Caught in the crossfire of Russian espionage

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The controversy over the Russian government conducting cyber espionage against the United States recalls an episode when, long before the internet, spies operated without benefit of computers. One such Russian agent, a spy for the Soviet Union of that era, drew me into the web of his intrigue in November 1962.

The Cold War had reached chilling proportions only days before as the world teetered on the brink of Armageddon during the nuclear confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis. Indeed, the Soviet Union was removing nuclear missiles from Cuba at the very moment of my unexpected encounter.

I served at the time as a consular officer responsible for nonimmigrant visas at the American Consulate General in Geneva, Switzerland. I issued time-specific visas; i.e., permits to enter the U.S. to foreigners for such purposes as tourism, business, education, and official attendance at the United Nations. The latter category was particularly active because diplomats moved frequently between the many international organizations in Geneva and U.N. headquarters in New York City. Because the Soviet Union belonged to many of these organizations and held a permanent position on the U.N. Security Council in New York, representatives of our Cold War adversary possessed a legitimate reason for obtaining a visa.

Well aware of the opportunity for spies to enter the U.S. by this means, the State Department and FBI worked in concert to keep track of Soviets admitted to the U.S. As a visa issuing official, I began a chain of operations running from overseas to FBI agents keeping tabs on visiting Soviets in the U.S.

On that November day, a college friend, Don Stewart, and I were standing at my seventh-floor office window chatting and viewing the spectacular scenery of Lake Geneva and the snow-capped Alps when a stout stranger burst into the room and slapped a passport on my desk. “I need a visa,” he demanded in a loud, commanding voice.

Normal protocol called for our receptionist, André Tissot, to escort applicants to my office and introduce them. Taken aback by the unannounced intrusion, I took a second jolt when I recognized the gate-crasher’s Soviet passport.

“Would you please return to the reception area and await your turn,” I requested as politely as I could muster.

“Look, I’m the deputy director of the International Labor Organization. I have an urgent meeting at the United Nations. My plane leaves in two hours. I need a visa — NOW,” the gruff man blurted.

State Department regulations required prior approval before granting a visa to Soviets. Under the code word “HORSE,” this procedure typically entailed a wait of 24 hours. Thus, I told the agitated Russian, “I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot issue you a visa until tomorrow.”

The ILO official stormed out of my office and into the Consul General’s where he loudly protested my delay of his visa application.

The C.G., a political appointee of President Dwight Eisenhower and my supervisor, played a largely ceremonial role and knew little of consular regulations. He came to my office at once and inquired about the problem. I ushered him to a private area at the end of the hallway and explained the necessity of the HORSE message.

“That’s just so much bureaucracy,” he responded. “This is an important man. Go ahead and give him the visa. I’ll take full responsibility for it.”

Signing the stamped visa in the Russian’s passport made me uncomfortable, but my boss, the one who wrote my efficiency reports, had spoken. I did as directed.

Two weeks later the C.G. resigned and returned to the United States. Shortly thereafter, an FBI agent came to my office. He pulled a large glossy photo from his brief case and asked, “Do you know this man?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I issued him a visa to attend a U.N. meeting in New York City. He’s the Deputy Director of the ILO.”

“Why didn’t you send the HORSE message so we could keep track of him?”

“I intended to send the message. But when he complained to the consul general about the delay I was instructed to go ahead and issue the visa. He said he’d take full responsibility for it.”

“But you signed it, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is the consul general in so I can speak to him?”

“No,” I replied. “He resigned his position and returned to the States. I don’t know his whereabouts.”

The FBI agent seemed so deadly earnest, I had to ask, “Is there something wrong?”

The balding man with the serious face replied, “The Russian is a KGB operative and director of their European espionage. His position with the ILO is just a front.”

I sighed. The agent continued, “The guy never attended a U.N. meeting in New York. He just changed planes and flew to the West Coast. We finally traced him to San Francisco.”

A Russian spy possessed a visa bearing my authorizing signature. The supervisor who directed me to do so had resigned. I was left holding the bag.

I do not know the effect of this misadventure on national security, nor do I recall the name of the Russian spy. I do remember the name of a kindly, mistaken consul general who now is deceased. I choose not to make his identity public.

As for me, I have no idea of the effect of this episode on my Foreign Service career. I am sure, however, the case did not look pretty in my personnel file.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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