Chapter 9: CHICKADEE
In Moscow in 1962, Oleg Penkovsky was passing detailed information to the West on Soviet rocket strength and strategic planning, information that was to assist President Kennedy that October in his handling of the world's first nuclear confrontation, the Cuban missile crisis.
At the CIA's Langley headquarters, Penkovsky's top-secret information on Soviet missiles was given a special code name, CHICKADEE. The "bigot list"  that controlled who had access to CHICKADEE material was highly restricted, as befitted data flowing from what one official study called "the single most valuable agent in CIA history." 
The CIA designated with the code name IRONBARK all material from Penkovsky that dealt with subjects other than Soviet missile strength.  Together, CHICKADEE and IRONBARK were among the most closely guarded secrets of the United States government.
Penkovsky passed his rolls of film, containing photographs of secret Soviet documents, to both Greville Wynne and Janet Ann Chisholm, the attractive, dark-haired wife of the MI6 station chief in Moscow. Sometimes, Penkovsky met Chisholm in a park while her small children played nearby, and on at least one occasion he handed her films concealed in a box of candy. Usually, Penkovsky would meet Chisholm on a Friday or Saturday near the Arbat, a boulevard in the center of Moscow. She would follow him to a side street, where he would pass the films.
But there were growing signs that Penkovsky's spying had been detected. As early as January 1962, while meeting Janet Chisholm, Penkovsky spotted a small brown car driving slowly by and moving the wrong way on a one-way street. Two weeks later, the same car appeared at another meeting with Chisholm. By July 5, when he met Wynne at the Peking restaurant, the KGB surveillance had become unmistakable. At the airport the next day Penkovsky told Wynne he would, as a soldier, continue to do his job for the West, despite the obvious and increasing dangers.
Penkovsky attended a reception at the British embassy on September 6. Then he seemed to disappear off the screen.
Paul Garbler was nervous. The CIA's premier agent in the Soviet Union had vanished.
"We were really sweating, because we hadn't seen or heard from Penkovsky," Garbler recalled. Then, on November 2, the signal came. A chalk mark appeared on lamppost No. 35 on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the lamppost that was checked daily by Captain Alexis Davison, the assistant air attache. And, as prearranged, the telephone rang three times in the apartment of Hugh Montgomery, the deputy chief of station.
To the CIA, the signals meant that Penkovsky had placed something in the dead drop behind the radiator in the lobby of the apartment building at No. 56 Pushkin Street. Just to be sure, Garbler got in his car and drove by the lamppost on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. There could be no question about it; the chalk mark was there.
Perhaps because Penkovsky had not been seen for almost two months, perhaps because Garbler knew the drop was to be used only in case of emergency -- whatever the reason, the station chief had a sense of foreboding. But the drop would have to be cleared.
For that task, he selected Richard C. Jacob, a twenty-four-year-old CIA case officer from Egg Harbor, New Jersey, listed on the embassy rolls as an "archivist." For Jacob, it was the moment of truth. He was a spy in Moscow, which might be glamorous on paper, but now he was facing the real thing, a mission that might be dangerous.
Garbler took pains to prepare him. "I spent about an hour in the secure room with the young guy being sent out to clear the drop," Garbler recalled. "I can't explain why I took him into the bubble and spent that much time with him getting him ready, other than instinct. It was my gut that made me go through everything and tell him what to do if anything happens."
"What do you mean if anything happens?" Jacob had asked nervously.
"The message has to be in a matchbox," Garbler replied. "Hold it in your hand until you get out on the street, and if you're jumped, drop it, try to drop it in the gutter, the sewer if you can. Don't have it."
Jacob nodded, and Garbler went on, "They'll try to sweat you. Don't admit anything about clearing a drop. Demand to call the embassy."
When Jacob arrived at the Pushkin Street drop, the KGB was waiting. He had walked straight into a trap, just as Garbler had feared. 
