Episode 21



Undercover CIA agent James Olson takes Vanessa Kirby on a nail-biting mission behind the Iron Curtain. In the late 1970s, James was tasked with tapping an underground communications line between Moscow and a top-secret nuclear weapons facility. Under constant surveillance from the KGB, he would need to use a combination of traditional spycraft and hi-tech gadgetry to intercept this priceless intel without risking a diplomatic catastrophe.
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True Spies Episode 21: The Nuclear Superhighway

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 21: The Nuclear Superhighway.

JAMES OLSON: We were briefed on this incredible, space-age project that was being contemplated. It was to tap an underground cable in Moscow, an underground cable that we believed would have extremely valuable intelligence information for us if we could succeed.

NARRATOR: One rainy morning in the mid-1970s, signals analysts at the CIA’s Moscow station settled in for their shift. Strong coffee cooled on their desks as headphones slid into position. Sleepy fingers tuned the dials on their radio receivers. A symphony of Russian chatter came coursing down the wires. The day began like any other day but something was different. A new frequency emerged from the ether, a microwave link. These signals were highly directional, bounced in straight lines from transmitter to transmitter. Intercepting them usually meant erecting your own receiver directly in the path of the beam - far too conspicuous a gambit in a powder-keg like Moscow. But somehow, the CIA was picking up these supposedly secure communications within their regular frequency scans. Was this a deliberate leak? A freedom-loving traitor at the heart of the Kremlin?

JAMES OLSON: A microwave is not always strictly point to point. There's some leakage. There is some reflection. There's some bouncing of the signal. So even though they can control from tower to tower and a narrow pencil beam, there is some spillage that is vulnerable. My name is James Olson. I served in the CIA from 1969 until 2000. I was in the directorate of operations. I was undercover for the entire 31 years.

NARRATOR: Like most of our spies, James Olson is a man with secrets. Even today, many of the operations he took part in during the Cold War are classified.

JAMES OLSON: And that's about as much as I want to say.

NARRATOR: Among those sheets of heavily redacted mission debriefs lies the secret behind the CIA’s first interception of the USSR’s secure line between the Ministry of Defense and the nuclear weapons development facility at Troitsk, just a few miles outside of the city. What we do know is culled from whispers, half-truths, and allusions from former CIA insiders. But here’s a theory. We know that the signal would appear during storms, and disappear with the clouds. So then, suppose the microwaves refracted through the raindrops and ricocheted around Moscow’s old tin rooftops. With the right equipment - let’s say a government-issue radio receiver - a professional could intercept the scattered signal much like any ordinary transmission. If that’s true, then a quirk of the city’s architecture, combined with its famously inclement weather, had allowed the CIA to access some of the Soviet Union’s most closely guarded military secrets.

JAMES OLSON: We were very intrigued by the content of those conversations. They were using double talk. They were using code names. But we were able to piece together enough information to find it of value.

NARRATOR: Windfalls like this don’t last forever. Eventually, the signal dried up. The Russians had realized that they were vulnerable to intercept and took steps to protect their intelligence. Fortunately for the Americans, they hadn’t moved fast enough.

JAMES OLSON: During those conversations, we heard them talking about the new communication system, which would be much safer, much more secure. We wondered what that was going to be. We didn't wonder for very long though because our satellite imaging of the Moscow area revealed that there was trenching going along a major highway in Moscow leading out toward Troitsk, the town where this research center was. We watched it being built and we saw the conduit being laid. We saw the manholes being installed and about roughly 50-yard intervals. We saw the cables, spools. We saw that being done. We saw enough to realize that they are putting in an underground top-secret cable line, presumably between Troitsk and back into the center of Moscow.

NARRATOR: Without realizing it, the Kremlin had presented an irresistible challenge to the CIA. The Agency knew that with the added security of an underground cable, the value of the conversations flowing between Russia’s military and the research facility would increase tenfold. All they had to do was tap the source. But remember, this is the 1970s. Digital espionage is in its infancy. Computer hacking was, by and large, the stuff of sci-fi. The cable was only accessible through one of the subterranean manholes along its route to Troitsk. If the Americans wanted this intelligence, someone was going to have to get their feet wet. That someone was James Olson. Let’s get to know him a little better.

