True Spies, Episode 164 - The Courier
NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I only remember the last note he wrote to me and he said, “Please be careful. This is not James Bond.” He then took all the paper and a match and burned them all in an ashtray.
NARRATOR: It’s the summer of 1971. In Moscow, a young American emerges from the lobby of his hotel.
HOWARD KAPLAN: The Metropol was an old, fabulous hotel across from the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.
NARRATOR: Blinking in the sunlight, he makes his way into the city. He has an appointment to make.
HOWARD KAPLAN: You walk from the Metropol to Red Square. From Red Square, you walk here.
NARRATOR: Dwarfed by its towering Soviet pomp, the American proceeds at pace beneath the watching spires of Red Square. He takes a turn along a side street, cautiously glancing here and there as he goes. Eventually, his eyes alight on his destination. An apartment. The home of an important man.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I knocked on his door. And suddenly he said something to me in Russian and I said to him, “I don't speak Russian.” And I believe if my recollection was correct, he said something in Hebrew immediately thereafter. I remember he opened the door, but to open the door he had to unlock about five locks and bolts, and he ushered me into his apartment.
NARRATOR: Inside, a new purpose awaits. A mission that will alter the course of this true spy’s young life forever.
HOWARD KAPLAN: My name is Howard Kaplan. I'm the author of six novels about the Middle East and Russia. In the very early 1970s, associated with the Israeli government, I made two trips to the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: And that’s where Howard will take us back to in this episode of True Spies. A cloistered world, where censorship reigns supreme - and where a band of rebellious writers, intellectuals, and dissidents are struggling to make their voices heard. In 1971, Californian Howard Kaplan was 21 years old.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Both my parents were Holocaust survivors. My mother was taken to Auschwitz when she was 16. And she and four of her five sisters survived, although the youngest sister and mother were gassed immediately upon entering. My father, who was Polish, came to the US in 1938 so he just escaped. He was the youngest of five siblings and all his brothers and sisters, his parents, his aunts and uncles, and the children of his siblings were all murdered by the Nazis.
NARRATOR: Howard is part of a generation of American Jews who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And I think the kind of silence of the world during that period drove me to not be silent and to look around and see what I could do.
NARRATOR: While a student in California, Howard was presented with an unmissable opportunity to make a difference.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I was spending my junior year in Jerusalem from Berkeley - I was an undergraduate at Berkeley - and there was a young woman from my high school also on the program, and she met a guy who's an American-Israeli who essentially was recruiting students at the Hebrew University to go to Moscow on their way back home.
NARRATOR: The man that Howard’s friend had encountered in Jerusalem was an operative of the Israeli government. He had been tasked with smuggling literature in and out of Russia, collaborating with Jewish dissident organizations behind the Iron Curtain. The USSR tightly controlled the import and export of books. The Soviet State was all too aware of the power of ideas. Ideas had brought down the old Tsar.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So she said, “Do you want to join this group?” I said, “Sure.” So I wasn't planning on this. It just kind of happened.
NARRATOR: The Kremlin had suspended diplomatic relations with Israel in the aftermath of 1967’s Six-Day War, in which the young Jewish nation had emerged victorious over a coalition of Soviet-backed Arab states. By contrast, the early ‘70s had seen a temporary thaw in US-Russian relations. American students, like Howard and his friend, did not need an elaborate cover story to visit the USSR. In short, they made good couriers. Over the next academic year, Howard and a select group of his fellow Jewish-American students were trained in the rudiments of espionage.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Mostly, we were taught basic elements such as how to get - let's say in Moscow - from your hotel to the apartment of someone who you're going to contact without having to ask directions.
NARRATOR: This wasn’t the kind of in-depth training that a true officer of the Mossad would undergo. As Americans, the students would be unlikely to face serious consequences if they were captured. Smuggling books is less contentious than stealing state secrets - and the Kremlin wouldn’t risk a diplomatic emergency over a few pages of Hebrew. Even so, the newly-minted couriers would have to be on their guard. The KGB kept a close eye on all foreigners visiting the USSR’s major cities and their capture could risk blowing the whole operation. Soon, Howard would have a chance to test his mettle.
