BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Wise, author of "Cassidy's Run: The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas." Who was Cassidy?
Mr. DAVID WISE, AUTHOR, "CASSIDY'S RUN: THE SECRET SPY WAR OVER NERVE GAS": Joe Cassidy was a very ordinary American from a blue-collar background in Erie, Pennsylvania. He dropped out of high school, joined the Army and when the FBI recruited him for this spy operation, he suddenly found himself a secret weapon in the Cold War without any training.
LAMB: And what was that?
Mr. WISE: Well, his job was to pass what turned out to be 45,000 pages of secret documents to the Russians, all under the control of the FBI. Joe Cassidy pretended to be a traitor for 21 years. There he is. And he pretended to be an Aldrich Ames, if you will, for 21 years. It was a remarkable bit of acting and the Russians believed it.
LAMB: What kind of a guy was he?
Mr. WISE: Well, I think he's a--very down-to-earth, plain, simple but highly intelligent. The one quality he had that made him perfect for this job was that he's--he was an excellent actor, a natural actor. And he has a lot of intellectual curiosity. He was able to play the role of a traitor so convincingly that the Russians never tumbled to the fact that he was or the whole operation would have blown up and his own safety could have been in danger.
LAMB: What years was he in the Army?
Mr. WISE: Well, let me--let me try to set the stage a little bit for you more generally and then answer that. As you know, I've been writing about espionage for more than three decades. This was, I think without doubt, the most extraordinary case I've ever uncovered. And not a word of it has been made public until now. The--when I say it was extraordinary, it was extraordinary to a great extent because of Joe Cassidy, who is the hero in the book and the main character in the book. But it was extraordinary as well because it went on for such an astonishing length of time, 23 years, that made it the longest-running spy case in the entire history of the Cold War.
Unusual as well because one of the things that Cassidy gave to the Russians was a--deliberately gave, with the approval of the US government, was a formula for nerve gas, which was designed to mislead the Soviets; a very deadly formula. And in addition to that, the—two FBI agents were killed in this case and the true purpose of their mission was covered up un--until now. And a University of Minnesota professor turned out to be a spy in this case. And finally, my favorite spy in the whole business was--the Russians sent a man, code name Exora, to New York City to live a very anonymous life. And his main job--in the event he learned of a nuclear attack planned by the United States, if he learned that through Joe Cassidy, was to climb up on a huge rock in Central Park, at 68th Street and 5th Avenue, and with a trick radio signal the Russians a warning.
So this is a very large canvas of which Joe Cassidy was the central figure. He joined the Army during World War II. He had been working in a steel mill in Erie, Pennsylvania. So it was about 1943.
LAMB: So how many total years was he in the Army?
Mr. WISE: Well, he stayed in the Army till 1973. So it was a 30-year career. He became a--the highest non-commissioned officer that you can.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
Mr. WISE: Yes, he is. He's 79 years old. He'll be 80 in June—on the 25th of June. And he's alive and well. And, of course, so is his wife Marie, who helped him in this project.
LAMB: Just to divert a moment, his wife Marie was a nun for how many years?
Mr. WISE: She was a nun for over 20 years and that is certainly one of my favorite stories in the book, the fact that she was a nun because there she is in her nun's habit as a--a--sister in the Vencencian Order from Pittsburgh. And when Joe met her in 1968, he had no idea of her background. And on their first date, he took her to the Playboy Club, which was a big mistake for a former nun. But she had not wanted to tell him that--that she had been in a convent. And Joe claims that he was there at the Playboy Club not to ogle the waitresses but simply because at $1.50 for an Army sergeant in 1968, this was a bargain to get dinner at the Playboy Club.
Well, nor did she know, of course, that he was a spy. And when the FBI began to try to check her out--because Joe Cassidy, being a double agent, as the term of art is called, had to tell the FBI that he was seriously seeing a young woman. And they began to try to check her out. They couldn't find a trace of her and they were alarmed. There was a suspicion perhaps she was a--a Russian spy sent to spy on Joe Cassidy, what is known in the trade as a swallow.
And the FBI was quite alarmed until they finally r--learned the fact that she had a different name and had, as a nun, of course—Sister Marianne Joseph--and had been living in a convent for 20 years. So that--for part of that time. So that--that explained why they couldn't find any trace of her. She, in turn, of course, knew nothing about this man whom she was about to marry, that he was a spy—an American spy.
And it was only after their marriage that the FBI rang the doorbell and Special Agent James Marsy said, `There's something I have to tell you about your husband.'
LAMB: This is what book for you?
Mr. WISE: This is number 12.
LAMB: When did you write your first one?
Mr. WISE: In 1962.
LAMB: And that name was?
Mr. WISE: It was called "The U-2 Affair." My co-author was Tom Ross. We were a couple of young reporters here in Washington and, you know, I'm an old police reporter and I looked at the shooting down of France's Gary Powers in his U-2 on May Day, 1960, and I said, `There has to be a coincidence that this is 10 days before the summit meeting with Eisenhower and Khrushchev.' And so on that premise, we began to dig into this flight and--and--and wrote our first book.
LAMB: First book I can remember reading was "The Invisible Government."
Mr. WISE: Yes.
LAMB: Also with Tom Ross.
