A Saturday night in January 1991: my colleague sat morosely, looking at the muted TV. Some vaguely international jazz—chewing gum for the ears–played in the background. The fog had rolled in around four p.m. and the temperature was hovering around twenty-five. We were ensconced in a glitzy hotel on the Kärntner Ring in Vienna, but it might have been anywhere in the world. They had CNN International running nonstop.
“You could drop one of those things right through a silo door.” He was watching perhaps the fiftieth repeat of video clip showing the display of laser-guided bomb guiding unerringly into the top of a multistory building in downtown Baghdad.
“That’s not what they’re for,” I said.
“Sure, but we trade everything away, and you still have those.”
It was the second or third night of the air offensive for DESERT STORM. The fireworks were impressive. My colleague was a Soviet diplomat attached to the Arms Control delegation negotiating the treaty we called Conventional Forces in Europe.
“Those are tactical aircraft,” I said, “they would have to penetrate a thousand miles of air defenses to get to your ICBM’s. It would be impossible.”
“The Iraqis have our air defenses and they don’t seem to be stopping anything there.” His face was glum as he watched the sequence run again.
We usually met in a Hüriger on the other side of the Danube, but in the depths of January our favorite place over there was shuttered tight. Besides, they didn’t have CNN. Dmitrij was a devotee of the Neuerwein of Vienna, but tonight he had started on vodka, and after her fourth or fifth visit he conned the gemüchtlich young waitress into leaving the bottle.
Dmitrij, let’s call him Dmitrij Volkov, was a diplomat like me. He was attached to the delegation as an expert in short range mobile ballistic missiles, and he confided to me early in our acquaintance that he was really an officer of the Strategic Rocket Forces.
Our files said he had a completely different name, and our spotters said he was a General-Major in the First Chief Directorate of the KGB. Like I said, he was a diplomat, just like me.
* * *
I had spent my life in Berlin. The wall went up when I was a senior in high school, and I had my first assignment there about four years later. I did all the things young intelligence officers do, interrogated refugees at the reception center, signaled across the wall, recruited the odd German agent, loaded dead drops, and ran from the VOPOs.
I expected to spend my entire career in the city, and I almost did. We knew things were changing when Gorbachev actually began to withdraw divisions from each of the five Soviet armies that surrounded us.
The summer of eighty-nine was totally bananas. East Germans were going on “vacation” to Czech-land and Hungary and just continuing on into the West. The fortieth anniversary of the DDR was scheduled for 7 October. It turned into an occasion for civil protest all over the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, and the East German riot police were excessively efficient. There were riots in Dresden, Leipzig, and in East Berlin, each of them suppressed with violence and hundreds of arrests.
When the guest of honor at the anniversary celebrations, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, kissed Erich Honecker on the cheek, no one knew it was a goodbye kiss.
I talked to one of my collectors who had just returned from Dresden. “Is this as serious out in the boons as it seems here?”
“I’ll bet the wall itself will be down in five years,” he said.
Imagine our surprise, it was gone in twenty days. On 9 November a gate was opened at Bosseburg, some said by mistake, and that’s all she wrote. The border guards were simply overwhelmed by the crowds seeking to visit the Ku-Damm, and no Soviet tanks came to stop the flood. The Soviet tanks were on their own withdrawal schedule. Gorby had it right, “Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben,--Life punishes those who are late.” The freedom train was pulling out and Honecker and Egon Krenz missed it. The DDR was gone within a year, and with it, I thought, my career.
I came home and milled around. Finally I hooked up with the melange of people involved in arms control. It seemed to be a growth industry. Since I had spent most of my life chasing information about Soviet weapons systems someone on high decided I would be suited to help negotiate the new treaty designed to back all of us away from Armageddon in Central Europe.
Nothing was guaranteed in our fitful negotiations. We were close to having an agreement, but the old behaviors were still on display. When the Soviet delegation needed to seek instructions they still got on trains to go to their embassy in Budapest where they could use a secure telephone. They didn’t trust us, and every few days we found a new kind of audio surveillance device in one of our meeting rooms or in the delegation.
One of our coworkers, also a “diplomat,” used to face the wall in his office and intone, “nobody knows what I would do for a hot blond and a red Ferrari.” No offers were forthcoming. Maybe someone in Moscow was still on the case, but he never had a nibble.
All the smart money had been on my buddy Dmitrij Volkov. Our counterintelligence gumshoes had dubbed him “the spear-fisher.” According to them, the KGB high-flyer had certainly been sent to recruit somebody in our delegation.
