True Spies Episode 28: Burgers and Spies
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 28: Burgers and Spies.
NAVEED JAMALI: I take great pride in knowing that my little operation - and the kid who had no training, and really was making this up as he went along - really impacted Russia's ability to collect intelligence and run operations inside the United States.
NARRATOR: In this episode of True Spies we’ll hear how one man bluffed his way through years of international espionage.
NAVEED JAMALI: My name is Naveed Jamali. I spent three years working undercover against the Russian military intelligence known as the GRU.
NARRATOR: That’s Russia’s Intelligence service.
NAVEED JAMALI: This is the agency that has... they've assassinated people. They're the ones responsible for the Skripal poisonings and for the latest round of poisonings. And I mean, they just have a really tough history. These are bad guys and they're tough.
NARRATOR: Today, Naveed is working his dream job. He’s an intelligence officer with the US Navy but this story starts when he was just your everyday civilian finding himself in not-so-everyday moments…
NAVEED JAMALI: So I'm sitting in the car with Oleg sifting through this database, and he's looking at stuff, and I'm showing them how it works. And I'm saying: ‘Look, you give me a weapon system and I can look up and see all the things that are all the related documents.’ And he could see he's really excited. He's like: ‘Wow, this is real.’ And we stop at one document - random, totally random document. I'm showing him this document and what it means, and we're going through it. And he looks at me. He goes: ‘Can you give me a copy?’
NARRATOR: Can he? Pause. You didn’t think we’d reveal that so soon, did you? Let’s rewind a little. This True Spies starts in a sleepy, suburban town just outside New York City. This is where Naveed grew up. His mother is French. His father Pakistani.
NAVEED JAMALI: I really felt this strong desire to prove my loyalty to this country and the best way that I thought I could do that was by joining the military.
NARRATOR: And it was the Navy intelligence Officer Program that really called to Naveed.
NAVEED JAMALI: And I applied and, despite having a very strong application, I didn't get in.
NARRATOR: But Naveed wasn’t going to give up the dream at the first hurdle.
NAVEED JAMALI: I had this really wonderful recruiter, he sort of said: ‘Look, Naveed, you should try again. The only thing is that your subsequent application has to show growth.’
NARRATOR: So next time around, Naveed has to prove that he’s a better candidate for the job than he was the first time he applied. Luckily, he’s got some family connections to draw upon...
NAVEED JAMALI: That's where this world of my parents’ office, and the Soviets, and the Russians, and my desire to become an intelligence officer, all basically stepped into the same exact space, the same exact time.
NARRATOR: The stars align, and an idea starts to formulate for how he might demonstrate the necessary growth, skill, and tenacity... The next chapter of Naveed’s life is about to unfold in the slightly unlikely space of his family’s bookstore. Not the kind of place that immediately springs to mind when we think about military intelligence gathering. But this is no ordinary bookstore selling travel guides and romance novels...
NAVEED JAMALI: So it wasn't a bookstore in the sense that people came in and browsed shelves. When military academies order groups of books for their students - instead of going to every publisher - they would put out a bid to supply books for the incoming class. An airforce squadron would have deployed to a country and they were looking for language books. We would fill that order. But it also meant that we had access to government information.
NARRATOR: Hmmm, a store that sources and sells military manuals and has access to government information. I wonder who might be interested in that?
NAVEED JAMALI: One day a man walked in and asked to speak to my father, and he was wearing a trench coat.
NARRATOR: You can guess what that means.
NAVEED JAMALI: He presented himself as Alex Tomiken from the Soviet mission to the United Nations.
NARRATOR: A classic spy line from a man in classic spy garb.
NAVEED JAMALI: It wasn't clear to my father at the time whether the man was Soviet or he was part of the United Nations, and he showed my father a card that said: Military Staff Committee. And [he] said that my father's name had been referred to him. And my father was sort of like: ‘Oh, this is great. Usually, I have to make 20 phone calls before I get a new contract. To hear someone just walking in through the door who wants to do business…”
NARRATOR: The man hands over a list of books to Naveed’s father. Things about weapons systems, nuclear disarmament… bedtime reading material. But remember, it’s not that unusual. This is the service the bookstore offers. The unusual bit walks through the door about 15 minutes after the man’s visit.
