Book Review of Cold-War Thriller, 'The Spy in Moscow Station'

‘The Spy’ offers a real-life, high-stakes spy story. We get a glimpse at NSA history in the ‘70s and ‘80s, learning about rivalries, motivations and persistence that continue to drive 21st-century global espionage.

by / July 7, 2019
Credit: Shutterstock

The world is captivated by spy thrillers, 007 movies, exciting around-the-globe chases and battles against the clock to save humanity and our way of life.

Add in popular rivalries between domestic and foreign government intelligence organizations like NSA, CIA and the KGB, and the intrigue only grows.   

But many people wonder: What really happens behind the scenes in these international three-letter agencies? How far will governments truly go in using technology to spy? Are the capabilities (and stakes) overblown? Who were the really important players?

While most of the current details regarding 21st-century intelligence battles between the USA, Russia and other countries remain classified, we do, after decades, get access to declassified details about real-life events and amazing technology used by three-letter agencies. True, those stories are from the 1970s and 1980s (and earlier), but the details are captivating and reveal a tremendous amount about the lengths that governments will go to gain intelligence advantages as we head into the 2020s.

Put simply, there is no technology that will not be manipulated in order for governments to gain access to the data they seek from adversaries. This reality should strike fear into anyone who dares to use a computer of any kind in the middle of 2019.

The Spy in Moscow Station

But how can these realities of technology, communication and spying in the world we live in be made clear and understandable to the masses?

I think The Spy in Moscow Station: A Counterspy’s Hunt for a Deadly Cold War Threat by Eric Haseltine is an exceptional book that describes what really happened behind the scenes in the 1970s and 1980s at NSA, CIA and in the U.S. embassy in Moscow.  

Here’s an excerpt from the foreword by Gen. Michael V. Hayden (Retd.), former director of NSA & CIA:

“In the late 1970s, the National Security Agency still did not officially exist — those in the know referred to it dryly as the No Such Agency. So why, when NSA engineer Charles Gandy filed for a visa to visit Moscow, did the Russian Foreign Ministry assert with confidence that he was a spy?

Outsmarting honey traps and encroaching deep enough into enemy territory to perform complicated technical investigations, Gandy accomplished his mission in Russia, but discovered more than State and CIA wanted him to know.

Eric Haseltine's The Spy in Moscow Station tells of a time when — much like today — Russian spycraft had proven itself far beyond the best technology the U.S. had to offer. The perils of American arrogance mixed with bureaucratic infighting left the country unspeakably vulnerable to ultra-sophisticated Russian electronic surveillance and espionage.

This is the true story of unorthodox, underdog intelligence officers who fought an uphill battle against their own government to prove that the KGB had pulled off the most devastating penetration of U.S. national security in history. If you think 'The Americans' isn't riveting enough, you'll love this toe-curling nonfiction thriller.”

I also really like this short review by Admiral William O. Studeman, U.S. Navy (Retired), former director NSA, deputy director of Central Intelligence and CIA:

“In the cat and mouse, twists and turns and tradecraft of modern technical espionage and counter-espionage (and now the field of Cyber and Information Warfare), Eric Haseltine’s book once again reminds us of the high stakes and brilliant personalities involved in the relentless and often life and death struggles around intelligence and national security. The lessons of this book are to be neither naive nor complacent, especially against a determined and capable adversary.”

Several of My Favorite (Brief) Book Excerpts

Here are some of my favorite excerpts from The Spy in Moscow Station:

