"Comrade J" author Pete Earley knows his spies. Among the former Washington Post reporter's previous dozen books are "Family of Spies: Inside the John Walker Spy Ring," a best-seller about what is considered the most damaging spy ring in American history, and "Confessions of a Spy," for which he interviewed Aldrich Ames and his KGB handlers.
In "Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia's Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War" Earley tells the true story of Sergei Tretyakov, the Russian spymaster who ran his country's post-Cold War espionage operation in New York City from 1995 to 2000 until he defected to the United States. Tretyakov, who personally oversaw all covert operations against the United States and its allies in the United Nations, was a double agent for the FBI from 1997 to 2000.
Now in hiding, he was a career KGB man who worked for Russia's SVR -- the successor to the old KGB -- under Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. It was the widespread political corruption he saw in their administrations that led him to defect. Among the many secrets Tretyakov revealed to U.S. intelligence was that Strobe Talbott, the influential deputy secretary of state for President Clinton from 1994 to 2001 and now president of the Brookings Institution, was a valuable source of intelligence for the SVR.
I spoke to Earley on March 25 about Talbott and his book, which has received relatively little attention from the mainstream media.
Q: What is your book about?
A: Well, "Comrade J" is about the highest ranking Russian intelligence officer to defect after the end of the Cold War. In other words, Sergei Tretyakov worked for us. He defected in 2000 after working secretly for us for at least three years. He worked for the Yeltsin and Putin administrations, so he brings a completely different view from the old Cold War spy games.
He tells the story that before the end of the Cold War "we were told that our main adversary" - and that was the word that was used - "was the United States, and then NATO and then China. After the end of the Cold War" -- when Bush was looking into Putin's eyes and seeing his soul - "we were told that our main targets" - the change was from "adversary" to "target" - "were the United States, NATO and China." He put it simply by saying, "Who told you the Cold War was over?"
Q: You spent hundreds of hours interviewing Tretyakov. What did he tell you about 1990s espionage?
A: Tretyakov was the deputy SVR resident in New York, which was the most fertile ground for Russian spying. Why was it the most fertile? Because he oversaw spy operations at the United Nations, and the United Nations proved to be a very fertile spot for recruiting people to spy. He had over 160 contacts, people who were providing the Russians with information. The main target was the United States. They didn't care about U.N. regulations or rules or policies. Their focus was trying to recruit people who could give them information about the United States.
What shocked me about it were a couple things. One was that under communism one of the recruitment methods the KGB used was "come help us for ideological reasons, because we're communist." Well, that didn't work too well. They didn't get a whole lot of people who wanted to do that. Now what they do is go to members of NATO and other allies and say, "Look, there is only one superpower and you can see how this superpower is invading other countries, and it's dangerous. We don't ask you to spy against Turkey or against Greece, if you are from Greece. We don't want to know about your country. But tell us about the United States, because it is in all of our interests to keep them under control."
What Tretyakov discovered was, for the price of a good meal he could get many of our NATO allies to betray our secrets that we shared with them.
The other shocking thing that I discovered was the way the Russian government operated and how it ultimately Sergie turns against his own government, as opposed to him turning against his country. He still sees himself as a good Russian, but he believes the governments of Yeltsin and Putin betrayed their own people.
One example he uses is that when the U.N. set up the oil for food program in Iraq, the Russians were asked to send one of their delegates to be on the panel that set the price of oil. I don't know if you remember that program, but the idea was that we would let Saddam sell a certain amount of oil only for food and humanitarian aid for his own people, and of course he corrupted it. It turned out to be one of the biggest boondoggles and mass thievery by U.N. officials and others in the whole world.
What the Russians did - and Sergei was involved in this - was they planted a deep-cover officer in that program and he worked himself up in the organization and he helped Russia steal $500 million of humanitarian aid that went to the Yeltsin administration and later to Putin's top people. It turned Sergei's stomach, because stealing secrets and military information was one thing, but, strange as it might sound, stealing money for the benefit of yourself and your party leaders he found very disgusting.
Q: You describe Talbott as an unwitting spy. Can you explain that?
A: Talbott was more than just a deputy secretary of state. He was really in charge during the Clinton administration of helping Russia enter the modern world. He was the architect of U.S.-Russian policy. When Sergei Tretyakov was being trained to come to New York, he was told that Talbott was known within the SVR -- the Russian spy agency that replaced the KGB -- as a "special unofficial contact."
That is a specific designation that is used by the SVR to identify highly placed sources of information -- people whose information could be trusted. It was usually only reserved for extremely top officials like Fidel Castro's brother, who is now running Cuba. He was a "special unofficial contact."
Q: That's nothing close to being a spy, right?
A: Sergei goes to great lengths to say he had absolutely no information that Strobe Talbott was a spy, and he wants to make that very clear. In fact, he believes Talbott saw himself as an ardent American patriot. But what Talbott did, according to what Sergei was told, was that he put himself in a position where the SVR thought they could manipulate and use him.
First of all, the SVR literally did a background personality investigation of Talbott. It decided that he was vulnerable through his ego. Like many Westerners, who were eager to see themselves as expert on the Soviet Union and later on Russia, that they would come rushing in and have ideas on how to save these poor, simple-minded Russians; and that they naively did not realize they were dealing with a tiger, a sleeping tiger, but a tiger.