Mr. WISE: That became--that Tom Ross--that became the number one best-seller in the country, thanks very much to the CIA, which tried to stop the book. And when they tried to stop the book and they approached Random House, my publisher, to try to do that, of course, Bennett Cerf, who was then the head of Random House and a wonderful, funny man, as you may recall, he said to the CIA, `Well, look, we will sell you the first printing,' as they were asking to keep it out of the bookstores. `But I have to tell you, we're going to go back to press and we're going to do another printing and another printing and another printing.'
LAMB: What was it about?
Mr. WISE: "The Invisible Government" was the first look at the intelligence agencies of the United States. Up until that time--it's hard to remember, but people barely knew there was a CIA and what it did and what these other agencies, like the National Security Agency did. Of course, people knew about the FBI but not about the dozen or so other agencies that are involved in intelligence. And so the book was--was greeted with quite a bit of interest at that time. It was on the best-seller list for 22 weeks.
LAMB: How long were you a reporter?
Mr. WISE: Well, I worked for the New York Herald Tribune for 15 years, until the paper departed, except in Paris, where it still lives on. And that was in 1966. I'd already started writing books before that time.
LAMB: And have you made a living, basically, out of these books over the years?
Mr. WISE: My wife occasionally raises that same question, but yes, I have.
LAMB: Where do you live?
Mr. WISE: In Washington, DC. Right in town.
LAMB: And where did you get the first inkling that you had a book called "Cassidy's Run"?
Mr. WISE: Well, I didn't know then it was going to be called "Cassidy's Run," Brian, for a very simple reason, what--which was I didn't yet know the name of the spy who was at the center of this whole drama, Joe Cassidy.
I learned nine years ago from a source in the intelligence business some fragments of this story, some bits and pieces. And the source did not know the whole story by any means, but just enough that I was totally intrigued to learn more. I had to know more. And that was the challenge, because the files were, and are, still locked up in the government's--in--inside the government, inside the FBI and inside the Pentagon.
So it was a great challenge. It took me five years before I even could determine the name Joe Cassidy. Up until that time, no one, even my friends in the intelligence business, wouldn't divulge that name, for understandable reasons. He'd been a double agent. He was at some risk of his life.
Finally, in 1996, I was able to find him. And I went to see him and he turned out to be very open, ready now, finally, at the age of—at that time, probably 75 or 6, to tell his story.
LAMB: Was he allowed to?
Mr. WISE: That wasn't a question I raised. All I know is that he's talked to me for many, many days and hours and weeks to tell his part of the story. Of course, he didn't know the entire story. He was one piece of it.
LAMB: Did he have to get permission to talk?
Mr. WISE: Well, I don't think he did. I don't think he did. There were people in--involved in this who--who wouldn't talk to me because they felt it was all secret. But there were other people who felt it was time for the story to come out. After all, the Cold War has been over for almost a decade. These events are long past and there were people, especially I think in the FBI and elsewhere in the government, who felt that this story, while it had some--some minuses, also had many pluses and that it was time to get it out. And that's--I think, was the motivation of people talking to me.
LAMB: What's the first thing they did when they--and--and who asked Sergeant Cassidy to be a spy?
Mr. WISE: Well--well, Joe Cassidy was--had decided to re-up and stay in the Army after World War II, and in 1959, he was called in with a bunch of other non-commissioned officers to a library at Ft. Belvoir, I believe, where he was stationed at that time.
LAMB: Right here.
Mr. WISE: Right near Washington. And he was--there was a lot of buzz in the room. People thought, `Has there been a security lapse? Why are all of us being called in this--some kind of special meeting?' And one by one, they went in and they talked. And when his turn came, there were two men in--in suits, civilians, sitting in there, which was very unusual in itself. And they didn't identify themselves and they started asking him some questions. And one of the questions they asked was, `Do you ever play volleyball?' That's a funny way for what became a lifetime of work for Joe Cassidy began. He said, `Well, yeah. Sure. As a matter of fact, our team, you know, the 2nd Battalion, whatever, had--was pretty good at it. And we used to win cases of Coca-Cola.'
And so he said, `Sure.' They said, `Well, would you be willing to play volleyball over at the Y, a block from the White House in Washington every Thursday night?' And he said, `Well, sure. I guess'--you know, this is the Army, Uncle Sam and you do what you're asked to do. So he said he was willing to do it. And they said, `Well, you may be approached by someone with a foreign accent. You know, just go and work out and after your workout, put your uniform back on and sit out on the steps of the Y.'
Well, Joe Cassidy did that and he did it for six months. And the reason the FBI had put him there was that they knew, of course, that a Soviet intelligence officer, a man named Boris Polikarpov, had played at the Y, played volleyball and was quite good at it, in fact, and he was known to play there on Thursday nights. And after six months, one night in the summer, Joe Cassidy was sitting out on the steps when Polikarpov emerged and, of course, noticed the uniform and said, `Have you had dinner?'
Well, they played on the same team. They knew each other now but didn't really know each other. And Joe said, `No. No, I haven't had dinner.' And they went off and had dinner, what became a series of dinners, some seafood dinners along the Potomac on Maine Avenue. And gradually, the man revealed that he was a Russian. Not at first. And he asked for very innocuous things at first, which is how they're trained to do to try to cultivate a source.
But he was well aware that being inside the military, Joe Cassidy had the potential of being a mole inside the United States military for the Soviet Union. Mr. Polikarpov--Commander Polikarpov--was a—was representing the GRU, which is not quite as well known as the KGB. But the GRU is the military intelligence and it operates on a parallel level with the KGB at that time, which was the civilian spy agency, and then mostly after a lot of the same things. But, of course, particularly military information.
