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tv   Book Discussion on The Billion Dollar Spy  CSPAN  August 15, 2015 5:00pm-5:55pm EDT

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>> david hoffman talks about adolph a russian engineer who work for the soviet military and became a spy for the us. the secrets he passed along help the u.s. defeat the soviet radar during the cold war.
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>> from 1995 to 2001, he served as moscow bureau chief and later as foreign editor and assistant managing editor. please join me in welcoming david hoffman to the louisville free public library. [applause] >> thank you all for coming here tonight. it's a weeknight, and i know that a lot of you probably have other things to do, and it's really exciting for an hour to come to louisville and see so many people interested. a book takes years and years to write, and i'm going to give you the best of it in 5 minutes. [laughter] -- 35 minutes. and answer your questions. [laughter] i'd like to thank the louisville
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free public library, i'd like to thank lisa, i'd like to thank the library foundation for making this talk possible, and i hope that after i've spoken for a little while that you'll have some questions, because i can't possibly get everything i wrote in this book into 35 minutes. the book is about spying. a cia man wrote a generation ago that, like war, spying is a dirty business. you peel away the claptrap of espionage, he said, and the spy's job is to betray trust. and i would add to that a spy's job is to steal, to steal secrets. so why do people do it? why would a man with a family, a career, a good salary in his
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time, why would he risk everything, risk his life to spy for another country, another country that he'd never been to, one that he admitted he didn't have a lot of romance for? why did he do it? so i'm going to to talk to you tonight about why the "the billion dollar spy" did what he did. the story begins in the late 1930s and early 1940s in june 1941, hitler's germany invaded the soviet union by surprise, and a month later war meetings like this on july 21st, waves of german bombers attacked moscow, the capital of the soviet union. and they reached moscow. hitler had ordered that moscow be destroyed from the air. the first wave of bombers dropped 140 tons of high
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explosive, 46,000 incendiary bombs, 130 people were killed and tens of thousands scrambled into the deep moscow subway stations to stay safe from the bombs. looking up at the sky at that time was a young 14-year-old teenager, adolf tolkachev. i think he and all those thousands of people crowding into the subway stations to stay safe asked themselves, how did the bombers get true? moscow -- get through? moscow was surrounded by 600 large searchlights, 800 anti-aircraft guns. but the german bombers got through, because what the soviet
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union really needed was radar. radar was a new invention in the 1930s, and it could give early warning of airplanes in flight. but the soviet union was way behind in re daughter. they had only -- in re daughter. they had only the most primitive time. it couldn't even tell the altitude of a plane or the speed. they desperately needed better radar. and that was evident to all of the people under the bombs on those warm summer nights of july and august 1941. the city was up in flames. much of moscow at the time was built out of wood. whole buildings just charred. one bomb hit the creme lip. it went through the -- the kremlin. it went through the roof, and it was a dud. it just landed there on the floor, but it was pretty frightening. so tolkachev didn't go to war, he went to school. he went to school to study radar. he went to the equivalent of a high school where he studied
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electronics and radar. when the war was over, he was sent to a technical university to study radar. in fact, he spent the whole rest of his career becoming an engineer and a scientist to build better radars for the soviet union. it got much more sophisticated as the years went by. cold war came, radar became very, very important in the cold war. and i'll explain that in a minute, but let's just pause to think a little bit about tolkachev's life. at a secret institute to build radar which he was assigned after the university, he met a young woman named natasha. natasha worked in the antenna department. tolkachev was an engineer. and-and-a-half natasha had had h life. her mother had worked in the timber ministry in stalin's moscow in the 1930s. she was a communist party member working in a government
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ministry. one night the secret police showed up at her apartment. she was arrested on the spot and taken away. it was september 1937, the middle of stalin's purges. enemies were perceived to be everywhere. natasha's mother was accused of being a subversive, and she was shot. natasha's father was scared. he ran to to a friend's house, and he hid in his friend's apartment for a week. her father was a newspaper editor. he was editor of a party newspaper. a week later he, too, was arrested. he was sent to the gulag for years. when this happened, natasha was only 2 years old. you can imagine how terrible it must have been. one night her parents just disappeared, and her world turned upside down. she grew up in the war years and after in an orphanage.
