Death of The Perfect Spy

  • They called him by fanciful code names -- Top Hat, Bourbon, Donald, Roam -- and on the days when his latest cache of secrets would arrive at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a CIA officer says, "it was like Christmas." There was something for everyone. The names of four U.S. military officers working as spies for the Soviet Union. Hard evidence of Beijing's deepening animus toward Moscow, which President Nixon exploited to forge his 1972 opening to China. Technical data on Soviet-made antitank missiles, which allowed U.S. forces, years later, to defeat those weapons when they were employed by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

    This intelligence trove was provided by General Dmitri Polyakov, a barrel- chested weekend carpenter and collector of fine shotguns who served as a top officer of the Soviet military intelligence agency, the GRU. Polyakov began working for U.S. intelligence in 1961, and during the succeeding decades % he passed increasingly precious secrets, at blood-chilling personal risk. In Moscow he brazenly stole from the GRU stockroom a special kind of self- destructing film that he used to photograph secret documents, as well as hollow, fake stones in which to conceal the film in meadows for pickup by U.S. spies. To signal his handlers, he would ride the tram past the U.S. embassy and activate a miniature "burst" transmitter hidden in his pocket. During postings abroad, he would pass information face to face: in the back alleys of Rangoon or among the bulrushes along the Yamuna River in New Delhi, where his CIA contact would pretend to fish while a hidden recorder taped Polyakov's staccato military briefing, punctuated by peacocks screeching in the background.

    In an interview with Time last week, that CIA officer, who asked that he not be named, recalled how worried he felt when Polyakov was suddenly ordered to return to Moscow in June 1980. "You know, if anything happens, you are always welcome in our country," the American began to babble, like a nervous lover. "I hope the day will come when I can sit down openly with you and have drinks and dinner in our country." The Russian fixed him with steel-blue eyes and replied, quietly and evenly, "Don't wait for me. I am never going to the United States. I am not doing this for you. I am doing this for my country. I was born a Russian, and I will die a Russian." But what will be your fate, asked the American, if your spying is discovered? The reply came in Russian: "Bratskaya mogila" -- a common, unmarked grave.

    No one knew what became of America's perfect spy until January 1990, when the state-controlled Soviet newspaper, Pravda, reported that on March 15, 1988, General Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov was executed for espionage. CIA and FBI agents who knew the Russian agonized over what mistake they might have made that resulted in his unmasking. Only recently did they learn the truth. Aldrich Hazen Ames, a career CIA officer, was arrested in February and sentenced to life in prison after he admitted taking $2.5 million from the KGB, starting in 1985, in return for secrets that included the identities of many Soviet and East bloc citizens spying for the CIA. At least 10 of these people are believed to have been executed.

    The CIA has confirmed that the most important of Ames' victims by far was Polyakov, whose briefing transcripts and photocopies of secret documents fill 25 file drawers in the agency's innermost sanctum. Many intelligence experts now believe that Polyakov made a far more important contribution than a more famous GRU turncoat, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, who was executed in 1963 for supplying the U.S. with information during the Cuban missile crisis. Of all the secret agents the U.S. recruited during the cold war, says CIA director James Woolsey, "Polyakov was the jewel in the crown."

    For the first time, in exclusive interviews with TIME, intelligence officers who worked with Polyakov and officials who used his information have described their relationship with this legendary figure in the secret history of the cold war. Furious that Ames in recent interviews has sought to minimize the human and national-security costs of his treachery, CIA chief Woolsey told TIME last week, "What General Polyakov did for the West didn't just help us win the cold war, it kept the cold war from becoming hot. Polyakov's role was invaluable, and it was one that he played until the end -- in his own words -- for his country."

    The son of a bookkeeper, Polyakov was born in the Ukraine in 1921, attended military school, and won decorations for bravery as an artillery officer during World War II. After the war, he studied at the Soviet equivalent of West Point before signing on as a spy for the GRU.

    In his early 30s, he was given his first assignment: the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York City. There he directed Soviet spies who worked without benefit of diplomatic cover. It was during a second tour at the U.N., in 1961, that Polyakov sought contact with FBI counterintelligence agents in Manhattan, who dubbed him Top Hat and marveled at their good fortune. "He was a big catch, and went on for a very long time," says James Nolan, formerly the FBI's top Soviet counterintelligence specialist. "There aren't many who start out as medium-grade officers and rise to the rank of general."