HOWARD KAPLAN: They wanted to choose the person they felt was the most competent to bring this roll of microfilm out. And behold, it turned out to be me.
NARRATOR: His mission was simple. He was to travel to Moscow and meet with a group of Jewish dissidents, who would supply him with a roll of microfilm to bring back to Israel.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I didn't ask what they were asking me to bring out. I was told many years later it was a Yiddish novel written about the head of the Yiddish theater, [Solomon] Mikhoels, who had been a famous character - I don't remember when it happened - but he was murdered by Stalin. So this was a novel about that event that was supposed to be taken to the National Library of Israel.
NARRATOR: So as not to raise suspicion, Howard wouldn’t be traveling directly from Israel to Moscow.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And I was off from Jerusalem on my way to London where I met a cell who took me in and helped me with some additional training.
NARRATOR: In London, things got real for Howard Kaplan.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Essentially, the Mossad had recruited a British Jew and he then had recruited a cell - a number of people who were British-Jewish - and I ended up joining that cell.
NARRATOR: The London cell was made up of tough East-end Jews who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
HOWARD KAPLAN: They were cab drivers, or they would borrow cabs, and they would queue up to Arab embassies, like the Saudi Embassy, and they would rifle briefcases and steal documents as they were taking these people to wherever they needed to go.
NARRATOR: As you can imagine, it takes some serious sleight-of-hand to steal classified documents in a moving taxi - especially when you’re the one driving. The London cell wasted no time in bringing Howard up to speed on the finer points of his new trade.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So still, today, I have a copy of The Hobbit, where I was taught to write in the book in milk anything that came up or anything that the dissidents' leaders wanted me to do or communicate back.
NARRATOR: Milk - nature’s invisible ink. As long as you don’t mind the smell.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And then what they did is, they took an iron, just a normal kitchen iron, and you iron the pages. And the milk burns and becomes readable. So I learned that in London and also how they wanted me to hide the role of microfilm that I was bringing out.
NARRATOR: During the Cold War, microfilm was used to scale down documents so that they could be transported across checkpoints without drawing undue attention. Think of it as the equivalent of your thumb drive.
HOWARD KAPLAN: In these days before digital cameras, you had Kodak film that came in a yellow rectangular box. Inside the box was a little kind of metal. So the idea was that I would have a camera case with a lot of rolls of film.
NARRATOR: Some of these rolls would be used for their intended purpose - recording the sightseeing adventures of a worldly American student. One would be sadly discarded, replaced in its canister by the all-important microfilm. But first, Howard had to get to Moscow.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And then I went to a travel agency in London because at that point you couldn't just go to the Soviet Union. You couldn't just book a flight and say you want to drop into Moscow under the Soviets. You had to be on a tour, an InTourist tour, it was called.
NARRATOR: Like most Soviet businesses, the tour operator InTourist was an arm of the state. Its guides controlled just how much of the Soviet Union its visitors were allowed to see. Certain neighborhoods, for example, would be off-limits. North Korea currently operates a similar, albeit more extreme system. On the plus side, they offered fantastic value for money.
HOWARD KAPLAN: They were remarkably inexpensive. I think at that point it was US $300 for two weeks in Russia, including flights and hotels, and food. And I booked that trip and made my first flight into Moscow from Heathrow.
NARRATOR: Which brings us back to where this episode began - the grand art-deco frontage of the Hotel Metropol, a 10-minute walk from Red Square. Howard is en route to his first appointment in Moscow. It’s set to take place at the well-appointed home of one Lev Navrozov.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So he was the number one translator in the Soviet Union from Russian to English, which is why he was wealthy.
NARRATOR: Navrozov would later find fame in the US as a renegade pro-democracy historian, shining a light on the parts of Russia’s history that it would sooner forget. But here, in 1971, he’s still under the cosh of strict Kremlin censorship - and working covertly with the Jewish dissident movement. But this is all new to Howard. All he has is an address.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I didn't know anything about him. I wasn't - for whatever reason - I wasn't briefed on who I was seeing. Maybe they didn't want me to know his name in case I got jumped at the airport on my way in.