As luck would have it, I was selected to be the dangle. As the chief of counterintelligence put it, “Everything you know that’s worth anything happened in a country that doesn’t exist anymore.” It made me feel wanted.
They put me athwart the young Russian at every chance and nothing happened. We drank wine, and dined out lavishly on our respective masters’ expense accounts, but there was never a pitch. He told me his cover story, and I told him mine, but I think we both knew better.
We remained friends through the reunification of the Germanys and he gave me a sympathy card in German. We watched with amazement as Saddam Hussein’s forces rolled into Kuwait and the U.S. President said, “This will not stand.”
When DESERT STORM got underway neither of us could resist the weapons show that filled every second of CNN broadcast time--that and a new commentator babe. We both managed to schedule informal negotiation sessions that would correspond with the appearances of the hot Bulgarian who Dmitrij claimed as Russian, “Bulgarian, Russian, it’s just a technicality,” he said.
When he got hold of the vodka bottle that night in January I had a feeling something was about to happen. Instead of getting drunker he seemed to be getting more sober. His speech, as precise as ever, sounded increasingly American. I asked him one time where he got his perfect accent. At first he told me he had been married to an international flight attendant, and then finally one night he said, “We have a school for that.”
“Oh, the little village that’s just like America?” I gave him the raised eyebrow.
“Coca Cola City? That’s bullshit. Some journalist created that. It’s just a regular institute.”
He told me he knew we had the same kind of school, and observed that I must have flunked. “Your Russian,” he said in a perfect Rocky the flying squirrel accent, “sounds like Boris Badinov.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but you should hear me mangle German.”
“For what,” he laughed, “a country that no longer exists?”
The constant repeat of the laser bomb video began to get to him. “What is the CEP on that thing?”
“I don’t know, it’s probably a secret. Under a meter I would think.”
“You would? They are telling a story that they dropped one through the hole made by another. That must be a CEP of inches.”
“I don’t know anything about that.”
His face became bleak, his shoulders slumped, “You have Russia surrounded by your bases, you have tankers, now you have these invisible airplanes and guided weapons. Why negotiate? Why don’t you just attack us now? It’s not fair.”
All at once I got a strange vibe. He was leaning forward completely still, looking deeply into my eyes. I could feel it, he was going to pitch me. Probably make the case that I would be helping to prevent a great war—one that would make DESERT STORM look like a firecracker.
I got one of those high-speed visions you are supposed to get at the end of your life. I could see all the little meetings and nuances that had led up to this moment and I knew my fate already. He would make the pitch, I would ask for time to think about it, I would run back down to the embassy and rat him out. All the hard boys down at the embassy would mobilize to try to turn him. They would bring in the specialists from home and I would be dispatched on the next jet to spend months in interrogation while the gumshoes tried to determine what weakness I had that made me attractive to a KGB recruitment attempt.
They would go back all the way to my birth and before to determine whether I had ever committed the sin that they could tag—the one that made me a good recruitment target. Sophisticated? Not much. They had dangled me on purpose, but that wouldn’t even enter into it.
“Jesus,” I thought, “please don’t do it. Let’s just have another drink and call it a night.” I didn’t say it, but I sent it on broadband telepathy. I willed myself to sit still. I didn’t want to cross my arms or look away. I had to let it play out. Finally he said it.
“I want to come over.” He laid his hand on top of mine.
“What?” For a second I almost thought it was some kind of sex thing. There had never been a flicker of that, but what the hell? I could feel his pulse beating in the back of my hand.
He looked down and then back into my eyes, “I want to, uh, there is nothing left for me here. I still know many things, you know—” he was absolutely determined not to say the word “defect.”
“Are you in trouble? Spitting blood? I used an old NKVD slang term for being under surveillance, I knew all the KGB types learned it with their mother’s milk.
“Spitting blood? No, I am clean. I may even be in line for promotion. I’m just tired. It’s unraveling, the whole thing. I don’t want to be late—you know what Mikhail Sergeevich said to the Germans.”
He was extremely prophetic. The end was only months away. On Christmas Day the Soviet Onion, as we used to call it, unpeeled for the last time, but I was back in the States by the time it happened, and Dmitrij? Well, that is an interesting story; one whose denouement is not altogether clear to me.
I hustled down to the embassy the next morning and barged in on the chief of CI. He looked as if he might have been sharing Dmitrij’s vodka last night, his eyes were tiny slits in dark pouches. He ostentatiously turned over the papers on his desk as if he might have something important to hide from me.
“You got a minute?” I stood in front of the desk, and he didn’t invite me to sit.