Penkovsky had been arrested two weeks earlier, on October 22, and was under Soviet control when the signal appeared on the lamppost. Analyzing what had happened, the CIA concluded that Penkovsky, under duress, had revealed both the location of the drop and the chalk signal to activate it. At that point, if the Soviets had not already suspected it, they would have realized that the drop where Abidian had been observed was for Penkovsky.  The KGB then activated the drop by marking the lamppost, and the CIA fell into the trap.
While under control, Penkovsky -- or the KGB -- sent another, extraordinary signal, the meaning of which was debated inside the CIA for years afterward. According to Garbler, Penkovsky had been told that if he learned the Soviets were about to unleash a nuclear missile attack against the United States, he was to go to a pay phone, call Captain Davison, and blow three times into the mouthpiece. "It meant that this was it. The balloon was going up. And he did it." 
There were several possible explanations, Garbler said. Penkovsky may have revealed the signal to the KGB, "and they may have done it to shake us up." Could Penkovsky have disclosed the signal to his captors, but dissembled about its meaning? "It could be," Garbler said. Knowing he was doomed, Oleg Penkovsky may have tried to strike a last blow against his country by triggering a nuclear Armageddon. If so, it would have been consistent with his earlier offer to plant miniature nuclear bombs in various locations around the Soviet capital.
Penkovsky's contact Greville Wynne was arrested in Budapest on November 2, brought to Moscow, and imprisoned in Lubianka. Both men were placed on trial in May 1963, and pleaded guilty.  Penkovsky was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death. On May 16, TASS announced he had been executed. Wynne was sentenced to eight years in prison, but traded for the Soviet spy Gordon Lonsdale the following April.
On May 13, after the conclusion of the Penkovsky trial, Richard Jacob and four other Americans were declared persona non grata and expelled from Moscow. 
The Penkovsky case, despite its apparent success, had ended in spectacular failure, the announced execution of the Soviet colonel, and the expulsion of ten Westerners.
But why did the CIA send an officer to the Pushkin Street drop if five months earlier, in Geneva, as George Kisevalter maintained, Yuri Nosenko had revealed that John Abidian, "the handsome Armenian," had been spotted at the drop? The answer is not clear, but Kisevalter maintained that he had immediately reported Nosenko's warning to headquarters. 
After Penkovsky's arrest, Kisevalter, furious that the operation might have been endangered, said he complained bitterly that Abidian, who was not even a CIA officer, had been sent to check the drop.  He said he voiced his complaint to Joseph J. Bulik, the chief of SR-9, the headquarters unit in charge of operations in Moscow, and the official in charge of the Penkovsky case. Back at Langley, Kisevalter said, "I talked to Bulik in the halls one day at headquarters, in late '62 after Penkovsky was wrapped up. I said, 'Why didn't you tell me the Armenian went to this particular drop?'
"I raised hell about it," Kisevalter said. "Bulik confirmed that the drop checked by the Armenian and the Penkovsky drop were one and the same. Bulik told me, 'Well, we figured it was safe to use him [Abidian] because his tour was up and he's been transferred out of Moscow.' Yes, the horse was already out of the barn."
In the event, no one ever told the Moscow station chief that the drop was contaminated. Garbler didn't know. Why hadn't headquarters told him? "I don't know," Garbler said. But he added that Bulik, the head of SR-9, was notoriously secretive and extremely careful about what he told anyone, even close CIA colleagues.
Had he been informed that the KGB knew the location of the drop, Garbler said, he would never have sent Richard Jacob to clear it. And he would have tried to warn Penkovsky that the drop could no longer be used. The Soviets would not have caught a CIA case officer in the act of conspiring with Oleg Penkovsky.
The long and short of it was that headquarters told the chief of the Moscow station almost nothing about what was happening in the Penkovsky operation. It was only years later that Garbler would find out the startling reason why he may have been kept in the dark.
CHICKADEE was over, but in the fall of 1963 Garbler was plunged into a new crisis. In the annals of the CIA, the case has become known as "the Cherepanov papers."