NARRATOR: Bolts slide, tumblers turn, and the door unlocks. Navrozov cautiously ushers the young American inside.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And he starts speaking to me in a more precise and exalted English than my immigrant parents had ever spoken. And I remember the one sentence to this day that he said to me as we sat down at the table. He said, “You have to understand, everything here depends on the caprice of the government.”
NARRATOR: And for many Jewish people, the caprice of the Soviet government stood between them and a better life elsewhere.
HOWARD KAPLAN: The primary thing they wanted was to leave the Soviet Union because nobody was allowed out, even as a tourist, unless you had very special permission.
NARRATOR: In 1950, Israel extended citizenship to Jews around the world through the Law of Return. As a closed country with a large Jewish population, the USSR was reluctant to allow a mass exodus. In order to apply for an exit visa, Soviet Jews would have to give up their jobs - which left them open to a particularly nasty Catch-22.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And then, in a kind of doublespeak, they would be in danger of being arrested as being parasites of the state for not having a job.
NARRATOR: Lev Navrozov quickly got to the point. He had arranged for Howard to meet with leaders of the Jewish dissident movement in Moscow. At this meeting, they would supply him with the microfilm he had been tasked to move out of the country.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So what he gave me was, let's say that was a Wednesday, and I had four days in Moscow, he said, “You know, Friday at 7, I want you to walk to Red Square and walk to this address that I'm going to give you.”
NARRATOR: Sure enough, when the day came, Howard slipped away from his tour group.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So they gave me an address on a Moscow street a few blocks from Red Square. And I walked up to knock on the door. And before I reached the door, that's when the two guys grabbed me from either side.
NARRATOR: And just like that, Howard’s adventure had come to an end - or so he must have thought.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I'm not a very tall or large person. And when they grabbed my arms from both sides, I was going to comply.
NARRATOR: But something about the two men who have quietly apprehended him doesn’t stack up.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I was frightened, but I also had a sense that this probably wouldn't be the way the KGB would grab me. The KGB wouldn't be silent. They'd be yelling or threatening or something.
NARRATOR: Howard allows himself to be led down the street.
HOWARD KAPLAN: It was not a long distance around to the back of the building and down these stairs.
NARRATOR: This appeared to support his theory. If he was being picked up by the KGB, they’d take him to their headquarters - not a dingy basement at the back of a civilian building.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So I thought, “Well, either I'm in big trouble now or not.” I couldn't shout because whoever could come could be worse than who had me. And I walked into this basement, which was an artist's quarter. And I remember I couldn't tell it was an artist's studio at that time because it was dark. He led me through the studio into a kind of internal room and in that room was, what we would call today, a conference table.
NARRATOR: Around the table sat a group of serious older men.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And quite a number of the men in this room had suit jackets on, and they had little Stars of David, silver, in their lapels. So I thought, “I'm home. I'm okay.”
NARRATOR: Among the group was a friendly face: Lev Navrozov. In short order, Navrozov explained the situation.
HOWARD KAPLAN: What they did was they gave me the wrong address on purpose. They knew which route I would take. So they had people following me from Red Square to that apartment address, the wrong address, to see if the KGB were following me. If the KGB had been following me, they would have allowed me to knock on the wrong door. Either nobody was home or people wouldn't have known what was happening and the meeting would have been off.
NARRATOR: In the secretive studio, the dissidents hand over the microfilm. From his bag, Howard produces a yellow box stuffed with a camera roll.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I went into this artist’s studio and explained to them that they should open the yellow box carefully because we could reseal it with glue. Open up the canister. Put the microfilm in the canister and then cut, let's say, a three or four-inch lead of film. Regular film from the canister. Tape it to the inside of the canister so that in case anybody actually opened that box, it would look like a normal, unused roll of film.
NARRATOR: This is the moment he’s been waiting for, a chance to impress his mentors in London and Jerusalem.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And they managed to open the canister and put it in the way I described. Seal the box again with glue.