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after the war her father finally was released from the gulag. he came back from the camps. he was still so frightened that he didn't come to moscow right away, but eventually when he felt it was safe, he found his daughter and told her everything that had happened to their family. and then he died, just shortly thereafter. when natasha was a young woman working at this institute, she met and married adolf tolkachev. he was 30, she was 22, and things seemed to be getting a little better for them. 1957 was the year of sputnik. things in the soviet union seemed to be looking up. there was a little bit of optimism, because the war was over. stalin was dead. kruschev had taken over, and there was a period known as the thaw which was really a period of optimism. many young people thought despite the horrible things that had happened to the country in the last few decades, maybe there was a better life ahead.
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in 1965 tolkachev and his wife, natasha, had a baby son, oleg, their only child. but in the late 1960s, working at this radar institute, tolkachev began the feel things weren't quite right. he began to get disenchanted with what was happening around him. trawl, hope -- first of all, hopes for the thaw came to a crashing end. especially with the soviet invasion of czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing the democracy movement known as the prague spring. in natasha's department, the antenna department, they had kind of a pro forma vote one day, how many people in the department supported the soviet invasion of czechoslovakia, and, of course, you can imagine in a soviet police state, you were supposed to raise your hand yes. natasha was the only employee in that department who raised her hand no.
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she was brave, and she was courageous, and she hated the system that had ruined her family. by the 1970s, things got worse. as tolkachev's young son was growing up, he lived in a society that was plagued by shortages, red lines. the years of stagnation is what the soviets themselves called it. and something began to eat away at him. it wasn't only the long lines for bread or the fact that they lived in a nuclear-armed country that couldn't even make a pair of jeans. he began to feel anger. he was angry at the past, at what had happened to natasha's parents, and he was angry at the present. he didn't act on this anger right away because his young son was growing up and, god forbid, he thought i don't want to do anything that would bring upon
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my family what happened to natasha and her parents. but by the mid 1970s, tolkachev began to read the writings of another scientist who was also working in a secret military institute, and it started -- and had started to speak out about this state of affairs. his name was andre sack love, and toll ca chof was inspired by what he wrote and also by the dissident writer alexander shoals notice sin. his books came home. natasha brought them in the sort of carbon paper, dog-eared copies that were passed from person to person. while both were in the limelight as dissidents, tolkachev was in the shadows. he was a rather unassuming fellow, he kept to himself. by his own account, he didn't have a wide circle of friends. he loved to work with his hands on weekends. he fixed radios in his apartment
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or tackled other home repair projects with great satisfaction. he was a real loner even to those in his family are. never once did he take his young son to the office or even talked about what he did there. he liked to go on an isolated camping trip in the rugged baltic sea area of the soviet union rather than take a free pass to some fancy soviet-style resort on the black sea. and by the mid 1970s, tolkachev was really getting burned up and deciding he had to do something. but what? he told the cia that the source of his anger was that everything in the soviet union was going wrong and bad. he said soviet politics, literature and philosophy had been, and i quote, enmeshed for a long time in such an impassable, hypocritical demagoguery, an ideological
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empty talk that he couldn't stand it anymore. he tried to ignore everything in public life. he liked the theater, but he couldn't even go anymore to the theater, it was so bad. he had never been a communist party member, so he thought maybe i'll write up some leaflets and go out on the street like a dissident. and, of course, within five minutes he realized that wasn't a very good idea, because he could easily be arrested just as natasha's parents had been. and it's worth recalling that lots of families, millions and millions were torn apart by stalin's purges. a lot of people this the 1970s -- in the 1970s like tolkachev were sick and tired of the years of stagnation. but these people did not act on their feelings. adolf tolkachev did. the idea of what to do finally came the him one day in september, 1976. an elite soviet fighter pilot defected from the soviet union in his plane and flew his plane
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from the far east right to japan without telling anybody, and he landed that plane at a civilian airport in japan and said i want asylum. and here is a mig 25. he climbed out of the cockpit, which was a brand new soviet airplane that the west had feared. the west believed it was probably the fastest fighter plane in the world. they'd never seen one before, and here was a soviet pilot landing the plane right there at gate d5 and saying, "i want asylum, here's the plane." the mig 25 was so mysterious to the west that the minute that pilot landed, the united states secretly sent a team of experts to japan to take that plane apart down to the rivets. it was an intelligence windfall. they wanted to find out what was in it, how well it would perform. this was the cold war, two blocs
