The Spy Who Came Back From The Dead

September 1986

by Edward Jay Epstein

Vitaliy Sergeyevich Yurchenko was dead. The swaggering 49-year old Soviet officer, who had gone over to the CIA in 1985 and then returned three months later to the KGB, had been secretly executed by a firing squad in Moscow. Supposedly, his family was even charged for the cost of the bullets. That was the story put out by the U.S. intelligence agencies in 1986. No sooner did the "news" of his execution go out on the international wire services, then Yurchenko re-appeared in Moscow, "alive and kicking", as he put it in an interview on German television.

The relentless spy war rarely emerges in this manner in the public domain. Occasionally, a defector flashes across the public consciousness like a shooting star-- and then disappears. Inside the netherworld itself, exotic battles for information are cloaked behind three innocuous-sounding terms. Collection. Denial. Disinformation. "Collection" is the euphemism for stealing or intercepting secrets from another nation. This may be done through human agents who infiltrate its power structure, satellite cameras that photograph its terrain from high altitudes, antennas that intercept its signals, or remote instruments that monitor its defenses. "Denial" is the defensive term of art for hiding such data from an adversary. It can be accomplished through arresting spies, camouflaging what can be seen from the sky, and encoding messages that can be intercepted. "Disinformation", the most cunning form of countering an enemy's search for secrets, is based on supplying him with data that will confuse and mislead. Rather than arresting enemy's spies and other collectors , they are purposefully fed misleading data. Such counterintelligence requires that enemy intelligence services remain in a continual sort of dance with each other, each dangling in front of the others' eyes agents who pretend to be traitors.

Yurchenko had been involved in this game when he first came to Washington in 1975. Officially, he was the security officer at the Soviet Embassy. Actually, as described in his CIA biography, he was a KGB expert on "Dangles" or " the insertion ... of agents into western, and especially American, intelligence services". These "dangles" were usually Soviet diplomats who, under KGB orders, contact western agents to misinform them. It was a cat and mouse exchange that brought this master dangler into close collaboration with the CIA. Eventually, he even allowed it to believe he himself had been recruited. In the decade in between, he provided a thread that ran through some of the West's most dramatic losses.

At the heart of the crises was the loss of one of the most valuable agents the CIA had ever acquired in the Soviet Union. He was A.G. Tolkachev, an electronics experts employed by an elite Soviet think tank that researched problems of military aviation and space detection systems. He had been recruited for the CIA in Moscow in the early 1980s, through a third-party. Unlike most other western intelligence sources-- diplomats, attaches or intelligence operatives, whose access to technology was limited, Tolkachev was in a position to pass on to the CIA technical data on the state of the art of Soviet ground and spaced-based radar, which, in turn, revealed the extent to which American submarines and planes were vulnerable to detection. For some three years, up until that Spring, microfilms of these Soviet military secrets were left for an American courier in Moscow in "dead drops". Such hiding places made any face-to-face contact unnecessary.

The Tolkachev "take" was treated with the utmost security. From the CIA's station in the American Embassy, it was hand-carried to Washington. In late Spring, however, the deliveries from Tolkachev abruptly ended. When the American courier, who had diplomatic immunity, went to check the "dead drop", he walked into a trap. He was seized by waiting KGB officers, who photographed the spy paraphernalia from the dead drop, then expelled from the Soviet Union. It was now clear to the CIA that despite all its precautions, Tolkachev had been compromised and captured by the KGB.

In the spy war, the question of how an agent is compromised can be important as the loss itself. In this case, which was extremely tightly-supervised, there were only two possibilities: either Tolkachev, through some slip on his part (or his courier's) had been caught by the KGB through routine police work; or he had been betrayed to the KGB by someone inside the CIA who was privy to this ultra-secret operation. If it was the former, and his capture was due to some sort of KGB surveillance, the entire affair could be chalked up to a tragic accident. But if it was the latter, and it turned out Tolkachev had been compromised by a traitor in the CIA, all the CIA's other agents in the Soviet sphere would be in extreme jeopardy. Indeed, if this mole was strategically enough positioned, the CIA itself would be shown to be the KGB's plaything.

This possibility, as former CIA Director Richard M. Helms put it, " is the nightmare of every CIA Director". Such a "penetration", as it is called in the spy world, would not only serve to paralyze ongoing operations, it would call into question the validity of the information the CIA had already received from sources that it had believed secure but which in fact might have been compromised long ago.

This nightmare seemed more and more reality as one after another western spies came out of the cold, claiming that they had been compromised-- and were on the verge of being arrested by the KGB. First, in India, Igor Gheja , the third secretary of the Soviet Embassy, whom the CIA was secretly developing as a potential mole, defected from his post in March. He suggested that the KGB had become inexplicably suspicious of him. Under these circumstances, the United States granted him asylum.

Then, in Greece, Sergei Bokhan, a Soviet military intelligence officer, who had provided the CIA with valuable insights into Soviet efforts to infiltrate the Greek military, sought protection at the American Embassy in May. He claimed that the KGB had placed him under surveillance. His fears of imminent arrests indeed were so high that he left his wife and seven year old daughter behind. The issue was again whether their detection, as well as that of the CIA's spy in Moscow, had been caused by a leak within the CIA.

Then, finally, in England, came the compromise of Oleg Antonovich Gordievsky. Gordievsky was according to the diplomatic roster the political counselor at the Soviet Embassy in London; actually he was the acting rezidante for the KGB-- the man in charge of its operations in England. That was only half of the picture. In this bewildering world of mirrors, Gordievsky not only was a KGB case officer administrating much of Soviet espionage conducted out of the embassies in these NATO countries, but a British double-agent, in a position to reveal the targets of Soviet operations to Western intelligence. He had been recruited by MI-6 in Copenhagen, and then had been carefully groomed over the years as a mole.

Just as the CIA's agent Tolkachev was compromised in Moscow, Gordievsky's secret liaison with MI-6 was unraveled by the KGB. While preparing to go to Moscow for his summer leave, he realized the KGB was on to him, and hastily organized his escape (abandoning his wife and two children in the process). Telling his British case officers he was about to be arrested, he asked for asylum, and his defection was hastily arranged.

Although British intelligence attempted to put the best face on its loss by expelling the usual suspects among Soviet diplomats, trade officials and correspondents in England, it was an intelligence disaster. It ended a long and expensive MI-6 operation that had begun years earlier, when he was a lowly press attache at the Soviet Embassy in Denmark. (The exact period of his service as a British mole is a carefully guarded secret, protected by a bodyguard of lies, purposely leaked by officials. As one former counterintelligence officer explained, in response to published accounts that Gordievsky had been recruited 15 years ago, "The last thing an intelligence service tells its adversary is an honest date".) MI-6 reportedly had indeed helped advance his career in the KGB, as far as was practical, by giving him bits of information--"chickenfeed", as it is called-- to make him appear more successful. These efforts apparently came to fruition in 1985 when he was promoted, after the British expelled his boss, Yuri Gok, to the position of acting KGB rezidante in London. The final coup for British intelligence would have been keeping him in this position so that he could identify all unknown and new KGB recruitments of British citizens. When instead his cover was blown, and he was forced to escape. The fact that in the months following his defection not a single British citizen with access to state secrets was apprehended suggests that, if the KGB had its share of moles in England, he may not have had the time, or access, to learn their identity. (The Soviet diplomats who were expelled would have been known in any case to MI-5 through surveillance).


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