NARRATOR: His mission was complete. Well, almost. It was time to head back to London and hand over the microfilm to the leader of the Mossad cell there.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I got out without anything inspected at the airport in anything other than a normal way. So it didn't appear that they had been following me or were aware that I was meeting with people on this trip into the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: Howard’s first outing as a spy’s courier had been a resounding success.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So maybe I thought, “Well, this is easy. I'll go back every year until I'm too old to do this.”
NARRATOR: Back in London, Howard is debriefed, and the information he has gathered is processed. The microfilm is only one part of his haul. Remember his copy of The Hobbit? The one full of invisible notes, written in milk?
HOWARD KAPLAN: Obviously we ironed my copy of The Hobbit. There were lots of things that the dissidents wanted. Very often it was to have their stories known. There was one guy who I met in that artist's basement who was suffering from great intestinal distress because what was his punishment for wanting to leave for Israel? They didn't fire him, but they made him sit at his desk and do no work. So for eight hours a day, every day, he had to sit doing nothing at his office desk. And remember, he's as I've mentioned, he's at all times at risk of being arrested for being a parasite.
NARRATOR: In the meantime, other students, like Howard, have been sent to Russia on similar assignments. Not all of them come back unscathed.
HOWARD KAPLAN: One young woman and a guy had been arrested. I don't remember much, the circumstances. But they wrung her out and she came back to London and really shattered. I don't think she was physically harmed as much as psychologically intimidated.
NARRATOR: But Howard was undeterred. Call it bravery - call it the bluster of youth - but he was determined to continue his work. A year later, in 1972, he got his wish. After booking another trip with InTourist, he was back in Moscow - the first destination in a five-city tour. This time, he was more confident - more prepared.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I don't recall on my second trip how many times I met with the dissident leaders. But I believe it was, again, in the same artist's studio by chance. I met some of the same people in Moscow, some of them had gotten out. The second tour put me in the Metropol Hotel again. So I knew my routes quite well because they were the same ones as the first trip.
NARRATOR: This time, the dissidents had another request. Howard was to take a manuscript to the Dutch Embassy in Moscow.
HOWARD KAPLAN: The Netherlands was the Israeli conduit into the Soviet Union because the Soviets in Israel had no diplomatic relations so the Dutch handled things for them.
NARRATOR: At the embassy, he was to meet a friendly diplomat who would relieve him of his package.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And I put it in a book bag, a kind of college book bag, and slung it over my shoulder. He won't come out of the embassy to get it because the embassy is foreign territory. He's safe there. So instead, they say they give me the name of his secretary and they say, “Just go to the embassy.”
NARRATOR: Howard does as he is told. His cover for this visit is that he is a family friend of the Dutch Ambassador’s secretary.
HOWARD KAPLAN: There are KGB guards outside every embassy. I remember it was like a phone booth. There's a KGB guard there. He looks at my passport but doesn't search me. Calls inside and they let me in. So I get to the ambassador's office, and I don't remember a whole lot about the meeting, but he immediately takes the manuscript. I presume he can get it out in a diplomatic pouch. I don't know what's in it. I don't ask. I have no idea. This time, I don't even have a story of what's in it. And he sits down with me. And as we talk about this fictitious relationship that I have with his secretary's family, we're writing notes to each other.
NARRATOR: In Soviet Russia, everybody writes notes. It’s safe to assume that any official building is bugged.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Somebody in London gave me what in the States we call an ‘Etch A Sketch’. It's one of these little kid toys where you can write on it and then you pull up a kind of cellophane screen and the writing disappears. Well, they thought this was just the greatest thing in the world because they were afraid of listening devices everywhere so they could write to each other without using reams of paper.
NARRATOR: In the ambassador’s office in the Dutch Embassy, however, things are a little more rudimentary. Small scraps of notepaper are passed between the two men as they innocently chatter away.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I only remember the last note he wrote to me and he said, “Please be careful. This is not James Bond.” He then took all the paper and a match and burned them all in an ashtray.
