ARUN RATH, HOST:
What does it take to be a double agent, to convince a foreign government that you're working for them when you're actually spying on them? Years of special study and training, right?
NAVEED JAMALI: I had none. It consisted of probably some "Magnum, P.I." episodes and, you know, a few movies here and there. And that was about it.
RATH: In spite of that, Naveed Jamali traded secrets with the Russians for years, while secretly working for the FBI. He shares the crazy story in his book, "How To Catch A Russian Spy: The True Story Of An American Civilian Turned Double Agent." The story begins when Naveed was just a kid. A well-dressed Russian came into his parents' bookstore to place an order.
JAMALI: The man left. And not five minutes later, another knock on the door, and this time it was two FBI agents who said the man who just came in here was Soviet intelligence, and we'd like to know what he wanted. And my father said he wanted to buy some books. And they said, well, get him his books.
RATH: Nothing top-secret, but defense-related materials the Soviets couldn't get directly on their own. The exchanges went on for decades, even after the end of the Cold War. The Jamalis would get the documents the Russian's officials asked for, then pass on the reading list to the FBI. After college, Naveed took over the bookstore, and he spied an opportunity.
JAMALI: I had applied to a program in the Navy and not gotten in. I was told that I had to beef up my resume. So knowing that I had this connection with the FBI, I naively said, hey, do you guys think you would write me a letter of recommendation if I help you with the Russians? And they probably - you know, they looked at me and said, we'll check into it. And, probably, when they got back in the car, they're like, wow, awesome. We got someone who's willing to help us. We don't have to get him out of jail or intervene with any legal prosecution. We just write him a letter of recommendation. So that's essentially how my innocent foray into this begun.
RATH: The first step was gaining the trust of a Russian diplomat named Oleg.
JAMALI: People think of espionage as this sort of very, very, very glamorous - you know, with fast cars and exotic drinks and great food and in faraway locations. But the reality is, it's more like sales (laughter). You know, the real gold of any intelligence agency is a spy - is a human asset. So these agencies - these intelligence agencies here in the United States and abroad, they go and knock on doors, and they cold-call people. And, say, they take 20, maybe one is something that is both worthwhile, is willing and is able to deliver information. You know, with the FBI, it's so rare that you get a senior person, sort of which Oleg, my handler, was.
RATH: Oleg is your - he's your Russian contact - the guy that you're working with.
JAMALI: And he was my spy handler. He was the person who the Russians had appointed to run me as a spy. They knew that just having access was a great start, that this is someone who's going to come back. We know that it's not going to be one shot and he's gone. We have a chance to reel him in. So they knew that that there was a unique opportunity here. And then it was just me convincing them that I was able to deliver the Russians to kind of grow the relationship.
RATH: And then - so, talk about how you convinced the Russians that you're the real deal. I mean, do you have to talk bad about America or act like you're desperate for money?
JAMALI: Right. No, it's - it wasn't so much about politics or I hate United States and that stuff. It was, hey, I'm this young kid who's into material things, and I want to make money. And you know what? I'm smarter than the rest of the people out there. I can fool them. I can't get caught.
So the Russians' endgame was to develop a long-term asset, which was me, you know, someone who's going to operate in 5, 10, 15 years. They knew that I was applying to the military and, you know, they assumed that I was going to have access to more and more information.
RATH: So we talked at length about how you were able to, from this unlikely position, pull off this double agent thing. What about the why, though? Why did you want to do this? It was your idea.
JAMALI: You know, after Sept. 11, I really, you know - I felt a need to do something more than working in technology. And I was sort of devastated when I applied to this program as an intelligence officer in the Navy - did not get in. So the first motivation was the Navy. And then, when I started doing it, the challenge of kind of going head-to-head with Oleg - it became a challenge of trying to outsmart, outmaneuver Oleg and the Russians. And that became sort of a major incentive in its own. It was a real rush to kind of take these guys on.
RATH: So we won't give away the ending. I'll say it's pretty entertaining. Hooters comes into play (laughter).
JAMALI: Of course, what espionage story isn't complete without Hooters?
RATH: But one thing we can skip to is how are you regarded in Russia now? Will you be able to go on a holiday there anytime soon?
JAMALI: Yeah. I don't think the Russians - no. I mean, look, if anyone wants to send me there, I can promise it'll be cheap because you just have to pay airfare one way, right? Room and board is included. No - it's - I don't - I mean, it's unfortunate, but I don't think Putin's going to be - you know, Anna Chapman got over there and he gave her a medal. I don't think that's going to be the same with me.
RATH: Naveed Jamali is co-author of the new book, "How To Catch A Russian Spy: The True Story Of An American Civilian Turned Double Agent." It comes out this Tuesday. Naveed, thanks very much.
JAMALI: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.