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inexorably fighting each other across boundaries in europe and all around the world. so tolkachev heard about this on the voice of america listening to his short wave radio in his apartment. the voice of america was sometimes jammed but oftentimes it got through, and he heard about this pilot defecting, and he thought, you know -- as he later told the cia, i decided right then and there i'm going to do what that pilot did. no, tolkachev didn't think he was going to leave the soviet union, but he would defect within. he would strike back at the soviet system by taking secrets that were in his file drawers and in the vaults of his institute. the top secret blueprints of radars and military planning and research and betray them. but betray them the who? to who? tolkachev's high-rise apartment building in moscow was just a few blocks from the american
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embassy. he often went jogging in the morning around the american embassy compound. he knew where the guard shacks were, where the americans parked their cars and where their filled their cars up with gasoline. he spent hours and hours jogging and looking patiently, trying to find the license plates of americans right there in moscow. those plates had a special code at the beginning in soviet times, it was do4. so one place he looked was this gas station. the diplomats often filled up there, and he found some cars with the do4. just a few months after the fighter pilot had defected, one evening around 6 p.m. in january of 1977 tolkachev showed up at the gas station, and there was a man getting out of his car, and it said do4. he went up to the man. tolkachev had memorized three sentences in english. he didn't have very good english, but he remembered these
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three sentences, and he'd written out a little note. and he went up to the man, and he said, "are you an american?" and the man said, yes. the tolkachev again said, "i'd like to talk to you." and the american man said now wouldn't be a good time, it'd be difficult to talk here. and tolkachev in the third sentence he remembered said, "oh, it would be difficult." and then he took his little note, he put it on the man's front seat and went away from the gas station very quickly so no one would see him. what he didn't realize is that he had just approached the head of the cia in moscow. [laughter] so when the cia head known as the station chief got back to the office with the note, of course, he was very interested. he opened it up. it was all wrapped very tightly in four layers of tape, some glue, several layers of paper.
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and the station chief saw a note saying i'm a russian engineer, and i'd like to help, i'd like to cooperate with you. but it didn't say who he was or where to find him or what his phone number was. so the station chief sent a cable to cia headquarters in langley, virginia, saying this man approached me. and, by the way, i reproduce this cable in the book so you can read it for yourself. but the bottom line is that the cia headquarters said it might be a trap. the kgb often sent people to send notes like this and make approaches, and it was sometimes a real trap. so headquarters said don't respond. in the note tolkachev had proposed another meeting. headquarters said don't go, don't do it. well, tolkachev didn't give up. in the next few months, about once a month, he kept trying. he kept finding that car, going up, giving notes, saying i'd like to talk to you, but the cia station chief said i can't do it, no, and ignored him.
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and then the last time in may of 1977 tolkachev was so mad, he had a package. and he went up and he banged on the hood of the cia man's car, and cia man refused to talk to him. long story short, in the next few months the cia finally realized this guy is probably not the kgb, maybe we ought to find out what he's trying to tell us. and they began in 1979 an espionage operation to run tolkachev as a spy. but until new year's day, 1979, they'd never met with him. the first meeting was on new year's day after sunset. the city was quiet, it was dark and extremely cold. this was a big gamble for the cia because they knew that really for decades but in this time particularly the kgb had teams swarming over moscow. they knew that one false move
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could get a man arrested and executed. and for a long time they had been afraid to meet with agents or spies on the streets of moscow. it was just too dangerous. but this operation that began on new year's day 1979 showed something different. it showed that it could be done. in the past the cia had used impersonal methods like dead drops, fake bricks, fake logs to communicate with their agents. this time tolkachev said i don't want to do any of that, i want to meet with you. i want to look you guys in the eye. i want to shake your hand, i want to talk to you. tolkachev was like that. he had to let off steam. he had to have some personal contact with the cia that he was risking his life for. his first case officer for the cia, the man who he met with, was john gillshire. john was the son of russian
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immigrants. he had wonderful russian language skills, and he built up trust with tolkachev. and one day he said to him, why are you doing this? and tolkachev was a bit vague. he said, i'm a dissident at heart. wasn't really clear to the cia what that meant, but over time he trusted gillshire enough to explain more. they met, the cia and other case officers in addition to john, met tolkachev 21 times on the streets of moscow. tolkachev said i'm not spying because i love your country. he wrote to the cia, i've never seen your country with my own eyes, and to love it unseen i do not have enough fantasy or romanticism. no, tolkachev betrayed his own country out of anger and revenge. he told the cia over and over again he was bound and determined to do as much damage as possible to the soviet union in the shortest possible time.
