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Review: Cold War nonfiction 'Billion Dollar Spy' reads like a thriller

David E. Hoffman viscerally evokes the secret, ruthless Cold War battle between the American Central Intelligence Agency and the Soviet KGB in his true-life espionage thriller The Billion Dollar Spy. The book reads like a classic spy novel, but its story is a matter of fact.

Hoffman is a contributing editor at the Washington Post, a correspondent for the PBS investigation series Frontline and author of The Oligarchs (2002) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Dead Hand (2009).

To tell this exciting story he draws upon 944 pages of declassified operational files — mainly sensitive cable communication — between CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and the Moscow CIA station between 1977 and 1985. Hoffman informs us that from the earliest, post-World War II years of the Cold War, the CIA'S prospect of gaining an espionage foothold in Moscow had always been nearly impossible because of the immense danger involved. KGB agents were on the prowl everywhere, and a spy faced certain execution if discovered. Because of this perilous situation, the CIA didn't even bother trying to recruit native intelligence officers.

Enter Adolf Tolkachev, a 50-year-old electronics engineer and airborne radar expert who worked in a top secret Soviet military laboratory in Moscow. For months, starting in January 1977, Tolkachev had been attempting to make contact with personnel from the American Embassy or the CIA, furtively dropping notes with his name and phone number into the open windows of cars with American occupants, asking them to call him. Finally, in February 1978, after a year of avoiding Tolkachev's requests because of security caution, the CIA agreed to meet with him.

The story, which unfolds from 1978 to 1985, is classic John le Carré material. The CIA recruits Tolkachev. Over the years, during infrequent, anxiety-filled secret meetings with CIA case officers in a city swarming with KGB agents, Tolkachev provides reams of top secret military information. The material concerns "new Soviet airborne radar and guidance systems," thousands of pages of secret documents revealing "a new modification of the MiG-25, the first Soviet aircraft to be equipped with look-down/shoot down radar" and "new models of airborne missile systems. Singlehandedly, Hoffman writes, Tolkachev was giving "a road map to the United States for … defeating," decisively, Soviet ground radar and warplane radar. When CIA Moscow station chief Gus Hathaway asked the U.S. Air Force what the Soviet agent's information was worth, they replied: about $2 billion.

Hoffman goes into great detail on exactly how Tolkachev went about obtaining information from his government office and lab without attracting attention. His case officers over the seven years provided him with several different types of spy cameras, including his favorite, a reliable Pentax ME, with which he obtained the majority of his information. Another item that he repeatedly requested, and which his case officer finally obtained for him, was an L-pill, a lethal cyanide pill to be used immediately if the KGB arrested him.

It was not easy for the CIA to manage their prize agent with the ever present KGB threat. Officers eventually noticed that KGB surveillance cars always had telltale dirt triangles on their grilles left by the KGB carwash. And the CIA would occasionally have to make use of the J.I.B., or the jack-in-the-box, a cardboard cutout of a person which sprang up in the passenger seat after the real passenger had jumped out of the car unobserved moments before.

Hoffman writes that Tolkachev did pointedly ask for large amounts of cash for his services during the seven-year period (along with Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper records for his teenage son, Oleg). For the most part, the CIA complied with his requests. He was worth it.

But money was not the only motive that made Tolkachev spy against his country. According to Hoffman, he was heavily influenced in the mid-1970s by the writings of dissident Nobel Prize winners Andrei Sakharov, scientist-humanist designer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of the Soviet prison camps in his brilliant literary works.

Tolkachev's psychological reason, however, was the miserable, unjustified suffering and imprisonment of his father-in-law, a newspaper editor, and his mother-in-law in Josef Stalin's police state terrors, writes Hoffman. This forever transformed Tolkachev into an angry, simmering dissident just waiting for a chance for revenge.

Hoffman's The Billion Dollar Spy, the ending of which I will not spoil, is an exciting, revealing tale with a courageous, sympathetic protagonist.

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