NARRATOR: That was that. Howard took his leave. Soon, he would be out of Moscow, continuing on his tour around the cities of the Soviet Union. The last of them was Kharkiv, in Ukraine.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Kharkiv, is now known as Kharkiv because the Ukrainians, in becoming an independent country, changed the Soviet names of their cities back to the Ukrainian names. But in my mind, it was always Kharkov.
NARRATOR: For decades, Kharkiv had played host to several munitions factories that supplied the Soviet Army. It was also home to a large Jewish population.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So I’m meeting with some Jewish dissidents at this time in their apartment in Kharkov. And maybe it's 11 pm, and they say you should go back to the hotel because it's suspicious to be out in the Soviet Union, [as] a tourist, late because there's no place they could be. Meaning there are no bars, there are no nightclubs, there are no fancy restaurants. There are one or two bars in hotels in Moscow that have more KGB agents than Westerners in them so there just isn't literally any place you could be that's not suspicious late at night in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
NARRATOR: During two trips to the Soviet Union, Howard has been able to move more or less freely - within the limitations of his training, of course. But in Kharkiv, his luck is about to run out.
HOWARD KAPLAN: The Jews in Kharkov walk me back to the trolley because it's not safe for them to come near the hotel. As we turned a corner to get to the trolley line, a wall of uniformed and non-uniformed people, let's call them KGB, whoever they exactly were, jumped out, and grabbed us.
NARRATOR: Howard’s arm is forced behind his back, and he’s thrust against a wall. Thinking back to his first time in Moscow, he realizes that his instincts were correct - the KGB does not quietly guide their suspects away.
HOWARD KAPLAN: There was one guy in particular who was accompanying me and he said something to me in English. He spoke English. “Don't worry, it'll be okay.” And they punched him in the stomach. I was taken to KGB headquarters - or to what I think was KGB headquarters in the city - by foot.
NARRATOR: The worst had happened. Howard was in the custody of the KGB. In an interrogation room, he’s met by two men.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And when I talk about the interrogation, I often describe them as a colonel and a captain, just to differentiate their age and rank.
NARRATOR: A third man enters the room - the manager of Howard’s hotel. He’s been roped in to act as a translator.
HOWARD KAPLAN: They asked me a few rudimentary questions and then I said, “I need to use the bathroom.” At which point they said - maybe it was midnight by now - “It's getting late. We'll take you to the hotel and continue this in the morning.”
NARRATOR: In the hotel the next morning, the real interrogation begins.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So this interrogation goes on for two days. And I like to tell it because it's really true, I could use the facilities whenever I wanted. If I wanted food, the restaurant service was better in the manager's office than in the restaurant in the hotel. I was never physically abused. It was more just relentless questioning. What did these people say to you? I asked, “Is it illegal to speak to Soviet citizens?” They said, “No, it's illegal to consort with hooligans.”
NARRATOR: The officers are especially keen to know who had entrusted Howard to speak with the so-called ‘hooligans’.
HOWARD KAPLAN: The cover story created for me in London was - and this was a story I told repeatedly under interrogation - that when I went to this travel agency, a man approached me outside the agency and said, “Would you take a few novels into Moscow for us?” They want to know what he looked like, to describe him. And I was taught in London to describe someone I knew. So I described my father because they would come back later when you were tired and repeat the same questions.
NARRATOR: A physical description is one thing but the KGB wanted a name.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I had two friends at that time, one named Larry Simon, who I'm still friends with. Another named Steve Schiffer, who's no longer alive. So when I needed to create a name for this guy outside, I crossed their names using the first name for one and the last name for the other. And suddenly, under interrogation the following morning, I couldn't remember which way I crossed it.
NARRATOR: Contradicting himself was not an option. If Howard was caught in a lie, then the officers would need to scrutinize every other aspect of his story. So, Larry Schiffer or Steve Simon? Choose carefully.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And the first question out of the interrogators mouth the following morning was, Tell me about this guy, Simon. I then realized which way I had crossed it.
NARRATOR: Thanks to a somewhat inexpert interrogator, Howard had cleared that particular hurdle. And, in the way peculiar to people in their teens and early 20s, he was supremely confident that he could handle himself from here on out.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I remember at one exchange, I was a little bit cocky. The Colonel said, “What are you doing in Kharkov? Why did you come to Kharkov?” And I said, “Well, it's a nice city, isn't it? You live here.”
