Cold War CIA Tradecraft

Fascinating article on A.G. Tolkachev, a Russian who spied for the CIA for almost ten years. I was particularly interested in reading the tradecraft descriptions.

Note that the article was published in the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, and is unclassified.

Posted on September 8, 2005 at 1:01 PM • 16 Comments


Mark JohnsonSeptember 8, 2005 5:02 PM

"The following is the story of a brave and dedicated man..."
Funny how we vilify those who spy against us and call those who spy for us "brave and dedicated."

corblixSeptember 8, 2005 5:32 PM

Yes, that was an interesting article. Also interesting is that when I go to get the article at, the favicon is the old Netscape logo. That doesn't make me feel terribly confident in the competence of the CIA's web people.

Milan IlnyckyjSeptember 8, 2005 6:25 PM

The article certainly highlights the incredibly slow pace that intelligence operations based on deep cover seem to have, in marked contrast with the way they are frequently depicted in fiction.

GregSeptember 8, 2005 6:58 PM

A few intresting points here.

First is the fact that he could get out documents of secrets that he didn't need. There is a reason for "need to know". And this goes both ways, for example a CIA agent that had not yet been sent to to the feild already knew a lot to compromise that feild.

But the biggest thing is how the hell do you prevent this in the modern age. With small cameras, mp3 players, 256MB flash sticks you can swallow...... And all so cheap do don't need to be the CIA.

Seems to me that secrets are bound to get out these days.

Filias CupioSeptember 8, 2005 9:40 PM

The firing of Edward Lee Howard as a security risk may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here's a purely imaginary sequence: he'd smoked marijuana as a student. He thinks he'll be fired if he admits this, so he lies and this causes "problems during a routine security reinvestigation." He is fired, gets bitter, and turns coat.

And here is another purely imaginary sequence: exp(i pi (n+1/2)), for n integer.

Antonio Prohias FanSeptember 8, 2005 11:37 PM

Fantastic read!

It is truly amazing how the course of billions of dollars in weapon systems design is determined by information simply threaded together from such underhanded means. It also shows how ultra-danegrous it is to piss off an above average and motivated worker. Reading ther article, one is left with the impression that Tolkachev was pissed off in large part because his wife's father was ill-treated: the piss off was not even direct! All it took was one smart rat (ticked off by a level of indirection) to destroy billions invested in operational planning and strategy and put to waste several years of collective effort.

I was amused at the final footnote: "he [Howard] died in an accidental fall in Moscow in 2002". :-)

ShurrSeptember 9, 2005 6:28 AM

Interesting reading, except ridiculous insults like

"He also noted that Tolkachev was probably one of the few sober Russians in Moscow on this major national holiday."

Oh yeah, vodka, bears, balalayka and "russian hat". It's good for Ian Flemming or Hollywood B-movies, but not for former CIA analyst. Moreover, neither Ivanova, nor Kuzmina are Jewish family names. It's Russian. And Tolkachov's image is quite disgusting. 40 000 roubles it's a big pile of money in 1980's in Russia. Top communist officials didn't have such salaries. So, only people that don't know russian realities will buy on the "idealist fighter with regime".

Glauber RibeiroSeptember 9, 2005 10:08 AM

"Editor’s Note: This unclassified article draws extensively on Directorate of Operations files, which, of necessity, remain classified. Because Tolkachev’s story serves as an important case study of Cold War intelligence operations, it is being made available to scholars and to the public in as much detail as possible, despite minimal source citations."

In other words, this is a piece of propaganda, and could even be a complete fabrication. Interesting, though.

havvokSeptember 9, 2005 2:48 PM

My last name is a french name, but part of my heritage is Italian. Does this mean that I should not be annoyed when people start talking about wops? The fact that the names are not Jewish is not a reliable indicator; anti-semites don't care about nomenclature as much as they care about skin-color or facial features.

Another critical note is that just because he may have had ideological reasons for initiating the contact, and he and his family were apparently already successful; both he and his wife earned 2x the average salary, I know my girlfriend and I earn almost twice the average each, and it makes us quite comfy :)

That he wanted to be well compensated for his risk is to be expected. No matter which way you percieve it, or justify his actions in American interests, he was a criminal in his society. The majority of criminal ventures, regardless of the explicit motivations (i.e. opportunity, need to conceal something, etc), stem from the desire to profit.

In this case the pain-staking effort he went through was much to the benefit of his wife and his son which was clearly his intention.

AdamSeptember 9, 2005 6:02 PM

What I found most interesting was the sheer effort the agent went through to make contact, in the face of a CIA concerned about dangle operations.

Those dangle operations may have been the some of the most cost-effective bits of counter-intelligence ever.

another_bruceSeptember 9, 2005 11:54 PM

great story. i'm more interested in how edward lee howard got away. as i understand it, he lived in the southwest (arizona or new mexico) and the fbi was surveilling his house, and somehow his wife smuggled him past the perimeter, and the next time he was seen after that was in moscow. great job fibbies!

NickSeptember 11, 2005 8:09 PM

"I was amused at the final footnote: "he [Howard] died in an accidental fall in Moscow in 2002". :-)"

Actually if you re-read it, it says "According to press reports, he died in an accidental fall". He never said that was their opinion or the truth. Tricky!

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.