Review of The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman. New York, Doubleday, 2015. 312 pp. $28.95 ISBN 978-0-385-53760-5
“I am a dissident at heart.” – Tolkachev to his CIA handler on New Year’s Day 1979
No account of the Adolf Tolkachev case of Cold War espionage is likely to be more comprehensive or detailed than David E. Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal. Hoffman’s book stands as the definitive account on Tolkachev, and provides great detail on his motivations for spying for the United States, and on how the CIA handled its most valuable asset of the time. The account also highlights the immense value of military intelligence gleaned from the Soviet research and development (R&D) plans, scientific journals, technical designs, weapons manuals, blueprints, and diagrams that the scientist-turned-spy got his hands on in his quest to—as the author states on page 98—“do the greatest damage to the Soviet authorities that he possibly can.”
The strength of the book is in its meticulous research, drawn from 944 pages of declassified documents released to the author and supplemented by interviews and extensive use of secondary sources, and its riveting narrative. Both make for compelling reading, even to those familiar with the ultimate outcome. Readers of Milt Bearden’s and James Risen’s 2003 book, The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB, may find a great deal of overlapping narrative in the Billion Dollar Spy, though Hoffman’s investigation is the more detailed account of the Tolkachev case.
Hoffman’s research and analysis reveals the incredible value of a single well-placed human intelligence source. The author describes Tolkachev, an engineer and airborne radar specialist at the Scientific Research Institute of Instrument Engineering (NIIP), as the “the crown jewel” of Cold War sources, the most successful and valued agent the CIA had ever run inside the Soviet Union. Indeed, Tolkachev provided information of such tremendous value that he was credited by senior agency officials with justifying the CIA’s entire budget with Congress, and with cementing the agency’s value with policymakers. In 1980 the U.S. Air Force estimated Tolkachev’s spying had saved $2 billion in R&D costs alone, led to the termination or reorientation of several costly military R&D programs, and gave the U.S. “an incomparable advantage in the Cold War competition.”
Even the way the U.S. Navy and Air Force trained their pilots was affected by Tolkachev’s treasure trove of military intelligence, which included previously unknown information on the capabilities of Soviet ground and plane-based radar, and those of the then-feared Soviet MiG fighter jets. As Hoffman describes in “A Note on the Intelligence” on page 259, analysts continued to derive valuable information on Soviet military capabilities from Tolkachev’s intelligence more than a decade after the operation ceased. The bottom line: human intelligence pays off.
But as the narrative proves, so does luck. Hoffman confirms Risen’s and Bearden’s account in stressing that the most valuable human intelligence sources on both sides in the CIA-KGB standoff were “walk-ins”—people who literally walked into a U.S. government facility and volunteered their services or, as in the case of Tolkachev, sought out American officials on the streets of Moscow, Rome, and Vienna, often going to extraordinary lengths to get the CIA’s attention and establish bona fides. The perennial intelligence challenge of separating sincere walk-ins from “dangles,” fake KGB volunteers sent to the CIA to provide misinformation and serve as double agents, hampered CIA human intelligence collection efforts of the late Cold War period, and in several cases, caused the CIA to turn away from potentially valuable opportunities to develop Soviet sources.
To explain the risk averse atmosphere at the CIA (high even for an intelligence agency), Hoffman, on page 15, points to the influence of James Angleton and the shadow of “high paranoia and operational paralysis” cast by the counterintelligence chief’s “juggernaut,” which “permeated the culture and fabric of the CIA’s Soviet operations division…with disastrous results… Angleton felt that no one and no information from the Soviet KGB could be trusted. If no one could be trusted, there could be no spies.”
This sentiment helps explain why the CIA ignored so many potentially legitimate Soviet walk-ins, according to Hoffman. The irony of the “billion dollar spy” is that the CIA nearly missed out on him, despite Tolkachev’s several attempts to get the CIA’s attention, including a face-to-face encounter with the Moscow station chief. CIA headquarters repeatedly brushed off Tolkachev as a likely KGB dangle. A new generation of more forward-thinking intelligence officers, including Burton Gerber and Haviland Smith, are credited with bringing their agency “out of the wilderness” and for developing the “Gerber rules:” effective techniques to spot, recruit, and run agents against the Soviet Union.
Along the way, the reader learns new details of other previously written accounts of Cold War espionage. The case of Edward Lee Howard, the infamous CIA case officer turned KGB spy, is covered in its greatest detail yet. Those involved seem to have understood in hindsight the many lessons of the Howard fiasco, including the costly one of failing to dispatch and then forgetting the case officer who had obvious reasons to be disgruntled (Howard was fired from the CIA and thrown out of federal service entirely), and was well-positioned to do immeasurable damage to his former employer. Howard had been trained for a “deep cover” assignment to the Moscow station, and even read-in to the CIA’s most sensitive Soviet operations of the time, including the Tolkachev operation and the CKELBOW wiretap, before failing several pre-assignment polygraphs and abruptly being fired. The result was predictable –a disgruntled and struggling Howard revealed the CIA’s best human and technical intelligence sources to the Soviets.
Scholars and researchers eager to delve into more detail will be disappointed to find Hoffman chose not to upload more than ten of the released documents to his website (www.davidehoffman.com), despite there being no restrictions on the author’s use of the documents released by the CIA. The turning of declassified documents into proprietary information may disturb those with a desire to read the first-hand sources of information Hoffman used as the basis for his book.
Despite this, The Billion Dollar Spy leaves the reader wondering what a Tolkachev-type operation would look like today, and whether a single security breach yielding such wide-ranging and voluminous results is possible in the “hard targets” of today, such as contemporary China, Iran, North Korea or Russia. Given the challenges U.S. intelligence faced in developing sources inside pre-war Iraq and the compartmentalization of information on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs in Sadaam Hussein’s regime, it is difficult to imagine today’s Tolkachev, a source with access to information of extraordinary breadth and depth and the insatiable desire to help the United States, even existing.
Adolf Tolkachev became the “billion dollar spy” by obtaining and photographing thousands of documents on Soviet military technologies from a classified library, the vast majority of which he, by his own admission, had no real professional need for. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Tolkachev story is not to discount the possibility of such a source, and to think creatively about ways to exploit negligent bureaucracies.
Steven J. Murphy is a 2010 graduate of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University.