Dickie Witherspoon was all but retired. The spymaster – whose code name was Aunt Elsie – was still on the CIA payroll, but his few remaining assets hadn’t produced actionable intelligence in several years.
One spring Tuesday morning, Dickie returned home after a hike in gentle rain. He hung his Irish walking cap and oilskin on separate pegs by the door and kicked off his Wellingtons.
Dickie lowered himself into his desk chair and noticed he’d received a signal on the illuminated display. There had been no life on that little technological marvel for months. It was a highly classified gadget, created by the CIA’s technology lab, to monitor activity on his multiple cellular phones.
In this case, the signal identified a disposable non-contract pay-as-you-go device. It was used to communicate only with the disposable phone of a Russian double agent, code-named Olga. If any number other than Olga’s appeared, both phones would be destroyed and replaced with new ones. The call log told him it was Olga’s number and the last time it appeared was more than two years earlier.
Dickie had carefully recruited Olga in the early 1980s, when she was a low-level translator at the Soviet Embassy in London. Intelligence officers, like Dickie, were highly trained in turning potential assets.
Recruitment was based on the exploitation of personal vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities always fell into one of four categories – money, ideology, conscience or ego – MICE in the murky world of espionage.
In this case, it was ideology. The woman had fled the Soviet Union when Brezhnev was the dictator and shortly after her father had been tortured to death in the Gulag. She had made her way to London with her late mother, where she was brought to the attention of the young CIA case officer. She was an eager candidate.
Asset and case officer met only a few times, instead opting for old-fashioned tradecraft tools and techniques. They used signals in plain sight when they needed to contact each other.
Olga would affix a white chalk mark – two, short, vertical lines on a red brick building two blocks from where Aunt Elsie lived and worked in Notting Hill. Every day, never at the same time, Aunt Elsie would walk by the spot to see if there was a chalk mark. They would then use a classic series of pre-arranged dead drops to pass information.
The initial chalk mark contact method changed with technology, but the dead drops remained.
“Ho, ho, ho,” said Dickie as he opened the distinctly low-tech flip-phone. “I wonder what little Olga is up to.”
The display told him he had a text. He pressed OK to open it.
All it said was: Something for Auntie. #1
Dickie Witherspoon checked his watch. It was 10:52am. He knew it would take him three hours to get into central London and to the location of dead drop #1.
He texted back: 3pm
Two hours later he was getting off a train at Victoria Station. Despite the fact that he was fairly certain he was not being followed, his old training kicked in. He took a circuitous route to get to the Green Park Underground Station.
When he climbed the steps and exited the station onto Piccadilly he turned left and walked briskly for a block, before stopping to look in a shop window and check his back. He didn’t see anybody showing an interest in him. He then reversed his direction walking toward Hyde Park Corner.
He walked past White Horse Lane and again stopped, checked and doubled back a half block later. Nothing.
He turned left onto White Horse and entered Shepherd Market. It was two minutes to 3pm. He walked slowly around the market, checking out the restaurants and small boutiques. When he got to the pub he turned left through the underpass to Curzon Street. He quickly looked into a rubbish bin at the corner and saw a Manila envelope.
He was fairly certain that Olga was watching him, but he saw nothing unusual. He tucked the bulky envelope under his arm and walked back to Green Park. He found a secluded bench and opened it.
“Jesus,” he said to himself when he saw the contents.
In his hand was a lengthy file of FSB documents, most with a designation of the highest level of secrecy. Fortunately, Dickie was fluent in Russian from his Cold War posting in Moscow, when the FSB was the KGB.
The file contained after-action reports, memos and internal emails that confirmed direct Kremlin involvement in sixteen assassinations or attempts in London since 2000, including former Soviet and Russian spies. That had all been in the public press, though always couched in terms like “suspected Russian involvement.”
The internal emails referred to a presidential advisor inside the Kremlin they called the Commissar of Wet Operations.
In addition, there was an appendix that listed seven additional targets in the UK.
It was an intelligence gold mine. Aunt Elsie tapped his highly encrypted smart phone and called the CIA’s London Station Chief. Less than an hour later they were walking on busy Oxford Street across from Marks and Spencer and Selfridges.
The spymaster slipped the envelope to the Chief and briefed him on what was in it and how he came to obtain it. It had long been CIA practice to hold top-secret meetings in loud public places if they couldn’t be held inside the bubble – a completely secure room at London Station in the enormous new Embassy on the south bank of the Thames.
The chief said this was now a top priority. He would have CIA analysts start combing through the documents immediately and, at the same time, copy the data and provide it to MI5 and MI6.
A month later, Dickie turned on the BBC Breakfast News and swore as he listened to the lead item. During the night a former Russian Embassy translator was attacked with a known Russian nerve agent and was fighting for her life at Guy’s Hospital.
“What a lousy damned business,” he muttered.
Rob Armstrong is the author of fourteen books including the Old Spy thriller series. He spent over three decades as a Radio and TV Journalist including twenty-five years as an on-air correspondent for CBS News. He taught Journalism at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida before retiring in 2011.