Cover image of "The Billion Dollar Spy," a book that reveals Cold War spycraft

If you think you have a strong sense of how espionage was conducted during the Cold War, you’re probably wrong. Histories, and the crowded shelves of spy novels set during the era, offer a cursory and misleading view of the day-to-day reality as it was lived by the men and women who worked for the CIA and the KGB. David E. Hoffman‘s outstanding tale about one extraordinary Russian spy for the US and his CIA handlers is truly eye-opening. You won’t be able to look at spycraft in what is called humint — human intelligence — the same way ever again.

The Billion Dollar Spy was a Soviet engineer named Adolf Tokachev who provided the US with a prodigious volume of technical data about the USSR’s military capabilities from 1977 to 1985. He served as chief engineer of one of several research and development institutes serving the Soviet air force. Under the noses of his bosses and the KGB alike, he brazenly supplied photographs of many thousands of pages of top-secret data to the CIA, enabling the US to counteract every technical advantage achieved by the USSR in its most advanced combat aircraft.

An assessment by the US government of Tokachev’s “production” placed the value at two billion dollars, and that was undoubtedly a conservative estimate. There seems to be little question that Adolf Tokachev was the CIA’s biggest success story ever in human intelligence — at least among those the agency has revealed to researchers. His portrait hangs in CIA headquarters to this day.

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman (2015) 310 pages ★★★★★

Hoffman tells this amazing story with great skill and in minute detail. The book reads like a top-flight spy novel, reeking of suspense. But what is most surprising (at least to me) is the insiders’ picture of CIA operations. To call the agency bureaucratic would be a gross understatement: every single action taken by Tokachev’s handlers and every single word they communicated to him was first painstakingly reviewed not just by the head of the Moscow station but also by his boss, the head of the agency’s Soviet division — and often by the Director of the CIA himself.

More often than not, the agency big-wigs second-guessed their field staff, denying multiple requests for money to compensate Tokachev, for the cyanide pill he demanded in case he was discovered by the KGB, and for the spyware he needed to photograph top-secret material he had spirited away from his office at the risk of his life. Yet, as Hoffman writes, “Tolkachev’s material was so valuable back at Langley that he was literally ‘paying the rent’ — justifying the CIA’s operational budget — and helping the agency satisfy the military customers.”

Big surprises for the spymasters

That bureaucratic meddling was the first surprise. The second was the picture of tedium and frustration suffered by Tokachev’s handlers. Pulling off a single exchange of material at a dead drop might require weeks, with the effort aborted several times for fear of KGB surveillance. Face-to-face meetings with the engineer were often even more fraught with fear. Months went by between meetings, sometimes by design, sometimes by misadventure. On a couple of occasions, Tokachev’s wife inadvertently opened the attic window he used to signal for a meeting, creating confusion and anxiety within the CIA station. And the technology designed by the agency’s answer to James Bond’s “Q” sometimes malfunctioned.

Third, though by no means a surprise, is the picture Hoffman paints of the damage suffered by the CIA at the hands of its long-time director of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton. When his close personal friend, Kim Philby, defected to the Soviet Union after decades of extraordinarily high-level spying, Angleton apparently went off the deep end into paranoia. (Many of his coworkers thought he was nuts.) As Hoffman writes, “Angleton’s suspicions permeated the culture and fabric of the CIA’s Soviet operations division during the 1960s, with disastrous results . . . If no one could be trusted, there could be no spies.” Hoffman adds that, for Angleton, “everything was labeled suspicious or compromised . . .”

We know about this because the CIA needed good PR

It’s not a stretch to imagine that the CIA opened up its records on the Tokachev affair as a public relations move to counter all the dreadful publicity it has suffered over the past decade and more. After all, such records are normally classified for fifty years, and Tokachev’s career for the CIA ended only thirty years ago.

It’s also sobering to consider the agency’s success with Tokachev in a larger context. As Marc Goodman revealed in his recent book, Future Crimes, Chinese government hackers succeeded in stealing top-secret US military data worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning contributing editor to the Washington Post.

For more great reading

This is one of the many good nonfiction books about national security.

You might also be interested in seeing my post, 20 good nonfiction books about espionage. This book is one of the 20.

You may enjoy browsing through 20 top nonfiction books about history.

For more good books on the history of the US, see Top 20 popular books for understanding American history.

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