Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a new freeze in relations between the United States and Russia. But for some veterans of the CIA and FBI, the spy wars that punctuated the first Cold War never really ended.
During the 1980s, in the final decade of the Cold War, three Americans who spied for the Soviet Union — CIA officers Edward Lee Howard and Aldrich Ames and FBI agent Robert Hanssen — are known to have helped Moscow identify, arrest, and imprison or execute most of the Soviet agents who were secretly spying for the United States. Those agent losses left the CIA virtually in the dark in Moscow for years. Ames and Hanssen were eventually caught and arrested and today remain in federal prison, while Howard defected to Moscow, where he died in 2002.
Now there is growing evidence that there may have been a fourth major American spy who was never caught. According to a new book, a mole hunt for the “fourth man,” who was suspected of being a CIA officer, began in the 1990s, but no one has ever been arrested or charged in the case. Secret details of that investigation are being disclosed for the first time in “The Fourth Man,” a new book by former CIA officer Robert Baer, which is due to be published Tuesday.
“The story of the Russian double agent in the CIA who got away may sound like some unfinished piece of business from the Cold War,” Baer observes in his book. But “it’s starting to look more like the mystery of the fourth man is a lot more historically significant than an old-school spy tale. It’s part of the much larger story of how America completely missed Putin and the KGB’s resurrection.”
The fact that U.S. officials believe there was a “fourth man” inside the CIA was first disclosed in 2003 in “The Main Enemy,” a book I co-authored with former CIA officer Milt Bearden. Baer has now provided a wealth of new details about the case, including the key role of a KGB agent who supplied crucial information to the CIA on the fourth spy. I interviewed several former CIA and FBI officials this week who agreed that there was a fourth mole.
“I believe there is a fourth man, and a lot of things point that way,” Jim Milburn, a former FBI counterintelligence agent who was involved in the investigation, said in an interview this week. “There is more that I can’t talk about. It all leads to my sense that there is a fourth man.”
“Absolutely there was a fourth man,” added John Lewis, former FBI assistant director for national security. “We had a lot of unexplained things that couldn’t be explained by the three others.”
In many ways, the narrative of the “fourth man” investigation reads like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the John le Carré novel about a mole hunt inside British intelligence. Baer’s book reveals that the seeds of the case go back to 1988, when a CIA officer stationed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, first met a KGB officer named Alexander Zaporozhsky. The CIA gave Zaporozhsky the code name “GTZORRO” and nicknamed him “Max.” As a series of CIA officers continued to meet Zaporozhsky over the years, he began to provide clues revealing that the KGB had moles inside U.S. intelligence, according to Baer. At some point, Zaporozhsky suggested that the KGB had two moles, one in the CIA and another in the FBI, although he didn’t know their names. One was known inside the KGB as “Karat,” and the other as “Rubine.”
Zaporozhsky’s information about the existence of two moles came long before either the CIA or FBI was convinced that Moscow had double agents inside U.S. intelligence. Before Zaporozhsky, “there’d been devastating, unexplained losses of CIA Russian agents … and there certainly were those who suspected the problem was a mole. But there was nothing in the way of air-tight evidence to support the theory,” writes Baer.
Zaporozhsky’s evidence ultimately led to Ames at the CIA and Hanssen at the FBI, Baer writes. He describes Zaporozhsky as one of the most important Russian spies the CIA ever had. At some point, Zaporozhsky also began to tell the CIA that there was yet another KGB mole inside the CIA, one who was believed to be ranked higher in the organization than Ames. American spy hunters began to call that the “big case.”
In 1994, Ames was arrested and charged with spying for Moscow, thanks in part to the information Zaporozhsky had provided.
After Ames was arrested, the CIA secretly created a new counterintelligence team to try to determine whether there were any losses that could not be explained by Ames or Howard, who had defected to Moscow in 1985. The agency’s team, Baer writes, included CIA officers Laine Bannerman, Diana Worthen, and MaryAnn Hough. They began to sift through old tips, leads, and other evidence relating to compromised agents and operations that couldn’t be explained by either Ames or Howard. Eventually, they became convinced that there were at least two more moles. Some of their evidence pointed toward Hanssen, who was arrested in 2001.
Baer’s book discloses that the team still believed there was another, fourth mole — thus coming to the same conclusion as Zaporozhsky. This was confirmed to The Intercept by one of the now-retired CIA investigators: “I do believe there is a fourth man,” said Worthen in an interview this week.
In 1996, a CIA officer met again with Zaporozhsky, this time in Tbilisi, Georgia. He told the CIA that he believed he had come under suspicion in Moscow. But he also said he had heard that Russian intelligence had recruited another American CIA officer. This officer had been recruited in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and was now assigned to “the Farm,” the CIA’s training center outside Williamsburg, Virginia. With Zaporozhsky’s information, the CIA was quickly able to identify CIA officer Harold Nicholson as a Russian spy, and he was arrested in November 1996.
But Nicholson had never worked in the CIA’s Soviet or Russian operations and so was quickly ruled out as being the “fourth man.”
In 1998, Zaporozhsky was resettled in the United States by the CIA, pulled out of Moscow along with other agents believed to be in danger. With Zaporozhsky and its other agents gone, the CIA was in the dark in Moscow just as Putin was beginning his rise to power.
Zaporozhsky misread Putin’s Russia too. After he resettled in the United States, he made the mistake of traveling back to Russia, where he was arrested and then spent years in prison. He was released and sent back to the United States in 2010 in one of the biggest spy swaps ever conducted. Zaporozhsky was one of four people whom Moscow sent back to the U.S. in exchange for 10 Russian “sleeper” agents arrested by the United States. The story of the Russian “illegal” agents who had burrowed into American society, including Anna Chapman, who became a celebrity as a result of her spying, became the inspiration for the popular television series “The Americans.”