The Fourth Man and the Hunt for Proof

BOOK REVIEW: The Fourth Man: The Hunt for a KGB Spy at the Top of the CIA and the Rise of Putin’s Russia

By Robert Baer / Hachette Books

Reviewed by Cipher Brief Expert Joseph Augustyn

The Reviewer — Joseph Augustyn is a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and is former Director of CIA’s Defector Resettlement Operations Center.

REVIEW — Nonfiction writers, like intelligence analysts, should always be leery of assumptions. Assumptions lead to more assumptions, that lead to presumed conclusions that, therefore, are assumptions themselves. Should one simple assumption be wrong in the paradigm, then the ultimate story itself becomes fatally flawed.

Unfortunately, this is the case in Robert Baer’s The Fourth Man. Baer, a former CIA case officer, is an experienced writer and storyteller, the author of four New York Times bestsellers, and an intelligence analyst for CNN. As a result, he has a wide audience. But his prominence comes with a price, the responsibility to present the truth based on fact, and not on what many in the intelligence business comedically calls “RUMINT” intelligence based on rumors and, yes, assumptions.

So, what is Baer’s story? The Fourth Man is about mole hunting and the discipline of counterintelligence (CI), two activities endemic and practiced by virtually every reputable intelligence service in the world. Baer’s claim in this book is that the CIA not only remains vulnerable to foreign penetration, but that it failed to uncover perhaps one of the most damaging spies in CIA’s history. He says that despite the damage done by traitors Aldrich Ames, Edward Lee Howard, and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen in the 1980’s and 1990’s, there was yet another double agent in the CIA who was never caught. That person, according to Baer, is still alive, and Baer believes this person contributed at least equally, if not more so than the other three, to the near total dismantling and collapse of the CIA’s intelligence efforts against the Soviet Union and Russia, ramifications of which, he says, are felt even today. According to Baer, this lapse includes vital intelligence on the rise and circumstances that brought Vladimir Putin to power. So, Baer asks the question: Who was or is this “fourth man?”

Baer starts his story by recounting how Alexander Zaporozhsky, a KGB colonel who the CIA recruited in East Africa in the late 1980’s, helped to identify two penetrations of US intelligence, one in the CIA and one in the FBI. Not knowing their names, Zaporozhsky provided enough clues to help the CIA’s CI team eventually leading to Ames’ arrest in February 1994, and subsequently to the arrest of Hanssen in February 2001. 

After serving as an in-place asset for the CIA, Zaporozhsky defected and was resettled in the US. Baer admits that Zaporozhsky (known as “Max” inside the CIA and FBI) was said to be a handling problem given his “eccentric nature.” He says Max’s unreliability was most noticeable when it came to agreeing to and making meetings with the case officers handling him, and his propensity to occasionally exaggerate what he knew. Yet Zaporozhsky, says Baer, had “credibility.” After all, his information helped identify Ames and Hanssen. So, when Zaporozhsky made the sensational claim there was yet another KGB penetration in the CIA, one more senior and even better placed than Ames, the hunt for the “fourth man” was on. But importantly for this story, and unfortunately for Baer, the author says no one he talked to for this book could recall exactly when or where Zaporozhsky made such a claim. Regardless, says Baer, there were unexplained compromises of CIA agents that could not be accounted for by Ames or Howard and, therefore, the assumption was there was yet another insider.

Baer makes Zaporozhsky the central character throughout The Fourth Man, alleging “Max” at some point told his CIA handlers that the “fourth man” was in a senior position at the Agency, in a position that afforded that officer attendance at Directorate of Operations (DO) staff meetings. Zaporozhsky added, according to Baer, that the “mole” also had access to sensitive operational details about agents being run in Russia, to include operational meeting-site data contained on 3×5 cards which Zaporozhsky allegedly claimed to have seen copies of. In Baer’s mind, this could only mean the “traitor” had to have been a senior and trusted officer within the Agency’s Central Eurasia Division (CE). 

With Zaporozhsky’s allegations out there, Baer says alarm bells were rung at Langley, resulting in Ted Price, the head of the DO at the time, establishing in June 1994, a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to ferret out the new alleged spy. This task fell to three veteran, dedicated, and highly skilled CIA CI specialists named Laine Bannerman (who once worked for Baer), MaryAnn Hough and Diana Worthen, and FBI CI analyst Jim Milburn. These officers become Baer’s heroes. Baer details their complex investigative methodology using a CI matrix and how they sorted through hundreds of leads and data points in an effort to identify the Russian controlled “mole” who, the argument goes, was still working actively within the Agency. Sifting through hundreds of what the SIU called “anomalies” like unscheduled or suspicious case officer travel, operational reporting miscues, tradecraft lapses, etc., the SIU concluded its CI investigation in November 1994, five months after being given the green light from Ted Price. 