JAMES OLSON: I was born in Iowa in a small town. I was raised there. I attended undergraduate at the University of Iowa. I studied mathematics and economics. When I graduated, I took a commission in the United States Navy. I really loved the Navy. I thought about staying in but finally decided I want to go back home to my home state of Iowa. So I left the Navy. I applied for law school at the University of Iowa and I was accepted and that was my new dream.

NARRATOR: But as you’ve probably guessed by now, this is not the story of a small-town lawyer.

JAMES OLSON: But that was not to be, because in my last year of law school, I received a mysterious phone call out of the blue, unsolicited: ‘Mr. Olson, we think we have a career opportunity that might be of interest to you.’

NARRATOR: Guess who?

JAMES OLSON: And that was the CIA calling. And that led to a series of secret trips to Washington meetings and safe houses, intensive interviews, aptitude testing of various kinds. Foreign language testing, psychological assessment, like you wouldn't believe. It seemed to go on forever.

NARRATOR: To this day, James doesn’t know what prompted the Agency to reach out. But it’s not uncommon for intelligence organizations to mine the Armed Forces for likely recruits. After all, the skills that make a good naval officer - leadership, crisis management, physical and technical proficiency, among others - would transfer easily to a career in espionage. Put yourself in James’ shoes. You’re about to embark on a career as a small-town lawyer. It’s high-paid, low-risk work. What’s not to like? What drives a person to subject themselves to the CIA’s grueling battery of tests?

JAMES OLSON: I was very patriotic by nature. The CIA seemed to respond to that part of my motivation. I really felt privileged to have had the opportunity to serve in such an elite organization. I didn't hesitate to accept the offer, but I still kept in the back of my mind the option of returning to Iowa or if it didn't work out [or] I didn't find it fulfilling. But it didn't take very long on the job to realize I wasn't going to go anywhere because I immediately realized that this was where I belonged - service to [my] country. The art of espionage got into my blood and that's where I wanted to spend the rest of my career.

NARRATOR: James followed his instinct and, as it turned out, it was the best thing he could have done. And not just for his career. He was barely out of training when he met the person who would become his best friend, closest colleague, and partner for life.

JAMES OLSON: One of the bonuses of going to the CIA was I met my wife Meredith there, Meredith was working there when I arrived. And so I was assigned to do some, what we call ‘target studies’ on European companies that were trading illegally with the Chinese. And to do that, I had to go to the European desk to get access to those files.

NARRATOR: Meredith was an analyst already working the European desk at the CIA’s Langley headquarters. James was a rookie agent who should really have been focusing on the job. But let’s be realistic. Some things are just more important than paperwork.

JAMES OLSON: So I realized that ‘mystery woman’, whoever she was, sometimes had lunch with one of the analysts who was working at a nearby desk. And finally, I screwed up my courage. And I went to that analyst and said: ‘I noticed that you meet from time to time with this analyst over in the next cubicle.’ And she said: ‘You must mean Meredith.’ That's the first time I'd ever heard Meredith's name. So then I used my newly acquired tradecraft skills and I said: ‘You wouldn't happen to have her phone number, would you?’ And she did. And so then I made what we call a ‘cold call’. I don't know if you ever made cold calls, but what are the chances of success? Not high. I called and I said: ‘You don't know who I am, but I've been working in the European section. And I just wondered if you would be interested in dinner and a movie some night.’ And she said: ‘Yes.’ And we were married about a year and a half later, and so we became a husband and wife team.

NARRATOR: Soon enough, this office romance became a globetrotting partnership.

JAMES OLSON: I originally was assigned to Europe - and I won't go beyond that right now - under a very sensitive cover that was based on my language abilities and my professional background.

NARRATOR: No, this was not going to be an ordinary marriage. When Meredith was pregnant with the couple’s first child, they were posted abroad to represent the CIA’s interests in Europe. Together, they worked under deep cover across various foreign postings, all while raising a growing family. For the most part, James was lucky. More often than not, he would be a State Department official, with all the perks that post entails.

JAMES OLSON: I had diplomatic immunity, which was wonderful. You sleep a lot better with diplomatic immunity. I was in the political section and I had State Department rank and I functioned as a true State Department official, so the outside world saw nothing but my official diplomatic duties.

NARRATOR: But he wasn’t always so fortunate. Some covers were more forgiving than others.