NAVEED JAMALI: There was a second knock on the office door. This time it was two FBI special agents who identified themselves as such and showed my dad a picture of the man who had just been here. And he said: ‘This guy's essentially a KGB Colonel. And we want to know what he wants.’
NARRATOR: It all begins to make sense. This is in the middle of the Cold War. Russia and the United States are in an arms race. It’s a battle of military prestige where knowledge is power and Naveed’s family’s book store is packed - literally - floor to ceiling, with that knowledge. It’s an absolute gold mine for a Russian intelligence officer. So Naveed’s father hands over the man’s list of requested reading materials to the FBI. What now?
NAVEED JAMALI: They told him: ‘Get him his books. If he comes back, we'll be in touch.’
NARRATOR: And that’s how a decades-long, three-way relationship between Naveed's family, the Russians, and the FBI got started. Over the years, Russian officers masquerading as diplomats would visit the store, making orders on government and military information. They would occasionally slip in a request for classified information - which Naveed's parents would politely decline - and then the FBI would check in to find out what had been requested. And this is where Naveed comes into play.
NAVEED JAMALI: I was in my late 20s at the time, and I was now working at my parents' business, and they were looking to retire. And I came up with this hare-brained idea that perhaps if I helped the FBI a little more, that I could approach them and they'd be willing to write me a letter of recommendation.
NARRATOR: The idea is hare-brained, but also a little bit genius. Naveed really wants that job as an intelligence officer in the Navy, and he really needs to prove his growth since the last application. A letter of recommendation from the FBI, now what could be better than that? And Naveed knows how to get it, well, kind of. He already has an existing family connection to the FBI, and spies are still visiting the bookstore. By this point, the Soviet Union has collapsed - and so the men in trench coats and UN business cards are GRU rather than KGB - but it’s still very much the same situation. Naveed is in a unique position. He can make this work to his advantage, but to do that he’s going to have to take this relationship to the next level. He's going to have to win favor with the Russians in order to win favor with the FBI. Should be easy enough. After years of interacting with the Russians, Naveed and his family have a feel for it, and so far, relations have been friendly and personable.
NAVEED JAMALI: Some of these officers that came here were quite charming, quite polished, quite refined.
NARRATOR: After all, to earn the cover story of a diplomat, you have to be pretty good at airs and graces, right?
NAVEED JAMALI: That was not my experience with Oleg Kulikov.
NARRATOR: Oh no? Let’s get to know Oleg Kulikov. He’s a Russian diplomat with the United Nations, but he’s also on a secret mission to recruit American spies for Russia. He's new to the post and he’s a little different to his predecessors.
NAVEED JAMALI: So the first time I met Oleg he came into my office, my parents' office, and it was a bit of a letdown. He came in, and he came to pick up his books and he was very brash... We had a nice little seating area for people to wait, and we had this beautiful wall of all these books. They were free samples that we would get from publishers. And he just sort of grunted at them, and he opened his bag and took out this giant black garbage bag. And he would just - literally, like with one arm - start sweeping some of these books into the garbage bag to take back.
NARRATOR: Well, I suppose that’s one way to browse a bookstore.
NAVEED JAMALI: He was brilliant and very smart, very dedicated, but he was rough, unpolished.
NARRATOR: So how are you going to win this guy over? He's obviously not dealing in the currency of charm. So your smart-guy comments might not fly here. But you need Oleg to see the potential in you. You want him to invest in you. What part of your life can you draw upon to make him pay attention?
NAVEED JAMALI: So when I was introduced to Oleg by my father, I mentioned the military.
NARRATOR: Bullseye. Naveed is dangling some big career opportunities to Oleg. Naveed is a new face in the business, a man aspiring to become a Naval intelligence officer. He could be a very valuable human asset for the Russians, or so Naveed wants Oleg to think, and Oleg has taken the first bite.
NAVEED JAMALI: He started coming back almost regularly.
NARRATOR: Oleg wants more, and Naveed wants to move things along to the next level.
NAVEED JAMALI: We started having meetings outside of the office and they started becoming clandestine.
NARRATOR: Things are going well but Naveed knows that Oleg is still figuring him out, working out whether Naveed is worth recruiting as a spy for Russia. Unfortunately for Naveed, that doesn't mean hushed conversations over champagne cocktails a la Hollywood spy movies. The Russians weren't going to splash out on him.
