There’s an interesting part of my career that I haven’t shared before on this blog, for what should be obvious reason. In April 1996, when President Clinton visited President Yeltsin in Moscow, I was approached at a business seminar by someone I’ll call Alex. I was surprised that Alex seemed to know who I was. After all, I was just a supervisor at a Western consulting firm. The only thing that set me apart from the other 300 or so expatriates at the firm was my command of Russian; at the time only 2-3 of us spoke anything close to passable Russian. But Alex eventually revealed why he was talking to me: to gauge my level of interest in joining the Central Intelligence Agency as a “commercial agent,” providing information on Russian enterprises I audited.
That may not sound like a critical matter of national security, but at the time most Russian enterprises were closed books to the rest of the world. My clients might appear, for example, to own a chain of grocery stores or hotels. On auditing the books, though, I would find evidence (for example) of subsidiaries who were satellite surveillance equipment makers. One client of mine was closely connected with the Russian mafia. Another was an advisor to a senior politician. I had access to a lot of information that helped untangle the scary mid-90s chaos.
I had a fairly lengthy and surreptitious interview and acceptance process. I wasn’t able to disclose my status to anyone, of course. I never visited an office, and other than Alex at first and my handler, who I’ll call Ben, I never met anyone who was outwardly identified as CIA. I didn’t get compensated much, but if you’ve seen the movie “The Russia House,” you’d understand when I say it wasn’t about money at all. It’s an odd thing when your country asks you for help: no matter how much of a cynic you may be, it’s a hard call to resist.
I don’t have any cool stories about being chased down a dark alley in a hail of gunfire. I never fired a gun. The biggest nervous moments were drops. I left coded notes for Ben folded into newspapers which I’d leave in a space behind a booth at a local diner (yes, there was a diner in Moscow). I’d have a small heart attack each time, and I did it about 12 times. I’d go have breakfast in the diner on weekends, leave the drop and shortly before I’d get up and leave Ben would walk in. I met him for conversation even fewer times. We’d have brief conversations of the “everything OK? No troubles at work?” type, but any agency-specific conversations were usually held in crowded, loud bars (for example, changes in my schedule due to travel). If I needed to speak to Ben, I moved a chair on my balcony from the right side to the left side.
When I left Russia, I left the agency – they didn’t need a New York-based operative, obviously (or legally). I haven’t been contacted in the last ten years except recently when I was released from my top-secret clearance. The only regret I had about my service was the fact I had to keep it secret for so long. My parents always noted that there were curious coincidences about my movements in Moscow; I attended far too many diplomatic events considering I was just a consultant with a private firm, for example. I laughed it off. My mom even made cracks about how I must be working for the CIA, which I guffawed away. Since she reads this blog, she’s probably stunned right about now.
So if you’ve ever wondered what a spy’s life is like, that’s it. Written reports. Paperwork. A tiny bit of thriller – drops and signals to meet. One of my clients was killed (the mafia-connected one) and that’s the one time I was truly nervous. What if they were trying to figure out where the information about his connections had gone? But nothing happened – I did my bit, and moved on. Maybe something I did helped someone in Washington get a foot up on the Russians, but most likely it didn’t. But I’m left with a good story, and that’s worth something. Maybe I can punch it up and option the movie rights 🙂
photo by Argenberg