JAMES OLSON: But then we also have a non-official cover where we have no visible affiliation, the United States government. And those covers would typically be a business, maybe student, maybe retiree, depending on your state of life and your background, your interests, and what it is that you can convincingly pull off as your reason for being in that country. Obviously, those non-official covers, NOCs, as we call them, N - O - C's, have a particular element of sensitivity attached to them because you have no diplomatic immunity. And if you get caught, you are subject to the full force and fury of the local law. And espionage, of course, is a crime in every country.

NARRATOR: James and Meredith were consummate professionals. They had to be. But even the most skilled agents can fall afoul of an intelligence leak. The danger inherent in their work may well have spiced up their marriage, but the risks were very real.

JAMES OLSON: When Meredith and I were in Vienna. Our station was doing some really aggressive operations against some terrorist organizations. And somehow this terrorist organization found out, first of all, that the CIA was behind their problems, and secondly, that I, Jim Olson, was the CIA chief of station in Vienna. They sent me a letter. And very ominously, they mailed it to our home address in Vienna where we were living with our three children. They wanted us to know that they knew where we lived. I have never forgotten that letter. I've kept it all these years. It started out: 'Dear Infidel Dog..' I think, right off: ‘That's not gonna be a friendly letter.’

NARRATOR: Picture yourself walking to the doormat that morning. Maybe you’re still bleary-eyed from a late night at the office. You pick up the letter, read it. You’re named, right there on the page. So is your wife. So are your three children. You’ve been compromised, and the price could be the lives of everyone you love. Do you pack a bag? Request a transfer? Ship the kids off to a remote safe house? No one would blame you for putting your family first.

JAMES OLSON: The CIA actually offered to pull us out of Vienna because of the death threat to the children. And Meredith and I decided no, we're not going to do that. We've been sent here to perform a mission, we're not going to be chased away by an ugly letter from some terrorists. So we completed our assignment there. And I can tell you that we all felt a lot better when we got those terrorists.

NARRATOR: Olsons, suffice to say, do not scare easily. And that includes the little ones.

JAMES OLSON: And that was when we decided that we had to take our oldest, who was 16 at the time, aside, sit him down in an acoustically secure room and say: ‘Listen, Jeremy, mom, and dad are in the CIA. There has been a death threat against our family and we need your help.’ Jeremy reacted with pride as we'd hoped he would, and he did a good job of watching out for his brother and sister. And I can say that we put some additional precautions on the children that they weren't aware of. But we were able to follow through with our mission with Jeremy's help.

NARRATOR: Could you be that calm in that situation? If not, don’t worry. By the time of the incident in Vienna, James and Meredith were seasoned agents with over 20 years of experience in the field. They’d proven themselves 1,000 times over, not least in Moscow. The Moscow assignment was not like other assignments. A CIA agent deployed there during the Cold War would be operating in the inner sanctum of America’s most dangerous enemy. In 1977, the Olsons answered the call. They returned to Washington to begin a year of intense preparation. Officially, this was known as the ‘Denied Area Course’ - a period of extreme testing and training that honed the skills that CIA operatives would need to survive behind the Iron Curtain.

JAMES OLSON: The tradecraft used in Moscow is extremely specialized, very, very demanding. So Meredith and I had to master all of that as well as continue our Russian-language training. Part of the training was to recreate a Moscow environment. So Meredith and I were put in a special bugged apartment. We were put under surveillance trying to recreate what we would encounter in Moscow to make certain that we could, first of all, operate under those conditions, successfully using our tradecraft. And then secondly, if we could withstand that kind of constant pressure and lack of privacy, whether we individually could withstand it, but also maybe just as importantly, whether our marriage could withstand that kind of stress.

NARRATOR: The Denied Area Course, known unofficially as ‘The Pipeline’, was already an incredibly challenging undertaking. You’re exposed to faithful recreations of the most stressful situations an agent will face in the field.

JAMES OLSON: We're put through exercises, situations where stress is induced. We can be yelled at. We can be put into situations with short deadlines. It can all be manufactured but it seems very real. Then you have a team of psychologists observing how we react and take notes and evaluate us on our ability to deal with stress. And I think part of the objective of the training was to winnow out those that couldn't withstand the kind of pressure of operating under surveillance, under constant pressure, with no margin for error and the consequences of a mistake being literally fatal for our agents and possibly for us. If you have a propensity towards stress, you're in the wrong profession.