NARRATOR: Scenic as Kharkiv was, Howard’s stay was about to be cut short. He was due for the second half of his four-day interrogation.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So they take me from Kharkov to Moscow with two escorts on each side of me on the plane. And waiting for me in Moscow are two gentlemen who tell me they are InTourist guides. They're obviously KGB. And what was most fascinating about them is that one speaks perfect British English and the other perfect American English. They then take me to a hotel very nearby, outside the airport.
NARRATOR: In a downstairs room in the airport hotel in Moscow, Howard is interrogated by real professionals. But by now, Howard is approaching the end of his tour. If the Russians hold him any longer than that, they’ll risk instigating an international incident.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So we're reaching day 14, which is when I have a scheduled flight to London. How am I meeting Simon in London? This is the thing they want to know, because remember, I'm sort of inconsequential. They think he's the main guy. They seem to have no trouble believing this story. They want to know, “How do you contact him? How do you reach him? How do you speak to what's-his-name? Where does he work?” And I just say, “I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. He met me in a cafe in Piccadilly,” which is, of course, not true. That was the major thing that occupied them because otherwise I was just a stupid American kid and I was happy to play that role. And maybe I was a stupid American kid, so it wasn't so hard to play.
NARRATOR: Howard knows he has to give them something - a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. He has to give them ‘Steve Simon’, his fictitious handler in London.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And I say to the KGB guy, “Simon is meeting my scheduled flight at Heathrow.” This was all prearranged should I get in trouble. Because the idea is, if they want to know who Simon is, let them expel me on the scheduled flight. Follow me if they want to, or just look and watch, photograph. The main idea is to get me out.
NARRATOR: This is music to the KGB’s ears. They take the bait. Howard is going home.
HOWARD KAPLAN: There's a little ceremony. They say, “A prosecutor's coming. Wear your best clothes.” He comes to my hotel room or to the office. I don't remember where it happened. And he says - it's very peculiar - he says, “Stand up. Turn around.” So I stand up and turn around. [He's] barking orders that are translated. And apparently, this was an official expulsion from the USSR.
NARRATOR: In an official letter to the US State Department, dated the July 27, 1972, the Russian government wrote the following: “It has come to the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs USSR that tourist Howard Kaplan, fulfilling tasks as an Israeli spy, was engaged in hostile activity during his stay in our country. There are sufficient materials to institute criminal proceedings against Kaplan. However, taking account of the development of Soviet-American relations, the Soviet side limited itself to expelling him from the Soviet Union.” Finally, Howard is at the end of his ordeal. At the airport, one of the KGB officers - the one with the flawless American accent - takes Howard aside.
HOWARD KAPLAN: He says, “I don't want to see anything about this in print. We can find you anywhere in the world, and next time we won't be so humanitarian.” That was the word he used, ‘humanitarian’.
NARRATOR: When he lands at London Heathrow Airport, Howard is aware that he might not be entirely home and dry. He has to trust the KGB is following him, hoping to put a face to his imaginary handler.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And I start looking around for Simon. There's obviously no Simon. I go to a pay phone and I call my friends, just use some rudimentary code like, “I caught a cold in Moscow. I'm not feeling that well,” which alerts him that I'm in trouble.
NARRATOR: Knowing that their young agent is in a tight spot, the London cell swings into action.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I mentioned earlier that these guys had access to the big black London cabs. So I walk out of Heathrow and I go onto the street. At a certain corner, I hail a cab that is driven by the cell leader.
NARRATOR: Howard doesn’t know it for sure, but his hunch is correct - he is being followed.
HOWARD KAPLAN: There were two KGB agents following me on the sidewalk outside Heathrow. I never saw them. And because I so abruptly hailed a cab, they had no choice but to try to hail the next cab.
NARRATOR: This would prove to be an error on the part of the KGB.