NAVEED JAMALI: They would choose these barbecue chain restaurants, one of which was Hooters where there are scantily clad young women wearing tight orange pants, and tight white shirts, and that seems to be a favorite place.
NARRATOR: Well there goes that James Bond fantasy.
NAVEED JAMALI: And it was just amazing what you can discuss over a crappy burger and sh*** beer. It's just, just an amazing thing that these things happened in these restaurants, but they did. It's not at all what I expected. It was very much a way to make me understand my place in the totem pole, my place on the ladder of importance. Which is to say… they wanted me to think I had no importance to them.
NARRATOR: That way Oleg held the upper hand.
NAVEED JAMALI: And the routine was that every meeting that I had with him would conclude with him giving me the menu of another restaurant. And the menu for that restaurant will be the place we would meet next.
NARRATOR: But the exact timing would be left to the last minute to arrange.
NAVEED JAMALI: He would call me, randomly, literally, and say: ‘Do you want to meet for lunch today? Or do you want to meet for lunch tomorrow?’ So I would have this tiny, tiny window and the idea was... that way - if I was being followed, if he was being followed - it would allow the Russians to shake any FBI tail that they might have.
NARRATOR: What the Russians didn't know was that they were chasing, not shaking, the FBI tail. And what Naveed didn't know was: who was watching these interactions? The sense of paranoia was intense.
NAVEED JAMALI: The feeling that both the FBI and the Russians had people in those restaurants watching me, I mean ... Or, one time, just having a terrible headache and wanting to go to the bathroom to take some Advil and really being followed in - not so quietly - by this, like, sort of, heavy-set Russian man. It was intimidating.
NARRATOR: Could you handle that feeling of being followed? What would be your coping strategy?
NAVEED JAMALI: There is no time to think of fear. And there is no time to think about this logically because if you do, there's no logical reason to do any of this. So, essentially you have to repress all those feelings. It is something that will drive you insane.
NARRATOR: How would you cling to sanity when your life has become insane? Naveed’s solution? Just. Keep. Busy.
NAVEED JAMALI: It's best not to think about it, and just to keep on doing what you're doing, and not get stuck in that, sort of, infinite loop of trying to decipher what something means - if a van parked outside is, in fact, a surveillance van or a Russian van... or it's just something completely innocent and innocuous. You just may never know. And that is essentially the world that you have to live in to do this. And you have to be okay with that, and you have to find ways to cope with them.
NARRATOR: Naveed has to get comfortable not trusting anyone while, at the same time, trying to win the trust of both Oleg and the FBI. He wants to show the FBI how useful he could be in damaging the Russian spy recruitment operation in New York while convincing Oleg that he's willing to sell out his country to the Russians. But in order to make his story believable Naveed needs motivation, a character that Oleg will buy into. What kind of story would you spin? What kind of character would you create to make your intentions convincing? If you’ve been paying attention in your True Spies’ lessons, you might draw some inspiration from the acronym, MICE. ‘M’ for Money. ‘I’ for Ideology. ‘C’ for Coercion, and ‘E’ for Ego.
NAVEED JAMALI: I quickly discounted coercion. Oleg, while every time I met with him, it was for sure an interrogation, no one was coercing me to do that… Ideology. Well, I'm not an ideologue, and it's not something I could speak to at all. Money and ego were the only two left and money made sense. I came up with this character that was based on me, but also based on a combination of just, characters in modern-day - the movies at the time - that would allow me to be, sort of, this young, money-driven, arrogant, egotistical, young kid. And honestly, it worked and... I don't know… and I played the role perfectly, and it's what the Russians expected. So once I built a character like that, the Russians were all in.
NARRATOR: But Naveed is no actor. He's received no training from the FBI on how to do this. He's completely winging it. How do you get into a role like this?
NAVEED JAMALI: I would get 24-hours notice from the Russians generally that I was going to meet with Oleg. So before that, I would have this routine of watching James Bond, of course, with Daniel Craig - that's the ‘go to’. Michael Mann movies like Miami Vice and I would look at those movies and I would take characters and dialogue from that. I would take on the persona of some of these arrogant movie characters. And I don't know if the Russians are watching the same movies and expecting that American spies talk the same way. Maybe we were all watching the same movies and that's why it worked, but copying their dialogue and copying their personas and their characters... It just, it clicked. It's exactly what they were looking for. They were looking for Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice.
NARRATOR: And that's kind of who they found… But as for the FBI. How to win them over?