NARRATOR: Could you take the pressure? Let’s say you could. Could you handle any more? James was about to find out.

JAMES OLSON: We're moving forward. We're fiercely enhancing our Russian. We're getting ready. And one day I was notified to report to this special office. And when I arrived there, there were two of my clandestine service colleagues there. We were all in the pipeline together. We were briefed on this incredible space-age project that was being contemplated. It was to tap an underground cable in Moscow, an underground cable that we believed would have extremely valuable intelligence information for us if we could succeed.

NARRATOR: In his career up to this point, James had distinguished himself as a remarkable field operative with a cool head under pressure. For this reason, he had been recommended for one of the CIA’s most audacious missions to date. The operation, he would learn, was codenamed CK-TAW. Admittedly, it’s not the catchiest moniker. At the time, the CK prefix indicated a Soviet operation. And the TAW?

JAMES OLSON: TAW Is just a random name. You know, I don't even know what a TAW is.

NARRATOR: Name aside, James knew that this mission could make or break a career. But he’d have to work for it. Think about it. On top of your already grueling training in The Pipeline, you’re called into a briefing alongside two highly accomplished operatives who are also being considered for a groundbreaking new assignment. As far as job interviews go, this is as tough as it gets. Your every action, every word, is being weighed up against theirs. How do you set yourself apart?

JAMES OLSON: It's kind of funny because one of the trainees, one of my competitors, was a very accomplished officer. And he showed up for the training in a camouflage outfit with combat boots, with his cuffs tucked in at the bottom like a commando, an ascot. And he looked the part. And I showed up in tennis shoes, jeans, and a sweatshirt. And I'm thinking to myself: ‘Oh, no, I've just eliminated my chance of ever being selected. I don't look the part.’ So I was not too optimistic.

NARRATOR: For a spy, clothes are more than a fashion statement. Every aspect of an outfit is chosen for a purpose, whether that’s comfort, practicality, or stealth. Did James make the right choice? During the CIA’s pressure-cooker training program, time was a luxury. He couldn’t waste it bemoaning his wardrobe. At a secret training facility in Washington DC, known to its’ elite attendees as ‘The Farm’, the CIA’s brilliant technical officers had developed the ultimate mission simulation. Using satellite imagery taken during the construction of the Russian cable, they’d designed a piecemeal recreation of the manhole and the trench beneath. But satellites can only offer so much raw data. One of these men was going to have to access the cable solo, with no backup, no weaponry, and the KGB’s well-trained surveillance teams breathing down their neck. Whoever was chosen, they had to be prepared for every eventuality.

JAMES OLSON: They did their best to give us all the different variations that could exist when we got out there. For example, we had, sometimes, alarms to go through. We sometimes had traps on the manhole covers. We sometimes had padlocks that we had to get through. We trained a whole variety of Russian padlocks with professional lock pickers so we could do lock-picking in our sleep, if necessary. We also had to train under varying light conditions. We didn't know for sure what time of day we would get out there. We assumed that there wouldn't be any ambient light. We also knew that any kind of flashlight or other light that we provided would be subject to being detected.

NARRATOR: The techs at The Farm had no interest in making this easy for James and his competitors. In the field, these agents had to test their physical and mental limits to get the job done. A soft-touch training program would do them no favors.

JAMES OLSON: I remember one exercise - when we were fairly deep into it - where I approached the manhole. I arrived there safely and it was pitch black. I was not allowed to use any light. The manhole cover had been fitted with screws all around the edge of the flange to wedge it in, to make it impossible to lift the manhole cover just with the hook that we had for that purpose. That was a wrinkle that we had not been told about. So we had to improvise on the spur of the moment.

NARRATOR: Remember, every move you make is being forensically monitored by a team of senior CIA agents. You can barely see your hand in front of your face - a flashlight will draw too much attention. The manhole lid is screwed into the concrete. It seems like a cruel joke. What are your options? Brute force? A hasty retreat? Do they want you to abandon the mission?

JAMES OLSON: The only tool that I had that was suitable was a pocket knife. So in the dark, I pulled the pocket knife out, opened it, and tried to use the blade of the pocket knife to pry the screws loose. And the knife slipped and came very close to cutting off my index finger on my left hand. I was bleeding profusely. The people were watching the exercise in night-vision goggles, so they could see what was happening and did not intervene. They wanted to see how I would react.

