Edward Lee Howard, the former CIA agent who defected to the Soviet Union in the mid 1980s after a disappearing act in the New Mexico desert, has died. He was 50.
Igor Prelin, an official with an association of retired Soviet foreign intelligence officers in Moscow, said Howard died July 12 in Zhukovka, an exclusive suburb of Moscow, and was later cremated.
Richard A. Boucher, a State Department spokesman, confirmed Howard's death.
The cause of Howard's death remains as mysterious as his life.
The Washington Post said he died of a broken neck in an accident at his country house. But in a report by RIA-Novosti, the Russian government's news service, an unnamed Russian foreign intelligence officer, who said he knew Howard, denied "this version of Howard's death" but gave no further details.
"There is talk that there was an accident or a car crash. There's lots of contradicting information," Prelin said.
Author David Wise, who once interviewed Howard and wrote The Spy Who Got Away, said Howard died after falling down a flight of stairs.
Howard fled the United States from the New Mexico desert in 1985. In an account by Wise in the New York Times Magazine on Nov. 2, 1986, Wise said that Mary Howard helped her husband escape by driving home from the desert with a dummy made out of clothes and a wig stand in the front seat, fooling the agent watching her. He wrote that Mrs. Howard further aided her husband by playing a tape recording of his voice over their telephone to deceive FBI agents who were tapping the phone.
Howard turned up in Moscow the following year and was granted political asylum on Aug. 7, 1986.
Mrs. Howard was not charged in connection with her husband's escape. She and her son came to Moscow after hearing of Howard's death and will leave today for the United States with his ashes, Prelin said. Prelin said Howard also had had a Russian wife, but they separated several years ago.
The KGB provided Howard with a Moscow apartment and a country house in Zhukovka. It paid him a salary for five years until he set up a trade consulting business, Howard said in a 1995 interview.
"I never gave information that could hurt America or Americans," Howard said at the time.
Howard lived in Moscow until 1991, when his chief patron at the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, was charged with treason in the attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Howard went to Sweden for about a year before returning to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He had been forced to resign from the CIA in 1983 after failing a polygraph test about petty theft and drug use. At the time, he had been in training to operate in Moscow as a team with his wife.
Howard was reported to have sold information to Soviet agents in Austria in 1984. U.S. authorities put him under surveillance after receiving information from Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB deputy chief who defected to the United States in 1985, that appeared to incriminate Howard.
Howard's defection came during a rash of espionage incidents. It was an embarrassment for the CIA and helped damage the U.S. spy network in the Soviet Union.
A number of U.S. diplomats were expelled from the Soviet Union as a result of information provided by Howard. Wise said in an interview that the information also resulted in the execution of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet defense researcher, a charge Howard denied.
"He was a very important spy," said Wise, who interviewed Howard extensively. "He was the first CIA defector and maybe the only one we know of who left through the KGB. Most of the traffic has been in the other direction."
While admitting some contact with the KGB, Howard, who released his own memoirs _ ghost-written by Richard Cote _ in 1995 (Safe House: The Compelling Memoirs of the Only CIA Spy to Seek Asylum in Russia," National Press Books) denied he was guilty of full-fledged informing.
In Russia, Howard lived a "rather dull life of an ex-spy," which in those days included monthly allowances and a poorly hidden new identity, said Pavel Felgenhauer, a journalist and independent military analyst.
But there were problems. Even before he came to Russia, Howard had a severe drinking problem, said Wise.
His life passed in longing for his wife and his son, Lee, who was born in March 1983. They were allowed occasional visits to Russia. Howard wrote that he went to the United States to visit them after he defected, a claim Wise dismissed.
Though Howard seems to have been valued by the Soviet authorities, his information appears to have been less important than that of Aldrich H. Ames, who was arrested in 1994 for espionage after having identified many American spies to the Soviets.
Mark Kramer, a Russian specialist at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University, concluded that Howard played a bigger role deflecting attention from Ames than in his own spying. Howard "did do some damage on his own, but it was that inadvertent contribution that was especially important," he added.
_ Information from the New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.