Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Review of The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman (Anchor, 2015)

Adolf Tolkachev is a senior radar engineer working in an elite Soviet military research institute in Moscow. He’s also very disillusioned with the oppressive Soviet regime and how under Stalin’s years it persecuted his wife’s family. Wanting to undermine the state in February 1978 he taps on the window of a car possessing US diplomatic plates. At first the CIA mission in the Moscow embassy ignores his approach suspecting that the man is a dangle – a KGB attempt identify CIA operatives and to spread disinformation. Tolkachev is persistent, however, making a couple more approaches, and passing on some information. The details, if true, are a goldmine of advanced technical information on weapon and defence systems. After more than a year of dithering the CIA decide that the Russian engineer is genuine and worth running. Managing an agent in Moscow with teams of KGB operatives keeping US embassy employees under heavy surveillance, as well as their own citizens, is not straightforward. The CIA station is taking a risk, Tolkachev is putting his life on the line. Driven to do as much damage as he can, over the next few years Tolkachev photographs thousands of pages of secret military documents and even smuggles out a couple of circuit boards. The intelligence saves the US billions of dollars of research and gives them a distinct advantage in designing their planes and weapons systems.

Hoffman tells Tolkachev’s story drawing on archival research and interviews with CIA Moscow Station agents. He details how the spy was run, including all the anti-surveillance measures and tricks used to evade observation, and the information Tolkachev supplied and the risks he took to procure it fully aware of the consequence if caught. Hoffman manages to create a narrative that balances the technical details with a well-developed character study of the main actors. The end-game is a little bit sketchy, told almost exclusively from the US-side but that perhaps to be expected given limited access to sources. The result is an engaging and gripping account of a driven and brave man (no doubt the Soviets would cast him differently), supported by dedicated agents working deep in enemy territory, whose actions had a profound effect on US military technology.

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