The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a really fantastic book that tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the CIA and gave the United States hundreds, maybe even thousands, of technical documents pertaining to Soviet radar, military planes, weapons, and much more.
The book briefly traces the history of the CIA in Eastern Europe. At the start of the Cold War, it was very hard to recruit and run agents within the Soviet Union itself. Most of the assets spying on our behalf were doing so outside of the Soviet Union and were diplomats or intelligence officers working abroad. Eventually, this changed, and the CIA was able to recruit in Moscow itself. There was a setback during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as the director of the CIA during this time placed more importance intelligence gained through technical means as opposed to intelligence from actual humans.
This was the environment in which Tolkachev approached the CIA. It took the poor man about a year to get the CIA to actually respond to his overtures for contact—but once they did, he produced an impressive amount of material. Originally, he hand-wrote valuable intelligence, either from what he’d seen over his career as an engineer or from documents he memorized, but the CIA quickly realized this wasn’t feasible long-term, so they supplied him with miniature cameras to photograph documents.
It wasn’t easy and he ran the risk of being caught many times, especially when he took documents home to photograph them. At one point, his wife discovered his spying and told him to stop, not because she liked the Soviet Union but because she was worried about the potential consequences for their family. In fact, Tolkachev’s hatred of the KGB and the Soviet Union stemmed from Natasha, his wife. Her family was murdered in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and she was briefly reunited with her father when she was eighteen. He was released from a labor camp in poor health and told her everything: how Natasha’s mother Sofia was arrested and shot because she dared go visit family living in Denmark, a capitalist country, and how he refused to turn against Sofia, which led to his long sentence in the labor camp.
Tolkachev spied for many years, asking for payment in an escrow account he would have access to upon defecting, and also asked for everyday items that were hard to come by in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, including Western music for his son Oleg.
Unfortunately, despite the CIA and Tolkachev’s efforts to evade KGB surveillance in Moscow, Tolkachev was arrested, tried, and executed. His capture was the result of an internal betrayal; both Edward Lee Howard, a disgraced former CIA trainee, and Aldrich Ames helped the KGB identify him. He was executed in 1986. His intelligence helped the United States well into the 1990s: thanks to him, the United States was able to fight Iraqi pilots during Desert Storm since the Iraqis flew Soviet aircraft. Hoffman also emphasizes that the Tolkachev case shows how valuable human intelligence is, as there was no way to have acquired all this intelligence without having a source like Tolkachev.
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