spite. Needless to say, it didn’t improve the station chief’s opinion of Max. Nor Langley’s: The Langley desk officer who handled Max’s file agreed, telling me she never knew when to trust him. Nor did it help that when Max was transferred back to Moscow, he flat-out turned down contact there. And the CIA didn’t much care. It’s risky enough meeting a Russian agent in Moscow, let alone one who can’t be counted on to submit to the rigors and discipline of what the CIA calls “denied area operations”—Moscow Rules, as they’ve come to be popularly called—spy tradecraft tactics meticulously crafted to operate under the KGB’s eagle eye and not get caught.
Another reason doubts about Max’s credibility weren’t entirely his fault is that he was never sat down for a proper debriefing, one at which he would have been pressed to describe the exact circumstances of his learning about the two American double agents. Debriefing an agent on the fly, and especially a KGB officer as gun-shy as Max, inevitably leads to misunderstandings and miscues. Also, Max’s eccentricities aren’t unique when it comes to agents, especially the better ones, who often are psychologically flawed. While a case officer would prefer an agent show up at every meeting with a briefcase of top secret documents, then quietly disappear into the night, in practice they’re often erratic and untrustworthy.
Then there’s this: If Max truly believed his service had penetrated the CIA, he had every reason in the world to keep the CIA at arm’s length. With hindsight learned the hard way, he’d one day realize he should have ridden away from the CIA at a full gallop. At least he had enough common sense not to meet the CIA in Moscow when reassigned there from East Africa.
Max likely would have stayed on the back burner, eventually consigned to the archives, had the FBI and CIA not come around to concluding there indeed was a double agent in CIA Russian operations. Between the two agencies, in 1992 they’d pieced together enough evidence to draw up a list of suspects. But there was one name in particular that best matched the double agent’s profile, a CIA case officer by the name of Aldrich “Rick” Ames. While Ames had access to the files of the Russian agents the CIA and FBI lost in the 1985–86 time frame, what really drew the investigators’ interest was that he’d bought an expensive house with cash. But the problem was that Ames was one of more than two hundred suspects. And although the CIA spy catchers thought the case against Ames was solid thanks to the house and doubts about Ames’s character, before the FBI could initiate a full-scale investigation, it needed proof he was in fact in contact with Russian intelligence. Since catching Ames meeting his Russian handler in Washington was a long shot, the hope was Max might be able to help. The FBI bluntly informed the CIA that if it couldn’t run Max to ground in Moscow, the FBI would.
With the CIA at a complete loss as to how to reconnect with Max, it had no other choice but to wait for luck to knock on its door. And miraculously, it did. It occurred at a “liaison” meeting between the chief of station in Moscow, Dave Rolph, and his Russian intelligence counterparts. The venue was a gloomy Moscow mansion once inhabited by Stalin’s psychopathic, mass-murdering ex–security chief, Lavrentiy Beria. These occasional get-togethers were never not an utter waste of time, with the Russians declining to hand over anything that could be described as worthwhile intelligence. The CIA wasn’t much more generous. But pretenses had to be kept up after the Cold War, and the charade continued.
One time at Beria House, Rolph was astonished to find Max there as a notetaker. As soon as Rolph got back to the station, he cabled Langley for instructions. Langley shot back, instructing him to unobtrusively slip Max a note at the next meeting proposing they meet away from Beria House, at some out-of-the-way site in Moscow. Taking the risk of passing a note to a Russian intelligence operative in the presence of his colleagues was, to say the least, highly unorthodox. It was all the odder for Rolph because no one would tell him why it was so important for Langley to talk to Max away from his colleagues. Normally a chief is informed about everything Langley does in his backyard. But Rolph, who’d been in the Army special forces and spent enough time in the CIA to no longer be surprised by its bizarre ways, didn’t ask and saluted. He was now left to puzzle over how he’d pull off this sleight of hand.
At the next meeting at Beria House, when Rolph and Max fortuitously happened to ride up alone in an ancient, rickety elevator, Rolph stuck the note in Max’s hand. Max didn’t say anything, only pocketing it.
Max never took him up on the offer.
With the FBI still on its back, in early 1993 Langley decided to invite its Russian intelligence counterparts to Washington for a conference. In those early, optimistic days after the collapse of the Soviet Union, visits like these were fairly standard. But for this one, Langley’s extravagant hope was that the Russians would include Max on the invite list. To everyone’s surprise, lightning did strike twice, and Max’s name was right there on the list.
Of the case officers Max met in East Africa, he particularly got along with Dick Corbin, an old Soviet hand now assigned to counterintelligence at Langley. A compact, athletic man, Corbin was a straight shooter, roundly liked by everyone who knew him, and especially Russians. He’d learned fluent Russian when he worked for the National Security Agency, the eavesdropping arm of the Pentagon. But more important for Langley, he was among maybe a dozen or so in the CIA and FBI fully read into the CIA mole hunt, thus one of the few who knew exactly why such elaborate plans had been made to bring Max to Washington.
Most attendees on the American side, including Rolph, had no clue why Corbin was there. Considering Corbin wasn’t working on Russia at the time, it made little sense. On the other hand, they knew not to ask. When it came to Russian operations, the rules of the road were as categorical as they come: No talking. No questions. It was only years later that Rolph found out he was an unwitting player in the Ames hunt.
Now, with the Russian intelligence delegation in Washington, the problem was getting Max away from his colleagues. In spite of perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union, Russian intelligence officers on trips abroad kept a close eye on one another, sometimes at night even posting a security officer in the corridor of the hotel where they were staying. Often they were forced to share rooms to make sure one didn’t slip out in the middle of the night. The CIA attendees saw a lot of Max around conference tables and social events, but there was no opportunity to pull him aside for a one-on-one. They had to settle for snatches of conversation with him in hallways and stairwells. The lead CIA investigator on the mole-hunting team, Jeanne Vertefeuille, got a couple of words with Max when the meetings moved from the DC area to the stately Greenbrier, a luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. But he said nothing about the two KGB double agents in American intelligence.
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