spy story

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

6 Replies to “spy story”

  1. While we outsiders suspect that many Russian businesses are (still) not that clean, you actually had the privilege to see first-hand what went down in some of these companies.

  2. I'm with Jimmy — this is April Fool's right? There's no way you'd be allowed to reveal this stuff, even at this late date. And especially not something you'd want to do with your picture in the header…

  3. OK, it's an April Fool's – partially. I was approached, and I did meet President Clinton, and I did have a client who was killed, etc. I had the offer to conduct commercial espionage and I turned it down – simply because I didn't see the point. So that part is an April Fool's joke, but I was approached and such things do exist…

    And to Abigail's point – one of my friend's father was in deep, deep ops (sneaking into Russia, monitoring nuke tests in Siberia, etc.) and did let everyone know about 15 year after he was “out” – so it is possible to reveal all down the road. For the stuff I was approached for, I doubt there would have been much clearance required to spill all.

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