NAVEED JAMALI: So there's a saying: ‘In God we trust. All others, we polygraph.’ And the FBI was no different.
NARRATOR: In other words, convincing the FBI was going to be a tough nut to crack. Naveed would be subject to the same kind of scrutiny and surveillance as an enemy spy.
NAVEED JAMALI: So they gave me this watch. It was this large sort of G shock watch, which was just huge, and I would go in and it had an encrypted device that it could record. It was a way for the FBI to verify what I was saying. And I assume that they wanted to make sure that I wasn't trying to cut a side deal with the Russians either. And to me, it felt like I was wearing a giant alarm clock on my neck. It was like: ‘How could he not see this?’
NARRATOR: And why wouldn’t Oleg suspect him? Trust does not come easy in this game.
NAVEED JAMALI: And you really realize that you're essentially a proxy between these two massive organizations who view you as completely expendable.
NARRATOR: So how to make himself valuable? Naveed needs to get into the fold of the Russian operation so that he can bring it down from the inside.
NAVEED JAMALI: Oleg, wasn't interested in what I could get them at the moment. I think it's important. Understand that for the Russians, what they're looking to do is invest in the person. They saw me as this young man, who was a trusted quantity because they knew my parents. And then, of course, they're looking for someone who is going to be in a position that can be long-term. They saw that each time I was getting them something, it was a way to assess my ability, my access, my… how mobile they can manage me, how well I would follow directions.
NARRATOR: And wow, did Naveed offer some pretty appealing access to Oleg.
NAVEED JAMALI: One of the early deals that I struck up with Olag was access, at the time, to a database of DoD.
NARRATOR: That's the Department of Defence. Uh-huh. That's right. You can almost hear Oleg salivating. This stuff is gold.
NAVEED JAMALI: And it was the system called ‘Ditech’ - really high-level research - that we, through our company, we had access to. And what was agreed on is - dealing with the FBI - was that I would go meet with Oleg and I would bring a laptop and we would meet in our car and I'd show him the system.
NARRATOR: These clandestine meetings in the car park are all about reeling Oleg in, by getting Oleg to reel Naveed in.
NAVEED JAMALI: So I'm sitting in the car with Oleg, and Oleg is sifting through this database, and he's looking at stuff, and I'm showing him how it works. So I’ve got access to a legitimate Department of Defense database, one of which foreign entities are not allowed to have access to. And I showed him that very real database sitting in my car, on my laptop, and it was meant to entice them - which it certainly did.
NARRATOR: It's going well, but this is risky business. Naveed is browsing through sensitive information with a man recruiting spies for Russia. The stakes are high. Naveed needs Oleg to get hooked, but he doesn't want him to see too much or it could massively compromise the security of the United States.
NAVEED JAMALI: And I'm saying: ‘Look, I can look up - you give me a weapon system - and I can look up and see all the things that are all the related documents.’ And he could see he's really excited. He's like: ‘Wow, this is real.’ And we stop at one document - random, totally random document - I'm showing him this document and what it means, and we're kind of going through it.
NARRATOR: Oleg is impressed. Naveed is really shaping up to be an ideal informant. This is going to plan. But then comes the question…
NAVEED JAMALI: ‘Can you give me a copy?’
NARRATOR: And... pause. This is the one condition the FBI has given. The one line that Naveed is not allowed to cross. This is meant to be about showing off his level of access, not about actually giving it away. The FBI wants Oleg to window shop. They don't want to hand over the goods. What would you do? You have less than a second to work it out. Tick tock. Oleg is highly trained at sniffing out hesitation, deception. You, on the other hand, are totally winging this mission. Think fast.
NAVEED JAMALI: I said: ‘I can't. I'm not going to print it. I'm not going to email it. I don't have any way to give it to you.’
NARRATOR: That's that sorted. But no. Oleg is one step ahead.
NAVEED JAMALI: He looks at me, he goes: ‘Ah, ha.’ He reaches into his jacket and pulls out a thumb drive and he says: ‘Can you copy it on this?’
NARRATOR: Checkmate. Didn’t you see that one coming?
