When the FBI Spent Decades Hunting for a Soviet Spy on Its Staff- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
“There was one file on our man in the FBI,” the ex-KGB man says. “He was retired and living in Queens.” That man, he says, was the mole. (Grant Delin)

When the FBI Spent Decades Hunting for a Soviet Spy on Its Staff

A tip provided by a double-agent for the KGB set off one of the most self-destructive mole hunts in FBI history

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A former FBI counterintelligence agent explained how the dangle worked: “A watcher for us, a street agent, walked into the apartment of Boris Ivanov, the KGB rezident in New York. Ivanov slammed the door, but not before our agent said he would meet them at such-and-such time and place.”

In fact, a KGB counterintelligence agent showed up at the appointed time and place. “We ran the operation for six months; there were three or four meetings,” the ex-counterintelligence agent says. “We hoped their questions might lead us to Dick, the questions they asked and the questions they did not ask—because that would imply they had a source already in those areas. That might give us a clue to the identity of Dick. If the KGB asked for more information about something that perhaps Dick was involved in, that might also point to Dick.” But the KGB “never asked the right questions,” and the operation proved fruitless.

With so many agents to investigate, there seemed to be no end to the mole hunt. “It went on for years,” a former head of the Soviet section at FBI headquarters says. “It drove us crazy.”


As the investigation persisted, it magnified a question that had arisen the moment Aleksei Kulak presented himself to the FBI: Was he a true “agent in place” for the FBI, or a double agent planted by the KGB? If he was a double agent, could his warning about UNSUB Dick be trusted? Some FBI agents argued that Kulak was simply playing mind games with the bureau, that Dick was a phantom. Like the hunt for UNSUB Dick, the argument about Kulak went on for decades, compounding the mistrust in the New York office and tensions within headquarters. One former counterintelligence agent, an assistant chief of the Soviet section at headquarters, says he periodically changed his mind. “I certainly had access and read through the FEDORA file. When I retired in 1988, it was 92 volumes,” he says. “I believe that the information from FEDORA was probably good. There were those, myself included, who sometimes questioned Bureau Source 10’s bona fides. Depends on which side of the bed I got up.”

Kulak, the source of all this turmoil, had arrived in New York on November 28, 1961, only a few months before he turned up at the FBI office with his alarming news about Dick. Kulak’s cover was his job as a consultant to a U.N. committee on the effects of nuclear radiation (he had a doctorate in chemistry), but his real mission was to collect scientific and technical secrets for the KGB. In February 1963, he changed his cover job, working as a science attaché at the Soviet mission to the U.N., and went back to Moscow in 1967. He returned to the Soviet mission in New York in 1971 and stayed six more years before going home for good. All told, he fed information to the FBI for ten years.

He would periodically meet secretly with FBI agents, and the videotaped record of these sessions shows a bottle of Scotch on the table. Kulak drank heavily, and apparently the bottle was considered a necessary lubricant for the debriefings.

“The information he gave over the years was for the most part good—very good on the identity of other KGB officers,” says a former senior FBI official, a counterintelligence agent in New York at the time. Kulak, he says, identified every KGB man in New York, plus many of their sources. “There were those who said he drank so much nobody would ever have picked him to be a plant,” this agent says. “There’s much to be said for that. My belief is he was probably genuine. That does not mean he was always truthful.”

In David Major’s view, Kulak was “one of the most important sources the FBI had” and “the very first KGB officer that had ever been worked by the FBI.” He adds: “The KGB would never send a staff officer as a false defector. What happens if he really defects?” Other FBI veterans say Kulak was a true volunteer to the bureau. “It’s so hard to dangle someone; you have to give up something,” Edwin Worthington notes. “And to give up the identities of all the KGB people in New York was huge. He gave up way too much information. They [the KGB] wouldn’t have allowed it.”

“We put people in jail on the basis of information provided by FEDORA,” another former FBI counterintelligence agent says. Kulak, according to this agent, “said Dick had given the KGB our surveillance codes”—secret codes FBI lookouts used to communicate when Soviet agents were on the move, and in what direction. “The code sheets were changed on a daily basis,” this agent says, but “the Russians had the capability to monitor our broadcasts.” Kulak “was specific enough about the codes so it was clear the KGB had them.” Given the nature and volume of information he produced over ten years, Hoover believed that FEDORA was an authentic FBI source.


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