Sergei said that the SVR drafted specific questions and fed them to Talbott's counterpart in the Russian government, Georgi Mamedov -- the man he was meeting with -- and encouraged Mamedov to meet privately with Talbott, to develop a friendship with him. Talbott brags later in his own books about how he and this diplomat (Mamedov) became very close friends. What Sergei says is that the SVR was feeding questions to this contact to present to Talbott and that he (Talbott) was unwittingly providing them with information the SVR found extremely valuable.
Q: Did Talbott do any damage to the United States?
A: In addition to Tretyakov's statements, I think you have to look at what's known as the "Cox Report," which is named after Rep. Christopher Cox. It looked at top-secret documents and how the Clinton administration handled Russia. It came out very strongly saying that the Clinton administration -- and that includes Talbott -- really had what they called "unchecked" backing of Yeltsin that undermined the development of democratic institutions by short-circuiting the legislative process in Russia and making sure that Yeltsin and his cronies stayed in power.
Q: Talbott and Mamedov both told you what Tretyakov was saying was not true.
A: Talbott says on Page 184 it was erroneous and misleading. And Mamedov said it was blatant lies and nothing else.
Q: Who do you believe?
A: I believe Tretyakov. Absolutely. I wouldn't have printed it if I didn't believe him. OK, why would I believe him? You have his statement: You'd have to wonder what would his motive be for saying Talbott was a "special unofficial contact" if he weren't. I don't see any obvious motive there. There are plenty of other scandalous stories in the book. Throwing Talbott in doesn't make a difference in the book selling or not selling.
You have to look at the Cox Report. There is another verification that is independent of Tretyakov. A bug was found in the State Department. It was planted during the Yeltsin administration and the FBI found out about the bug. I was told by an FBI source -- and there's a newspaper account of it at the time -- that the FBI went to Madeleine Albright, secretary of state, and asked her to please don't talk about our investigation to your deputy, Strobe Talbott.
Why did they do that? Because the FBI was worried that Talbott was too close to his Russian contacts and that he might inadvertently say something that would hurt their investigation. When you have an FBI source telling me, but also telling a reporter at the time - and who reported it on the Internet - that they were concerned about how close (Talbott) was to the Russians, then I think that lends credibility to what Tretyakov's statements are.
Q: For the record, how do you describe yourself politically?
A: I look at myself as a reporter first. I know that that may sound naïve, but I really don't have strong political views that dominate what I write..I don't identify myself as a political writer or with political causes. If Strobe Talbott would have worked for Nixon or if he had worked for Clinton, it wouldn't have mattered to me. From my contacts in Russia, there's a long history -- it goes back to a number of famous politicians and political leaders: Henry Kissinger, etc. -- of people who have come to think that they can somehow help Russian find this right path. Sometimes they are really naïve, I think, about who they're dealing with.
Q: What effect did what Mr. Tretyakov told the FBI have on the Russian spy ring?
A: The difference between Tretyakov and somebody like Aldrich Ames or a John Walker or a Robert Hanssen, who are all famous American traitors, is that when they are caught, they come out and they say, "This is what happened." With Tretyakov, what he is telling us is fresh from the headlines. The systems he described that the Russians use in New York -- to literally snatch information out of the airwaves, to monitor people, to run "dead drops" -- to do their spying are systems that can't be changed overnight. So his information is still extremely useful.
Not only that, but he went to the U.N. and, as you'll see in the book, he said, "This guy was one of our spies. This guy." He named them. He talked about a Canadian who was a member of parliament who they recruited. He goes through and says "This is how we got this person to spy for us. This is what they did. This person stole $500 million.." He talks about a U.N. arms verification expert who he says is still working for the U.N. So these are fresh headlines that are really pretty shocking, as opposed to information that is old and has been documented.
Q: How has your book been treated by what we lovingly refer to around here as the mainstream (liberal) media?
A: It got the normal book reviews that you would expect. It was ignored by the New York Times. The Washington Post, my old newspaper, showed interest in it, but only in the book review..
It's kind of shocking to me that the Times, the Post and other major newspapers could have interviewed him, could have talked to him, when we were doing the book tour and chose not to. I find that a real missed opportunity.
How often do you have a chance to talk to someone who the FBI and the CIA are sending to our allies - Britain, Australia, Israel -- and those countries are holding top-secret meetings with him to learn about what's going on in their country -- and yet you don't have reporters rushing forth to say, "Hey, I'd like to sit down and talk to this guy"? I find that a little odd.
Q: Do you have an explanation for this, or a suspicion for this lack of interest?
A: Part of it is that he's done a book and they don't want to help promote a book. I think there's a little jealously there, because he's telling stories that others have missed. I also think there's still a really strong climate, although it's changing somewhat, that the Cold War is over and that Putin and the Russians are our friends, and so it's just right-wing saber-rattling to mention this; when in fact you have a guy who was their top spy saying "Guess what? Yeltsin and Putin stole $500 million from the U.N."
You start seeing these stories pop up all across the world, where you have intelligence people saying the Russians are spying more now than during the Cold War. And now that Russia's getting fat off oil and gas, you can see the old KGB kicking back. Even the Washington Post did an editorial about the denial of human rights under Putin. I can't explain why more people haven't jumped on this story, because I think Tretyakov's whole reason in coming forward is to warn people that Putin is, in his opinion, a thief and that the leadership there has not changed. If you look into the eyes of Putin, you're going to see a very cold heart.
Q: Does Mr. Tretyakov say this kind of espionage continues?
A: Oh, absolutely. Oh, absolutely. He ran more than 60 SVR officers in the U.N. His statement today is that if you can't find someone who will spy for you at the U.N., then you need to be shipped home because it's a fertile ground for recruiting spies.