NAVEED JAMALI: You can plan all you want, but you're dealing with a real human and they're unpredictable. This was all about… not only Oleg testing me, but he had to convince his superiors that I was an account that they should invest in. Right. So they have to recruit spies, and if not me someone else, and Oleg wanted to keep going on with us. So, undoubtedly, the more I learned early on, the more I could give him was the more he could show his superior. And the more that he could show superiors, the happier they were and easier it was for him to justify that they should be spending time and resources on me. So, I'm sure that when he saw these files, it wasn't so much that he wanted a file because it was important, the content of the file itself. He just needed stuff to be... to show his superiors. Now, I had three seconds to give a response without sweating, without showing any emotion without showing any consternation, and my gut instinct reverted back to what the FBI had always said to me: ‘How would you do this if you were a real spy?’
NARRATOR: Because, after all, Naveed is not a real spy. He's working out how to be a double agent on the hoof. To Oleg, he needs to play the part of the American willing to sell out his country for money. To the FBI, he has to look good. He's still gunning for that letter of recommendation, remember? That means he has to play by their rules. He's also invested three years of his life into the investigation at this point. He really cares about it. And he really cares about his country. He doesn't want to jeopardize national security by giving the Russians too much information.
NAVEED JAMALI: Yeah, that, that database was very much real. They were looking at real stuff, real reports, and high-level studies done on US weapons systems. I mean, it's not something they should have even been looking at, let alone have a copy of a file.
NARRATOR: This is about weighing up the options, what will do the least damage? Blowing his cover or handing over the file? Naveed looks at what Oleg's asked for, it's a document about linguistics, how sensitive can that be?
NAVEED JAMALI: And so that's what I did, I put the thumb drive in, copied onto the thumb drive, gave them the thumb drive back and all hell broke loose.
NARRATOR: Oops. Turns out spies trained on Hollywood movies are liable to make mistakes. The FBI immediately springs into action trying to limit the damage.
NAVEED JAMALI: They had to alert all sorts of agencies that an unauthorized access to a particular document by a foreign government had happened.
NARRATOR: And they weren't only worried about the file handover.
NAVEED JAMALI: Of course, I'm sure the thumb drive was compromised. Afterward, the FBI had a warrant to seize my laptop. They went through my laptop to see what was on the thumb drive that he put in.
NARRATOR: And even though Naveed was just trying his best, at a moment more stressful than most of us could imagine, he’s not immune to the law.
NAVEED JAMALI: I learned later that the FBI was thinking about charging me with a crime.
NARRATOR: Naveed had, after all, handed over sensitive documents to a foreign government agent. It was a big deal. It could mean years of jail time if they decided to prosecute. Lucky for Naveed, that is not the course of action they chose, but that split-second decision cost him a lot.
NAVEED JAMALI: So, and it actually led to the FBI wanting to pull back from this operation. They just realized that this was a risk that they just weren't willing to take anymore. That was a risk that was almost unforgivable, combined with the fact that Oleg was leaving.
NARRATOR: That's right. The FBI had intel that Oleg was due to leave his post in New York and head back to Russia.
NAVEED JAMALI: There was no guarantee that Oleg’s replacement would continue on with me.
NARRATOR: So the relationship with Naveed and the Russians was probably coming to an end anyway, and the FBI wanted it to end with a bang.
NAVEED JAMALI: Oleg had actually broken laws. Diplomats - even though they are diplomats - they are not allowed to recruit US persons to spy for them so they wanted to make a point out of Oleg and they wanted the Russians to know that they had been compromised. So they saw both an opportunity combined with their low appetite for risk to sort of reach this sort of final climax with... essentially letting the Russians know that they had arrested me while I was meeting with Oleg.
NARRATOR: While the FBI would like to make an example of Oleg, there are rules around what they can and can't do when it comes to dealing with diplomats, even if those diplomats are recruiting spies. But arresting Naveed, that could be a way of sending a message without crossing all the red tape. And so, that’s what they decide to do at Naveed and Oleg’s next meeting.
NAVEED JAMALI: We had scheduled to meet at Pizzeria Unos in Wayne, New Jersey. So immediately I showed up and I had nothing to give him. I knew that the whole signal for this was going to be me being arrested in front of him. That was the whole purpose of this meeting. And I just knew I had to get him to my car where this whole arrest would happen. And immediately, when I met him outside of the restaurant, I walked over and he shook my hand. As he's holding onto my hand, looking me dead in the eyes, he says: ‘Do you mind if we go to a different restaurant?’ Now, Instinctively... of course I knew, of course I mind... I knew that there was going to be other FBI agents sitting in that restaurant. I knew there was going to be just a lot of other things that we had planned out. So it was absolutely going to be a problem if we did not meet. But I couldn't show any emotion. I couldn't portray that. And I have to look him in the eye and say: ‘No, it's not a problem.’ And we ended up walking a few hundred feet from the pizzeria windows, oddly enough, to a Hooters that was across the street.
