Vladimir Galkin, a white-haired, chain-smoking former KGB spy, stepped off an airplane at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Oct. 29, 1996--and right into a nasty little diplomatic crisis that briefly and absurdly threatened to revive the spy-versus-spy rivalries of the Cold War.
Arrested by the FBI on espionage charges stemming from the bad old days when he was a professional thief of Western technology, Galkin suddenly found himself at the center of a strange war of words pitting the FBI against not only the Russian government but also the CIA.
As Galkin stewed in federal prison, and Washington and Moscow wrangled over his fate, his case sparked a debate over whether it was finally time for the United States to declare victory in the Cold War and call a truce in its endless hunt for Russian spies.
The arrest of a man who had been retired from the KGB for more than four years also raised concerns among former CIA officers about whether they would be forever held accountable for their conduct as cold warriors.
Galkin was finally released after Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin personally complained to Vice President Al Gore. He is now safely back in Moscow, running a small business that sells eavesdropping and security equipment. Now, in his first interview with an American newspaper since his return, Galkin describes exactly how and why the FBI came after him--and reveals what the bureau offered him in return.
Like many intelligence officers of his generation, Galkin was swept out of the KGB after it was dismantled in the wake of the failed 1991 coup by Communist hard-liners. But before his retirement in 1992, Galkin had served as a senior officer in the First Directorate’s “Line X,” tasked with stealing scientific and technical secrets from the West. Galkin’s job was to handle spies inside Western laboratories and research facilities who could give Moscow the latest technology that the United States and its allies had to offer.
It was high-class spying, dealing only with well-educated traitors, and Galkin, with a background in nuclear physics, was good at it. During his 17-year career, he rose to KGB colonel and ultimately became the senior manager of one of Line X’s biggest espionage operations: Its penetration of France’s nuclear weapon program.
In that case, the KGB used a so-called false flag operation, with a Russian Jewish KGB officer, Sergei Zhmyrev, acting as a front man to convince French nuclear scientist Francis Temperville that he was spying for Israel.
Temperville was arrested in 1992 after Victor Otchenko, a KGB officer from Galkin’s Line X, defected to Britain and exposed the KGB’s penetration of the French program. Temperville was convicted in October after having already spent five years in a French jail awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, Otchenko and another Line X officer, Vladimir Konopolev, who defected to the United States in 1991, also fingered Galkin for his involvement in the KGB’s effort to penetrate the American “Star Wars” anti-missile program.
In 1990 and 1991, Galkin had tried to recruit spies inside Data General Corp., a defense contractor in Massachusetts involved in the program. Galkin had met four times in Cyprus with Subrahmanyam Kota, a naturalized U.S. citizen from India and a software engineer who formerly worked for Data General.
Tipped off by the defectors to the Data General spy ring, the FBI secretly launched a sting operation, with FBI agents posing as Russian intelligence officers in an effort to persuade Galkin’s old contacts to hand over U.S. secrets.
It took years, but the Justice Department finally was able to arrest Kota and Aluru Prasad, an Indian national, on espionage-related charges. But without Galkin, the prosecution stumbled in its efforts to prove a conspiracy.
So in 1996, when Galkin applied to come to the United States to attend a New Jersey trade show to hawk the wares of his new security business, the FBI couldn’t resist the opportunity to grab him. The Data General case was still stalled, and Galkin’s testimony might be just the thing the Justice Department needed to win the case.
Galkin made it easy for the FBI; he honestly identified himself as a former intelligence officer on his visa application, in keeping with an unwritten agreement between the CIA and Russian intelligence not to go after retired case officers.
Once Galkin was in custody, the FBI presented him with an ultimatum: cooperate or face up to 30 years in jail for espionage. If he cooperated, however, he would be released to live in the United States.
“They needed proof to charge this other guy, and wanted me to cooperate,” says Galkin. “They offered to let me go and live in the U.S. They said, you know Konopolev [the KGB defector] is living well with a lot of money, and you can too.”
But Galkin refused. Instead, he demanded a phone, called his wife in Moscow and told her to inform Russian intelligence of what had happened. Just like that, the Galkin arrest turned into an international incident.
Moscow quickly made it clear that if Galkin wasn’t released immediately, it would start arresting former CIA officers doing business in Russia. “I asked the FBI guys, Why are you doing this?” Galkin recalls. “You are putting your former CIA officers at risk.”
Galkin was right; the end of the Cold War has opened countless business opportunities for former intelligence officers from both sides, and several former CIA and KGB officers are now in business together in both Russia and the United States.
That threat sent the CIA into a panic and prompted then-CIA Director John M. Deutch to urge the FBI and Justice to relent, according to CIA and FBI officials. The FBI, stung by the growing public furor over the Galkin case, claimed that it had notified the CIA of its plans to arrest the Russian. Yet word of the FBI’s plans had somehow never reached the CIA’s upper management, CIA officials said later.
After holding Galkin for 17 days, the Justice Department gave in, and all charges against him were dropped. When he was finally released, his FBI handlers offered him an apology--and an FBI coffee mug as a souvenir.
Without Galkin’s testimony, the government was unable to make a strong case against Prasad and Kota. Kota agreed to testify against Prasad and pleaded guilty to tax charges, conspiracy to transport stolen goods internationally, and of providing helicopter drawings to Prasad.
Eventually, Kota was sentenced to one year of house arrest and three years of supervised release and fined $50,000. In December, 1996, Prasad pleaded no contest to one charge of trying to obtain information. He was fined $3,000 and sentenced to the 15 months he had already served in prison. He then left for India.
Once Galkin went home, the incident dropped off the radar screen of U.S. news media. But it is now clear that the Russians didn’t forget--and still haven’t forgiven the FBI for their clumsy handling of the affair.
Just last month, in fact, the FBI’s top official in Moscow, assigned to work with Russian authorities in the fight against international organized crime, asked to be reassigned amid reports in the Russian press that Russian intelligence officials had refused to deal with him because of his role in the Galkin case.
For his part, Galkin thinks that it is time for both sides to get over it. “After a war, you liberate the prisoners when it is over. Now the Cold War is over, and we should liberate the prisoners of the war.”
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About This Series
Once it was the world’s most mysterious and feared espionage organization, the “sword and shield” of the Soviet Union. But ultimately the KGB fell victim to the same forces of history that destroyed the empire it had served.
For the most part, the last KGB officers slipped away, retaining the cloak of secrecy. But now a group of former officers have stepped forward to provide an insider’s guide. They agreed to a series of interviews with the Los Angeles Times, in part to put on the record what they see as their sacrifices and professionalism in a cause now widely denigrated.
* Monday: The spy who directed Aldrich H. Ames.
* Today: Two enemies, two friends.
* Wednesday: The Gavrilov channel, the KGB-CIA hotline.
* On the Web: The complete series will be accessible Wednesday on the Internet at https://www.latimes.com/kgb