Authors: Tim Weiner
No one at the Bureau knew whether the terrorism threat was dying or evolving. William Webster wondered if it was fading away. His top aide, Buck Revell, thought it would surely rise again.
Revell, an FBI agent since 1964, was the most politically adept assistant director of his era. Like many of the best agents in the history of the FBI, he was a marine veteran; he built loyalties up and down the chain of command. He sported cowboy boots and spoke with a country-western twang; his mind was more subtle than his style.
Revell became the point man for terrorism and intelligence at the FBI. He saw himself as Judge Webster’s likely successor. He was not shy about his ambitions. He had a big vision of the powers of the FBI. He wanted to create a counterterrorism division that could work around the world.
Webster had his doubts. “
At first he was less than enthused,” Revell said. The director had his reasons: roughly four hundred FBI agents, only 5 percent of the force, had any experience in terrorism cases, and most of them were wary of the political and legal risks of the work. Revell nonetheless persuaded Webster to declare publicly that terrorism was one of the Bureau’s four top priorities, alongside counterintelligence, white-collar crime, and organized crime.
He began to meet regularly with the director of Central Intelligence, William J. Casey, and the top officials of the CIA’s clandestine service. He
soon became the Bureau’s liaison to a secret White House counterterrorism group, led by a National Security Council staff officer, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a marine running a mind-boggling number of secret missions in the Middle East and Central America. Revell became more attuned to what was happening in the White House than Webster. The director was glad to cede a measure of power, authority, and responsibility to his deputy. For months, he had been mourning the loss of his wife, who had suffered a long and painful illness and died at the age of fifty-seven.
Revell had created a small army inside the FBI in anticipation of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The Black September attacks at the Munich games twelve years before were still fresh in the memories of the organizers. No one wanted a recurrence. The FBI formed a hostage rescue team of fifty agents—many of them Vietnam veterans trained in military commando tactics. The force grew, fed by fawning publicity. Its arsenal soon included helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and tanks. The Olympics went off with barely a hitch; the biggest scare was the discovery of two hang gliders, which the FBI suspected could be used in a kamikaze operation by Palestinian terrorists. Only one thing went wrong in Los Angeles that fall.
On October 3, 1984, after a two-month investigation that began as the Olympic torch was doused, an undisciplined and untalented counterintelligence agent named Richard Miller became the first FBI man ever indicted for espionage.
The Miller case was an unsavory affair. He was a twenty-year FBI counterintelligence veteran whose life was falling apart in the months before he became a spy. The father of eight children, he had been excommunicated by the Mormon Church for adultery. He had been suspended by the FBI for two weeks without pay because he was obese. Shortly after that disciplinary action, he had willingly been recruited by a woman he knew to be a KGB agent. Svetlana Ogorodnikov enticed Miller into trading a copy of the FBI’s twenty-five-page manual on foreign counterintelligence investigations in exchange for $15,000 in cash and her sexual favors. Miller was convicted and received a twenty-year sentence.
“Miller was a clown,” said the FBI’s Patrick J. Mullany, who worked the investigation. “He should never have been in the FBI to begin with. A pathetic case.” Though the compromise of intelligence files was severe, the biggest thing the FBI lost in the case was its public reputation as a force impervious to foreign spies. The image of a desperate man trading secrets
for sex with a Soviet spy was indelible to idealistic young FBI agents. “
That was my first experience with espionage,” said Betsey York, then at the outset of a career in FBI intelligence. “I never, ever dreamed that anybody within the FBI would ever do anything wrong. Because I always thought we were the most perfect people. And so when Richard Miller was arrested … I was heartbroken.”
Revell was called upon to deploy his hostage rescue force shortly after that arrest. It was not a rescue effort, but a counterterrorist attack.
