The Billion Dollar Spy by Pulitzer Prize winning author David E. Hoffman is a riveting tale of one of the CIA’s most successful espionage operations, conducted in the heart of the former USSR, right under the noses of the vaunted KGB. Based on unclassified CIA reports and interviews with individuals who were intimately involved, the story of Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer in one of the Soviet’s secret military labs, who voluntarily offered some of his country’s most closely-guarded secrets to the Americans, reads like fiction—but, it’s real.
Hoffman pieces together a compelling story of Tolkachev’s life and death, and the story of American spycraft during the early years of the CIA’s efforts to define its role in the life and death struggle between the two superpowers. He presents an in depth assessment of the CIA’s efforts to recruit and run spies inside the Soviet Union during a time when the prevailing notion in the U.S. was that this was an impossible task; when the agency was hamstrung by a dearth of experienced personnel, by bureaucratic impediments, and by betrayal within the ranks of our intelligence organization.
Using declassified documents, interviews, and a masterful way with words, Hoffman paints a sometimes depressing picture of American efforts to solve the problem of conducting effective spy operations in an oppressive state where every interaction was under the close scrutiny of one of the KGB, a state security apparatus that had honed its skills over decades under the hand of Stalin, and where every aspect of people’s lives was controlled by an oppressive state. It also shows how one man, a neophyte in the espionage world, but determined to overcome the strictures imposed by a regime he hated, was able to do what highly trained agents were unable to do—expose some of the most closely guarded secrets in the world. Tolkachev’s life and death is presented in detail, and his final betrayal, not through the efforts of the KGB, but due to the betrayal of two of the most notorious traitors in American history, Edward Lee Howard, a CIA trainee washout seeking revenge against the CIA, and Aldrich Ames, the CIA’s most famous traitor, will leave the reader seething in anger and frustration.
This is past history; overtaken by the demise of the USSR and other world events that claim today’s headlines, but it is instructive nonetheless. It shows how bureaucracy and complacency can undermine the most carefully crafted plans, and the dangers when we allow preconceived beliefs and notions to lead us down dangerous paths.
This is a book that is highly recommended to anyone who wants to know more about the dark days of the Cold War, and the battles that were fought out of the glare of media scrutiny. It is a fitting tribute to all the unknown heroes of an era that still defines the world we live in today.
I received a free copy of The Billion Dollar Spy as a gift, and though I had a long list of books to review, I happened to open this one out of curiosity. Once I started reading it, though, I found myself unable to stop until I reached the end. This is a history that is mostly unknown to the MTV/CNN generation, and that’s truly tragic, because these are the events that have shaped the world we live in today.
If you only have time to read one book before 2015 ends, this is the one I recommend.