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A nation must think before it acts.
Reading about the emerging case of Lieutenant Commander Edward C. Lin, a U.S. Navy officer arrested for allegedly spying for a foreign country, I was brought back to my time living the duplicitous life that comes with being in the center of an espionage operation. While, little is being publicly discussed about Lin’s case, as somebody who has lived that life I can understand the range of emotions Lin must have felt as he carried on his traitorous acts. For the more than three years I worked as an undercover asset for the FBI against Russian military intelligence. During this time I developed a series of rules that helped guide me and keep me sane. Like Lin is no doubt doing now, with the conclusion of the operation, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what worked and what didn’t.
The black van had been parked pretty consistently in the same spot for the last week in the lot of my sleepy suburban office building. On this morning as I was off to meet my Russian handler I paused and looked at it one more time, it sat in the corner of the lot with its nose pointed toward me with its windows as dark as its jet black paint. Was it the FBI? Was it the Russians? Was it purely coincidental? For some reason I waved at it and smiled, envisioning FBI agents in the back radioing “he’s made us.” I quickly forgot about the van as I busied to meet Captain Oleg Kulikov of the Russian Mission to the United Nations, and his ongoing dance to recruit and run me as a spy who was bent on committing treason against the United States of America. Yet to this day, the van bothers me. Not because of what it could be, but rather because I will never know if it was anything. That has always been the fundamental rule of espionage for me: there are things that you will never know, and lest you wish to drive yourself mad, it is best to just accept the unknown and move on.
As the years clicked by in my undercover work, I would start to wonder whether or not what I was doing even mattered. So few people knew what I was working on that it began to seem less real to me. With that came a desire to take more and more risks, to test the boundaries. Perhaps the biggest risk I took is one that I carry around today: a tattoo. The FBI hoping to protect my identity and not compromise the operation assigned me with the codename GREEN KYRPTONITE. Almost immediately, I decided it would be cute to have my codename tattooed on my right forearm in Morse code. In hindsight, I realize now that the desire to engage in self-destructive behavior is synonymous with spying (no doubt Lin’s alleged rendezvous with prostitutes would support that). Wanting to be caught is a natural desire, and being aware of these tendencies is paramount to one’s survival.
I would often ask the FBI if Oleg was armed. Their answer was always the same: do you think he’s armed? It was an infuriating answer and one that typified the push-pull relationship I had with them. Control is something we both set out to own, and the control of information became a way for them to maintain that power imbalance. However, despite all this jockeying for power, I always trusted the FBI. There is an unwritten code that protecting assets (and especially their families) is a major objective, and the agents I dealt with swore by that code. Even if they couldn’t tell me whether Oleg was armed, I knew they had my back – and to this day, I trust them with my life. In espionage you have no friends, but if you have to trust somebody, choose the FBI.
I always thought of espionage as a game, albeit with very real consequences. It’s hard to quantify what you are actually doing or that it matters. And this is largely the case because what you are doing is secretive; you don’t actually get feedback or any acknowledgement. The Russians were quick to praise my work and tell me how important I was to them, and I can see how that can be seductive. But perhaps the most sobering moment came when the FBI arrested me while meeting Oleg. In spite of almost four years of being wooed by the Russians and having been promised everything from a fancy party to a retirement account, the minute the FBI sprang their trap my handler turned his back on me and forgot me. It was the last we would ever see of each other. In that moment, I realized how utterly disposable I was to the Russians. It is a feeling Lin is no doubt feeling as he sits in the Navy brig. However, unlike Lin, after being shoved in the back of an unmarked car and unceremoniously arrested, the agents turned around shook my hand and started high fiving me. Which leads me to the last rule of espionage: winning is everything.