Interview: David Hoffman, Author Of 'The Billion Dollar Spy' Initially, the CIA was suspicious of Soviet aviation expert Adolf Tolkachev. But he earned the agency's trust — and provided blueprints, documents and plans that were crucial to the U.S.
NPR logo

From Blueprints To Betrayal: The Daring, And Downfall, Of A Cold War Spy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/419247901/420338783" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From Blueprints To Betrayal: The Daring, And Downfall, Of A Cold War Spy

From Blueprints To Betrayal: The Daring, And Downfall, Of A Cold War Spy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/419247901/420338783" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It was the middle of the Cold War. The CIA was desperate for information on what the Soviet Union was up to. They needed a Russian spy, one willing to go the full way and betray his country. In "The Billion Dollar Spy," David Hoffman tells the unknown story of the man who fit the bill - Adolph Tolkachev.

DAVID HOFFMAN: Tolkachev had this great sense of disenchantment and anger. He married a young woman at his institute - his top-secret military Institute - and her parents had been purged by Stalin. Her mother was hauled old out of her apartment, taken away, tried and shot. Her father - sent away to a camp for more than decade. She was two years old when that happened. She grew up an orphan. He inherited her rage at what that system had done.

RATH: That rage motivated Tolkachev to seek out the CIA. Now that espionage is defined by hackers stealing information electronically, it's almost shocking to read about a human risking his life, handling actual documents and arranging in-person, clandestine meetings.

HOFFMAN: Well, this was the hardest option for the CIA -right? - to meet a guy on the street. You could endanger his life with one false move. So the CIA had to think up a lot of ways to communicate with him safely and to meet him on the street, and they did that. And often times, the big issue was - how could he copy a lot of secret documents? There were no photocopiers he could use because they were all under lock and key. So Tolkachev devised a very low-tech approach. He put the documents in his coat pocket, and he walked out of the topic-secret institute at the lunch hour, back to his apartment, which was a 20-minute walk. And he took out a camera, and he photographed the pages. And then he went back to work and put them back in the file.

RATH: (Laughter).

HOFFMAN: And he did this for years.

RATH: Can you have is a sense of the value of the intelligence Tolkachev provided? How did it actually affect U.S. military policy, diplomacy, other things?

HOFFMAN: For many, many years, the CIA had a high time penetrating the Soviet Union and especially trying to divine what was going on in the minds of its leaders. A lot of people said the CIA had absolutely no idea what was going on. But the Tolkachev case opens a window on a different kind of spying that was very valuable to the U.S. military 'cause the big question about the Soviets in the middle of the Cold War were capabilities. What could they do, and what were their intentions? And Tolkachev provided blueprints, documents, plans that showed not only the current capabilities of Soviet aviation and radars, but also showed what was being planned for 10 years ahead. And this was a windfall because they could see what the Soviets were going to do, how their radars worked, how their planes communicated with each other and develop countermeasures 10 years ahead.

RATH: So he provides this amazing edge for the U.S., but his story, of course, does not end well for him. He's ultimately betrayed. Can you explain how his story came to an end?

HOFFMAN: There was a young man who was being trained to be Tolkachev's handler. The year this man was being trained, he didn't do very well. And eventually, he had to take a required lie detector test, and the young man flunked the test. And when that happened, the CIA decided he was not going to go to Moscow to handle their best agent. He was going to be fired. And his name was Edward Lee Howard, and the CIA fired him. And he was angry. He decided to get even with the CIA and to betray Tolkachev. And then he became the first serving CIA officer to defect to the Soviet Union.

RATH: When we think about very well-known names of, you know, spies - double agents - in the Cold War, it doesn't seem that Tolkachev is very well known. Even Edward Howard, the guy who was responsible for him getting turned in, seems like - that his name is more familiar. Why do you think maybe he's not as well-known?

HOFFMAN: Well, in this case, it's been secret for many years. There have been bits and pieces come out. In this book, I got the CIA to declassify to me more than 900 pages of the operational cables about how it was carried out. So I think that this is one of the most of Cold War, but until now, it's been largely held in secret. The lesson of the Tolkachev case is that you can focus all you want on high-tech satellites, you can tap into people's email, but in the end, despite all the changes in technology, having a great human source is absolutely invaluable.

RATH: David Hoffman is a contributing editor at The Washington Post and a correspondent for PBS "Frontline." His new book, "The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story Of Cold War Espionage And Betrayal," is out on Tuesday. David, thanks very much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Arun.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.