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tolkachev even told the cia he had a plan. he said it's seven stages. it'll take 12 years, and here's what i'll give you. this guy was an engineer. everything had to be orderly. and what did he want in return? well, aside from avenging this burning hatred of the soviet system, he wanted money, and he got a lot of money. he couldn't buy anything with money in that time if many -- in moscow. you couldn't even buy a decent pair of shoes. he wanted the money as a sign of respect, and at one point the cia offered to pay him more than the salary of the president of the united states. he never really got that money, but he got big bricks of rubles, pretty worthless currency, but he could sit there and look at them and feel respect, i suppose. [laughter] he also wanted things like a decent razor blade which you
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couldn't get in the soviet union. and he wanted good pencils and erasers for his son who was studying architecture this school. and his son wanted -- in school. and his son wanted western rock music. one day tolkachev said to his case officer, and -- can you get me the list? it said led zeppelin, pink floyd, the who -- [laughter] and so on. this was a big deal for tolkachev. he wanted head foaps for his son -- headphones or for his son, stereo catalogs. once tolkachev got careless. he didn't hide the cameras and the spy equipment he was using to get the materials for the c cia, and his wife discovered what he was doing. natasha, as i mentioned to you, had her own very deep feelings, and she said what are you doing? it's clear. and he said, look, i won't do it anymore. i'll stop. and she begged him to stop
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because she said look what happened to my family. she was every bit as anti-soviet as he was. she hated the system even more, but she didn't want harm to come to the family. but tolkachev didn't stop. he continued. so how did he do it? well, tolkachev discovered that there was a huge gap in the security of this top secret institute. he discovered that he could put secret documents in his coat pocket, especially in the winter with a big heavy coat, carry them home at the lunch hour, make copies, and bring them back after lunch. it was a 20 minute walk from his front door to the place where he worked, and stick them in the files before closing, and nobody would know. so the cia had a big problem, though, with this. obviously, they were really thrilled that access to so many secret documents, but there were no photocopiers. he couldn't just take it to a kip coes or someplace and -- kinkos and have it xeroxed.
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so the cia had to come up with a camera. at first they gave tolkachev a very small spy camera that could -- so small it could fit into a fountain a pen or a lipstick. it was hard to hold, it didn't work very well at first. some of the pictures didn't come out. so then they gave tolkachev the ultimate weapon, they gave him a pentax 35 millimeter normal camera and a clamp, and tolkachev clamped that cam that to the back of his -- camera to the back of his kitchen chair, and he spread the documents on the kitchen table at lunchtime day after day, week after week for years, producing thousands and thousands of pages of secret document on 35 millimeter film. in fact, the cia even disguised the film. they put it into soviet boxes so it looked like soviet film, but deep inside the cassettes they wound very high quality kodak
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film, and it paid off. and i just mention this because often times in espionage we see the movie version of it where everything works. but if you read this book, i've tried to give you a taste of what espionage was really like; the human factor, the difficulties. and, in fact, often times there was of a lot of tension between high technology and low technology. and sometimes low technology -- like that simple pentax camera that any tourist would have around his neck anywhere in the world -- was what worked. and this came up again because another big idea of cia headquarters was let's give this really valuable spy some kind of special spy communications device, you know? some fancy electronic thing they had developed. and they had developed it. i remind you, this was 20 years before the blackberry or the iphone. the cia had invented one. a little hand held communication
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device, and they were probably spending millions of dollars on this technology at headquarters, so they said to the moscow station let's give this to the guy. and, of course, in moscow it was a different can thing because here tolkachev was providing photograph copies of thousands of pages of documents. what was he going to peck into that tiny little hand held communicator that would be very interesting? nobody b knew. but, following orders, the moscow station gave him the little device. but they first decided before we ask him to use it, we ought to test it. because a great deal of the wonder of espionage and the success of it was not so much in the things you see on television, you know? there are no car chases in this story. but there's a lot of choreography. a lot of this is about how people behave, how they look on the street. having a meeting with a spy in a park looking just normal, carrying on normal routines, escaping the eye of the kgb that
