Cast your mind back to 1985, the celebrated 'Year Of The Spy'. That spring the Walker family ring in the United States navy was exposed. The former CIA employee, Edward Lee Howard, was discovered to be a Soviet agent, only to evade arrest and later escape to the Soviet Union. That autumn, the British rescued their own agent, Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB resident in London, from capture and certain execution in the Soviet Union. But nothing in 1985 was more extraordinary than the tale of Vitaly Yurchenko, for three short months the CIA's biggest-ever catch from the KGB. After the unmasking of CIA mole, Aldrich Ames, it looks more extraordinary still.
When he walked into the American embassy in Rome on 1 August 1985Yurchenko was deputy head of the KGB's American Department. He was whisked back to the US and delivered what seemed pure gold. He told his debriefers about Howard and another KGB spy called Ronald Pelton. He revealed the KGB used special 'spy dust' to track Agency staff working out of the US embassy in Moscow. He is said to have tipped off the CIA, and thus MI6, that Gordievsky was about to be arrested. But after a while, according to the authorised version of events, he became disillusioned, depressed and homesick. Finally, on 2 November, he slipped away from dinner with his CIA minder at Au Pied de Cochon and hailed a taxi. A mile or so north on Wisconsin Avenue, Vitaly Yurchenko entered the Soviet embassy compound to become the first double-defector of the Cold War.
This version may now have to be rewritten. These are not matters active intelligence officers will readily discuss. But the revelation that Ames, perhaps the most devastating double-agent ever run here by the KGB, was spying for Moscow from at least mid-1985 (maybe earlier) casts a very different light on Yurchenko's exploit. It looks increasingly likely that the defection was faked from beginning to end, its purpose all along to protect Ames.
Some people do still believe Yurchenko was genuine. But the evidence now suggests otherwise. A defector must have goods to sell to prove his bona fides, and why was Yurchenko never punished upon his return to Moscow? The most plausible explanation is that the KGB sent him to betray Pelton and Howard, even warn of the imminent arrest of Gordievsky, in order to divert suspicion, then and thereafter, from Ames. If the spy business is a chess game, this was a sacrifice of pawns to gain the queen.
After all, Pelton was merely a medium-level agent at the National Security Agency, while Howard, who left the CIA in 1983, had probably by then been squeezed dry. As for Gordievsky, whether in London or Moscow, his active espionage duty was virtually over, his most valuable material long since in British hands. He too, therefore, was expendable compared with Ames, who as head of the Soviet section of CIA counter-intelligence would have known not only what the agency was up to in the Soviet Union and then Russia, but what the Americans knew about what the KGB and its successors were up to here. And one last, exquisite touch: Ames, as the KGB would have surmised beforehand, was among Yurchenko's debriefers. Moscow therefore would learn not only exactly what the 'defector' was telling them, but how it was going down with the CIA.
If this was the strategy, it worked brilliantly. Ames, as the whole world now knows, spied for Moscow until almost the very moment he and his wife were arrested a fortnight ago. According to the Washington Post this week, not until the FBI and CIA obtained former East German intelligence files in 1991 did they really get on to Ames's trail. Thanks to Yurchenko, the CIA believed Howard, not Ames, was responsible for its disasters in Russia.
Counter-intelligence is the keystone of the spy business; if it is penetrated, runs the adage, better a country has no intelligence service at all. The Russians paid Ames dollars 2.5m (pounds 1.7m) over nine years. For control of US intelligence operations against themselves it was a bargain. Had Ames not grown careless, and lived a little less opulently, the deception might still be continuing.
All the above, of course, may just be be Cold War dreaming. But if it is true, then the Yurchenko operation is as elegant and perfect as a Kasparov miniature. And the grandmaster who devised it deserves finer tribute than a cheap brass plaque in a run-of-the-mill Washington restaurant.