On Friday morning, Oct. 1, 1993, I phoned Clair George, former CIA spymaster and partner in creative problem resolution.
“You know the name Edward Lee Howard?” I asked him. I knew he did. Clair had been deputy director of operations when Mr. Howard, an ex-CIA officer, bolted from Santa Fe, N.M., out from under the eyes of the FBI and defected to Moscow.
“He wants to write a book.”
“Truly. He’s circulating a book proposal. I’ve been invited to participate. I could meet Howard, gain his confidence, lure him into a trap. What do you think?”
“I’ll call Tom Twetten,” said Clair, referring to the current operations chief.
ENTER THE FBI
Two days later Clair and I strategized how best to receive two representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, expected to arrive imminently. (The CIA quickly determined that the bureau had jurisdiction over Mr. Howard, a fugitive wanted for suspicion of espionage.)
Let them talk as much as possible, Clair advised me, so we can figure out what they’ve been doing about him.
The doorbell rang. Clair greeted the “feebs” (as he called them) and led them into his den. Both were polite and deferential to Clair, who explained he and I were neighbors and friends before gesturing for me to speak.
“My background is book publishing,” I said. “I have a casual relationship with National Press Books in Bethesda, which has a reputation for publishing controversial nonfiction. They received a proposal from Edward Lee Howard, and they asked me if I’d be interested in editing it for them. I told them I’m interested. What I meant was, ‘I’m interested in seeing Howard behind bars.’ ”
Said one of the G-men, “We already know people who have met Howard and reported to us so I’m not sure how much more we’re going to get by giving you questions to ask.”
“Wait a second,” Clair said. He threw his arms up. “This is not about asking Howard questions. It’s about trying to CAPTURE him.”
“Oh,” said the G-man. “That’s the domain of the U.S. attorney in New Mexico. Only he can decide whether we can use tactics like this.”
“U.S. Marshal Service has something called the Curbed Frisbee Doctrine,” I said. “If we can lure Howard to the right place, we can legally nab him.”
I pointed out that this was how they caught Edwin Wilson, another ex-CIA fugitive.
Clair saw them out and returned shaking his head. “Typical FBI. They only think about collecting more incriminating information on Howard. As if they don’t have enough! I can’t believe it didn’t occur to them that we would be talking about capturing Howard.
“That’s government today,” he added. “And it’s getting worse. No imagination. No creativity.”
Clair was pessimistic about how this would evolve. “It will sound too complicated, too dangerous. Anyone with any clout in government is just a few years away from their pension. They never want to risk that.”
ONE WEEK LATER …
I received a telephone call from John H., an FBI special agent in Albuquerque, the field office from which the case was being handled because that’s where Mr. Howard lived when he fled.
One week later, John and I huddled in Washington, D.C., after which he began to climb a bureaucratic ladder fraught with spikes known as unit chiefs and division chiefs. No one apparently wanted to take responsibility for finally approving such an endeavor.
As John put it, “There is a Big Cheese who needs to make a final decision.”
He called a few days later: “It’s going higher than the Big Cheese, to the Super Superiors.”
This meant FBI Director Louis Freeh was unwilling to green light it himself and had dispatched this headache to the U.S. Justice Department.
It reached Head Cheese, who asked, “Should we be doing this kind of thing?”
“So now it’s coming back down the ladder,” said John.
“SHOULD WE BE DOING THIS KIND OF THING?”
Clair George was incredulous. “Sounds like the Clinton Administration, all right.”
National Press Books set a deadline for me to decide. It quickly expired, relieving the FBI non-decision makers of responsibility. But then National Press bounced back more enthusiastically than before.
I phoned Clair. “Goddammit, I could get this guy.”
“I know you could,” said Clair. “It’s the damn bureaucrats.”
And he told me what he’d garnered: The FBI was gung-ho, but my proposal got stuck with the deputy attorney general.
“It got turned over to seven lawyers to study. I’ll call Dick Stoltz.”
Mr. Stoltz was another former deputy director for operations at CIA and one of Clair’s closest friends.
Clair called me back a few hours later. “Stoltz talked to Twetten, and Twetten called the No. 2 guy at the bureau to tell him the agency is strongly in favor of this operation.
“I don’t know,” Clair added, “he was probably talking to a brick wall.”
But it worked. Clair’s intercession caused the FBI to rebound.
As Clair conveyed to me: “I just got a call from a Ted Price (assistant deputy director for operations). He wanted to get to the bottom of this. So I filled him in about the bureaucratic foot-dragging.
“Ted said, ‘Jesus Christ, this is one of the most important things we could be doing!’ He’s charging over to the bureau this morning to raise a ruckus and try to get it back on track.”
BACK IN BUSINESS?
Soon after, I received a call from John in Albuquerque. “If you’re still interested, it looks like we’re getting somewhere,” he said, a tad puzzled. “I’ve been called to Washington. And I have the power to get you started.”
And that’s how it became my job to create a sting that would attempt to snare America’s most wanted spy.
Soon, however, the FBI fumbled. The bureau simply could not get it together due to its rigid rules.
But I experienced an epiphany: I was not bound by the FBI’s rules. I could play this my own way.
My inspiration for this derived from a 17th century man of letters named Alexander Bott, who had written:
“I am not a believer in the foolish system of literal obedience, but rather in that higher form of discipline wherein a subordinate obeys not the order which he has actually been given by a superior, but rather the order which that superior would have given had he known what he was talking about.”
I would edit Mr. Howard’s book. If the FBI terminated its relationship with me, so be it. I had offered my services in good faith and done everything on my end to make it work.