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In the most dramatic section of his book, Baer describes the day the SIU team briefed its findings to CIA leadership…naming senior CE Division officer and legendary spy-catcher as the prime suspect. According to Baer, when Bannerman at the end of her presentation suggested who it might be, that officer who was in the room leapt up, “his chair skidding backwards,” and “threw open the vault door” and left in a huff. Baer says he asked that long-retired officer about the incident in preparation for writing his book and was told he “didn’t remember any of this.” Baer asserts that the officer subsequently did everything he could to undermine the report and openly question its findings.

Regarding the report itself, and the actual need for an investigation, Baer admits there were skeptics who asked why it was needed at all. Among them was Jeanne Vertefeuille who helped lead the earlier Ames investigation, who reportedly told Bannerman before the SIU investigation began its work to “have at it,” adding that in her judgment “there was nothing there.”  And hovering over the entire process was the specter of Zaporozhsky and his credibility. When Baer asked former Director of the National Clandestine Service and Chief of CE Division Mike Sulick about Zaporozhsky’s claim of a post-Ames mole in CIA, Sulick’s response was “unequivocal.” Max, said Sulick, was “exaggerating” in an effort to stay “relevant in the eyes of the Agency.”

While still at CIA, I met with Zaporozhsky on numerous occasions and can attest to the complexity of his personality. In fact, I was the last Agency person to see Zaporozhsky before he unexpectedly decided in 2000, to return to Moscow for a “short trip.” His decision was ill-conceived and wrong and was made in spite of my, and other senior leaders’, stern warnings that he would be detained and arrested upon his arrival. I can attest that Baer’s claim that the CIA “actually considered having him detained” is not accurate. Our warnings were correct and Zaporozhsky was sentenced by the Russians to 18 years of hard labor until he was released in a spy swap in 2010.

As for compromises of Russian agents that could not be attributable to Ames, Howard or Hanssen, Baer mentions several cases, Sergei Bokhan, Leonid Poleshchuk and Oleg Gordievsky. He spends considerable time discussing Gordievsky, an MI6 recruited asset who provided valuable intelligence to the U.K. about Russian assets in Europe, and who reportedly helped the West identify Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet heir apparent. Baer argues that Gordievsky was under suspicion by the KGB in May 1985, a full month before Ames began actively working for the Soviets and, therefore, another CIA penetration must have been the reason. In fact, however, Ames did have a brief meeting with the Russians in May, and while he allegedly didn’t pass documents, no one knows for sure what intelligence he did pass orally. Given Baer’s praise of the KGB as the “best intelligence service in the world,” and particularly its Second Chief Directorate, I believe it is likely the KGB conducted its own investigation of Gordievsky, Bokhan and Poleshchuk without the help of a CIA mole. 

In summary, Baer makes several leaps of logic in his book. He presents largely circumstantial evidence of who the fourth man might be and asks us to believe that he has figured out the riddle while two decades of FBI and CIA counterintelligence executives have failed to make the case.

In media appearances promoting the book, Baer has asserted that the FBI would love to throw “this guy” in jail. In the CI business you always assume there has been a penetration of your agency but to suggest that you are nearly positive you know who that person is without being able to charge someone – is borderline malpractice.

Baer left the CIA in the middle of what appeared at the time to be a relatively successful career. His reasons for doing so are his alone, but one cannot ignore the cynicism he displays toward the CIA throughout this book. His references to a “dysfunctional bureaucracy,” the Agency’s inability to “protect its secrets,” (unlike the Russians, he says), its “bizarre” ways of conducting business, its “dismal” track record of hunting for moles, and his reference to the Agency’s “suffocating and invidious” culture are just a few examples of his vitriol.  

Baer is an excellent writer, and in fairness to him, he has attempted in writing about counterintelligence, to tackle one of the most complex and historically puzzling problems in the entire intelligence profession. He refers on more than one occasion to the now clichéd T.S. Elliot quote about “the wilderness of mirrors,” which is defined as “an espionage case so complicated and riddled with lies and disinformation that it is impossible to get to the truth of it.” Early in The Fourth Man, Baer says that in espionage “an extraordinary claim demands extraordinary proof.” Unfortunately, in this book, Baer falls well short of that goal.

Full Disclosure: I know many, perhaps most, of the CIA officers mentioned in the book. I have met Baer once or twice but am neither close friends, nor enemies with any of the Agency veterans mentioned in the book. You will note that I do not name the officer who Baer fingers as the probable “fourth man.” He does reveal the name in the book and the name has been repeated in some of the coverage of the book. But I believe that publicly accusing anyone of being a traitor is an enormous step and should only be done when you have solid evidence that will stand up in court and is not based on your speculation and assumptions.

This book earns a mild two out of four trench coats.



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