Liar Unveiled: A Double Agent’s Journey from Deception to Truth in CIA during Cold War

Like Karel, Kalugin is fluent in a gaggle of languages. As he continues in English, his nondescript patrician lilt sounds a bit like Cary Grant—but heavy, pedantic, and stripped of bounce.

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Former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski (L) and Henry Kissinger (R) speak at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum on December 11, 2016 in Oslo. [File Photo Credit: Terje Bendiksby / AFP - Getty Images ]

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s recent book, The Liar: How a Double Agent in the CIA Became the Cold War’s Last Honest Man, published by Hachette Book Group

Heroes don’t exist, only cattle for the slaughter and the butchers in the general staffs.” —Jaroslav Hašek

This is a true story. Names, places, and incidents are real. Some of the interpretation is my own.

About twenty miles outside Prague, in a riverside village of little distinction, Karel finds himself in a room with dull walls and a cold, dead fireplace. He doesn’t know why he is there.

The unexceptional-looking house sits empty most of the time, but the neighbors tend to stay away anyway. Occasionally they see people milling about the cottage; the black government-issued Tatra 603s parked outside signal they aren’t up to anything good. Best to go the long way around when walking the dog or heading out for a beer. Across the river, there’s a pub with outdoor tables. Like something out of Greek mythology, a boatman with a pole can take you across.

The cool and breezy September day offers a welcome respite from New York’s scalding August. But as Karel smooths the collar on his Brooks Brothers jacket, it strikes him that he hasn’t seen his passport since they crossed the border. That cannot be good.

Karel is making small talk when another well-dressed man enters the room. His suit is dark—not exactly stylish, but well cut, tie in a full Windsor knot. Old-fashioned looking, to be sure, but clean, serious. No doubt official. The man’s receding hair is slicked back with pomade. Like Karel, he looks to be in his early forties—prodigiously young for a KGB general. His name is Oleg Kalugin. He is a spy, and he’s arrived to interrogate another spy.

“Sorry I am late; do you speak Russian?” Kalugin asks as he enters the room.

“I understand it fine, but I don’t speak all that well,” Karel says. “In America, there’s no one to speak Russian with.”

Kalugin stops on Karel’s side of the table and turns to look him in the face. Karel Koecher stays seated but sizes up Kalugin’s thick silhouette framed in the light of an open window. Karel doesn’t know it, but Kalugin has defied Moscow Center orders to be here today. As far as KGB chief Yuri Andropov is concerned, Czechoslovak intelligence is conducting this interview on their own.

Standing up straight, chest out, looking confident—cocky, even—Kalugin gives no impression he’s worried about the consequences of his insubordination. In fact, it stands to reason that Kalugin has his own reasons for being there, but they are not obvious, and he does not reveal them.

Like Karel, Kalugin is fluent in a gaggle of languages. As he continues in English, his nondescript patrician lilt sounds a bit like Cary Grant—but heavy, pedantic, and stripped of bounce. Kalugin pulls a chair from the table, rotates it to face Karel, takes a seat, and begins a stiff greeting that answers a few questions before he raises a host of new ones.

“I am glad to welcome you in the name of Soviet-Czechoslovakian friendship. I am a guest here on invitation of our Czechoslovak friends, and I have to say, as a representative of a friendly service and collaborator, I am glad to meet you,” Kalugin says. “I have heard and read a lot about you. And now I hope my company is going to be useful for clearing up the doubts we share, as well as our common interests. I have some questions related to your personal security. Because the top priority for us is always the success of our people, no matter where they work.”

Karel looks over Kalugin’s shoulder again, to the open window. It’s now drizzling outside. Karel adjusts his stainless-steel glasses. His light-gray suit with flared slacks and his vibrant extra-wide tie look alien amid the humorless monochromes. Kalugin’s eyes are captivated by the stripes on Karel’s tie, as if they haven’t seen color in a decade or so. A bunch of Philistines, Karel thinks as he turns his chair, brushing his fingers through his salt-and-pepper mustache. He makes eye contact with Kalugin but stays quiet.

“I might be repeating some things because I came in late,” Kalugin continues. “Well, that’s okay; hopefully it’s not going to be too unpleasant. How are you? How is your health?”

“Good,” a wary Karel says. “Let’s see in the evening.”

Karel’s vision is worse than it used to be, and the Koecher clan has a history of diabetes. As a kid Karel had ear infections that were bad enough to later help exempt him from military service. As a grown man, though, he is something of a fitness nut. In New York, he runs the Central Park Reservoir almost daily and likes to pump iron at the 92nd Street Y.

“The way I understood it, you found it difficult to accept living in the American way,” Kalugin goes on. “It is vital to be patient and to build long-term relationships, especially when it comes to working with people from abroad. Earlier, I reviewed the materials and your situation. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was 1973 when you first started working for the CIA. Before that you got the doctorate, that must have been 1970, and then you worked at Radio Free Europe?”

Not quite, Karel explains, briefly recounting his résumé: a fellowship at Indiana University in 1966, then PhD work at Columbia, Radio Free Europe until 1969, American citizenship in 1971, and a smattering of university teaching jobs. “That was until 1972 or 1973. And then I was able to get into the CIA,” he says with a touch of impatience.

“Yes, the Pentagon was probably the first serious work, and that was 1973, right?”

“Yes, 1973.”

Kalugin asks for more. Was Karel working for the Department of Defense or the CIA or what? He wants details.

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Benjamin Cunningham

Benjamin Cunningham is a correspondent for The Economist. He covered Central and Eastern Europe for six years, and now writes about the wider Mediterranean region from Barcelona. In addition he contributes to The Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Aspen Review, Le Monde Diplomatique and is an opinion columnist for Sme, Slovakia’s main daily newspaper. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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