Aleksandr Nikolaevich Cherepanov was an officer of the KGB's Second Chief Directorate, whose targets included foreigners and diplomats. The trouble began, according to Paul Garbler, when an American couple came to the embassy with a package of documents. Garbler recalled the pair. "One was a librarian, they were both from Indiana, and they had been dealing with a guide who was taking them to libraries in Moscow. The guide's name was Cherepanov." He had handed them the package with a plea that it be taken to the American embassy.
The couple went to the consulate on the first floor of the embassy on Tchaikovsky Street. They turned the papers over to an American officer who gave them to Malcolm Toon, the counselor for political affairs under Ambassador Foy Kohler.
"The agreement I had," Garbler said, "was that if we got a walk-in, I would be notified as soon as possible and certainly within a few hours. It was not until the day after the papers arrived that I was called into the bubble by Toon and Walter Stoessel, the deputy chief of mission. Kohler was out of town and Stoessel was the charge."
The two diplomats told Garbler about the papers and argued they were probably a provocation. They pointed out that in Warsaw the week before, someone had handed a U.S. military attache a diagram showing the location of missile sites. The attache was accused of espionage and expelled.
Garbler could hardly believe his ears. Documents, apparently removed from the KGB's files, had made their way to the embassy and the diplomats wanted to return them to the Russians. "'We've decided to give the stuff back,' they said. 'Okay,' I said, 'but don't give it back until I can review the documents and photograph them.'"
"The papers were about an inch thick," Garbler continued. "They gave them to me reluctantly. They said, 'You can look, but we've made an appointment to give them back.' So I took the papers off to my little hutch on the tenth floor and photographed the documents, I had a couple of hours -- they had an appointment at the foreign ministry at noon."
The documents, seemingly from the American department of the KGB's Second Chief Directorate, went into great detail about the drinking and sexual habits of a number of employees of the U.S. embassy. "They were doing surveillance, and it was dirty stuff. Such as 'The assistant military attache drinks and we're going to catch him in the act.' The papers showed them in the posture of blackmail. If I were the KGB I would not use that kind of information as a provocation. I would use missile information. I thought the material was authentic."
Garbler went back downstairs, returned the papers to Stoessel, but asked to meet with him again in the bubble. Garbler insisted that the embassy keep the papers. "I said, 'Walter, you're making a mistake.' I assumed the stuff had to have come out of the KGB files. I said, 'This isn't the kind of stuff they would use in a provocation. This is the kind of stuff that would come from a KGB man who wants to get in touch with us.' Toon joined us, and I argued that if the papers were returned, it would take the KGB no more than an hour to find the source. I said, 'In effect, what you're doing is killing this man.'"
Toon's reply infuriated the station chief. "Mac said, 'Well, you guys kill people every day in your organization, so what difference does it make if you kill one more?' Toon said, 'Besides, it's too late, we've already returned them.'"
Garbler leaped to his feet. "Is the officer taking material back still in the building?" he asked.
"Probably not," Toon replied.
"It was now eleven-fifty A.M." Garbler said, "and the appointment at the foreign ministry was at noon. I left the secure room, went to the nearest window that overlooked the courtyard, and saw the fellow standing by the car getting ready to leave. I went to the elevator, and it was slow coming up. I ran down the nine flights of stairs and went out in the courtyard."
Tom Fain, the American consul, was about to depart for the foreign ministry. Garbler grabbed the papers from his hands and went back up to Stoessel. "I said, 'Walter, I'll risk my life and career on this. Don't give these papers back. A man's life is at stake.'"
Stoessel refused to budge; the Cherepanov papers had to go back to the Russians. Garbler, outranked, had no choice but to give in. "I said, 'Okay, you're wrong, wrong, wrong, but if this is what you want to do, I guess you must.' I went downstairs and gave the papers back to the officer, who was still in the courtyard. He thought I was a lunatic." 
The papers went back to the KGB, but, thanks to Garbler, the CIA at least had copies. And sooner than it expected, the CIA was to hear more about Cherepanov.