LAMB: So this was 1959.
Mr. WISE: That's right.
LAMB: And how--and eventually the name Mike came into this.
Mr. WISE: Well, all of the Russians, for reasons best known to themselves, identified themselves as Mike. So there were a series of Mikes. There were, in fact, nine Mikes.
LAMB: Over how many years?
Mr. WISE: Twenty-one years.
LAMB: Nine different people.
Mr. WISE: That's right.
LAMB: They call--all call themselves Mike.
Mr. WISE: But the--but the one man who was entitled to call himself Mike was Mikhail Danilin, who was a good-looking young man representing the GRU. And he twice came to the United States to handle Joe Cassidy for the So--for Soviet intelligence. They did send a total of 10 people in connection with this case. They must have regarded it very seriously. But Danilin was the main handler. And, of course, the FBI was able to identify all 10 of those people.
LAMB: So when did the real information start being exchanged?
Mr. WISE: Well, almost immediately. After a period of several months had gone by and--and Cassidy had been, they thought, brought in--and you see, what--what's very important here, if I may digress just a little bit, is that people walk in all the time to embassies and say--people walk in--Russians walk into the American Embassy overseas or vice versa and they say, you know, `I have information for sale.'
Well, very often, that's a--a volunteer who really isn't a spy and he's trying to penetrate the other service. And so there's always a big question. For example, when Aldrich Ames walked into the Soviet Embassy in--in downtown Washington and said, you know, `I have information of value,' well, it turned out he had information of enormous value.
But the Russians would have to ask themselves, `Well, is he real or is he a dangle?' And so volunteers are often looked at very, very carefully as potential plants. But in this case, the Russians felt they had found Cassidy. I mean, here was this soldier who was playing volleyball and then sitting out on the steps and resting afterward and paying no attention to the--to the Russian spy who was on the team.
And the Russians felt they had found him, that--they didn't realize he was a dangle who had been put in his way very deliberately by the FBI. It was very clever really and it worked. Because with the assurance that they had found him, they never worried very much that he had been planted on them. It never occurred to them that someone playing volleyball at the Y might be, in fact, a double agent.
LAMB: Were we doing the same thing in Russia at the same time?
Mr. WISE: Well, that's another book. I mean, I think the—the double agent game has gone on--went on all through the Cold War and it's probably going on even today.
LAMB: What are microdots, hollow rocks, rollover cameras and special pencil lead?
Mr. WISE: Well, the book, of course, has all the spy stuff which, you know, is--a lot of people are fas--it's the James Bond stuff and people are--are fascinated with that. You see, if you're a spy—and Joe Cassidy they thought was a spy for the Russians--they couldn't just call him up from their embassy, for example, and say, you know, `Well, Mr. Cassidy, today, you know, we like you to steal certain document, leave here,' you know, `and we will pick up. Or you can come to embassy.'
No, the communication has to be in a way that it can't be detected so the telephone isn't used at all, ever, period. Personal meetings do take place but very carefully choreographed and orchestrated. What the Russians favor and have favored over the years, and still favor, are things called dead drops, which are hiding places. It can be a place like a squirrel might like, a hollow of a tree, or a--a loose brick in a wall and there's a little space behind it.
It--it's usually outdoors and it can be anything like that, where there's room to hide something--film or microfilm or documents. And the spy--let's say in this case, Joe Cassidy, would go to that dead drop and they taught him how to make fake rocks. In fact, Mr. Cassidy--Sergeant Cassidy made one for me o--out of papier-mache. He showed me how it's done. And it looks absolutely realistic. Then he would roll it in the dirt to--to look like a rock, to pick up some dirt. And it was kind of gray looking to begin with. And the inside would be completely hollow. And in there, he would have some ti--ordinary tinfoil that you would buy at the supermarket.
And inside the tinfoil, he would wrap the film of the documents he had secretly photographed on behalf of the Russians. All was under the control of the FBI and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. TheRussians would then pick up this--this--these films and they would develop them and they would think they had the secret documents. They--indeed, many of them were marked `secret,' even `top secret.'
But they'd all been approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as OK to give to the Russians for one reason or another. In this game you have to give away some secrets in order to establish credibility and to obtain secrets. That's the name of the counterintelligence game.
LAMB: But you make the point in the book that if one of us were to give the same secrets away to the Russians, we could be arrested. But under this format, the sergeant giving away real secrets...
Mr. WISE: Right. He had the approval of the highest level of the--of the Pentagon...
LAMB: ...of course, was illegal.
Mr. WISE: ...and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for each of these documents that he gave away. But to answer your question, they gave him--they communicated with him mostly through hollow rocks and they, in turn, would leave a hollow rock for him to pick up. And inside that hollow rock would be microdots. Now microdots are no bigger than a period in one of the sentences in my book. And so you're not going to find them if you open up a rock and find, let's say, a matchbook in--inside the hollow rock.
And in that matchbook, Cassidy would be told to look under the letter A, for example. And that right under that letter, there would be a microdot and a little slit in the matchbook cover. And they gave him a microdot reader so that he could read these--and--and magnify the messages which would tell him where the dead drops would be for the next several months, when the next personal meeting would take place with a Soviet agent and so on. Those--those--that was how he got his instructions, on microdots.
