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Book review: Naveed Jamali’s How To Catch A Russian Spy tells of how an ordinary man brought down a spook

It’s the story of how an ordinary Joe brought down a Russian spy. But Vadim Nikitin finds this tale of amateur spycraft symptomatic of the breakdown in trust between the US and Russia.
An early morning street scene at Dzerzhinsky Square in Moscow, 1959. The KGB headquarters, Lubyanka, is in the background. Getty Images
An early morning street scene at Dzerzhinsky Square in Moscow, 1959. The KGB headquarters, Lubyanka, is in the background. Getty Images

In the summer of 1990, we left the Arctic city of Murmansk for Washington DC on assignment from the Party. My father had been selected to participate in a prestigious Soviet-American business school course. At the time, nationwide rationing had been introduced in the USSR, so naturally the first thing we did was head to the supermarket. An entire roll of film was devoted to the car park gleaming with Lada-free decadence, my parents and I posing with trophies: pineapples, cherries and star-fruits whose lurid colours and bulletproof sheen were not – surely could not be – real.

In these early albums, our Slavic pallor is occasionally leavened by an unmistakably American face – plump and kindly-looking, with blue eyes, glasses, and a tidy beard. In one such photo, a young man, in his late 20s or early 30s, stands next to 6-year-old me holding a model of the Space Shuttle Discovery outside the National Aerospace Museum. Mostly, though, he preferred to stay behind the camera. In another, I see my mum, dad and me in the back seat of his car. The shot was taken through the rear-view mirror; the camera and his right hand, mottled with dirty blond hairs, are visible in the corner of the frame.

Irving introduced himself to my dad on his first day of class as a musical instrument salesman who had studied Russian at university. He said he was keen to practise the language and learn more about our culture. Soft-spoken and knowledgeable, he proved nothing if not studious and determined. It seemed like every weekend, Irving would suggest a new adventure for us – crabs in Maryland, a hike in Virginia, picnic in Georgetown, cherry blossoms by the Lincoln Memorial.

During these outings, my mum and I would ride in the back while Irving casually grilled my dad about our home town, which happened to be home to the USSR’s largest fleet of nuclear submarines and icebreakers. He seemed particularly interested in the naval base at Severomorsk, which still houses Russia’s northern fleet. Irving quickly became part of the family. But shortly after realising that my dad worked in commercial fishing rather than the nuclear fission, his interest in Russian language and culture took a nosedive. Our first American friend disappeared from our lives as suddenly as he had emerged.

For years, we jokingly wondered whether Irving may have been more than merely a curious Russophile. If so, then How to Catch a Russian Spy, Naveed Jamali’s frustrating account (co-authored with Ellis Henican) of his life as a soi-disant double agent for the FBI, shows how fortunate we were with our particular American “mentor”. After all, it could all too easily have been a jingoistic, motor-mouthed frat-boy like the author.

Despite a relatively privileged upbringing in a family of highly-educated immigrants from France and Pakistan, Jamali took no interest in academics or international affairs. After underperforming at various schools, he quit to work in his parents’ company, an academic article-retrieval firm called Books and Research. A rudderless wise-guy obsessed with branded products and mediocre American muscle-cars, Jamali eventually scrapes his way through New York University into a job as an IT support employee on the Harvard campus. It was there that he witnesses the September 11 attacks and undergoes, in his own words, a “full transition from dude who enjoyed a good time to dude who realises there is something he wants to be a part of that’s bigger than he is”.

Initially rebuffed by the US Navy Reserves entry test, Jamali decides to enhance his national-security bonafides by reinventing himself as an amateur spy-hunter. His targets would be the Russian diplomats who had been frequenting Books and Research since he was a child in search of obscure (but open-source) academic articles about specific military technologies. Jamali’s parents would fulfil the orders, but not before alerting the local FBI branch about the Russians’ requests. The book is the story of Jamali’s attempt to convince the spooks to let him help them catch a Russian diplomat in the act of soliciting sensitive documents.

Eager to become more deeply involved with the FBI, Jamali contacts the agents who had worked with his parents and offers himself as bait. The next time one of the Russian diplomats come to the office to ask for materials, he would offer them the prospect of something more sensitive. Thinking he had access to secret information, they might attempt to recruit him as a spy for Moscow only to be caught red-handed in a sting operation that comes uncomfortably close to entrapment.

Ominously for our green-eared amateur spy, his target turns out to be Oleg Kulikov, a hulking, trench-coated officer of the GRU, the notorious Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian army. During Soviet times, the GRU was said to be so secretive that even the general secretary had to be patted down before entering its inner sanctum. With his knowledge of Russian interrogation techniques gleaned exclusively from binge watching Hollywood spy thrillers, an increasingly paranoid Jamali begins to see his own bloody demise around every corner. Alas, the reality is a long way from such James Bond fantasies: Jamali’s awkward seduction of Oleg reaches its climax amid a surreal landscape of mall car parks and cheesy casual dining chains.

Spoiler alert: the good guys win, the Russkies are vanquished, Jamali finally joins the Navy Reserves, and the rest is Hollywood (the film rights have already been snapped up by Twentieth Century Fox).

How to Catch a Russian Spy offers some decent pacing and a relentless onslaught of groan-worthy one-liners. Example: “I had been to Hooters once before,” Jamali writes of the burlesque restaurant chain at which he meets his Russian target. “The chicken wings were spicy, and the waitresses too.” Much more laughable, however, is Jamali’s naïve and propagandistic view of international relations. America is depicted as a noble hegemon encircled by crafty enemies who are unbound by its self-imposed rules of gentlemanly international conduct. The “foreign spies working in my country to undermine, subvert and attack America … ignored our laws and international law”, Jamali writes, while “we were constrained by our laws in the methods we could use to combat the people who didn’t play by any rules”. Viewed in this light, waterboarding and the other tools of America’s war on terror look less like torture and more like a necessary levelling of the playing field.

As a glance into the mind of a 21st century American intelligence foot-soldier, the book delivers other chilling insights. Jamali’s actions in the wake of September 11 represent a devastating microcosm of his country’s misplaced fury, its confused, flailing and lethally wrong-headed response to international terrorism. Despite noting that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was the first world leader to send George Bush condolences and offer his country’s unconditional support, it is Russia – not Al Qaeda – against which Jamali directs his new-found patriotic zeal. What on earth did Russia have to do with the attacks? But then again, what, for that matter, did Iraq?

“Our fiercest and long-running enemy” is how Jamali describes Moscow, and continues in the same vein throughout the rest of the book. Despite going deep undercover with Oleg, he appears to develop no bond or empathy with his opposite number, who remains merely a cypher with a penchant for junk food. Jamali suffers from no introspection or equivocation; nowhere do we feel the frisson of the agent who teeters on the edge of “going native”, the kinds of internal struggle that animate Greene and Le Carre.

Jamali’s refusal to see past Moscow’s status as “America’s sworn enemy number one”, against all the evidence of the past two decades, goes some way to explaining the current tragedy of US-Russian relations. “It’s like the Russians keep messing with us,” he says at one point, while his FBI handler deposits the following grain of orientalist wisdom: “You’ll never get anything from the Russians if all you do is equivocate. Strength and directness are what these people understand.” At a time of ever-increasing tensions between the two countries, such vicious stereotyping reads like needless provocation.

Vadim Nikitin is a journalist and Russian analyst based in London.

The original headline contained the words ‘Soviet spook’. The word Soviet has been removed because it was incorrect.

Updated: June 25, 2015 04:00 AM

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