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was everywhere, do any of us think we could do it? so they took this high-tech device out to a vegetable market. the chief of station, a fellow named burton gerber, and his wife rosalie, took it out and tried to test it as a vegetable market. and burton put one unit in his pocket, and rosalie took other. rosalie went to the cucumbers, and burton stood at the tomatoes, and they decided to try and send each other a message. well, with this little device -- which was called the discus, its code name -- there was a little red light you had to see. and burton found himself standing there in the vegetable market looking down into his shirt pocket to see if that little red light was on. and he thought, you know, what kind of choreography of espionage is it if you're standing in the open looking in your shirt pocket? [laughter] he didn't want to give that thing to tolkachev. and when they eventually did give it to him, tolkachev used
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it only once to send a message to the cia saying, can we meet tomorrow? [laughter] lots of smart and well-intentioned people at cia had worked on this electronics, and i don't want to belittle it because i think that high technology, american ingenuity was a big advantage in the cold war. it was what we had, and playing to our strength was a good idea. but my investigation of this case, and i think the story in the book will show, there's a certain kind of shoe leather persistence; sweat, patience, carefulness that paid off too. i hope this book showed espionage not in some romanticized way, but in the way it really was. and for those of us who certainly remember the stakes of the cold war, the difficulties of it and also the real question about who was going to prevail in this confrontation, the cold
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war was not some kind of small conflict that we always were sure would work out the way it did. it was a frightening time, and it was frightening because of nuclear missiles. it sucked up an enormous amount of our national treasure. this is a report from the front lines of that war, and the story of one man who decided to help the other side. as natasha wrote as she was dying of cancer near the end of her life, she wrote to the americans, and she said tolkachev did it for freedom in our country. a freedom that he never got to see, but that eventually came. the soviet union collapsed less than a year after natasha wrote that. so one lesson about this entire thing, it's not just history. we live in a dangerous world today. we have adversaries today. i'm sure all of you know from
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watching the news and thinking about the world today it may not be a cold war anymore, but it does seem awfully difficult and spread out, rivalries and dangers from russia and china, wars in ukraine, isis in the middle east. this book persuaded me in working on it that human source intelligence, real spies are as essential today as they were in the cold war. yes, we do still prevail in technology. we have the best spy satellites, we can intercept everybody's e-mail and cell phone conversations. there's lots of ways we can get information, but there's no substitute for a human source, for a real spy like adolf tolkachev. so i'd love to now take your questions. ask me anything, and i'll be happy to do my best. thank you. [applause]
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>> wait for the to ask the question, please. thank you. >> if i can, i have two short questions. one is where did you get the title, and also -- [inaudible conversations] >> oh, i'm sorry. is this on? okay. sorry about that. i have two short questions. one is where did you get the title, and the second one is who is the head of the cia during this time? >> so the first question is where did i get the title, and "the billion dollar spy" refers to a moment in this operation when the cia was asked by those
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guys in moscow, you know, we're doing a lot out there on the street with this spy. we were getting all these rolls of film, hundreds of them, but we're not looking at it, you know, we're passing it along to you, so what's it worst? and the cia asked the air force saying we've been giving you all this top secret intelligence, we even got circuit boards from inside the soviet military machine, and the air force said already we've saved $2 billion in research and development just in the first few years. so "the billion dollar spy" saved the united states billions of dollars in research and development. and i can explain that a little further. stancefield turner was -- admiral stansfield turner was head of the cia in the first years of this including the period when headquarters was telling moscow don't talk to him. turner was afraid something was wrong. turner ordered the station to stand down and not to talk to anybody for a while. and he was succeeded by bill casey who was reagan's cia