NARRATOR: Ouch. Nice try, but now you’re losing blood. Not a good look. How do you claw this back?

JAMES OLSON: So I took out a handkerchief and wrapped my finger as best I could to stop the bulk of the bleeding. And I was then able to successfully extract the screws, and to complete the operation. I felt really good about myself. I'm thinking to myself: ‘Hey, they're gonna be so impressed by my courage, my motivation, my dedication, my unwillingness to let this event interfere with the successful completion of the operation.’

NARRATOR: James had kept his cool where most would’ve called for a time out. It was only a simulation, after all. Not worth losing a finger for. Surely this would earn him the lead on CK-TAW?

JAMES OLSON: I was flunked on the operation and you know why I was flunked? For leaving telltale blood at the operational site.

NARRATOR: Ah. That’ll do it. The CIA had to make a decision. But it would be weeks of deliberation before a choice was made. In the meantime, the Olsons flew to Moscow to begin their most challenging posting to date. By 1978, James and Meredith were under deep cover with the US Embassy in Moscow. The Russians were no fools - they were well aware of the CIA’s presence in their city and even the most innocent-seeming ‘State Department Official’ was under constant scrutiny by the KGB. Every day, the stresses of the Denied Area Course had been proven absolutely necessary. Understandably, thoughts of the wire-tapping mission had taken a backseat to the day-to-day intelligence work that dominated James’ schedule. After his bloody blunder back at The Farm, he’d assumed that for him, the mission was over before it began. Until the call came.

JAMES OLSON: I don't know to this day why I was chosen, but I was. I was very humbled and honored to have that opportunity.

NARRATOR: After that, things moved quickly. But before James could enter the manhole, the CIA needed more detail.

JAMES OLSON: I was not allowed to go into the manhole yet. We didn't know enough about it. We needed to know exactly how it was configured, which conduits had cables in them, which size the cables were. How much water there was in a manhole. We had a lot of unknowns - whether there was a ladder or not down the side. We needed a casing.

NARRATOR: This crucial first stage, the casing, would give the CIA’s technical officers their first look at the make-up of the cabling. From there, they could devise the gadgetry needed to tap it. So, a few photos. Easy enough. Pop the manhole cover, lean in, snap away. James didn’t even have to go underground. The hard part was getting there at all.

JAMES OLSON: Surveillance detection is a fine art. There's probably nothing we studied more at the farm or during the Denied Area Course than how to do that. It's difficult because you're operating against some very sophisticated and professional KGB surveillance teams. They are very good at what they do.

NARRATOR: Luckily, James had a secret weapon.

JAMES OLSON: Meredith had a remarkable ability to detect surveillance. Better than mine, frankly. She could see a suspect surveillant in the morning and memorize all the key features. And then see the same surveillant that afternoon. Say a woman, for example, with a different hairdo, with different makeup, different clothing, and still determine: ‘That is the same person I saw in the morning.’

NARRATOR: With Meredith’s help, James was able to break away from surveillance and get the technical team their photographs. The next stage of the mission would be rather more involved.

JAMES OLSON: After I'd produced the casing, the photographs went back to headquarters and were analyzed in painstaking detail. I think it was probably another two or three months before word came back from headquarters that they had analyzed the photography and that they were ready to make an entry mission.

NARRATOR: The tunnel contained tens of different cables, each carrying its own brand of information. Some were ordinary communications. Some weren’t. Each would need to be sampled to tape and presented to the CIA for analysis. Any one of these wires could be instrumental in undermining the Soviets’ weapons development program. As the USA was all too aware, nuclear weapons could define the course of history and not necessarily in their favor. To access this crucial intelligence, the actual business of intercepting a cable would have to be highly targeted. It was James’ job to tell the CIA where to place their tap. The mission could take hours. This was no smash-and-grab. To avoid detection, James would need to make sure that his cover was completely unimpeachable. He needed to get ‘black’.

JAMES OLSON: Black is our terminology for getting free of surveillance. I was being smothered by KGB surveillance. This was part of the pipeline for Meredith and me, involving some very sophisticated space-age techniques. And one of these is what I used to get free of surveillance on this particular day.