NARRATOR: Of course, Hooters, the perfect location for an FBI showdown.
NAVEED JAMALI: And it's probably one of the longest walks I've ever taken, hoping that the FBI wouldn't do something. I mean, I knew that they would be freaking out as they watched us go to a different restaurant. And I later learned that the FBI agents who were sitting in the Pizzeria Uno, got all their food to go, of course, and got a brown bag and chased after us.
NARRATOR: Because you don't want to waste pizza, right?
NAVEED JAMALI: But so we get to this Hooters and we're talking and Oleg's telling me about what a wonderful job I've done, how he's leaving but all his people want to meet me. Telling me about how we're going to have a lobster champagne dinner for me, and how I was gonna have this retirement account. This person can’t wait to meet me, and they're just so excited to meet me, and this is going to be great.
NARRATOR: While lobster sounds like a welcome upgrade from the Hooters’ menu, Naveed has other things on his mind. They're not meant to be in Hooters. They're meant to be in Pizzeria Uno. Naveed needs to get Oleg to his car. Asap. I had to bluff him for just a few more minutes.
NARRATOR: Think. Think.
NAVEED JAMALI: I said: ‘Great, now let's go. I've got some other stuff I can show you. And we walked to the car and I said: ‘There's some documents in the back. Open the trunk.’ And I had nothing. I had a box that had old documents in it.
NARRATOR: While Oleg's rifling through a box of meaningless documents, Naveed gives the FBI the go-ahead to make their move.
NAVEED JAMALI: And all I did was take off my hat. That was supposed to be a signal. And I took off my hat as he looked. And these cars come swooping in - no sirens, no lights - and these agents get out and they pat me down. They start following Oleg and they, kind of, tussle me … putting [me] in the back of the car.
NARRATOR: They've successfully staged Naveed's arrest. His three-year relationship with Oleg, it's all over.
NAVEED JAMALI: And we're driving off and watching him with his back toward me as he walks away, and we drive. And I just remember that the entire time I was watching him, watching his reaction, and there was no reaction. And I think that's the thing that's the most memorable, is that he was stoic and a professional to the end. But also, again, absolutely willing to walk away from me in a moment's notice and not look back and not even think about this a few seconds ago. He'd been just telling me how important I was and all these amazing dinners they were going to throw, and all these celebrations they were going to throw in my honor, and how important I was and all this other stuff. And then the next second... nothing. He was willing to let me be swooped up and locked away for the rest of my life by the FBI.
That just is a reminder that you have, as an individual, you have no value to either entity. The only value you have is... as long as you're useful. And it's a pretty lonely job. It's not a team sport. There's a tremendous burden that lies on your shoulders and there's also a huge risk that you, alone, end up shouldering.
NARRATOR: Oleg walks away without a backward glance. But Naveed is quickly snapped out of his reflections on the lonely nature of the spy's game.
NAVEED JAMALI: We turn a corner and the FBI agents in the front - who had never spoken to before - turn around and say: ‘It's so nice to meet you.’ And [they] start high-fiving me. And then they drive me up to this parking garage and there's all these people. They're all thanking me, and it was like more people I'd ever seen in my life.
NARRATOR: This was the whole FBI team who had been working the backstage of Naveed's operation. There were agents there who had worked with his parents. They all knew Naveed. They'd spent three years following his case, hours listening to the recordings from his big fat watch. Turns out, although he felt expendable at times, Naveed was a bit of a legend. But after a few rounds of handshakes and high- fives…
NAVEED JAMALI: That was it. Then it was over. It was this intense moment and … like the intensity, then it just flat-out stopped. That's it?
NARRATOR: Naveed was gutted. This had been the most exhilarating time of his life, but he was also relieved.
NAVEED JAMALI: There's only so long you can do this. And it takes a level of pathology to really live a double life like this. Normal people don't do it.
NARRATOR: It was a tough gig, no doubt. So were these three years of courting Oleg worth the hassle? Time to find out who Oleg really was and how important this operation had been.
