By G. Ernest Govea, CPP
Cherkashin served as chief counterintelligence officer at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., where he handled notorious spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.
***** Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer. By Victor Cherkashin with Gregory Feifer; published by Basic Books, 800/371-1669 (phone), www.basicbooks.com (Web); 338 pages; $15.95.
High-ranking KGB officer Victor Cherkashin targeted the so-called “Main Adversary”—the United States—for Russia between 1952 and 1991. In this rare glimpse into high-level intelligence activities, readers get a fascinating account of his operations, with constant reminders about how in the world of human intelligence things are seldom what they appear to be.
Cherkashin served as chief counterintelligence officer at the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., where he handled notorious spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen. Cherkashin’s account of his relationship with these two men fleshes out the portrait of how they operated with impunity for so long. In fact, Cherkashin claims to have learned the true identity of Hanssen only after Hanssen’s arrest.
Of course, readers should retain healthy skepticism when reading the work of someone so skilled in dissimulation. Cherkashin perpetuates the story that Edward Lee Howard, probably the bitterest and most vindictive of U.S. spies to defect to the East, lived a happy life. Western media reports suggest that he died drunk and alone.
In books of this type, the most exciting information comes from the perspective of hearing from “the other side,” and such is the case here. Cherkashin criticizes the KGB for its corruption, its unnecessary execution of officers who betrayed it, and its political machinations to transmogrify failures into victories. For example, KGB officers would lavish medals upon themselves at elaborate ceremonies, even though their only victories came through turncoats like Hanssen and Ames who simply fell into their laps.
Cherkashin also lambastes the Soviet system for its mistrust and cold-heartedness toward its own dedicated officers, who then sometimes decided to spy for the West. Dmitri Polyakov, a general in Russia’s military intelligence arm, is one example. Polyakov spied for the United States for 25 years after Russian officials’ refusal to allow him to take his gravely ill son to a hospital in New York resulted in the boy’s death. Polyakov was identified by Hanssen and Ames, leading to his execution.
Also told is the tragic story of Sergei Motorin, a dedicated KGB officer and family man who was blackmailed by the FBI into cooperating, then handed over to and executed by the KGB. This book, an important read for anyone involved in human intelligence, shows that spies are often given up by other spies, not identified by hard work.
Reviewer: G. Ernest Govea, CPP, is the facility security officer and security director for the corporate and engineering offices of Parsons in Pasadena, California. In his 27 years with the military and defense contractor community he has been responsible for the protection of classified information. He is a member of ASIS International.