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

“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)
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Painstakingly, he checked the name of every FBI agent who lived in Queens in the 1960s—and found that one of them had been flagged in a routine inspection of the New York office. The agent worked not in counterintelligence, but on internal security and investigations of the Communist Party. He was a poor performer, and he had a host of other problems, including alcohol abuse, which could have made him a target for recruitment by the KGB. He had retired on a medical disability around 1964, when he was in his mid-30s.

King, who speaks Russian, transliterated the Cyrillic letter into a Roman one—and got no match with the ex-agent’s last initial. Then he realized that a Roman letter transliterated into Cyrillic may re-transliterate into a different Roman letter. King tried it, and he got a match. After almost a quarter of a century, the FBI had its first viable suspect.

An FBI agent was sent to Queens to interview the suspect. He denied he was a spy. King and Milburn interviewed him again, and he denied it again. Two seasoned FBI counterintelligence agents interviewed him a third time; one was inclined to believe the man’s denials and the other was not.

King remained certain that he had found UNSUB Dick at last—and his belief is seemingly supported by the files of the KGB. In 1973, Oleg Kalugin was in Moscow, serving as chief of KGB worldwide foreign counterintelligence. Out of curiosity, he reviewed several files about his years as a young spy in New York. “There was one file on our man in the FBI,” Kalugin told me. “He was retired and living in Queens.” That man, he says, was the mole Kulak had warned about, the one the FBI had dubbed UNSUB Dick. In his 1994 memoir, The First Directorate, Kalugin wrote of sending KGB agents in New York to visit him and ask for more information, which he declined to provide.

“I already gave you guys all I know,” the man said, Kalugin told me. But he said he couldn’t remember the man’s real name or his KGB code name.

Without a confession by the suspect, the FBI did not officially accept King’s view and took no legal action against the ex-agent. “Espionage is a very difficult crime to prove,” Patrick Watson notes. “Unless a suspect confesses or is caught in the act of passing information to a foreign power, an arrest and prosecution are unlikely.” To prosecute this case, the bureau would have had to disclose Kulak’s identity—which was not publicly known at the time—and the information he provided. “The problem is many times you are relying on sources that can’t be presented in a courtroom,” Watson says.

To this day, the FBI is maintaining its silence on UNSUB Dick. In response to several requests for comment, a bureau spokesman said none would be forthcoming, and that “the assistant director for counterintelligence will not confirm or deny such a case.”


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