HOWARD KAPLAN: So, as I say, when I told my son at seven years old this story, I said, “What do you think the Russians in the second cab said?” He goes, “Follow that cab!” And that's exactly what they did.
NARRATOR: Eventually, both taxis stop at a red light.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Two cars pulled up on both sides of that black cab. Guys jumped out from those two cars and jumped into the cab and sandwiched the two Russians in the backseat
NARRATOR: Well, you didn’t think the London cell would send just one taxi, did you?
HOWARD KAPLAN: And again, what I was told, and I've always believed this, is they were taken to Epping Forest and relieved of their clothes and tied to trees. And frankly, I don't know how crowded Epping Forest is, as I live in Los Angeles, but since there were no police reports or newspaper reports about anybody found dead in Epping Forest, they worked their way out or got out.
NARRATOR: It’s a faintly comical end to a tale of high adventure. Howard emerged from his flirtation with espionage unscathed. But not everyone was as lucky.
HOWARD KAPLAN: Some months later, one of these gentlemen who had access to a cab, had parked his cab was walking home, and a car came up over the sidewalk, smashed into him, went back down on the road and disappeared. And he was hospitalized for some months. As the Dutch ambassador said to me in the embassy, you shouldn't underestimate the KGB. And likely they determined who he was from the cabs and this was a retaliation for this whole thing.
NARRATOR: Howard returned to his old life in California. His experiences in the USSR sparked a lifelong interest in the shadowy world of espionage.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And then I thought to myself, “Oh, good. I could write about this.” Sometimes I joke and say, “This is the beginning of my becoming a novelist.” I'm not sure that's entirely true. But then I ended up writing spy novels. So it's not untrue either.
NARRATOR: And there’s a postscript to this story. In recent years, Howard has been thinking about the mission that started it all. And his inquiries have unearthed some uneasy truths.
HOWARD KAPLAN: In the US there's something called the Freedom of Information Act where you can just send a request and you get your FBI files. So I did this, and [then there] comes a whole sheaf of papers.
NARRATOR: That dossier included his official letter of expulsion from the Soviet Union but there was more.
HOWARD KAPLAN: The FBI followed me around at Berkeley. They said they had some phony phone calls to my parent's house. Maybe they were checking because they were East European to see if we were a family cell. And then it says at the bottom of one of these reports, it was decided not to pull me in, the FBI, for interrogation in the US. And I knew nothing about this - that I was followed, or any of it.
NARRATOR: So it’s safe to assume that, on American soil, Howard is free to live and write as he pleases. But when it comes to foreign travel things get a little more complicated.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I wrote a novel about this experience called The Chopin Express. And I was giving a talk somewhere, and a guy came up to me. He said that his name was Howard Kaplan and that he was on a train in Czechoslovakia. I don't remember the year. And he got pulled off the train and interrogated. Apparently, they're thinking he was me. So I have been back to Eastern Europe. I went with my father to Poland, to his hometown in 1985. But not, and nor will I ever go, back to Russia.
NARRATOR: We’ll leave you with one final mystery. In 2017, cinema-goers sat down to watch The Damascus Cover, based on Howard’s 1977 spy novel of the same name.
HOWARD KAPLAN: I was asked to write an article for the National Library of Israel about the film.
NARRATOR: The National Library was supposed to be the final destination of the book that Howard had smuggled out of the USSR on microfilm nearly half a century earlier.
HOWARD KAPLAN: And this guy went to the archives and looked for the manuscript that I brought out and he said, “It's not there.” So it's possible that I brought out something entirely different of which I'm unaware.
NARRATOR: Perhaps Lev Navrozov, the dissident historian that Howard had encountered on his first trip to Moscow, had entrusted the American with more important material than he’d let on. After escaping to the US in 1972, the learned Russian released several scandalous articles detailing the realities of the Soviet regime. But the truth is lost to time. All Howard knows for sure is that whatever the true purpose of his time as a true spy, it made for a hell of a story. I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next time for the tale of a spy trapped behind enemy lines in Communist China.
Howard Kaplan is a Los Angeles native who has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria ,and Egypt. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in Philosophy of Education from UCLA in addition to being the author of six novels.