The FBI was on the trail of Robert Jay Mathews, a leader of a paramilitary cult called The Order. The group grew out of the Aryan Nations movement, a coalition of white racists aiming for an American Armageddon. The Order was known among its members as the Bruders Schweigen, or Silent Brotherhood, in tribute to Hitler’s storm troopers. It surfaced with a crime wave that reached from Colorado to California, including two murders, the bombing of a synagogue, and armored-car robberies that reaped more than $3 million. Mathews wanted to ignite a right-wing revolution and overthrow the United States. He called America the Zionist Occupation Government.
Mathews considered himself to be the Robin Hood of the radical right,” the FBI’s William H. Matens wrote, “robbing the rich Jews and giving to the Aryans, linking all these radical groups together—Klansmen, skinheads, neo-Nazis, survivalists, tax protestors, militant farmers.” The FBI was astonished to learn that The Order claimed hundreds of hard-core adherents with “plans to sabotage dams and other infrastructure items such as communications and utilities in order to shut down American cities.”
Mathews sowed his own destruction when he left a handgun at the last of The Order’s hijackings. The FBI tracked him to a chalet on Whidbey Island, Washington, thirty miles north of Seattle in Puget Sound.
Revell sent the hostage rescue team to the island. On December 4, 1984, all hell broke loose. The team knocked heads with the FBI special agent in charge from Seattle. As they argued, Mathews opened fire. The FBI responded fiercely. Their tear gas canisters started a conflagration and the chalet burned to ashes. No rescue, much less an arrest, was possible. Mathews was incinerated. His death fed the angry fantasies of a generation of like-minded fanatics. One among them was Timothy McVeigh, the man who ignited the bomb that killed 168 Americans in Oklahoma City a decade later. The operation was considered a calamity.
But Revell and his counterterrorism cowboys won their spurs four months later by foiling a plot to kill Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India during a visit to the United States. The FBI had picked up word of an assassination plot by Sikhs in New York. (Gandhi’s mother, Indira, his predecessor as prime minister, had been killed by Sikh nationalists; six years later he met the same fate.) Revell sent Tom Norris, an undercover member of the hostage rescue team, to ensnare the conspirators. Norris posed as an assassin for hire. A veteran navy SEAL with a fearsome face, he had lost an eye in combat in Vietnam, and he looked like a killer. After Norris broke the case, he was invited to the Indian Embassy to accept Gandhi’s gratitude.
Webster was usually wary of undercover stings; when they went wrong, they made the Bureau look like the American secret police. “
I did not want to turn the FBI into a Gestapo organization,” he said. “But there were times when the use of the undercover operation was the only way.”
Buck Revell officially became the number-two man in the FBI in June 1985. He now had day-to-day command and control of all major cases—intelligence, investigative, criminal, counterterrorism. He was the FBI’s official liaison to the White House and the CIA.
No one at the Bureau had held such a wide range of powers since the death of J. Edgar Hoover. And no one else had faced such a cavalcade of crises.
The counterterrorism capabilities of the United States were severely tested by a series of kidnappings in Lebanon. Americans were being taken hostage in the slums of Beirut. The disappearances had started fifteen months before; among the first to vanish was the CIA’s station chief. The captors called themselves Islamic Jihad. But that was a cover name for a coalition of forces the United States did not comprehend.
Congress passed new laws giving the FBI the power to go after the kidnappers. For the first time, the Bureau had the legal authority to investigate terrorism against Americans abroad. It also had orders from the White House: do something, do anything, to free the hostages. Revell had to work with the CIA to form a plan. But his relationship with the Agency suffered a serious wound in the fall of 1985.
On September 22, a renegade CIA officer named Edward Lee Howard disappeared from the United States. The Agency had selected him for a deep-cover assignment in Moscow. He had undergone two years of training, which included reading some of the Agency’s most sensitive files on
American operations against the Soviets. Howard was preparing to depart for his posting when the CIA determined that he was not the right man for the job: he was a drunkard and a pathological liar. Dismissed for his derelictions, Howard was bitter. The CIA was well aware of the risks of his flight; it asked the FBI to keep him under surveillance. But the Bureau lost track of him. Howard caught a flight to Helsinki and defected to the KGB. The CIA and the FBI resumed their backstabbing traditions, blaming one another for the fiasco.