    Still, Polyakov's handlers found him an odd duck. He would not accept much money: no more than $3,000 a year, conveyed mostly in the form of Black & Decker power tools, a pair of work overalls, fishing gear and shotguns. He asked for a lot of trinkets such as lighters and pens, which he gave to other GRU officers who did him favors. Unlike most Soviet officers known to the FBI and CIA, he drank and smoked little and was faithful to his wife.

    The things that mattered to him were his wife, children and grandchildren. He considered himself a true Russian patriot who had grown disillusioned with the Soviet system. And his handlers, despite initial skepticism, eventually shared that view. "I think his motivation went back to World War II," says the CIA officer who worked with Polyakov in New Delhi. "He contrasted the horror, the carnage, the things he had fought for, against the duplicity and corruption he saw developing in Moscow." Says a CIA headquarters officer who handled Polyakov's case for 15 years: "He articulated a sense that he had to help us out or the Soviets were going to win the cold war, and he couldn't stand that. He felt we were very naive and we were going to fail."

    On a more practical level, Polyakov wanted his two sons to be well educated and placed in professional jobs, which could be assured by his rise in the GRU. His career, in turn, was aided by the CIA, which gave him some minor secrets and provided two Americans whom he presented as the fruits of his recruiting. They became double agents for the CIA. A year after signing on with the FBI, Polyakov was posted back to Moscow, where he had access to GRU penetrations of Western intelligence. Before long he began serving up moles, including Frank Bossard, a guided-missile researcher in the British aviation ministry and U.S. Army Sergeant Jack Dunlap, a courier at the National Security Agency.

    Any suspicions that he may have been a Soviet plant were allayed by the quality of the information he provided. In the late 1960s, while running the GRU's key listening post in Rangoon, Polyakov gave the CIA everything the Soviets collected from there on the Vietnamese and Chinese armed forces. Rotated back to Moscow as head of the GRU's China section, he photographed crucial documents tracking that country's bitter split with Moscow. A CIA specialist on Sino-Soviet relations drew on rich detail from a Soviet source -- whom he learned just last week was Polyakov -- that enabled the analyst to conclude confidently that the Sino-Soviet split would persist. The paper was used by Henry Kissinger, helping him and Nixon forge their 1972 opening to China.

    Polyakov's promotion to general in 1974 gave him access to a cornucopia of intelligence beyond his immediate mission: for example, a shopping list, several inches thick, of military technologies sought by Soviet spies in the West. "It was breathtaking," recalls Richard Perle, an Assistant Secretary of Defense for President Reagan. "We found there were 5,000 separate Soviet programs that were utilizing Western technology to build up their military capabilities." Polyakov's list helped Perle persuade Reagan to press for tighter controls on Western sales of military technology.

    By the late 1970s, CIA officers treated Polyakov more like a teacher than an informant. They let him call the shots about meetings and dead drops. CIA technicians built him a special, handheld device into which information could be typed, then encrypted and transmitted in a 2.6-sec. burst to a receiver in the U.S. embassy in Moscow. And Polyakov often copied documents using film that could be developed only with a special chemical known to him and his handlers; if processed normally, it would come out blank.

    Using such tradecraft, Polyakov obtained more than 100 issues of the classified version of Military Thought, a strategy document produced monthly by the Soviet general staff. The periodical contained frank assessments by leading Soviet military strategists. Said Robert Gates, a career Soviet analyst and CIA director for President Bush: "There were a lot of debates at the time over Soviet military strategy and doctrine in terms of how their forces would be used in a war." Polyakov's purloined documents "gave us insights into how they talked to each other about these issues, whether they thought that victory in a nuclear war was possible." The answer, thankfully, was no. Polyakov proved that Soviet military leaders were not crazy warmongers. They were as afraid as we were. This insight may have prevented U.S. miscalculations that would have touched off a shooting war.

    No one knows where Dmitri Polyakov is buried -- or how he died. When sentenced to what Russians euphemistically refer to as vyshaya mera -- the highest measure of punishment -- the condemned person is taken into a room, made to kneel, then shot in the back of the head. It was part of the Stalinist tradition. To save his country from that legacy, Polyakov chose to betray its rulers. And betrayed by another betrayer, he lost his life.