They also communicated with him later on through Morse code, from Radio Moscow with six-digit code groups that he would have to decipher with the help of a tiny little dictionary. So the pencil lead you asked about. That was a chemical. He would crush the lead and—and try to dissolve it. It was--didn't work too well actually. But he would use it for secret writing. There was a lot of secret writing which are kind of like what we did as kids with lemon juice. You know, you would--it would look like a blank sheet of paper but treated with the white--with the right chemicals, the message would appear.
LAMB: What about a rollover camera? What's that?
Mr. WISE: Yeah. The rollover camera was something the Russians invented so that Joe Cassidy, although he sometimes used a conventional camera, could take this special camera they had rigged up--it was very small, no bigger than a pack of cigarettes as I recall. And he could roll it over a document to which he would have access. And he would roll it over in three places so that it would scan and photograph that document. He wouldn't have to manipulate the camera. It was just automatic. And then he would turn over the whole camera, which was very small, inside one of these hollow rocks, and they'd give him a new one the next time he picked up a hollow rock.
LAMB: How--did--microdots, hollow rocks, rollover cameras, special pencil lead. Jump from '59 to 2000. What do they use today or do they use these same kind of things today in intelligence gathering?
Mr. WISE: Well, as a matter of fact, a lot of this business hasn't changed. I mean, we all enjoy the James Bond movie and--and the--Q, who--the gadgetmeister, who recently died, in the movie, at least--movie version, and a lot of exotic weaponry and so on. Well, there is some of that. But for this kind of operation, where a—an intelligence service believes they have a--an agent working for them, a mole inside the United State government, the communication today—my guess is it goes on exactly the same way. It's not high tech but it works.
LAMB: You--you have a story in the book--this is out of context of what we're talking about...
Mr. WISE: Right.
LAMB: ...where the guy's walking down the street in London?
Mr. WISE: Yeah.
LAMB: With the umbrella?
Mr. WISE: Yes. I tell that story to indicate that the KGB did, at least an--and--and Soviet intelligence did, at least 15, 20 years ago, engage in assassination. And the umbrella man was a man who had been working for Bulgarian intelligence and he came up behind a man named Georgie Markov and it was either on Waterloo Bridge or on the Strand nearby, and he poked Markov with this umbrella in his thigh. And the umbrella tip, with the help of the KGB, who had given this technique to the Bulgarian service, contained a capsule of--of a highly poisonous substance called Ricin, which is a--a derivative of the castor bean plant. Any of us who's ever had castor oil probably knows it's very toxic, but this stuff kills and kills very quickly. And that--that story took place around 1977.
LAMB: But you indicated that maybe some of these secrets that were passed on would have led to the production of this from us to--to the Russians?
Mr. WISE: Well, as a matter of fact, Ricin was a secret that was passed on, not as part of this operation, but by the people at Edgewood Arsenal near Baltimore, which is where the nerve gas that is at the heart of this story, was developed and where Joe Cassidy, of course, was stationed in the 1960s. That's what made him of such enormous interest to the Soviet intelligence.
LAMB: Where is Edgewood?
Mr. WISE: Well, it's northeast of Baltimore. It's part of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where they test missiles and ordnance. But it's a huge complex of laboratories where America's nerve gas was developed. You know, that nerve gas was originally captured, some of it--the early versions of it were captured from the Nazis at the end of World War II. A gas called sarin and to tell--to show you how little things have changed in the spy business, the sarin gas was used in Tokyo five years ago in the terrible attack in the Tokyo subways by the--by the--a Japanese cult.
LAMB: Have you been to Edgewood?
Mr. WISE: Well, I have been to a lot of places in connection with this book. I have not personally toured the laboratories. They—for one thing, they are no longer producing nerve gas as such in Edgewood. They are still doing defensive research. I don't think an outsider would be a popular figure inside a secret nerve gas laboratory.
LAMB: Who's the fellow named Hormatz?
Mr. WISE: Well, Saul Hormatz was--some people call the father of the nerve gas program, a sort of--of Edward Teller of nerve gas. And he was a--in charge of things at Edgewood Arsenal for many, many years. And then after he left the government, he became an opponent of nerve gas. And many of his colleagues turned against him for breaking ranks. But Hormatz felt that this material is so deadly and so--and--and can kill civilians that it should be--it should not be used and, indeed, is not effective militarily.
LAMB: Who are the Good Old Boys?
Mr. WISE: Well, the Good Old Boys were a group—dwindling now--of--of nerve gas scientists. They all live up around Belleair, which is a suburb of Baltimore, near the old laboratories. And the Good Old Boys were nerve gas scientists who used to gather once a month and swap stories about the nerve gas business. Just like, you know, when Mr. de Tocqueville said, `We're all great joiners in America and everyone has to have a club,' including the nerve gas scientists.
LAMB: Did you meet with them?
Mr. WISE: I have spoken with several of the Good Old Boys, yes.
LAMB: How long did Sergeant Cassidy live around Edgewood?
Mr. WISE: Well, he was there from 1962 until 1969. And it was during that period at Edgewood, where he had complete access for most of that period to the chemical weapons laboratory, to the nerve gas formulas--and there it is. He--he--everything crossed his desk, because as a non-commissioned officer, he was in charge of filing and dealing with all of this material. So he was quite convincing, that he had access to the material and the Russians, of course, wanted it. And it was during this period that the deception phase of this whole operation took place. That's the most sensitive and delicate phase that even some of my best sources were very edgy and wary about discussing with me.