  • “In the spy trade, listening to the listeners is called robbing the highway robber. Again, no information has emerged that indicates that Gandy actually did ‘rob the robbers’ in Moscow in this way. But if he were aware of these techniques in 1978 and motivated to learn what the KGB was learning about human assets and their controllers, he had the skills to do so.” (p. 55)
  • “For a full ten minutes, Gandy stared at the antenna and aluminum box that came with it, working through the elegant genius of the KGB’s design. The hide-in-plain-sight approach to masking signals from bugs with intermodulation artifacts was one he had never seen before, but it totally fit the way the Russians did things. The KGB made a point of knowing, somehow, exactly what types of equipment the U.S. personnel used to find bugs and implants, then designed around that equipment to avoid detection. …” (p. 104)
  • “Another reason that Hathaway was acting like such a hard sell could be that he actually did buy everything Gandy was saying but didn’t want NSA to follow up with the bug hunt, reserving that task for CIA’s own technical support offices at the embassy. …” (p. 111)
  • “Three paragraphs from the declassified internal memo sum up CIA’s feelings towards NSA. … CIA representatives at various levels from all agency directorates objected to the NSA way of doing business. …”  (p. 121-123)
  • “It was funny what a trip to Moscow did to you, Gandy mused. He couldn’t look at Route 32 or the Potomac River anymore and see just a road and a waterway: electronic danger lurked everywhere now.” (p. 125)
  • “This is a lot like air warfare. When you’re over the biggest targets, you catch the most flak. …” (p. 126)
  • “A no from a government bureaucrat, Gandy had come to believe, was really just a slow yes.” (p. 128)
  • DCI claims he can’t go anywhere without Cap [Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger] or someone from NSC [National Security Council] pestering him about Moscow embassy security, and it’s become counterproductive. Apparently, State and CIA finally agree on something: they both don’t like you. …” (p. 136)
  • “NSA is hereby authorized to take whatever measures necessary to resolve the question of Moscow embassy security one way of the other. …” (p. 162) — Note: the surrounding paragraphs describe the in-fighting and battles between CIA, NSA and the State Dept. Actions went all the way to President Reagan. It ends on p. 164 with “Gandy put down the receiver and let out a deep breath. Over five years had gone by since his first trip to Moscow, and he had encountered nothing but obstacles and foot dragging. … Now, the hand of God had magically swept all those obstacles away.”
  • “Thus, Mike was highly motivated to be the one to find a bug in the Moscow embassy equipment first. ... Mike continued to stay late, work weekends, and do whatever it took. … This same passion for recognition an achievement would serve Mike well later in life. Upon leaving NSA in 2000 at the age of forty-two (because of a boss he couldn’t stand)… He then went on to found multiple start-ups, authored over 150 patents or patent applications, won two prestigious IEEE best paper awards, and played a key role in developing important technologies such as USB thumb drives and ultralow-power RFID chips. Mike’s first start-up sold for over $230 million.” (p. 181)
  • “Building on Gandy’s and Mike’s discoveries that first day in the trailer, it became apparent that the A team in the KGB had designed and built the typewriter bugs. The workmanship, technical sophistication, stealthiness and sheer genius of the system were, in Gandy’s view, nothing short of jaw dropping. (p. 204)
  • “Although NSA, CIA and State never learned exactly how the IBM Selectric intercept was accomplished, Victor Sheymov, a KGB defector, said that insomuch as the machines were not shipped by diplomatic pouch because they were deemed unimportant … the KGB probably shipped the machines to a special KGB factory in Moscow, where they were modified prior to being returned to the Americans.” (p. 209)
  • “… They bugged the Great Seal in the 50s, and we found a hundred microphones in the embassy in the 60s, and all the time up to the present as far as I know, they’ve been hammering us with microwaves. And throughout all of that, [Russia] suffered no consequences. So what we’re seeing today with the hacking, election meddling is business as usual. If you’re the Russians, as long as you stay away from kinetics [overt military warfare] and invasions … take your best shot at America, and nothing bad will happen to you.” (p. 232-233)
  • “Considering this, I wondered how the current inhabitants of the who-hates-whom chart would react when Russia, encouraged by 2016, tested America further through a crippling cyberattack on U.S. banks, the stock exchange, or even the power grid. The Russians would deny the attack, of course, knowing that some of the players on the modern who-hates-whom chart would accept the denial, thereby spawning a protracted conflict with those on the chart who wanted to retaliate against the Russians. …” (p. 234)

Final Thoughts

I learned so much from this book. And I had fun reading it and was entertained at the same time — a rare combination.

I found it captivating and personally very relevant, since the timeline of events occurred just before I started as an NSA civilian (just out of college) in 1985. The outcomes described made me ponder if my recruitment and NSA’s mid-'80s hyper growth in staff numbers would have even happened if Gandy was not successful in his persistent quest. 

Further, the references to Catonsville, Md., where I grew up, and other places described in Maryland and Washington, D.C., bring back memories of a different era. Even the intrigue described during visits to Russia will remind anyone who’s visited Moscow about the tensions and environment involved.

But even for those not involved in any way with the intelligence community or who live nowhere near Fort Meade, Md., The Spy in Moscow Station is eye-opening in numerous ways. The book's ending reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is clear that nation-state hacking and other forms of espionage have only increased in the past 40 years, with more countries than ever getting into new cyberbattles.

Meanwhile, the rivalries and competition between agencies continue in government at both the federal and in my experience also at the state level. The fascinating stories of office politics, partnering with different leaders and even verbal back-stabbing of enemies contained in this book remind me of similar situations in my 17 years within Michigan state government, even if the stakes were not nearly as high.   

In summary, I thoroughly enjoyed The Spy in Moscow Station. I highly recommend this book be added to your summer reading list for both technical hackers and political leaders. Going further, anyone who just likes a good read and wants to know the truth behind U.S./Russian spying and the lengths that both sides went (and will go in the future) to capture classified information will certainly enjoy this book. 

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