Saturday night in Washington’s trendy Georgetown district: thousands of people stroll along Wisconsin Avenue, watching each other, barcrawling or browsing in bookstores. All the restaurants are crowded and bustling, few more so than Au Pied de Cochon. It is so busy, in fact, that no waiter is likely to remember any particular patron and so noisy that no one sitting at an adjacent booth will overhear a discreet conversation. As such, it was an ideal place for a CIA agent to take Vitaly Yurchenko, whom, until last week, the U.S. spy agency regarded as one of the highest-ranking members of the Soviet KGB ever to defect to the United States. Then, on Saturday, Nov. 2 the CIA—and Western intelligence networks from Ottawa to Bonn —received a rude surprise. Halfway through the meal—no one can recall what he ate—Yurchenko said to his dinner companion: “What would you do if I got up and walked out? Would you shoot me?” Replied the U.S. agent: “We don’t treat defectors that way.”
A moment later the 49-year-old Russian rose from the table. “I’ll be back in 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “If I’m not, it’s not your fault.” With that, Yurchenko left the restaurant and briskly made his way toward a group of well-protected buildings a few blocks up Wisconsin Avenue. His destination: the Soviet Embassy compound. The spy whom CIA director William Casey had earlier called “a gold mine” of information had decided to go home, leaving in his wake an embarrassed American intelligence community and a series of unanswered—and perhaps unanswerable-questions.
Yurchenko’s return to Moscow—after he had accused the CIA of kidnapping and torture—was one of a bizarre series of episodes that last week jeopar-
dized U.S.-Soviet relations only days before the first superpower summit meeting in six years. In Moscow, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz emerged from 14 hours of talks with the Kremlin leadership voicing skepticism that the Geneva meetings on Nov. 19 and 20 between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would produce significant results —on arms control or any other topic. “Very serious differences remain,” Shultz said. “Basically, we have a lot of work to do.”
At the same time, congressional lawyers presented a subpoena ordering Soviet seaman Miroslav Medved to testify before the Senate § agriculture committee I in Washington this 1 week. Medved, 25, a sail§ or aboard the Soviet
freighter Marshal Konev docked near New Orleans, jumped from his ship into the Mississippi River on Oct. 24 and swam ashore. U.S. immigration officials initially believed that Medved was seeking asylum. But after a day of interrogation the officials decided that the seaman wanted to return home. They may have been mistaken. They returned the shouting and struggling seaman back to the ship.
After strong protests from Ukrainian-American groups, the state department conducted a second interview at which Medved insisted that he wanted to return to the Soviet Union. But South Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the agriculture committee, charged the administration with mishandling the case and
arranged for a subpoena to be issued. Soviet authorities said they would not respond to the document, and on Saturday, after the White House and state department refused further intervention, the freighter left its berth at Reserve, La., to return home.
Earlier, inside the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, another apparent Soviet defector, Alexandr Sukhanov, gave himself up to Soviet authorities. Sukhanov, a 19-year-old Soviet army private, had slipped into the U.S. compound on Oct. 31 saying he was “unhappy with a soldier’s life.” Soviet and Afghan troops ringed the embassy and cut off its electricity as U.S. officials questioned the young soldier. They were prepared to grant Sukhanov asylum status, but after four days he decided to return to Soviet custody.
That three Soviet citizens in U.S.
custody should suddenly request patriation within days of each other struck some Americans as more than coincidental. Said Reagan himself: “You can’t rule out the possibility that there might have been a deliberate ploy, a manoeuvre. Here you have three different individuals in three different parts of the world who defected and then recanted.” The implied Soviet motive: to embarrass the United
States in the days before the summit. Moscow itself last week tried to preempt American criticism on human rights issues by allowing Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, to telephone their daughter, Tatiana Yankelevich, who lives in Boston, Mass. Bonner confirmed reports that she had been
granted permission to seek medical treatment in the West.
But it was the case of Yurchenko—including a tantalizing Canadian connection —that dominated public discussion last week. The central issue: was the man who walked into the U.S. Embassy in Rome last August requesting political asylum a genuine defector who changed his mind? Or was he sent on a double-agent mission to convince the CIA that he was genuine—and then, by returning to the Soviet Union with lurid tales of CIA torture, score a propaganda victory for the Kremlin and deter other possible KGB defectors? American intelligence experts offered arguments to support both possibilities.