NARRATOR: James isn’t comfortable with sharing all the fine details from the day he entered the manhole. But let’s try and fill in the blanks. Maybe our spy will give something away. A family man to the hilt, it would make sense that he’d take his wife and children out to the many parks and forests that surround Moscow. Parks and forests that may well have run parallel with the comms tunnel on the highway to Troitsk. While there - let’s say, picnicking, for example - he’d have had the opportunity to scout his point of entry.

JAMES OLSON: Picnicking in Moscow is something I'm not unfamiliar with…

NARRATOR: Let’s expand this ‘theory’ a little further. If the Olsons were being watched, all the Olsons would need to be watched. Remember, in the eyes of the KGB, Meredith was not innocent. If James had been planning something, what part would she have played?

JAMES OLSON: Well, she was a decoy. And I can't be too specific, but we're under surveillance as a couple. They say they see me go off somewhere for some purpose. Who knows, maybe to go into the bushes, to a restroom, maybe to find a wayward child who's run loose or something. They see me temporarily disappear and I don't come back in due course. So Meredith is a decoy. She's holding them there.

NARRATOR: While Meredith kept the KGB’s surveillance focused on what may or may not have been a perfectly ordinary picnic, James sprang into action. Back in The Pipeline, James had been briefed on an experimental new disguise technique. Combining Hollywood special effects and some creative tailoring, the disguise-on-the-run program was the ultimate in identity-bending technology. Now it was time to put it into action.

JAMES OLSON: You are under observation in one identity, in one location, and there is an opportunity for you to change that identity very, very quickly on the move while you are temporarily out of sight and then instantly reappear in a different identity and walk back through your surveillance without being detected, without being picked up.

NARRATOR: As James stalked toward his target, using the park’s natural foliage as cover, he applied his disguise in fluid, expert movements. First, the semi-animated mask - SAM for short. Designed by John Chambers, the legendary prosthetics artist behind the original Planet of the Apes movies, the SAM allowed its wearer to eat, drink, speak and even smoke in relative comfort. Unlike the time-consuming designs used on Hollywood productions, the mask could be applied in a matter of seconds, allowing any operative to convincingly change their appearance on a whim. With this technology, even ethnicity and gender were rendered superficial traits. A spy with a SAM in their armory could become anyone, any time. The second aspect of the disguise was less hi-tech but no less ingenious. An outfit of clothes had been purchased from various flea markets around Eastern Europe, so as not to create a paper trail to any Russian store. Just like that, the clean-cut American diplomat became a working-class Muscovite. As he took a winding path toward the highway - all the better to throw any pursuers off the scent - James checked and double-checked his surroundings. The KGB was nowhere to be seen. He was black.

JAMES OLSON: You're free on the streets of Moscow and you have a mission to perform, I'll never forget that feeling. It's indescribable. I look like a Russian worker. Complete with the physical features of a Russian, I have Slavic features. I get on a bus that's heading out on this highway. I get off past the manhole cover about a mile. The only other person who gets off at that stop is a Russian babushka.

NARRATOR: From behind his mask, James eyeballed the babushka. His paranoia was justified. She may have been somebody’s grandma, but in Soviet Russia anyone could be a spy. He watched her carefully as she walked down a path leading away from his target. Once she was out of sight, he relaxed. Sometimes a babushka is just a babushka.

JAMES OLSON: I began to work my way across the agricultural field between me and the location of the manhole cover. I do the last couple hundred yards on my belly. I'm getting close to the highway because a busy highway’s buzzing right past this location. I am waiting in the weeds on one side of the highway waiting for a break in the traffic. And when there's a break in the traffic, I dash across. I hit the ground and I’m flat, because the weeds aren't all that tall. The highway’s probably no more than about 30 or 40 feet away. I've gotta stay low. I cannot be seen, obviously.

NARRATOR: James approached the manhole slowly. A sudden movement could easily give him away to an onlooker and a disguise, no matter how sophisticated, wouldn’t protect him if the Russians stumbled across the operation. But never mind the KGB. What if that Babushka - who was just a Babushka, mind - should double back and spot you? Even if she wasn’t KGB, she might still be curious. How would you deflect her attention? Waving your arms about? A sleeper hold?

JAMES OLSON: If you are approached by anyone out there, for whatever reason, you've got to be able to pull off some coherent, not too heavily accented excuse for what you're doing and why you're out there. I, for example, was prepared to tell any people who passed by when I was at the site: Be careful. Danger. High voltage.

