D. Dowd Muska


A Hero -- and Victim -- of the Cold War

July 16, 2015

How badly did U.S. “intelligence” mischaracterize the Soviet Union’s intentions, foreign relations, and capabilities? The “bomber gap.” The “missile gap.” “Monolithic” communism. Absurd overestimates of economic prowess. The “window of vulnerability.” That’s just a sample.

Threat-inflating analysts’ record regarding the Red Menace was abysmal. But spooks practicing their spycraft out in the real world made plenty of blunders, too. One screw-up cost Adolph Tolkachev his life.

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal (Doubleday; 312 pages; $28.95) chronicles the frenetic mission of a tragic traitor. Author David E. Hoffman writes that Tolkachev was a “leading designer” at the Moscow-based Scientific Research Institute for Radio Engineering, a facility responsible for “Soviet military radars, especially those deployed on fighter aircraft.” Married, with a son, and born in the Kazakh Republic, he was respected and highly placed in the Evil Empire’s “defense” complex. And his pay was well above the average wage earned in the U.S.S.R.

But Tolkachev was deeply disillusioned. Soviet culture, he wrote to the CIA, had become mired in “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery” and “ideological empty talk.” The tale of his wife’s parents -- victims of Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s -- fed his disgust with what Hoffman calls “a party-state that congratulated itself on its greatness but that had, over decades, become a dystopia.”

No competitive elections. No free speech. No chance to emigrate. How could Tolkachev strike back? He concluded that giving classified information to the Americans was his only option. And so, over the course of 21 meetings, he delivered “complex diagrams, specifications, blueprints, and circuit boards from airborne radars,” as well as “military research and development plans stretching a decade into the future,” to his CIA handlers.

Tolkachev’s relationship with “the company” didn’t start in a promising fashion. He had to force himself on the agency, which in the late 1970s was reeling from dissention and low morale within and fierce critics without. But once Tolkachev’s early offerings were verified, demand grew ravenous. The Navy and Air Force wanted whatever the eminently valuable “asset” could get on “aviation and radars, materials that airplanes were built from, design of airplanes and rockets, lasers, directed-energy research, aerosols, alloys and special metals, air strike tactics, electro-optics, tactics of forward air control and close air support, and command-and-control systems.”

The engineer’s purloined secrets were worth, literally, billions of dollars. So Tolkachev was compensated generously, with stacks of rubles for use in the U.S.S.R. and what would grow to be a $2 million bank account in America. Goodies were supplied as well, including medicines, razors blades, and publications from the West. Tolkachev secured drafting tools and a Sony Walkman for his son. (On behalf of Oleg, one request inquired about music from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, Genesis, Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and “the Yes.”)

Despite the danger, Tolkachev’s commitment never wavered. In a message to Langley, two officials in the CIA’s Moscow station described his relentlessness: “We are dealing with driven man who decided to inflict most damage possible on Soviet regime. He will continue to produce … and will probably not heed our urgings to slow down.”

It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. Edward Lee Howard was a CIA washout -- a superior described him as a “loser” -- who for a time served on the Soviet desk at headquarters. The booted trainee might never have learned Tolkachev’s real name, but he knew enough about the spy to be useful to the U.S.S.R. Surrendering to his “desire to extract revenge on the CIA,” Howard contacted the KGB. Confirmation from Aldrich Ames, another turncoat, signed Tolkachev’s death warrant. He was detained in June 1985, and executed four months later.

Unforgivable ineptitude was to blame. For two years, the CIA, preferring to “keep its troubles in the family,” delayed notifying the FBI about ex-employee Howard, who was growing increasingly erratic. When the bureau was finally brought in, the farce worsened. It allowed Howard to escape the country. From Helsinki, Howard was smuggled into the Soviet Union, “the first CIA officer ever to defect.” A 1986 report by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board excoriated the agencies for their fumbling of the affair. Congressional investigations followed. The findings were ugly.

The billion-dollar spy betrayed a government that deserved betrayal. Adolph Tolkachev was a hero in the crusade against totalitarianism. He was also a victim of Washington’s self-appointed, and frequently deadly, mission to bring down what one CIA operative called “a country that can’t even make toasters.”

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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