European Affairs

The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman, New York Doubleday, 2015, 312pp.     Print Email
Reviewed By Jerrold L. Schecter, former Time Magazine Diplomatic Editor and Moscow Bureau Chief

JerroldSchecterA new hero has been added to the Pantheon of spies on  Russia who detested the  Soviet system and volunteered to serve the  United States. Adolf (nickname Adik) Tolkachev was a Russian scientist whose  wife’s  father and mother were “eradicated” by Stalin in  the 1937 purges. His burning anger against the Soviet system simmered for years until, influenced  by the bravery of H-bomb inventor Alexander Sakharov and novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaking out against the abuses of Soviet life, he  sought revenge by “walking in” to work for the CIA Moscow Station.



 It was no small task to  contact the CIA surreptitiously.  It took Tolkachev   more than one year from January 1977 to find an  American diplomat’s car at a gas station for foreigners where he could drop  a note through the window  offering his services without being discovered by the KGB. His dogged  persistence paid off,  and in March 1978  he made contact with the CIA Moscow Station. It was not until  January  1979 that he met  a CIA case officer in person for the first time and began his career as a super spy. He often  operated not far from KGB headquarters until 1986.

Tolkachev was short, stocky, with brown hair and a skewered nose from a boyhood hockey accident. He was  unprepossessing in appearance, but from his position as  chief  designer  at the Research Institute of Radio Engineering, a top secret facility,  he was able to photograph, with CIA provided cameras,  a full catalog of Soviet radar  designs  and forward strategic design planning.

Hoffman estimates that Tolkachev’s contributions to the CIA are worth  more than one billion   dollars in savings in research and development costs that otherwise have been necessary to develop effective counters to the new Soviet weapons systems.   It was not the money that mattered most: the  top secret classified Soviet designs and strategic planning intentions  enabled the  US to preempt Soviet air superiority  in  fighter aircraft and   take advantage of Soviet weakness in deterring  low  flying  guided  missiles.

This is a spy story with intricate and amazingly  detailed revelations of how the CIA ran a spy in the heart of Moscow against the  most sophisticated KGB surveillance systems. Hoffman, a former Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief and Pulitzer Prize winner, reveals the inner workings   of running an American spy network, only to be thwarted in the end by Edward Lee Howard, an American loser trained to serve as a case officer in Moscow  but who was fired  by the CIA  after he failed his polygraph tests.  Howard turned traitor to seek revenge.

Through exhaustive  interviews and the de-classification of 944 pages of operational files, primarily cable traffic,   between CIA headquarters  and Moscow Station, Hoffman shows us how the agency feeds its clients within the military and intelligence bureaucracy with vital information that affects national defense. He reveals how decisions are made and  documents the tensions between Moscow Station and Langley headquarters. He has done prodigious research on the tradecraft of how to run a spy by thwarting KGB surveillance, human and electronic. We take part in determining the criteria and circumstances  for deciding   how much to pay a master spy in rubles in Moscow and dollars in a Swiss bank account.

Hoffman evokes Moscow’s  dirty brown  winter slush and below freezing cold, the smell of garlic, cheap tobacco  and sour cabbage driving through the side streets and boulevards of Moscow dodging KGB electronic surveillance and waiting hours for Tolkachev to appear  out of the mist for a meeting to exchange film, cameras and operational notes.

What adds to the book’s  depth and resonance is Hoffman’s ability to weave the players into a broader context. He documents then   CIA director Stanfield Turner’s distrust of human intelligence gathering in Moscow and  his insistence on standing down Moscow Station  operations until total security could be guaranteed. Such an unrealistic demand by Turner emasculated  the Moscow Station for  more than a year,  until  January 1979 when Tolkachev’s  first  meeting with a CIA case  officer took place.

 The historical context into which  Hoffman places his spy includes a rich understanding of Soviet history. Despite glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) under Mikhail  Gorbachev’s easing of totalitarian rule,   Soviet Communism could not be saved.

 Not only does Hoffman  tell us what Tolkachev stole and copied with  CIA provided cameras, but the information he provided on Soviet radars and “look down shoot down” radar technology influenced American ability to penetrate Soviet air defenses. Hoffman concludes his remarkable tale with an epilogue disclosing   how  the  information Tolkachev delivered played a decisive role in creating American air superiority in Operation Desert Storm  against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

Better than spy fiction, Hoffman’s characters are  real, making life threatening decisions, coaxing  their man  to stay strong, agreeing finally to give him a suicide pill (never used) to ease  his state of mind. The Moscow Station  offered  to exfiltrate  Tolkachev and his family from the Soviet Union as  the net closed around  him. The CIA thought of everything except its own pride and arrogance.  By not willingly identifying Edward Lee Howard, the traitor in its midst,  to the FBI until it  was too late, the Agency  led to Tolkachev’s betrayal and demise. He was arrested by the KGB after leaving his dacha on June 9, 1985. Tolkachev was convicted of “high treason in the form of spying” and executed on October 22, 1986. Edward Lee Howard lived in exile in Moscow  until his death on July 12, 2002, at age 50, from a fall in at his home.

Hoffman has written a story that spy buffs will relish for its freshness and  rich insights  into  how the CIA really works. For those who want a fast racing,  revelatory read Hoffman has joined  the ranks of such masters as John le Carre and Graham Greene with  a tale of truth stranger and more exciting than fiction.

Jerrold L  Schecter is  former Diplomatic Editor of Time Magazine and co-author with Peter S. Deriabin of  The Spy Who Saved the World, How A Soviet Colonel Changed The Course of the Cold War.