The Cold War Is Over, but for Spies the Risk of Death Remains the Same : CIA: Freddie Woodruff, slain on a mission to help an old U.S. ally in the former Soviet Union, was the 57th agent to die. An unusual trip by our top spy.

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<i> David Wise, who writes frequently about intelligence, is the author, most recently, of "Molehunt" (Random House), a book about the CIA's secret search for Soviet spies in its ranks. </i>

“The Clandestine Service . . . “ says the Central Intelligence Agency’s recruiting brochure for spies, “ . . . the cutting edge of Ameri can intelligence. . . . There is risk, of course, to officers in the Clandestine Service. Statistically, the risks are slightly higher than for police or firemen in a large city.” The brochure goes on to quote an anonymous CIA field man: “All they guarantee is that you won’t die of boredom.”

Freddie Woodruff didn’t die of boredom. He died of a single bullet in the forehead last Sunday night as he rode in a car near Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The precise circumstances of his death are murky and may well remain so. His attacker escaped.

Woodruff, 45, married and the father of three small children, was a veteran CIA officer. He had been assigned to Georgia to help train its security forces to protect its beleaguered pro-Western president, Eduard A. Shevardnadze. (Although the State Department maintains the charade that Woodruff was a Foreign Service officer, it has not specifically denied the widely published reports that he, in fact, worked for the CIA.)


Woodruff was due to come home in a few days, but instead of returning to the arms of his family in Herndon, Va., a suburb of Washington, he came back in a flag-draped coffin, escorted by the director of the CIA, R. James Woolsey Jr., who flew from Moscow to Georgia to recover the body. Woolsey had been in Moscow meeting with his counterpart, Yevgeny M. Primakov, the head of the SVR, the Russian intelligence service. Their meeting was part of a continuing dialogue between the two spy agencies about cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism and fighting organized crime.

Everything about the Woodruff incident symbolizes how much the spy world has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. That the CIA would train security forces for the government of Georgia, or that the director of the agency would meet with the chief of what had been the KGB’s intelligence arm, or fly to retrieve the body of a CIA agent from inside what was the Soviet Union and escort it home--any one of those events would have been mind-boggling not very long ago, when the two superpowers were archenemies.

What makes Woodruff’s very public murder particularly sensitive inside the intelligence community is the fact that the United States has been engaged in a covert operation to assist the Shevardnadze government, an operation that was secret until quite recently. On July 13, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times revealed that a detachment of the Army’s Special Forces, a group of Green Berets from Fort Bragg, N.C., were in Georgia to train forces to help protect Shevardnadze and other government leaders from armed nationalists and from Abkhazian separatists in the western part of the country. The government also faces rebels in South Ossetia, who are trying to secede and join Russia. Secret intervention by the United States in the civil wars that have broken out along the former Soviet Union’s southern borders is obviously a politically delicate subject.

As Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Shevardnadze, a Georgian, built strong personal and political ties to Washington. His government is supported by the Clinton Administration.

Woodruff had been assigned to the American Embassy in Tbilisi since June on temporary duty. According to the official State Department version, he was returning from a “private, unofficial tour” of the village of Kazbegi, in the northern part of the country near the Russian border, and of a military highway, when he was gunned down.

Woodruff was riding in a car with government plates. He was accompanied by Eldar Gugusladze, director of the Georgian intelligence service, who has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation into the slaying. The American Embassy said the two men had gone sightseeing near Mount Kazbek, the second-highest peak in the Caucasus. The Associated Press reported there were two unidentified women in the car. None of the other passengers was hurt. So far, three persons have been detained for questioning.


American and Georgian officials said it was unclear whether Woodruff was the target of the attack, whether it was politically motivated, or whether the CIA man was simply the victim of bandits who roam the countryside and may have wanted to rob the passengers or steal their car. Another theory is that police may have fired on the car for failing to stop at checkpoints.

Born in Searcy, Ark., and raised in Stillwater, Okla., Woodruff was a CIA veteran who had served in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union; in Turkey, Ethiopia and Sudan. He held a theology degree from Harding University, in Searcy, and a master’s degree in educational psychology from Wayne State University, in Detroit. He apparently joined the CIA in May, 1978.

Most CIA officers overseas serve under diplomatic cover in U.S. embassies, and face about the same risk as ordinary American diplomats. Even if arrested for espionage, the CIA men and women are protected by diplomatic immunity and normally the worst that happens is that they are declared persona non grata and expelled from the country. Although the CIA recruiting brochure is thus generally accurate in downplaying the risks, the agency has lost a substantial number of its operatives to terrorist acts.

Richard S. Welch, the CIA station chief in Athens, was shot to death on his doorstep in December, 1975, a month after his name had been published in a local newspaper, quoting the American magazine Counterspy. Although the agency was quick to blame the press for his death, other officials pointed out that Welch, against his colleagues’ advice, had moved into the same house that had been occupied by the previous CIA station chief, and that his identity was well known in Athens. Nevertheless, his death helped to persuade Congress to pass, in 1980, a law designed to protect the identities of intelligence agents. The law has not prevented the press from publishing names, such as that of Woodruff, because the statute was essentially aimed at publications that habitually disclosed lists of agents’ names.

In April, 1983, a car bomb that blew up the American Embassy in Beirut killed Robert C. Ames, the CIA’s top expert on the Middle East, and seven other CIA employees, virtually wiping out the agency’s entire station in Lebanon. In March, 1984, terrorists in Lebanon kidnaped William Buckley, the CIA’s Beirut station chief, a 30-year veteran who had served in Vietnam, Egypt and Pakistan. Horribly tortured, Buckley died the following year in the hands of his captors.

Then one morning in January of this year, a gunman wielding an AK-47 type assault rifle went down a line of cars waiting to turn into the CIA’s Langley, Va., headquarters. He killed two men and wounded three others, including two CIA employees. Mir Aimal Kansi, a 28-year-old Pakistani, is still the object of an international manhunt. He vanished after the incident and is reportedly in Iran.


Carved in the north lobby wall of CIA headquarters are 54 stars in honor of those CIA employees who died serving their country. Soon, two more stars, in honor of the January shooting victims, Lansing C. Bennett, a 66-year-old CIA physician and analyst, and Frank Darling, 28, a communications officer, will be carved on the wall. And before long, the CIA’s “awards committee,” the obscure group who decides these matters, is expected to add a 57th star to the lobby wall in honor of Freddie Woodruff.

The Cold War is over, but for spies still fighting twilight battles in various corners of the globe, the risks remain.