ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
Sergei Tretyakov was an operative of the KGB, the old Soviet intelligence service. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the agency changed its name, but its mission remained the same. Tretyakov was nominally a press officer at the Russian mission to the United Nations. In reality, he was running a number of intelligence agents who, in turn, were trying to get information out of Americans and others at the U.N.
He defected in 2000, and four years later - with both FBI and CIA agents present - he met with Pete Earley, the author of books about several Americans who had spied for Russia. And the result of their meeting is Earley's book, "Comrade J." It's the story of Tretyakov's career.
And both Pete Earley and Sergei Tretyakov are here to talk about that story. Welcome to both of you.
Mr. PETE EARLEY (Author, "Comrade J"): Thank you.
Mr. SERGEI TRETYAKOV: (Former KGB Spy): Thank you.
SIEGEL: First, Sergei Tretyakov, why did you want to have a book telling your story?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: I think that this book can be kind of wake-up call for the Americans. Americans are a little bit naive when they say Cold War is over, and right now, we can relax. It's not the case for the intelligence. In Soviet military doctrine, there was a definition of potential main enemy - it was United States, NATO and China. In today's intelligence doctrine, there is definition of main targets - United States, NATO and China.
SIEGEL: Same three?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Same three.
SIEGEL: And you're a colonel?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: One of the youngest colonel in the - in Russian system.
SIEGEL: When you were the deputy resident - we would say deputy station chief -in New York…
Mr. TRETYAKOV: It's the same.
SIEGEL: …and you defected to the U.S., that was the highest-level defection by a Russian intelligence officer actually in the United States in that time.
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Yes, I was deputy resident in New York. It's second largest Russian residency in the world, first in Washington, second in New York.
SIEGEL: Peter Early…
Mr. EARLEY: Well, New York is important. Look, in Washington, they had walk-ins. They had Walker, they had Ames, people who walked in and volunteered. But recruitment really happens in New York. Why? Because you have the United Nations, and it's a fertile ground of people who won't betray their own country, but are easily prone to giving up the United States.
SIEGEL: Sergei Tretyakov, I'd like you to tell the story of the source of yours, originally from Ottawa and later in New York, named Arthur. What kind of relationship did you have with the man code-named Arthur?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: People like Arthur and many others, they were trusted contacts. I, personally - I don't like very much the word spy. I can tell you that when I worked in Canada, we are not that interested in Canadian issues. The main target is the United States.
SIEGEL: That Canada can be a window on…
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Exactly.
SIEGEL: …the U.S. and you might find Canadians who don't think that much of Washington? They'd be best here?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Exactly, people who don't like America that much.
SIEGEL: Peter Earley…
Mr. EARLEY: Well, with Arthur, like so many of the people that Sergei was able to recruit, they didn't see themselves as deceiving their country. They were targeting the United States. They didn't like the United States. And in Arthur's case, as we say in the book, he went on to Vienna and the U.N. to be an arms verification expert. And that, of course, puts him in an extremely valuable position for the Russian intelligence.
SIEGEL: And Sergei Tretyakov, when you started spying for the United States - I know you - spying is a word you don't like, but when you were in fact the number two Russian intelligence agent or operative in New York and you'd started working for the U.S. - was that the biggest gem that you passed to U.S. authorities?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: I don't discuss if I worked for the American government or for how long. One of the reasons, I don't want my former colleagues to have this food from me. My defection was the major failure of the Russian intelligence. Probably you see it in all history. And no one approached me, no one bought me. It was my decision, it was our family decision because finally, I understood that I must doing something good in my life.
SIEGEL: It was a decision motivated, in part, by what you made of the changes in Russia and the changes during the Yeltsin, and later, the Putin era?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Starting from Gorbachev. When Gorbachev came into power, we became optimistic. Then, oops. Then Yeltsin came. We became optimistic. And Yeltsin happened to be just a professional alcoholic. Putin came. Some people were optimistic. I don't see any reasons for optimism. I call this process genocide of Russian people. And if I returned back to Russia, I was supposed to be among this two, three, whatever percent people who are eating Beluga caviar and drinking champagne. And I thought that it's immoral. I didn't want to be the part of the genocidal team.
SIEGEL: But you estimated at the moment of your defection that your estate -and you've been a career KGB/SVR person all this time - that your estate amounted to about or in excess of $2 million at that point. How did you accumulate that much property being an intelligence agent?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Family.
SIEGEL: Inherited wealth?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Inherited. Yes, it's a - we inherited a lot of property. And we lost everything. We lost it and what?
SIEGEL: You - it's - you write in the book and it's been said that you were given the best compensation package by the U.S. government for coming here. Not why you did it - I know you're not saying that - but was that in part because of what you were giving up (unintelligible)?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: I don't discuss my package. Please don't count my money.
Mr. EARLEY: I was told by the FBI that he had the highest settlement package, over $2 million, and that he brought us more than 5,000 top-secret cables. And he exposed all the operations in New York, including who the Russian contacts were. And then one of the stories in the book that shows - can understand why he feels the way he did was he got this Alexander Cramer(ph) in the Food for Oil Program who was one of his deep-cover officers. And that guy stole -helped Russia steal $500 million.
SIEGEL: Let me ask both of you one last question. Because Pete Earley, you've written books about Aldrich Ames, the Russian mole in the CIA. You also wrote about the Walker family, who were spies within the Navy. First, Sergei Tretyakov, do you find anything in common with those people?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: First of all, as far as I know, they worked for money. They were bought. No one bought me. It was my ideology. I think this is the main interest. I was fighting the system back. I was never worked against my colleagues. And actually, none of my colleagues suffered in any way. And I consider myself American patriot, not American catch.
SIEGEL: The difference being, the others, the Walkers or Ames, you see as mercenaries in what they're doing?
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Absolutely.
SIEGEL: What do you think, Pete Earley?
Mr. EARLEY: One difference with Sergei is, not only did he give us their secrets - he risked his life by working for them - but then he came here and became a U.S. citizen by choice. He didn't flee to another country. And Walker and Ames never wanted to go to the Soviet Union.
SIEGEL: Well, Pete Earley and Sergei Tretyakov, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. TRETYAKOV: Thank you.
Mr. EARLY: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Pete Earley's book is "Comrade J." And you can read more about why Sergei Tretyakov defected and why he decided to tell his story in an excerpt of the book. That's at npr.org.
You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.