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director through the rest of this operation. >> basically, isn't he a whistleblower? >> i think whistleblower implies some person within our own government who maybe calls attention to waste or something, but this is existential whistle blowing, okay? [laughter] he risked his life. >> of course, but i was thinking of edward snowden. >> i don't think it's in the same category. >> well, he's -- edward snowden has been declared a traitor and probably can't come back to this country, so -- >> i think the snowden case is entirely different, and, you know, i think in the case of tolkachev we were at war with the soviet union. both sides spied on each other. what was the difference? the difference was our two great
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systems. ours, we believed, represented some kind of reflection of our devotion to individual liberty. the soviet union was a prison for its people. there was a moral dimension to the soviet union in the comparison with the united states. tell me, what was the moral dimension in the snowden case? i'm not sure, you know, it could be that we did learn that our government can had overstepped in surveillance, but i don't think we can have intelligence agencyies if one man can rereese all the documents at will. release all the documents at will. those were an enormous amount of top secret material. and he took it upon himself to make that decision? i don't think it's the same. >> i have no doubts about your story, but i've heard some very disturbing things about the history of the cia. one is, is that james angleton
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was a raving paranoid and that for many years during his reign they just did not accept any information from people who claimed they had information that would damage the soviet union. and i don't know how damaging that was in all. you might want to talk about that. and the second is that i read this book on the history of the cia called "legacy of ashes" which won awards which went on to show the tremendous incompetence of the cia in predicting any of the events in the soviet union. so i was wondering if you could address those two points. >> so your question about james angleton i address in the book. angleton was the head of counterintelligence from 954-1974, a very important period in the cia's history. and it's true that he was ultra paranoid. and because of his fears that the kgb had some kind of global
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plot are, some kind of -- plot, some kind of master plot of deception against us, many, many valuable agents -- i think there were many, but we don't really know how many -- were just ignored. and i think it was damaging to the cia. i'm not a historian of that period, but i address this in the book. so on the second question was -- >> "legacy of ashes." >> you know, my problem with that book, "legacy of ashes," is that cia is not an open book. this is a very secretive place. everything we've done, we don't know the sum total of it. so if an author comes and tells you it was all bad and half of it's still secret, how does he know? that was my problem. it was a conceptual problem. certainly, there are things in that book that are true, and the cia's errors in the world are well known, and i'm certainly familiar with a lot of them from bay of pigs to vietnam.
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but it's not the whole story because the whole story is still locked up in the vaults. >> so would you say that the soviet intelligence worked better against the u.s. or the u.s. intelligence worked better against the soviets? >> this is, again, a big, difficult question, okay? but it is very true that we had far better technical intelligence. it is true that our satellites, you know, were superior. we could count soviet missile silos, and we could see the license number on the back of a jeep with a satellite. we could pick up their signals intelligence. we had a lot of advantages as innovators. the soviet kgb had always been very good at human source intelligence. they had run agents for years, and they did a lot of the same things we did. but i would say tolkachev's case is particularly interesting here because for a long time people were saying it couldn't ever be done. and we did it.
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we had a human source agent. the 31 meetings -- 21 meetings with the cia were carried out almost entirely been 3 miles of front door of kgb headquarters. >> i hope he eventually was able to come to the u.s. and be a free man. >> he wasn't. he paid with his life. he was caught and executed. >> you answered my question, what happened -- [inaudible] >> another question, and, you know, i think that i held you in suspense long enough -- >> i want to thank you for coming and for writing the book. those were very critical years. those were very critical years to our country. >> yep. and we survived it. and i don't think we know even now quite how it is we came out of that cold war without a nuclear war. >> that's right. >> but we did. >> well, thank you very much.