The Howard affair was only one among a dozen major espionage cases that year. Two weeks later, on October 9, 1985, Robert Hanssen secretly resumed his career as a Communist spy inside the FBI. He had been made a supervisor in the Soviet counterintelligence division in New York. He promptly wrote to the most senior KGB officer in Washington that he would soon deliver documents containing “certain of the most sensitive and highly compartmented projects of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”
Hanssen was true to his word. He sent the Soviets a complete compendium of double-agent operations being run by the FBI, a warning that the FBI was tunneling into the basement of the new Soviet Embassy, a rundown of the Bureau’s new efforts to recruit Soviet intelligence officers, a description of the National Security Agency’s decoding of Moscow’s communications satellite transmissions, the details of the CIA’s budget requests for the next five years, and much more. It was the biggest breach of American secrets in the history of the Cold War—with one exception.
Aldrich Ames, the chief of the Soviet counterintelligence branch of the CIA’s clandestine service, had become a spy for Moscow that spring. Like Hanssen, Ames was an assiduous collector of intelligence on behalf of the Soviet Union. Along with the names of hundreds of his fellow intelligence officers, and the details of their operations, Ames sold the KGB the names of every one of the Soviets who spied for the United States.
Within weeks, Revell and the FBI’s top counterintelligence officers knew something terrible had happened: two of the FBI’s most valued double agents were recalled from the Soviet delegation in Washington and returned to Moscow. Soon, almost every Soviet intelligence officer who spied in secret for the United States was either behind bars or in the grave.
The KGB clearly had acquired inside knowledge of the Bureau’s most valuable intelligence missions. How Moscow had done it was another question.
The FBI wanted to believe the deaths and the disappearances and the blown operations could be blamed on the defection of Edward Lee Howard. But Howard knew nothing about the FBI’s double agents. Nor did he know about the Bureau’s efforts to recruit officers from the ranks of the Soviet delegations in Washington and New York—and nearly every one of those operations started going sour at the end of 1985.
The hunt for the source of the leaks began with great energy and intensity. In two years’ time, it sputtered, stalled, and stopped. The FBI remained mystified. The CIA seemed indifferent. Their counterintelligence chiefs were furious at one another. They would not work together. They could not imagine what had gone wrong. Their investigation concluded that the problem had to be a bug, or a wiretap, or a computer. It could not conceivably be an American spy.
Traitors like Hanssen and Ames could work undetected for years on end because American counterintelligence had become a shambles. The FBI and the CIA had not been on speaking terms for most of the past forty years. The sniping and the silences between them did more harm to American national security than the Soviets.
Revell had an even bigger problem on his hands. On October 4, 1985, he had been handed the responsibility for a joint operation with the CIA to free the American hostages in Lebanon.
Nothing mattered more to Ronald Reagan. The president was aghast when he learned that the FBI and the rest of the American intelligence establishment had no idea where the captives were held or who was holding them. “
Reagan was preoccupied with the fate of the hostages,” remembered Bob Gates, then chief of the CIA’s intelligence directorate. “No loud words or harsh indictments—none of the style of Johnson or Nixon. Just a quizzical look, a suggestion of pain, and then the request—‘We just have to get those people out’—repeated nearly daily, week after week, month after month. Implicit was the accusation:
What the hell kind of intelligence service are you running if you can’t find and rescue these Americans
Peter Kilburn, a librarian at the American University in Beirut, had been held captive for ten months in Lebanon. Colonel North told Revell that the United States was going to pay $2 million for his freedom, with the funds provided by the politically hyperactive Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. Middle Eastern informants would serve as go-betweens; the FBI would hand off the cash. Revell balked at ransom. He said he would not be party to a payoff. Colonel North soon came up with another concept. The FBI
would remove $2 million in cash from the Federal Reserve, treat it with a chemical solution, and deliver it over to the kidnappers in Lebanon. The ransom would self-destruct in two hours.
Revell marveled at the
concept. But he did not buy it. And Peter Kilburn was murdered on the orders of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi before the plan could be carried out.