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American CIA’s billion-dollar spy in Russia

KGB, CIA, United States, Soviet radars, American cruise missiles, CIA’s Moscow station, invisible to the KGB, Moscow station, Bill Plunkert

Oped

American CIA’s billion-dollar spy in Russia

That evening, around the dinner hour, Plunkert and his wife, along with CIA’s station chief and his wife, walked out of the U.S. Embassy to the parking lot, under constant watch by uniformed militiamen who reported to the KGB. They got into a car, the station chief driving. Plunkert sat next to him in the front seat. Their wives were in the back, holding a large birthday cake. Writes David E. Hoffman

The spy had vanished.

He was the most successful and valued agent the United States had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades. His documents and drawings had unlocked the secrets of Soviet radars and weapons research years into the future. He had smuggled circuit boards and blueprints out of his military laboratory. His espionage put the United States in position to dominate the skies in aerial combat and confirmed the vulnerability of Soviet air defenses — showing that American cruise missiles and strategic bombers could fly under the radar.

In the late autumn and early winter of 1982, the CIA lost touch with him. Five scheduled meetings were missed. KGB surveillance on the street was overwhelming. Even the “deep cover” officers of the CIA’s Moscow station, invisible to the KGB, could not break through.

On the evening of Dec. 7, the next scheduled meeting date, the future of the operation was put in the hands of Bill Plunkert. After a stint as a Navy aviator, Plunkert had joined the CIA and trained as a clandestine operations officer. He was in his mid-30s, 6-foot-2, and had arrived at the Moscow station in the summer. His mission was to give the slip to the KGB and make contact.

That evening, around the dinner hour, Plunkert and his wife, along with the CIA station chief and his wife, walked out of the U.S. Embassy to the parking lot, under constant watch by uniformed militiamen who reported to the KGB. They got into a car, the station chief driving. Plunkert sat next to him in the front seat. Their wives were in the back, holding a large birthday cake.

Espionage is the art of illusion. Tonight, Plunkert was the illusionist. Under his street clothes, he wore a second layer that would be typical for an old Russian man. The birthday cake was fake, with a top that looked like a cake but concealed a device underneath, created by the CIA’s technical operations wizards, called the jack-in-the-box. The CIA knew that KGB surveillance teams almost always followed a car from behind and rarely pulled alongside. It was possible for a car carrying a CIA officer to slip around a corner or two, momentarily out of view. In that brief interval, the CIA case officer could jump out of the car and disappear. At the same time, the jack-in-the-box would spring erect, a pop-up that looked, in outline, like the head and torso of the case officer who had just jumped out.

Espionage is the art of illusion. Tonight, Plunkert was the illusionist. Under his street clothes, he wore a second layer that would be typical for an old Russian man. The birthday cake was fake, with a top that looked like a cake but concealed a device underneath, created by the CIA’s technical operations wizards, called the jack-in-the-box. The CIA knew that KGB surveillance teams almost always followed a car from behind and rarely pulled alongside. It was possible for a car carrying a CIA officer to slip around a corner or two, momentarily out of view. In that brief interval, the CIA case officer could jump out of the car and disappear. At the same time, the jack-in-the-box would spring erect, a pop-up that looked, in outline, like the head and torso of the case officer who had just jumped out.

The device had not been used before in Moscow, but the CIA had grown desperate as weeks went by. Plunkert took off his American street clothes. Wearing a full face mask and eyeglasses, he was now disguised as an old Russian man. At a distance, the KGB was trailing them. It was 7 p.m., well after nightfall.

The car turned a corner. Plunkert swung open the passenger door and jumped out. At the same moment, one of the wives placed the birthday cake on the front passenger seat. With a crisp whack, the top of the cake flung open, and a head and torso snapped into position. The car accelerated.

Outside, Plunkert took four steps on the sidewalk. On his fifth step, the KGB chase car rounded the corner. The headlights caught an old Russian man on the sidewalk. The KGB ignored him and sped off in pursuit of the car.

Read remaining portion of the article in the Washington Post

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