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U.S. defector talks about life in Moscow

"You know the cuckoo clock at the International Hotel?" Edward Lee Howard said over the clicking phone line. "I'll meet you under the cuckoo clock at 10:30." And so once again, life imitates trash fiction.

Howard is the first CIA agent ever to defect to Moscow, and from the start of a four-hour interview he seemed a strange vessel of a man, someone who reads his Len Deighton and then dons the trench coat.

No doubt, by arranging a meeting with the Washington Post, Howard, and probably the KGB itself, were playing yet another clever game of "international intelligence." And yet it all seemed so . . . dumb.

On Saturday morning, at the appointed hour exactly, beneath the monstrous clock with a squawking copper rooster on top, a man neither short nor tall, neither skinny nor fat, neither handsome nor ugly, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Hi. I'm Ed Howard. Good to meet you. Why don't we go."

The International Hotel, known locally as "the Mezh," is

the one place in the entire Soviet Union that resembles America, Business Class. Upholstered "conversation areas," inside-out glass elevators, shops with stuff in them. Nothing like Russia, really.

"I like it 'cause it looks like one of those malls back home," Howard said. "Sometimes I eat upstairs at the German beer place, and I like the ice cream parlor a lot."

Howard headed toward the door. The lobby was filled with Westerners, businessmen mainly, tired-looking men who roamed the lobby waiting for the next meeting. Possibly one or more of them knew who Howard was, if only vaguely, as a distant scandal, a man who humiliated the FBI and CIA four years ago when he slipped through their cheesecloth surveillance in New Mexico and left for Soviet sanctuary. Possibly, possibly not. No one at the Mezh seemed to be paying him special attention.

How is it that a defector _ one suspected of selling secrets to the KGB _ can roam around in public? Isn't he afraid that someone from the CIA station at the U.S. Embassy here might try to grab him? Won't he be recognized by some computer chip salesman from Tacoma who all of a sudden points and says, "Hey you, aren't you . . .?"

"No way," Howard said. "If you asked 1,000 people on the streets in Washington, D.C., or in a normal American city, say Cleveland, Ohio, "Who is Ed Howard?,' 999 would never know who I am, much less what I look like."

And the CIA?

"They have better things to do with their time."

Outside in the bleak Moscow light, Howard opened the back-seat door of a black Volga, the preferred car of countless mid-ranking Communist Party, military and KGB officials.

"We're going to the dacha," Howard said in mediocre Russian, and the KGB driver headed out Kutuzovsky Prospect toward the southwest outskirts of Moscow.

After leaving the main road, the driver took a deliberately circuitous route toward Howard's place. He took every curve at stomach-turning speed. He kept glancing in the rear-view mirror. Splendid and somber. Like something in Len Deighton.

Howard rolled his eyes.

"On the way back, don't bother going this way," he told the driver. "After all, what's the point?"

Howard asked to defect in 1986, a "walk-in" at a Soviet embassy in Eastern Europe _ probably Budapest. But the CIA believes he began selling secrets to the Soviets three years before that, after he was forced out of the agency as a bad security risk for failing a series of polygraph tests about his private conduct. They say they are convinced he sold out a number of key "assets" in Moscow, including one aviation expert who was eventually executed for espionage.

Howard denies this. Though he did not speak in detail about what information he may have supplied his Soviet handlers, he said, "I am not responsible for anybody's death or anybody's arrest."

Besides traveling abroad frequently _ he even brags about trips to the West _ Howard said he spends nearly all of his time at the two-story brick dacha outside Moscow. The grounds are surrounded by a 7-foot fence. A retired couple live in a small cottage on the grounds; the woman cooks and cleans for Howard; the man tends the garden.

The couple call Howard "Ivan Ivanovich," the Russian equivalent of Joe Blow, Mr. Nobody. In the back yard there is a guard booth where two young KGB men keep a round-the-clock watch on Howard. Inside the gate there are infrared devices to signal intruders. There are two car sheds in the yard, one for the Volga, the other for Howard's own Volvo.

Howard also has a spacious apartment just off the Arbat in downtown Moscow.

Inside, the house is set up with well-made Soviet furniture and top-of-the-line Western video and audio equipment. There are two bedrooms, a large living room, a deck and a study. The ceilings are 25 feet high, and a kitschy painting of a dead fowl and an open shotgun hangs over the fireplace.

In the study, Howard keeps two computers. He uses them for his "economic consulting work" at a "major" institute and at a Soviet bank where he works in currency trading and gold deals.

In a country where collapse is the word of the moment and tens of millions of people live in dire poverty, Howard lives well, mainly at KGB expense. "Oh, I'm comfortable," he said.

Howard said he earns 500 rubles a month at his institute job and some "paltry" hard-currency commissions at the bank. He has access to the well-stocked diplomatic stores where Westerners buy their groceries. But he denies the KGB ever paid him major sums of money for information or for his simple presence as a defector-trophy.

"When I got here I had one suitcase of clothes," he said. "Basically, when I got to work, they said make sure the boy has some good clothes. . . . They gave me an allowance to buy clothes, maybe a couple thousand rubles. . . . Also, the first three months until I could work out my situation they gave me some money, some rubles. It wasn't a big amount."

All the guards and tails don't seem to bother him much.

"The KGB is responsible for my security. They take it seriously. Sometimes I get lectures from them about "Why do you not take your security seriously' and so on," he said.

"As long as they give me the freedom to operate _ well, operate's a bad word _ but the room to move around, to associate with who I want, to do what I want, it's okay. And they do."

Howard said he is even free to make his own travel decisions. In the past four years, he said, he has wandered Eastern Europe, Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, France and Canada _ "for fun."

Last year, another American defector, Glenn Souther, committed suicide in Moscow and was buried with a glowing tribute from the KGB. Howard admitted that in his first two years he too was depressed, and he reacted to the Souther suicide with "sadness and understanding."

"Defectors are a crazy breed. The first year or two are tough. But then you stabilize," he said. Suicide was "just a (chicken's) way out."

He'd just as soon live the life of a Soviet yuppie. In fact, the only reason he was meeting with a reporter now, he said, was to "show up" a recent item in U.S. News & World Report, reported out of Washington, saying that Howard may have killed himself, slitting his own throat.

What does get him most depressed now, he said, is that his wife, Mary, and son, Lee, live in Minnesota and visit just twice a year, summers and Christmas. They could move here, he said, but they decided against it.

"I love my wife and son, but I have to do what's best for them," Howard said. He said he and his wife want Lee to go to a "good American school."

Howard's second bedroom is cluttered with huge stuffed animals and other toys for his son. So far, Lee Howard only knows his father "does financial work" and lives in Moscow. So far, he knows nothing about his father's life in deception.

"I suppose one day I'll explain it all to him," Howard said. "I don't know at what age, but I will."

Howard said his marriage is now "as yet undefined. I know eventually one of these days something might happen _ we probably can't stay together forever _ but until she finds somebody better, you know, we're living on a season-to-season basis."

But he spoke, too, of living one day in a "neutral country" with his family. "The Soviets haven't stopped me from seeking that alternative," he said. "I still consider it a viable option."

In the meantime, from "a material point of view, I have pretty much everything I want."