NARRATOR: Alongside gadgetry and rigorous training, a command of languages is an essential weapon in the secret agent’s arsenal. But don’t worry. There are still gadgets.

JAMES OLSON: From my backpack, I took out a special hook, which was devised for that purpose. Manhole covers are heavy and you've got to be able to hook underneath a manhole cover and lift it up slightly. I had assembled a rollbar from inside my backpack. I inserted the rollbar and I rolled the manhole cover open.

NARRATOR: No screws. That was a bonus.

JAMES OLSON: I'm looking down about 20 feet into the bottom of the manhole. I can see the cables coming out of the conduit. No changes from what I'd seen in the photographic mission. I can see that there was water in the bottom of the manhole. We had anticipated that.

NARRATOR: From his backpack, he pulled out a set of wading boots. His feet could be immersed in the water for hours - no sense in getting trench foot. The CIA’s engineers had to build in safeguards against every worst-case scenario and there were more dangerous things than water to think about.

JAMES OLSON: I could not go down the manhole immediately, because of concerns about gases that accumulate in manholes, gases that accumulate in any underground enclosed space. The CIA engineers had devised a special gas meter, which I lowered down to above the water on a cord that I attached to the rollbar across the mouth of the manhole.

NARRATOR: James lay prone above the manhole, watching the LED lights of the gas detector twinkle in the darkness while it did its crucial work. If gas was detected, he was under strict orders to abort the mission.

JAMES OLSON: The CIA and I, personally, were not keen on having an unconscious CIA case officer lying on the bottom of a Moscow manhole and, after about 20 minutes, I received the all-clear.

NARRATOR: Time to take the plunge. Unfortunately, accessibility was not a priority for the Soviets. There was no ladder to the bottom of the manhole. Once again, the CIA’s backpack of gear came into play. He’d been issued with a compact ladder made of durable webbing, just in case of such an eventuality. He attached to the rollbar he’d placed across the top of the manhole and descended into the blackness. Thigh deep in water, his eyes began to adjust to the gloom. The cables were thick, lined with metal. He would need to sample their signal without leaving any telltale punctures or scratches.

JAMES OLSON: I believe it was aluminum sheathing around them - some kind of bright metallic-looking metal, kind of a gray-blue. They were in a couple of different sizes. We knew that going in that some of them were probably about two inches across. Others were bigger, probably four or five inches across but I had to sample them all to make certain what was being carried on those cables.

NARRATOR: The backpack had one last offering: a sampling and monitoring device, shaped like a portable radio. James unpacked and assembled the machinery, before applying two sensors to the first cable. These powerful sensors were able to monitor the electrical traffic running through the wiring without breaching the metallic casing. The signal could then be recorded to tape, ready to be analyzed at leisure by the CIA. It was slow work, but completely traceless.

JAMES OLSON: When I was recording signals from the cables, I had lights that showed me that successful recording was going on and I was under strict guidelines about how long to spend on each cable. Some of them, we assume, were more likely to be the hot cables, the ones we are most interested in. And so I did that and I produced a lot of recordings, sample recordings, during that mission.

NARRATOR: James’ painstaking work took about an hour and a half. Eventually, the lights on the sampling device confirmed it. His mission was complete. He didn’t have time to celebrate. American men in Moscow, as a rule, didn’t leave their family alone for hours at a time. By now, there was every chance that an embarrassed KGB might be redoubling their efforts to track him.

JAMES OLSON: I left everything exactly as I had found it. I closed the manhole cover. I put everything back in my backpack. And then I worked my way back to the bus stop about a mile away and got on the bus.

NARRATOR: When he arrived at his destination, Meredith and the children were waiting.

JAMES OLSON: I can tell you that she was very glad to see me come back from that operation because something as provocative as this was, we realized, more dangerous than a simple mission of meeting an agent. The Russians would be outraged by our audacity, by our going after their sensitive communications. So the concern was that I might not come back.

NARRATOR: But the Olsons weren’t out of the woods yet. The data that James had collected needed to be delivered to the CIA’s station at the US embassy, and fast. As they drove, James and Meredith kept a watchful eye on the road. The KGB was not above staging traffic accidents that could result in an impromptu search of a vehicle, especially when the passengers were Americans.

