The Spy in Moscow Station: A Counterspy's Hunt for a Deadly Cold War Threat
“What if the CIA didn’t really want the NSA to find the source of the devastating leaks? The NSA would look like heroes if they found a leak, while the CIA, in contrast, would look like incompetent bumblers.”
The Spy in Moscow Station: A Counterspy’s Hunt for a Deadly Cold War Threat offers the promise of a great mystery, detailing efforts of a dedicated NSA employee and his team to uncover the means by which Russia infiltrated the American embassy in Moscow during the Cold War. That infiltration resulted in capture by the Russians of a great deal of top-secret intelligence and the arrests of numerous CIA assets. But how had they done it?
Finding out the “how” was the task of Charles Gandy, the NSA staffer who told the story to author Eric Haseltine. As Gandy put it: “Don’t ever . . . underestimate the Russians. I could tell you stories about them that would curl your toes.”
Initial suspicions ran the gamut from a mole at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to interception and decryption of communications between Langley and Moscow Station, home of the American embassy in Russia. Soon enough, though, it became clear that secrets were somehow being leaked from the embassy itself, and not in transit.
Gandy, who spearheaded the search, understood the high bar that had been set for his task. It was not good enough, he says, to discover that the Russians simply might be stealing secrets. Rather, “[t]o deliver a smoking gun, I somehow have to demonstrate . . . that they actually are stealing secrets.” (emphasis in book)
His efforts to ferret out the truth were hampered, in part, by a high level of technical sophistication by the Russians, but also by an unlikely reason—at least unlikely to a casual observer but likely to students of infighting between American intelligence agencies.
The NSA had become the CIA’s “bureaucratic archenemy” because of squabbles over which agency was authorized to collect certain intelligence, raising the question: “What if the CIA didn’t really want the NSA to find the source of the devastating leaks? The NSA would look like heroes if they found a leak, while the CIA, in contrast, would look like incompetent bumblers.” (emphasis in book)
With painstaking detail, Haseltine describes the efforts of Gandy and his team to uncover the source of the leak. Unfortunately, this reader, who was a political science—and not an engineering—major, got lost in some of those details about “spectrum analyzers,” “intermodulation products,” and “TSCM antenna/amplifier systems.” So when the author writes that “Gandy’s heart raced” as he discovered “an incredibly clever, stealthy way to hide signals from bugs or implants,” the reader’s heart doesn’t necessarily accelerate.
But when the narrative veers away from the technical, intrigue deepens. One of the more interesting stories is the attempted seduction of Gandy by a Russian “honey trap”—a beautiful woman in a low-cut Russian peasant’s blouse who showed up at his door in Moscow and attempted to lure him into a compromising situation. When Gandy says “I could feel my heart thumping away in my chest,” the reader shares the all-too-human emotion. Fortunately, he had “the presence of mind to close the door all but a crack” and call her bluff.
The search ended up taking years, although world events take much of the blame for the delay. “Throughout 1978 and 1979, while Gandy continued to evangelize the Moscow problem, most of his time was spent fighting fires as trouble erupted around the world.” Trouble that included the kidnapping and murder of Italy’s premier, terrorist attacks in Beirut, and the Camp David Accords presided over by President Jimmy Carter. But Gandy and his team persevered, ultimately finding their smoking gun: bugs that had been implanted in embassy typewriters.
As stated at the beginning of this review, The Spy in Moscow Station offers the promise of a great mystery, but in the end, the “hunt” and its results seem anti-climactic. The author tells us that the bugs in question were “somewhat helpful—although far from necessary—to the KGB unmasking CIA officers,” and the question of how much damage they did was “[e]ither a little or a lot, depending upon whom you choose to believe.”
Although The Spy in Moscow Station offers interesting insight into Cold War “spy versus spy” intrigue, a little more of the personal and a little less of the technical would more likely cause the reader’s toes to fully curl.