An Unlikely Spy and an Intelligence Bonanza
Tolkachev wanted revenge against the Soviet regime, and sharing with its enemies the secrets of his military R&D work would seriously stick it to the USSR. However, while the concept of betraying the Soviet Union was simple in theory, the nuts and bolts of just how to go about with that betrayal proved frustratingly difficult. In January of 1977, Tolkachev tried to approach American diplomats in Moscow, so he could get cracking on betraying some of the Soviet Union’s most sensitive military secrets. He got brushed off. He tried again, only to get brushed off again. And again, and again, and again.
Tolkachev had not anticipated that treason could be so fiendishly difficult, but he persisted, and kept trying to get the Americans to pay him attention. Finally, seven attempts at contact and more than a year later, the CIA assigned a Russian speaking officer to contact the Soviet engineer. It quickly became clear that Uncle Sam had been doing his best to throw away an intelligence bonanza, when Tolkachev provided intelligence data whose value was described as “incalculable” by American experts. Among other things, the US Air Force ended up completely redesigning the electronics of its then premier fighter, the F-15 Eagle, based on information provided by Tolkachev.
Tolkachev proved to be an enterprising spy, who consistently found ways to get around the stringent security measures at his workplace. Despite strict document access procedures, he routinely managed to check out top secret documents, and take them home or to other parts of the workplace where he could examine them at leisure, without arousing suspicions. When the spy cameras provided him by the CIA failed, he photographed secret documents with a civilian camera. And his production was copious: one time, he gave his handler over 150 rolls of film, and on another occasion, over 200 rolls. All in all, Tolkachev’s information put the US in a position to dominate the skies in case of war, and confirmed that Soviet air defenses were vulnerable to low flying American missiles and warplanes.
At first, Tolkachev refused any payment, insisting that he was doing what he was doing for the principle of the thing, and to get back at and undermine his government, which he detested. He also feared that money would be too noticeable and draw suspicion. However, he accepted as gifts for his son some items that were hard to come by in the USSR, such as music records and art supplies. Eventually, he accepted some small payments to bribe any colleagues who might discover what he was up to. He was also careful about what he was doing, and refused to follow the CIA’s standard spycraft, which he viewed as counterproductive, and likely to give him away. So he declined to use radios, or work through dead drops – delivering intelligence to a secret location for a handler to pick later – insisting instead on delivering his goods in face to face meetings.
Unfortunately, Tolkachev’s precautions failed to save him from one risk over which he had no control: the incompetence of those on whose behalf he was spying. While Tolkachev was risking his neck, committing treason and betraying his country to gift the CIA with some of the Soviet Union’s most sensitive scientific data, the CIA was turning a blind eye to mounting evidence of treason and betrayal within its own ranks. Two traitors from within the CIA would eventually doom Tolkachev and end up doing him in, by fingering him to the KGB.