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go ahead, you can just hold it. >> i'll speak to it. i was born in communist poland, so i'm familiar with communism even though i left as a child. but my father spent a year during the war, he lived in eastern poland, so he was sent on train to siberia -- >> hold that microphone up so we can hear you. >> my grandfather dayed of starvation in sigh -- died of starvation this siberia. communism was a system where they pretend to pay you, and people pretend to work. [laughter] so it's not a good system. our system has a lot of faults and, hopefully, they'll be fixed. my question to you is why didn't can tolkachev want to come to
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the united states? i mean, after a while he could have asked for asylum. >> you know, it's a good question, why didn't tolkachev want to come, and this discussion went back and forth for years. for a while the cia said to tolkachev, would you like to come to the united states? i think they would have brought him, they prepared a plan to bring him. and for a while they thought it was interesting, and then he said have you told anybody in your family, they might have to come too. he was unwilling to tell his family and unwilling to leave them. and as time went by, he became more unwilling. in 1983 the cia approached him and said, look, here's an envelope, here's the whole plan. you can come to the united states and spend the rest of your years here, and i'm sure they were putting money in an escrow account for him. he would have lived comfortably. he said it's not my goal to come live in the united states, i want to destroy the soviet system. >> my follow-up question is now that putin is in power, how is
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it different? because he's practically a dictator. he was a criminal that would have been arrested had he not started to work for -- i forgot the other guy's name. the guy that preceded him. so is, basically, nothing has changed in russia, in my opinion. >> well, i disagree with you. the question was nothing has changed this russia with putin. i'm certainly worried about what's happened to the leadership in russia, but i'd say a couple things. first of all, this is not the soviet union, okay? russia is certainly not a democracy, but it's sort of a soft authoritarianism, and people in coffeehouses and online they still say what they think even if this guy is -- guy has sort of wiped out the organizations of democracy. he certainly has completely removed all the oxygen from competition, right? he is now the number one, there's no number two. and the war in ukraine was unnecessary and was provoked, so there's a lot of bad behavior here.
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but i would say as somebody who goes to russia periodically and cares about it, we shouldn't confuse putin with all of russia. there's an entire middle class that benefited from the last 20 years, from the amount of openness they did have. it's been the most open time in a thousand years of russian history. and i think we can hope that even with a kind of strongman leader, the influences that we, the americans and the western europeans, have helped spread will prevail over time. >> thank you. >> oh, come on -- >> i have a question too. >> all right. >> did the cia take care of natasha and their son after he was executed? >> you know, i tell the story in the book, and i don't want to spoil this for you -- >> oh, okay. >> but it's a sad story. and i think i'd urge you to read it. i just don't want to spoil it. >> very good. >> i think that a lot of people are sometimes surprised to find out that we pay spies money, and
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some spies just do it for money. they sell the documents. and here's a fellow who did want money, and you'll see throughout my book there's this discussion of how much to pay him. there are misunderstandings and confusions. they get the dollar sign, you know, and so you might conclude at first that tolkachev was just greedy. but actually you realize that there was nothing to buy with it, and he just wanted to see some sign of respect from those guys he met in the park, that he was worth something. because his mission was all in his head. he wanted to avenge what stalin had done to natasha's parents. it was the long arm of history just coming back again, 20, 30 years later, pushing him forward, putting those documents in his coat pocket, going out to those dark parks, shaking hands with the cia, going home every day, taking the clamp and the camera out, making photographs in his kitchen.
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a painting of tolkachev in his apartment with that clamp and camera now hangs in the headquarters of the cia, a tribute to him. i saw the painting when it was hung last year, and it's reproduced in the book. >> hi. did the cia ever try or contemplate getting him to recruit others to spy as well? >> i'm not hearing you very well concern. >> i'm sorry. did the cia ever attempt or contemplate having him recruit others to join a spy network? >> no, never. he was such a valuable agent, you know, just emptying out these vaults and file cabinets that they didn't want him to tell anybody else. and, again, i remind you that we had these wonderful satellites that could fly over the soviet union and send back realtime images. we now take this for granted in our communications age, but in 1977 it was a wonder that we could do this. it gave us a great advantage. but you know what? think about it for a minute.
