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
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
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
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