LAMB: What's that mean, deception?
Mr. WISE: Well, you see, in every double agent case, where the double agent is built--built up by passing real secrets, there's a terrible temptation to slip deceptive material in--bad in with the good in order to deceive the opposition intelligence service; to slip a mickey, in effect, in with these good documents. And the decision was made and approved again at the highest level of the government, of--of the military, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to give the Soviets a nerve gas formula called GJ, which was part of the G series, like sarin--it was called GB and so on, some of it was GD.
And this was invented and we're going to call it GJ. And it, indeed, was a very deadly nerve gas developed in the labs at Edgewood. But American scientists had found it to be unstable and couldn't be weaponized, could not be stored in a weapon because it would lose its toxicity. It was very volatile. It wouldn't stay useful as a deadly nerve gas. And so the decision was made, you know, `We're not going to put this stuff in weapons.'
But someone thought, `Let's give it to the Russians.' The purpose was to try to mislead them, and--and as it's been explained to me at least, to try to lead the Russians down the garden path, make them spend a lot of time, money and resources trying to replicate a nerve gas that in the end wouldn't be useful to them.
LAMB: Do we have nerve gas today?
Mr. WISE: Well, under the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the United States Senate ratified in 1997, we're supposed to be destroying--in the process of destroying our stocks of nerve gas. We're no longer producing nerve gas as we were very actively in the 1960s and again in the 1980s.
LAMB: Have we ever used it in war?
Mr. WISE: We have not.
LAMB: Do the Russians have nerve gas?
Mr. WISE: Well, yes, of course. In fact, a lot of my book discusses the Russian nerve gas program. There is a scientist whom I interviewed both in Moscow and here, because he's now here, who was arrested by the KGB. His name is Vil Mirzayanov. And he revealed that the Russians had developed a very deadly nerve gas, 10 times more powerful than anything in the United States arsenal, called Novichok.
Now Novichok has never been acknowledged by the Soviets. As—and there's Vil Mirzayanov--he was arrested by the KGB for talking about Novichok, which has never been acknowledged by the Soviets to be in their arsenal of nerve gas. And they've never listed it under the Chemical Weapons Treaty, which, of course, they also signed.
LAMB: Where do they make it?
Mr. WISE: Well, the Soviet nerve gas establishment was in two places, as I discuss in the book. The central laboratory, where Mr.--Mr. Mirzayanov worked, was in Moscow itself. And the plants for large-scale production--because laboratories just produce the pilot amount--small amounts of nerve gas, and then it goes to the big industrial plants which are all along the Volga in three separate locations. And there are also some testing facilities there as well.
LAMB: The Palmettos.
Mr. WISE: Yes.
LAMB: Who are they? Who were they?
Mr. WISE: Well, I mentioned the University of Minnesota professor and that's who one of the Palmettos eventually became. The best way I can explain the Palmettos is to tell you that in 1971, after Joe Cassidy had been transferred from Edgewood Arsenal, where—the nerve--the nerve gas center, to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, a transfer that created a whole new phase of this case--the Palmetto phase. Because the Russians were restricted to 25-mile radius traveling outside of their embassy in Washington, the Russians could not follow Joe Cassidy to Florida.
And the FBI believed--correctly, as it turned out--that the Russians would have to surface an illegal. Now an illegal agent is someone who doesn't operate under embassy cover. He's not, you know, Boris Ivanov, who's the first secretary of the embassy, posing--you know, posing as a--as a diplomat, who's really a KGB or GRU agent.
No. The illegals could be anyone. They are people without benefit of embassy cover. They could be your next-door neighbor. I'm not really suggesting that, but it could be anyone. In fact, the Russians have very successfully planted people in our society, some of whom have taken the names of real Americans, so there could be a Brian Lamb walking around somewhere, you know, using your name and identity, who's actually a Soviet illegal, or today, a Russian illegal. And this is still going on.
In 1971, in March, Joe Cassidy put down a hollow rock at the base of a little palm tree, and there it is--and--or at least, there he is putting down a similar...
LAMB: It said this is in '72. This is a simi--similar kind of action.
Mr. WISE: A similar thing a year later. And he put this rock down at the base of the palm tree, and the FBI was waiting in a condominium apartment overlooking the scene with their cameras going. They didn't know who was going to show up or whether anyone would show up, but someone was supposed to under the plan, and they knew it wouldn't be a Soviet diplomat. Their hope was--was that it would be an illegal.
Well, one of the FBI agents had a nightscope, and he was looking through the nightscope and he said to Jack O'Flaherty, the agent in charge down there of this operation--he said, `I see a hand.' That was the first appearance of the man who became known as Palmetto, and that hand was groping through the bushes, trying to reach the rock without showing his face and his body, but he couldn't reach the rock. It was just out of reach. So he had to come around--to the great relief of the FBI--had to come around the bushes and the palm tree and show himself. And they got a good look at him and they got pictures of him, but they didn't know who he was, and they didn't know how they were going to find out who he was, because they were very reluctant to put any agents on the street to tail whoever showed up. They didn't want to blow the whole operation out of the water by making the Russian spy aware that the FBI knew about him.