JAMES OLSON: And I was still black. And was able to stay black long enough to get to enough safety that I could secure the backpack with the recordings, everything else that was in there - all the equipment - and get back to safety in the embassy and the station.

NARRATOR: And… relax. As much as you can relax in Cold War Moscow. The CIA had its priceless tapes. By 1981, after months of careful analysis, the Agency was ready to place the tap. James’ samples had confirmed the presence of top-secret weapons intel passing along the cable. A constant flow of this information could allow the US to monitor - and if necessary, undermine - Russia’s nuclear weapons program. The USSR had just hit a major hurdle in an era-defining arms race and it didn’t even know it.

JAMES OLSON: The subsequent actual tap operations were carried out by other officers, specifically technical officers, who were more skilled at doing the actual technical installation than I would have been.

NARRATOR: Clearly, James believes that modesty is a virtue. It’s hard to overstate the importance of his contribution. By ‘81, he was a senior supervisor at the Moscow station, overseeing almost every aspect of the CK-TAW operation until its successful completion.

JAMES OLSON: I was considered a valuable resource because I was the only one [that] had actually been there, who'd actually seen it and knew what to expect. And so I was debriefed endlessly on everything that I saw and did during the operation. I think that was helpful to them.

NARRATOR: Remember, James was shocked to be chosen for the mission at all. Imagine his surprise when he was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit, one of the highest honors the CIA can bestow. The CK-TAW tap was an unprecedented triumph of traditional spycraft, working in tandem with cutting-edge technology, and it had gone off without a hitch. In Agency parlance, this operation was ‘bigoted’, meaning its existence was known only to a select few but in the world of espionage, there’s no such thing as a safe bet.

JAMES OLSON: It was compromised several years later by a defector from the CIA who had been trained in this operation and was able to tell the Russians the location and the existence of the CKTAW tap.

NARRATOR: In 1985, after four years of productive surveillance, CK-TAW was blown apart. The perpetrator came from within the CIA - a traitor named Edward Lee Howard.

JAMES OLSON: A CIA officer who was being prepared for an assignment to Moscow had his assignment canceled at the last moment because of unsuitability issues. And out of hatred, resentment, [he] decided to strike back against the CIA and made his way to the KGB to tell them everything he knew about the CIA's operations in Moscow. It was devastating.

NARRATOR: If you’re thinking that name sounds familiar, you’re right. It’s not the first time Howard’s made a cameo on True Spies. Around the same time as he exposed CK-TAW, he also blew the whistle on one of the CIA’s most valuable Russian informants - an engineer called Adolf Tolkachev. You might know him as The Billion Dollar Spy. In both cases, years of work had been demolished. Millions of dollars in resources wasted. James couldn’t help but take it personally. This is a man whose career had been defined by his love of country, his deep-seated sense of duty. In his mind, to betray those values was a cardinal sin. Much of his later career in the agency was spent in counterintelligence - in other words, spycatching. You can’t help but wonder if the devastating collapse of CK-TAW was at the root of that decision. Now in his 70s, James is retired from active duty.

JAMES OLSON: Today, I am a professor of the practice at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. I came down at the request of President Bush to establish an intelligence studies program. He wanted a senior CIA officer to do that, and I had known him and worked with him when he was our director of the CIA.

NARRATOR: So if you’re considering a career in the shadows, you know where to apply. But what does the Bush School look for in the next generation of spies?

JAMES OLSON: I was looking for a CIA candidate to perform an operation like CK-TAW, or anything else that is highly sensitive and demanding. I would look for a young man or woman who was a cool operator, someone who was a smart risk-taker, someone who could improvise because no operation ever goes from A to Z exactly the way you thought it would.

NARRATOR: And most importantly…

JAMES OLSON: I would look for someone of impeccable character, someone we could trust. Absolutely, without question. In fact, I tell my students who are applying to the CIA that that's the non-negotiable quality that you have to bring to the table. If you aspire to a career in intelligence, you have to be totally trustworthy and reliable.

NARRATOR: These are qualities that all our True Spies share. Could you be trusted? I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another debrief 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.

Guest Bio

Iowa-born James Olson had his heart set on a career in law but took a commission in the US Navy, serving aboard guided missiles destroyers and frigates. The CIA invited him to apply for a position in the clandestine service and Olson decided to change careers.

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