I would establish a working relationship with Ed Howard and, working alone, I would attempt the same goal: his capture.
I phoned John with my pitch: “If you get a final green light, fine. If you don’t, I understand. But I’m doing it anyway. Feel welcome to call me for updates.”
John was not enthusiastic. “The problem is,” he explained, “those Big Cheeses have big egos. They may say no way about picking it up later.”
“Look,” I said, “I know you’ve got your rules, and you’ve got to stick to them. But I’m not bound by those rules. You and I both know in our hearts I’m doing the right thing. I got into this situation with a view toward helping you guys, and I’m sticking to that. But I’ve got to do it my way. Otherwise, it’s going to slip away because your bureaucrats can’t get their act together.”
“OK,” said John. “Let me make some calls.”
While he made his calls, I lunched with Clair and laid out my new approach.
Clair nodded. “Screw ’em,” he finally said. “If you want to edit the book, do it.”
“Yes,” I said. “But with a view to nailing Howard.”
“No problem,” said Clair. “I’ll tell the CIA that you’re going to edit this book, that the lawyers at Justice are messing it all up.”
Clair shook his head in disgust. “We’ll meet with Dick Stolz this weekend, and you’ll tell him what’s going on. He’ll go out to Langley and tell Tom Twetten and Ted Price that you’re going to do this and keep them informed.”
YES, BACK IN BIZ
Special Agent John phoned. “We’re in agreement for you to do it your way,” he said.
So I continued to feed the FBI updates, and John responded with “hmm” to everything I said, a kind of detached deniability if things went wrong.
Soon, Mr. Howard sent a letter offering to meet me in Zurich, Switzerland.
I faxed it to John — and also to Clair, who faxed it to Twetten.
The G-man responded by saying his pace for getting things approved had slowed down.
I was astonished, not appreciating things could move even slower than before. Then he called back a few days later, somewhat bewildered. Had I, he asked, shown Mr. Howard’s letter to anyone else?
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Clair George.”
The CIA had sent Mr. Howard’s letter to the FBI at the highest level and caused the bureau’s bureaucracy to snap, crackle and pop.
I expressed my concern to Clair that our tactics had backfired.
“Are you kidding?” Clair fired back. “That’s how you get things done in government! Now somebody is doing something!”
Of course, he was right.
John phoned a few days later. “Looks like we’re getting somewhere. I’ve been called to Washington for meetings.”
I worked on Mr. Howard’s book and traveled to Moscow in July 1994 to see the traitor on his turf. A few months later, Howard and I met again in Switzerland.
THE J. EDGAR HOOVER BUILDING
The FBI invited me to headquarters. I was charmed, of course, because I was not yet aware that most FBI field agents strove to avoid that austere building. I would soon discover why.
I’d been working the Howard case for 14 months by then. It somehow qualified me for an ambush. Faces I’d not seen before — five, to be precise — surrounded me in a windowless conference room to hear my story: journalism, book publishing, creative problem resolution. I chuckled a lot; the assembled company were stony faced.
After I finished, a man named Dick asked me questions about how I might feel if, after spending time with Ed Howard, he was caught and put behind bars.
How would I feel? I shrugged. “I’m experienced at pulling off stings. The whole point of this project is to capture him.” I had actually proposed it.
Mildly patronizing, Dick said that people never really knew how they would feel until such a situation was upon them. Would I mind taking a battery of psychological tests?
Next it was Bob’s turn. “Why does Ed Howard trust you so much?” he asked suspiciously.
“Because I’m good at what I do.”
Later that day I met with Clair and conveyed to him all that had been said.
He listened, bemused at first but soon incredulous that 14 months after I’d started working on Mr. Howard, the FBI had finally got around to operational security.
As for the psychological tests, said Clair, “Tell them they can shove their battery of tests up their …”
“I already did.”
Mr. Howard’s book, “Safehouse,” got published. As his editor, I ensured that sensitive information related to the national security of the United States was deleted before publication.
And I slid Mr. Howard into a new book of my own making, “Spy’s Guide to Europe,” which I conceived especially to draw Mr. Howard out of Russia, to various Central European capitals.
Eventually we hit pay dirt.
Mr. Howard planned a trip to Warsaw in Poland to research “Spy’s Guide” — and the FBI obtained permission from the Poles to intercept Mr. Howard through an international corridor as he walked from the plane to Immigration.
At the 11th hour, as FBI agents prepared to pounce, the Justice Department balked and aborted the operation.
The U.S. could have captured the only CIA officer ever to successfully defect to Moscow and chose not to go through with it — apparently on orders from the White House.
The person least surprised was … Clair George.
POSITIVE INTELLIGENCE AND MORE
So the FBI gave up trying to apprehend Edward Lee Howard. Instead I set to work, on the bureau’s behalf, gathering positive intelligence from Mr. Howard and his buddies in the Russian intelligence services.
To that end, I returned to Moscow, twice, to ruse former KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, who wanted to write a book for Western consumption. I also traveled to Havana for a crack at Mr. Howard’s buddies in Cuban intelligence.
As my missions for the FBI evolved into rusing Cuban intelligence agents stationed in Washington D.C., hastening the extradition from France of hippie guru murderer Ira Einhorn and pulling a sting on the Earth Liberation Front, Clair watched with amusement, providing sage advice when asked.
His best advice: “Keep everyone laughing half the time, scared the other half — and always keep them guessing.”
My experience with the FBI reminded me of another Clairism, something he’d told me soon after we first met: “I’d take you downtown and introduce you to the people who run things, but it would only scare the bejesus out of you.”Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.