So they were cursing their luck when the man with the rock started walking off out of camera view, and then they got a terrific break, because a few minutes later, a Volkswagen drew up to the palm tree, to the street in front of the palm tree, and the man, who was dressed inwhite slacks, hopped out--he was very visible in the night--he hopped out and lay down a supermarket shopping bag or ordinary brown paper bag at the base of the palm tree. He had forgotten to put his signal down, which would indicate he had cleared the drop--very, very poor tradecraft. Well, now the FBI had a license plate, and the license plate was traced to a rental agency, during the night, in Miami, where the FBI got a second incredible break.
Gilberto Lopez--code name now Palmetto, which was his FBI code name--Gilberto Lopez Arrivas, who was celebrating his 28th birthday, had rented the car under his true name. The FBI was able to pick uphis trail--again, they didn't want to be in too close to him--but they found out that he had taken a Trailways bus and they traced him to Houston, and they determined he'd gotten on a plane to Mexico City. Gilberto Lopez was, and is, a Mexican national who was at that time studying as a student in Salt Lake. The Russians had brought him in--infiltrated him into this country as a student. And he showed up six more times in St. Petersburg, Florida, at these drop sites, different drop sites, to pick up documents fro--secret documents, some of them top secret, from Joe Cassidy, and often he appeared--on four of those occasions, he appeared with his--with his wife, and I think on three of those occasions, he appeared--there--there they are—with his wife and his two-year-old son.
LAMB: Who was Emilio Flores?
Mr. WISE: Well, the FBI was anxious to learn more about Gilberto Lopez, who, incidentally, now I can tell you is a member of congress in Mexico, a member of the Chamber of Deputies, which, as we speak has not yet been noticed by anyone, but that may change shortly. Mr.--Mr. Lopez was living in Salt Lake with his wife, as a young student, getting his PhD, and at the--the University of Utah. And the FBI was anxious to learn more about him. Well, how are they going to do that?
They decided the best way to do that was to get someone who was fluent in Spanish, who worked for the FBI, and infiltrate him, try to penetrate Mr. Lopez's immediate circle and get to know him. And so they found an agent in Miami named Aurelio Flores, who was a young agent, about the same age as Gilberto Lopez, who had a young child, like Lopez, and they said, `We're transferring you to Salt Lake City if you're willing to do this undercover work, and you will enroll as a fellow student at the University of Utah,' and he did.
But the way he was able to--to get to know Lopez was dropping off—he made certain that he dropped off his child at the same day-care center, and one day he blocked Lopez's car with his own car, and so that Lopez would have to wait a moment for him to c--for Aurelio Flores, the FBI man, to come and move his car so that he could get out, and Flores came along and he said, `Oh, dispensar mi.' `Excuse me,' you know, `I didn't mean to--to lock you in this way,' and he moved his car and they became buddies, very close friends, to the point where the FBI man was baby-sitting Lopez's child, and Lopez at one point got to know Aurelio Flores so well that he actually tried to recruit him as a Soviet spy.
LAMB: The--the FBI put little tiny cameras in the apartment. How did they do that, and how--how small were the cameras?
Mr. WISE: Well, after--after--they didn't do that in Salt Lake, although they--they wiretapped his telephone, but after Lopez decided to transfer--he had a Ford Foundation grant, this Russian spy, and decided to continue his studies in--at the University of Texas, so he moved to Austin, and...
LAMB: Well, let me just stop you.
Mr. WISE: Yeah.
LAMB: You mean the Ford Foundation was funding a Russian spy from Mexico in this country?
Mr. WISE: They didn't know it, of course. As far as they knew, he was a promising young student. And he was at the University of Texas now, and Aurelio Flores, his great friend and baby-sitter from Salt Lake, had said, `You know, I'm not too happy here in Salt Lake. I think I'll transfer over to University of Texas, too,' and I think Lopez encouraged him to do that, so there was no suspicion. And Flores then--therefore, was on the scene again in Austin, and it was in Austin that the FBI found a crawl space over Lopez's apartment, and they were able to gain access to that crawl space--crawl space, and they used a camera--they made a--they drilled a little pinhole in the ceiling, and they used a camera of the crawl space, a camera that they'd gotten from NASA, I believe. The technology was such that it was a very small camera, very concealable, and could operate through a very small opening in the ceiling.
And so they had the house bugged, wiretapped and videotaped. They could actually see Lopez taking--getting Morse code instructions, I think from Havana--maybe directly from Moscow in some cases—getting his own instructions by Morse code and with his earphones on.
LAMB: Eventually--and you mentioned this in your earlier remarks--there were two FBI men that were killed...
Mr. WISE: Yes.
LAMB: ...in relationship to this man, Flores.
Mr. WISE: Yes.
LAMB: How did that happen?
Mr. WISE: Well, in 1976, Mr. Lopez became Professor Lopez, and he and his wife moved to Minnesota, where he got a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, as an assistant professor in the Chicano studies department. And there at the university, the FBI, of course, resumed its surveillance of him, trying to see whether he would again engage in the kind of activities that he engaged in in Tampa, and they were hopeful that perhaps--of course, Joe Cassidy by now was out of the picture, he was not in Minnesota. They were hoping, perhaps, he would be picking up materials from some other source, so that was the purpose of the surveillance at that time.
LAMB: But how were Mike Kirkland and Agent Basford killed?