Two former CIA directors suggested that Yurchenko had simply changed his mind. Said Richard Helms, CIA
chief from 1965 to 1973: “They would not send a guy who knew all their best secrets on a double-agent mission. There would be too big a risk of him saying something he shouldn’t.” Helms’s successor at the CIA from 1973 to 1976, William Colby, concurred: “People defect and then decide to go back because they can’t stand the psychological strain or separation from their old life.” Yurchenko apparently played the loneliness theme with intensity. He demanded, and the CIA arranged, a telephone conversation with his 16-year-old son in Moscow. And on the grounds that he wanted to visit a former mistress —believed to be the wife of a Soviet diplomat in Ottawa—the CIA set up a trip to Canada last month. Intelligence officials said later that Yurchenko had tried to persuade the woman to join him in the West. Her refusal, they said, helped persuade him to re-defect.
But other experts said that Yurchenko must have been a double agent. “I would be stunned if there were any other explanation,” said Senator Malcolm Wallop, a member of the Senate intelligence panel. “Yurchenko has been in the KGB all his life. He knows what they do to traitors. Defectors get a bullet in the base of their skull. Yurchenko will get a medal.” Moreover, during his extensive debriefing —conducted at a secluded CIA safe house near Fredericksburg, Va., outside Washington —intelligence officials concluded that Yurchenko was not the KGB’s fifthranking officer, as some press accounts had claimed. More likely, said one National Security Agency official, “he was one of those who kept other agents in line. He was important, but not senior enough to be involved with KGB policy.”
Whatever the truth, the CIA last week began an urgent review of everything Yurchenko had told the agency—and everything they might, inadvertently, have told him. “Yurchenko was probably telling his debriefers tall tales about intrigue in the Kremlin, Moscow’s long-term plans, what Gorbachev thinks about America,” said Mikhail Tsypkin, a Soviet expert at Washington’s Heritage Foundation. “Now, all those people at the state department and elsewhere will be busy
trying to cut from summit position papers anything based on what Yurchenko said. It’s unpleasant and timeconsuming.” Reagan himself said that the spy’s revelations were “not anything new or sensational.” Yurchenko’s major disclosure: that a former CIA employee, Edward Howard, had been a double agent working for Moscow. But the agency was given that information only after Howard had managed to flee—probably to the Soviet Union.
Other Washington intelligence analysts offered another possible theory —that Yurchenko’s mistress in Ottawa was in fact his KGB control officer. Instead of arranging a clandestine encounter with his alleged lover, the CIA had been trapped into setting up a meeting that allowed Moscow to give him new instructions. Said one Canadian intelligence source: “It’s consistent and entirely plausible. It could be the dupe of the century.”
There was even speculation that Yurchenko may have been specially chosen for his mission. He spoke English fluently and had worked at the Soviet Embassy in Washington for five years during the 1970s. Not only that, if he had no direct knowledge of Soviet espionage networks in the United States, there was little danger that Yurchenko would be able to tell the Americans very much. Indeed, Ottawa’s Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, which sent the CIA lists of questions to be put to Yurchenko, began to doubt his authenticity after he failed to identify a single Soviet operative in Canada. Late last week, however, the CIA issued a three-page biography of Yurchenko describing him as a 25-year KGB veteran who ran espionage networks in Ottawa and Montreal. From April until July of this year, the CIA alleged, Yurchenko directed intelligence missions in both Canada and the United States.
But both Canadian and U.S. authorities repeatedly denied that Yurchenko’s re-defection was connected to the death last week of Svetlana Dedkova, 47, in Toronto. Dedkova, the wife of a Soviet trade representative, committed suicide according to police accounts, jumping from the 27th-floor balcony of her suburban apartment on Tuesday morning. That was just one day after an emotional Yurchenko appeared at a news conference at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, insisting that the CIA had kidnapped him in Rome, brought him to Washington and then tortured and drugged him to reveal secrets. Then, on Wednesday afternoon Yurchenko boarded a Soviet Ilyushin airplane for the flight home to Moscow. He carried no luggage.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.