NAVEED JAMALI: I later learned that Oleg was one of the right-hand men of the top GRU general in the United States at the time - this man named Nikola Yuravov - and Yuravov was the ultimate target of the FBI. But, Yuravov, as a general, as the head of the military committee in the US, rarely left the mission, rarely went out. He was very much a… I don't want to say recluse, but he was as close to one as he could be for the Russians. When they enter the United States, they consider that this is enemy territory and they're behind enemy lines and they act accordingly. So while Yuravov didn't go out, his right-hand man Oleg did. And so the FBI picked up on the fact that Oleg could be a way to target Yuravov. And that Oleg was really acting, probably, under Yuravov's very close direction. And so, for them all... I had value because really both of us have access to Yuravov. I think Oleg recruited me - or he believed he had recruited me - and his tour in the United States was going to come to an end, and he was excited to go back as a hero and end up with his career in a very big way. And he saw that he was only going to climb the ranks.
NARRATOR: So much for that dream. Sorry, Oleg. Arresting Naveed sent a strong message to Yuravov and the Russians. The operation had been a success.
NAVEED JAMALI: For a young kid with no training - working essentially by flying from the seat of his pants - I believe that this little operation had a huge impact on Russia's intelligence collection in the United States. On the day that I met Oleg and I was arrested in front of him, I knew that the embassy - the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC - all the Russian military and intelligence folks were called back in. So this was a pretty big deal. They had to assume that there was a compromise or a leak or another double agent. I'm working somewhere else. And where is that leak? What else has been compromised? What other operations do they have to worry about?
NARRATOR: For a brief period, the Russians had to pull back and stop doing what they were doing until they could figure out what had been compromised and what hadn't.
NAVEED JAMALI: So if you think about that, this little operation had rippling effects across Russia collecting intelligence in the United States. While they couldn't necessarily arrest every diplomat, they sure as heck could tell them that: ‘Hey, we know what you're using and you're going to have to wonder [about] it, look over your shoulder to figure out what else is coming next. Then, I think, that was the message and I think it was very, very successful.
NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Oleg went back to Russia with his tail between his legs.
NAVEED JAMALI: I can only imagine the debriefing Oleg got when he got back to Moscow. I think that they were probably pretty pissed.
NARRATOR: And when it was all over, Naveed learned that his ad hoc, Hollywood-inspired, self-styled approach to being a spy was one of the reasons the operation had been so successful.
NAVEED JAMALI: Because I was genuinely making this up as I went along, the Russians - rightfully so - could detect no FBI signature. Nothing I was doing had any hint.
NARRATOR: And Naveed couldn't help but wonder…
NAVEED JAMALI: What if I had stayed? What else would I have been able to uncover?
NARRATOR: Naveed's double life was now over, and it was time to move forward with his career. He still had his heart set on that dream job as an intelligence officer in the Navy and he hoped that, after all his hard work, the FBI could help him secure the position.
NAVEED JAMALI: They did actually help with putting in a good word and I did in fact receive that commission and get accepted into the program.
NARRATOR: It's now over a decade since the operation wound up, but it’s something Naveed will never forget.
NAVEED JAMALI: It is such a high to go into this mental combat with someone like Oleg Kulikov. These are really skilled, worthy opponents. And to go in there and to be able to ‘best’ them is a real thing that very few people ever get to do. And it's really like battling a one-on-one opponent - and I beat him, and that was a hell of a drug. The logical part of my brain says: ‘Yes, I am glad it's over.’ The illogical part of my brain says: ‘Damn, do I miss it?’ It was a rush like no other. And in that moment where you're talking about stuff that could change the course of - no-joke - countries... and it's all on you, and you have to bring home a huge win. Otherwise, things could go really sideways. Not just sideways for a few people, but you're charting the course of a country. That is a huge, huge responsibility. It's an awesome one. And I'm not going to lie. There's just a real, real high for doing that, but it takes a toll on you. And it, frankly, is a young person's game.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. I’ll be back next week for another liaison with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
A life-long New Yorker, Naveed Jamali lives in New York City with his wife and two sons. After his successful run as a civilian double agent, he accepted a reserve commission in the US Navy and spent more than a decade in technology management at a senior level. He continues to advise and speak on matters of security, counter-intelligence, and understanding the motivation to spy.