Friday, December 06, 2013

Spy life like you've never seen it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, espionage, spies, biographies

In 1998, Bill Powell caught a tiger by the tail, but he didn't know that at first. As a Newsweek reporter in Moscow, he had become accustomed to all sorts of cranks and hard-luck stories walking in and looking for help, or at least a friendly ear. When a fit, conservatively-dressed man of about 50 came to see him, he almost brushed him off. But this man claimed to have met Powell's predecessor while in a prison camp for treason. Powell was intrigued and let him talk, and continued to meet with him. The story took several years to play out.

The plotline of Slava Baronov's life was twisty and complex, but the core of the story was simple. He'd been a colonel in the GRU after serving as a military pilot; while in Bangladesh he grew sufficiently disenchanted with the pervasive lies of the USSR's leaders that he allowed himself to be recruited by the CIA; during the "courtship" prior to "signing on", information he provided about the black box aboard the KAL 007—its survival was never admitted by the USSR—became the only substantive work he ever did for them; soon afterward he found himself out of contact and effectively dangling in the wind. He was arrested by the KGB, tried for treason, but this was now the new Russia, the old USSR was gone, so he didn't get the customary bullet to the head but an actual trial. He concluded he'd been betrayed by someone in the CIA, and this was a few years after Aldrich Ames had been exposed, so what he wanted was twofold: to help the CIA and FBI find the mole, and to find out what really happened, why he was treated so badly.

Against the urging of his wife, and with only grudging permission of his Newsweek superiors, Powell got deeper and deeper into the matter, eventually becoming an intermediary between Baranov and the US government. Powell made it clear he planned to write the story once it had played out, which helps explain why he was not forced into becoming a CIA agent himself. The book that resulted is Treason: How a Russian Spy Led an American Journalist to a U.S. Double Agent by Bill Powell.

If I go further, I'll spoil it. You'll need to read to what extent Baranov was eventually vindicated, and how the CIA atoned. It is a fascinating book.

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