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a satellite cannot see into anybody's filing cabinet. satellite cannot see into the minds of men. satellites have a lot of limitations. this one man, adolf tolkachev, provided enormous amounts of information that could not be gotten with a satellite. and that's why we still need people like this. you know? if we're going to defend our system in a dangerous world, whatever you think about thely of the cia or the things you've heard in the news, we need good intelligence. it's part of who we are. we need to know what is in the minds of our adversaries, people that want to hurt us, so that we can be better prepared. and if it's isis, we need a tolkachev. we need to know who are they? what are they thinking and what are they doing? you don't get all that information on twitter and facebook. >> how many people at that time
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were operating through the cia like him? >> you mean in the moscow station or -- >> in russia in general. >> i think the moscow station was maybe 12, 15 people tops. >> so -- [inaudible] spying on russia. >> on russia. there were not a lot. there were, obviously, thousands of people at headquarters and thousands of people working the satellites in other means. but right there in the heart of darkness on the streets of moscow, a dozen people. >> i was wondering how you would compare tolkachev to earlier such technical agents, people like oleg penkovsky? >> i mentioned these other agents in the beginning of the book, and the question was how do they compare. there were really great,
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productive spies in the cold war, and and there were lots that were certainly very helpful but maybe not in the top level. i would put tolkachev in the very, very highest level of the top two or three spies. and here it is 2015 i'm telling you this story which ended in 1985. so it's been a long time. tolkachev's a spy that almost nobody's ever heard of, but he was hugely important. and i wrote this book based on the original documents that i got from the cia. i, first, asked. then i implored, and then i cajoled. i did a lot of lobbying and waited several years. and eventually i got the cia to give me some of the operational cables between the moscow station and headquarters so i could better understand what really happened. and i interviewed some of those case officers who were on the street who shook tolkachev's hand and the station chiefs.
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so this book, i think, is unusual that way. if you read much nonfiction or even fiction about espionage, this is a very granular, very detailed and highly authentic account of something we don't see very often, how it really was. >> one follow-up question then. what do you think of jonathan pollard? >> you know, jonathan pollard was a man who spied for israel and was convicted of spying and serving a term. and again, as i said in response to the snowden question, we need effective intelligence, we need secrecy. i'm a journalist. i spent my entire career fighting secrecy, bringing secrets and publishing them. but i don't think you can have a society, a democracy and a system that's efficient and functions against danger if individuals are going to be able to walk out and reveal those secrets.
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so i think we have to be careful not to let our intelligence agencies become some kind of monster and get out of control. we have to insist that the congress have oversight, we have to have rules. but those rules mean that it's not up to individuals to do what pollard and snowden did. >> no. the united states didn't choose him to work with israel. but professionally, you know, they seem to have the same modus operandi that tolkachev did. he just walked out with secret documents and brought them back. >> and this idea that the trade craft is similar applies to a lot of spying, okay? a lot of operations people carried out secret documents. i think tolkachev is a particularly unique case. >> thank you for coming tonight, mr. hoffman. what drew you to this story? this was a relatively unknown spy, at least in our country. what drew you? >> i wrote a previous book
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called "the dead hand," which has a chapter about some of the spies who were discovered in 1985: 1985 was a really bad year for the cia when a bunch of their best spies were discovered including tolkachev. so i had mentioned this case just in passing. but in the research for that book, i found this odd monograph the cia had declassified about the trade craft in the tolkachev case. and the reason it had been written was as a training manual for young cia officers. it was the kind of thing saying here's how you use that little camera, and here's, you know, it was sort of an example. but that's all it was. it didn't really get to the heart of the case. so i found the man who wrote that, and i said, you know, i think there's a good book here. and this man, who was retired if the cia, said i've been waiting for five years for somebody to come say that. [laughter] and with his help, we went to the cia. and a lot of the people who
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worked on this case seemed primed and interested in telling me about it. so as a journalist, i thought there's a good story here, and i might be able to tell it. also i lived and worked with my family in moscow. i was a journalist there. i saw a lot of the things i describe in the book at firsthand. i covered the reagan presidency for "the washington post". i remember the cold war. i remember that existential conflict and what it was. so when i was trying to take myself back to tell the story of tolkachev again, it was much easier, i think, for me to appreciate the stakes. they were big. >> yeah. seems like, to me, that this is a -- there's a lot of humanity in the story from, just from listening to you tonight. did you have a, develop a great affection for this person, an admiration for him? >> i never met tolkachev. as i told you, he was caught and executed, but i was able to read
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the letters that he wrote to the cia. and those letters is where the humanity comes through. they're not long. he was a very, very reserved fellow. even to the cia, he just -- sometimes he would write in little bullet points or diagrams. i mean, he wasn't somebody who gave off a lot of emotion. but he had in his mind that something had gone wrong there. and you know what? everybody that's come out has told us something was wrong. >> yeah. well, thank you. >> well, i want to thank you so much for joining us this evening, and i would like to invite all of you to come to the back of the room to meet the author and to get a book. please join me in thanks david e. hoffman. [applause]
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