Mr. WISE: Well, I had to set the stage here in--in Minnesota, because there was a young agent named Mark Kirkland, who was assigned to this case, and there he is with his fiancee at that time, Julie, and Mark Kirkland--whom he then married and they were raising a family; they had two small children--and this became his case. He was young and enthusiastic and very anxious to try to catch Lopez and his wife in some espionage activity. They knew that he was a Russian spy, and so Kirkland grew a beard and began to mingle--pretend to be a student. And one of the photographs in there actually shows him with the beard, posing as a student at the University of Minnesota, so that he could get closer to--to Professor Lopez. And the FBI also succeeded in placing an undercover agent, a woman, in--you won't find that, an--a picture of her, because she has to remain in that unknown capacity--but she was actually in--in the class with one of the students of Lopez when she was working for the FBI.
And one of the ways that--that the FBI tracks people in cases of this sort, and in criminal cases as well, is aerial surveillance. In August of 1977, late August, Lopez and his wife and their children headed north toward the Canadian border for what was ostensibly a camping trip. The FBI suspected he was on his way over the border, perhaps to do something in Canada, where he had lived previously before coming to the United States. There's a great temptation on the part of the Soviets to send spies in over the Canadian border, which they've often done, because it's such a porous borer--border and—and relatively easy for people to go back and forth.
So the--Mark Kirkland went up in an FBI surveillance plane, which was piloted by Special Agent Trenwith Basford, who was getting ready to retire, but was a very experienced pilot, and also--not just a pilot, but a special agent in the FBI--and they tracked the--they tracked the Lopez family as it was driving north, and when they--Lopezes stopped for the night, the plane would land and then it would take off the next morning. Well, on August 25th, 1977, up near Chisholm, the—in northern Minnesota, in the lake country--they ran into--their little Cessna ran into a terrible rainstorm, and they tried--the pilot tried to land on Dewey Lake, which was one of the smaller lakes in the lake country of northern Minnesota, and he crashed. And that cost the life of both of the agents. They both had children--in the case of Mark Kirkland, very young children--and so there is Julie Kirkland with Kenneth and Christopher, two very young children.
LAMB: How old--how long ago was this picture taken?
Mr. WISE: Well, that was taken around 1977, early '78.
LAMB: So they're all grown now.
Mr. WISE: Yes, they are. But one of the reasons that I have that picture in the book and--and talk so much about Mark Kirkland is that I wanted people to know that the Cold War was not just a video game, and we're not talking here about Nintendo. This is--this is—this cost lives, and in this case in--this operation cost the lives of two FBI agents. Now the--the real purpose of their mission was never admitted--and revealed for the first time in--in the book—because even their wives were not told, for many, many years, that they were on an important national security case, that--that they were trailing a spy when their plane went down. And what the public and press were told was something quite different at that time.
LAMB: Who--who likes what you're doing here, and who doesn't—other than people who read your books?
Mr. WISE: Well--well, I don't think the--that the GRU is going to like it, because it makes clear that for 23 years, they thought they had a mole inside the United States government, who was, in fact, working for the FBI at all times. So they can't be happy with that.
LAMB: Did they know it at the time?
Mr. WISE: No.
LAMB: They have--I mean, is this--the book the first time that the GRU will find out that this Sergeant Cassidy was a mole for us?
Mr. WISE: Well, I--I would like to think so, but that's not the case, because they--they already had a strong suspicion because in 1978, Phil Parker, the FB mi--FBI man in charge of this case at headquarters, flew out--and there's Phil Parker with a very un--unregulation handlebar moustache, which he insisted on using in the FBI despite regulations. Phil Parker flew out and confronted Lopez and his wife, the Palmettos and, indeed, got them to--got the husband to confess that he had been working for the Soviet Union. So the--the hope was on the part of Parker and the FBI, that the two Mexicans, the illegals, husband and wife, could be arrested.
They weren't. The Justice Department refused to allow the arrest of the two spies. Therefore, there are people formerly in the Justice Department, and maybe some still there, who will not be very happy with this story. Although they had some arguments on their side that--very complicated but--legal situation that led them to come down on the decision not to arrest.
LAMB: You say you did 450 interviews with 200 people?
Mr. WISE: Yes.
LAMB: How many different places in the world did you have to go to--to do that?
Mr. WISE: Well, I went to--to Moscow, of course, in 1993, and I traveled fairly extensively around this country, spent a lot of time down in the St. Petersburg-Tampa area, of course, where a lot of this action took place, and in New York and around Washington. But the
Moscow trip was--the purpose there was I was being stonewalled by the Pentagon. I applied under the Freedom of Information Act--now we hear wonderful things about the Freedom of Information Act; FOIA, as it's called. I've never found it all that useful, because as a writer of books, you put a request in, as I did in this case, and by the time you get any information, it's five or six years later, because there's so many requests, and the book by that time has been published, and I'm talking here to Brian Lamb, and--and the information, when it comes in, is of some interest, but no--not applicable to--to the book.
In this case, I never even got to that stage of getting documents, you know, five or six years later. I may yet get some, but the Army—I submitted the request to Army intelligence and to the FBI, and the Army wrote back and said--this thing was called Operation Shocker by the Joint Chiefs; that was what they called it--had a bunch of different code names because code names changed to try to protect the operation. The Army wrote back and said, `We have no record of this case.' So I wrote back and said, `Well, now, come on fellas, you've got to have a record.' This went on for 23 years. It was the most important counterintelligence case in the history of the United States government, the longest-running, certainly, and there's no way that you don't have a record of it. So they said they had no record of it.