He looked up with a smug expression, “He finally pitched you, huh?”
“Not exactly,” I said, “he wants to defect.”
“In a pig’s ass,” the phlegmatic man said, “did he say that?”
“Ain’t gonna happen. Did you tell him anything?”
“Nothing,” I said, “I just told him I’d have to talk to some people.”
“Well, if he agrees to go back and work in place, maybe. We got no shortage of KGB officers right now, they’re jumping ship all over the world.”
He didn’t bother to answer my question. “We have to be careful how we handle this,” he said, “that ambassador of yours is going to have to be in the loop.”
Our ambassador, a whip-smart Oklahoman with an amazing network of connections in Washington was the head of the delegation negotiating CFE. We usually kept him at a long arm’s length from any clandestine shenanigans. Those of us attached as “diplomats” to the arms control delegation were usually treated as slightly radioactive by the real diplomats.
“We’re going to tell him the whole story? The dangle, the whole thing?” I couldn’t believe it.
“You’re not telling him anything. As far as we’re concerned it’s better for you to go home. Your cover is so threadbare everyone knows who you are.”
He was right, of course, one of the Hungarian delegates had come to me asking for some specialized support for the forthcoming round of inspections that we were all negotiating.
“Why ask me?” I sat across the Hungarian at a small table in the cafe at the Hotel Sacher. I sipped the wonderful Viennese coffee and wondered how to wriggle out of this one.
“We know who you are. We know you can help.”
“But really,” I said, “this is a negotiation between groups of state’s parties, you’re on the other side.”
“We don’t want to be on the other side,” the Hungarian said.
I looked at the chief of CI. I had the feeling that gates were closing all around me. “So I’m going home?” I wasn’t sure this thug from the downtown embassy was really in the loop to send me home, but I wasn’t sure he wasn’t either.
“Nothing personal,” he said, “you’re just TDY anyway. We hear your ambassador might be in line for something big if Clinton should do well.”
He was talking about the U.S. presidential campaign that was in its infancy. I barely knew who the former governor of Arkansas was, and right now, in the early days of DESERT STORM I was certain no one was going to beat George H.W. Bush. “Something big, huh?”
“DCI,” his tiny eyes did not blink.
“Man, that’s a long range prediction, isn’t it?”
“That’s what we do.”
Long range or not, it did happen. I went home with glowing recommendations to a pretty good job, Dmitrij got his promotion and went back to Yasenovo, to the First Department—USA and Canada—ostensibly under our control; Clinton won, and our ambassador became the DCI. If our control of Dmitrij was real I never happened to be in that particular compartment.
In the summer of 2010 the Bureau rolled up a network of Russian illegals, much to the delight of CNN and all the other 24/7 news mongers. One of the members of the ring was a striking, Playboy-worthy redhead named Anna Chapman. I admit following that part of the operation with great vigor all they way up to her appearance in the magazine—just for intelligence interest, of course. We exchanged the culprits and the story began to fade from the nation’s consciousness. Out of the blue an old colleague called me. I’m on the bench these days, but I still know the players.
“I need to talk to you,” he said, “I’ll even spring for lunch.”
We sat in the outdoor dining area of a Greek restaurant not far from the mothership. It is the kind of place working spies go for lunch. My buddy carried a laptop.
“Are they letting you guys use those things? The last time I was working they were still forbidden. The security guys were afraid they had vampire-like powers.”
“Gimme a break,” he grinned, “we're all the way up to the nineteenth century already. For some things you need this technology. You were in Vienna back in the day, right?”
“Back in the day, yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Well, you know we just sent those illegals back to Schwechat, right? I want you to look at this video.”
He fired the thing up and made the video full screen. It wasn’t something from the press. It was surveillance footage, high definition color and shot through a serious telephoto. Someone had clumsily blacked out the data panel down at the bottom of the screen where the classification markings should have been.
It started with a shot of a Gulfstream on a hardstand. In the background I could recognize the Vienna International airport. A good-looking redhead led the procession down the air stairs.
“That’s not why I brought it. Watch when they walk across the ramp.”
I was happy to do that, I don’t remember what the others looked like, but Anna stepped like she was on the catwalk.
“There,” he pointed.
There stood the guy I have decided to call Dmitrij Volkov. He was a bit older, had cultivated a trim little mustache and some jowls. He was still a sharp dresser. It was warm on that July day in Vienna with a sharp little breeze that caught his regimental tie and whipped it around the lapels of the tan suit, he deftly tucked in back in and leaned down to kiss the comely redhead.