With Penkovsky shot, and the CHICKADEE and IRONBARK material cut off as a result, Garbler's tour in Moscow was coming to an end. Not long after the confrontation over Cherepanov, however, an event took place that was to change the world -- and directly affect the mole hunt secretly under way at CIA headquarters.
Lee Harvey Oswald had arrived in the Soviet Union in October 1959. He left, after more than two and a half years, in June 1962, about six months after Garbler arrived in Moscow. In Dallas, on November 22, 1963, Oswald, firing his rifle from the sixth-floor corner window of the Texas School Book Depository, assassinated President John F. Kennedy.
1. "Bigot list" is the CIA term for a list of persons with access to a specific sensitive operation or to a type of special intelligence.
2. Anne Karalekas, "History of the Central Intelligence Agency," Book IV, Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. United States Senate (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976), p. 58. Other studies have disputed the value of Penkovsky's reports, arguing that they were not crucial in shaping U.S. policy during the Cuban missile crisis. For example, one analysis by a former CIA Soviet specialist said that while Penkovsky provided a "tremendous amount" of important military information, he "had not been aware" that the Soviets had placed medium and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, rev. ed., 1989), p. 63.
3. The British, who were jointly running Penkovsky with the CIA, used the designation ARNIKA for all of his data. They did not distinguish between the missile material and the other kinds of information he was providing.
4. Jacob managed to get rid of the matchbox as he was detained by the KGB. He was taken to a police station, and, as instructed, insisted on calling the embassy. He was released after Richard Davies, an embassy officer, was dispatched to prove to the KGB that Jacob had diplomatic immunity.
5. John Abidian, "the handsome Armenian," was unaware he had been observed at the drop, or that Yuri Nosenko had revealed that fact to the CIA, until he was interviewed by the author on January 13, 1990. A pleasant man living in retirement in Belgium, Abidian had served in Rio de Janeiro and Paris after Moscow, held a top State Department security post in Washington, and then for nine years was NATO's director of security in Brussels. The CIA never told him that on his one espionage mission for the agency, he had been seen by the KGB.
6. The Pushkin Street drop could have been used to warn of a Soviet attack, but it could also have been used for other emergency messages as well. The telephone call, silent except for Penkovsky blowing three times into the receiver, would obviously provide a quicker warning of a nuclear attack than would a message left in the dead drop.
7. The CIA must have taken a special interest in the translator for the court. It was Boris Belitsky, the Radio Moscow correspondent who was run by the CIA as AEWIRELESS but who in reality, as Yuri Nosenko had revealed to the agency in his secret debriefing in Geneva a year earlier, was a double agent under KGB control.
8. Besides Jacob, the other Americans expelled were Hugh Montgomery, the CIA's deputy chief of station under Garbler; Captain Davison, the lamppost checker; Rodney W. Carlson, a CIA case officer listed as an "assistant agricultural attache"; and William C. Jones III, an embassy second secretary. One of the telephone numbers Penkovsky had been given in case he needed to contact American intelligence was of an apartment occupied successively by Jones and Montgomery. Five British officials, including Roderick Chisholm, the MI6 station chief, were also expelled. Both Chisholm and his wife, Janet Ann, had been named in the trial.
9. Pete Bagley, insisting that Nosenko had not revealed the KGB's knowledge of the drop until 1964, said, "The idea that we would have gone ahead and let Penkovsky use a drop that had been compromised was incredible on the face of it. It is not likely that it would have been used."
10. Since the KGB had, some months earlier, given up its stakeout at the Pushkin Street location -- that fact had also been revealed by Nosenko in Geneva -- the failure of CIA headquarters to warn the Moscow station that the drop had been discovered by the KGB did not lead to Penkovsky's capture. But it caused unnecessary international embarrassment for the CIA and for the United States.
11. Walter Stoessel died in 1986. Malcolm Toon, who later returned to Moscow as the U.S. ambassador from 1976 to 1979, remembered the incident, but said he could not recall the details; he had indeed worried about a possible KGB provocation, but had not objected to the CIA's copying the documents before they were returned.