The--I then started dealing directly with some officials at the Pentagon, and I talked to a colonel, and I said, `I'm not getting anywhere with the Freedom of Information Act,' and I said--I talked to a colonel and I would like to bring this up to the level of the Secretary of the Army to see whether the files can be found and whether I could have access to the files of the case. The colonel said to me--on the phone, after we'd gotten to know each other a little bit--one day he said to me on the phone, `You know, after you first called me and made this request to try to move up the line to get these documents,' he said the colonel came down Ft. Meade, which is were Army intelligence command is located, and he said, `Don't talk to David Wise about this case.' So I said, `Wait a minute. Am I missing something here? You're telling me that the Army sent a colonel down to tell you not to talk to me about the case that they say doesn't exist?' And he said, `You've got it. You've got it right.'
Well, ultimately, through the could of--good offices of Ken Bacon, the Pentagon spokesman--Secretary Cohen's spokesman--Togo West, who was then the secretary of the Army, agreed to review the files to see what, if anything, could be released to me. Months went by, and then I got word back that, yes, I was right, there was such a file, they'd found it, and no, I couldn't have it. It was classified. It was secret.
LAMB: One little item about to your Moscow trip that popped out--there are no telephone books in Moscow?
Mr. WISE: Oh, yeah, well, that was the problem. You see, I was looking for Mikhail Danilin, as I mentioned, the one Mike who--who had the right to call himself Mike, because his name was Michael in Russian--Mikhail, like Gorbachev. And Mikhail Danilin was, presumably, I hoped, still alive and--and well and maybe living in Moscow, because like a lot of our spooks, when they retire, they, you know, continue to live in northern Virginia or around Washington, because that's where they've lived all their lives. And I was hoping that it would--the same would be true and I might be able to find Mike Danilin in Moscow, in that area. But there are no phone books, so you can't just look him up. There's a number you can call, so--like an information operator, and I asked for Mikhail Danilin, and there was about 100 of them in Moscow, and of course, none of them were the right one, anyway. I started calling them, and none of them were going to say...
LAMB: You speak Russian?
Mr. WISE: I speak a little, but I had someone to help me do that, do the phone calls, a translator. And finally, I was able to find someone who actually had known Danilin when he was stationed in the embassy in Washington, and that person was able to--was willing to contact Danilin on my behalf. Now my intermediary didn't know his phone number, but he knew people who knew them, and that's kind of the way the phone numbers are exchanged in Moscow. You have to, you know, call Boris, who might know Michael, who might know Sergei, and—and you know, this sort of phone chain, and finally he was able to locate Danilin, whom he knew, and said, you know, `David Wise is here in Washington, he is trying to research an old case and--and would you speak with him?'
And Danilin said that he was still working for the GRU, and therefore, he could not possibly speak with me. He did say that. And then he also said--being a professional spy, he said, `Of course, it wasn't my case.' Well, of course, I knew better. I knew that he was the chief handler of Joe Cassidy, and it was very much his case. But that was the position he took. So I left Moscow quite disappointed. I never actually sat down with Danilin.
LAMB: Where are you from, originally?
Mr. WISE: I grew up in New York and went to Columbia College and became a newspaper man, a reporter on the late, great New York Herald Tribune, and then came to Washington after eight years of doing that.
LAMB: And do you have a family here?
Mr. WISE: Yes, I do. All my family is here, and my wife and two sons.
LAMB: You've thanked your brother.
Mr. WISE: Yes, he's up in New York. He stayed in New York.
LAMB: What'd he do for you in this--this story?
Mr. WISE: And I should say, I have one son who's now living in Arizona, but he had been here until quite recently.
LAMB: But your brother, what did he do for your book?
Mr. WISE: Well, one of the things he did was that--a wonderful spy in New York, the sleeper agent, who's named Exora, code named Exora by the FBI--this is the man whose job was to climb up on the rock in Central Park if Joe Cassidy telephoned a planned nuclear attack, a warning of nuclear attack to him, and radio the Russians from this high--it's really not a rock, it's like a small mountain. You can walk by 68th Street and 5th Avenue and see it right there.
LAMB: Here he is, the picture of Mr. Freundlich.
Mr. WISE: Edmund Freundlich, aka Exora. And what my brother did was that when Exora was infiltrated--penetrated this country as a refugee from Austria, ostensibly, but actually working for the Soviet intelligence--he got a job, and the job he got was working for Robert Maxwell, the famous publisher, late publisher, who died mysteriously off his yacht a few years ago. And he worked for Robert Maxwell for a publishing company that Maxwell had in Tarrytown, New York, called Pergamon Press. So I can't do everything, although I try, and I asked my brother if he'd be kind enough to try to locate for me some of the former officials of Pergamon Press, officials and directors, to see whether they remembered this sleeper agent, Exora, although whom they knew as Edmund Freundlich, and sure enough, he did find me two former directors, officials of Pergamon Press, which is now defunct, as far as I know. I hope I'm saying that correctly and if not, we'll hear from them. But they did remember Edmund Freundlich, and told me quite a bit about him. He lived an incredibly anonymous life, a gray man keeping as low a profile as possible so that nobody would take notice of him.
LAMB: People are going to have to read the book to find out more about Exora. Here is the cover of the book: "The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas: Cassidy's Run." Our guest, David Wise. We thank you very much.
Mr. WISE: Thank you.
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