• Luis Rueda

TRIGON

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

I am going to do something different. I am going to tell a story. First, I will set the background. This takes place in the 1970s, the Cold War is in full swing. Our overarching enemy is the Soviet Union and we are their main enemy. Almost every move the U.S. makes, almost every policy is seen through the prism of competition with the Soviet Union.


When I was undergoing training to be a case officer, the course was long and grueling: 18-hour days five to seven days a week. In order to make sure all the students returned in time for training to begin on Monday, the trainees were required to return on Sunday nights to listen to what was called Division Night. Each area division—Latin America, East Asia, The Middle East—brought down a team of officers from the particular division presenting that night. This team was usually composed of senior division management providing an overview of what they were doing, and rank and file officers giving a sense of what it was like living and working in that division. The idea was to sell you on the division so that when you finished training you would ask to be assigned to that division.


When SE division, Soviet Union and East Europe, gave their presentation, the chief of the division stood up and said, “The CIA exists because the Soviet Union can wipe out the United States in 30 minutes.” Then he sat down. That was the most compelling presentation of all the divisions over the course of training. It showed how important the Soviet Union was as an intelligence target.


Every CIA station was tasked with recruiting sources on the Soviet Union. It was a case officer's dream, and a sure chance for fame and glory, to recruit a Soviet official. Remember, it was near impossible to recruit Russians inside Russia because of the severe counterintelligence (CI) environment. U.S. officials were under constant surveillance. There was audio and video coverage of every diplomat’s home. There were observation posts located in front of embassies to advise surveillance teams when individual diplomats were leaving or entering the embassy compound.


The U.S. Embassy employed numerous local citizens to handle much of the administrative support for the embassy, a common practice in U.S. embassies throughout the world. In Russia, many of the local employees were officers in the KGB tasked with keeping tabs on U.S. officials and, if possible, collect information that could be used in recruiting these officials.


As a result of this severe environment, most Russian sources had to be recruited overseas. CIA stations kept tabs on the Russian presence in their respective country, conducted surveillance of Russians of interest, collected information from friendly intelligence services in the particular country, and ran access agents against the Russians.


Let me explain “access agent.” Russians all received a defensive CI briefing warning them against contact with Americans. Any American trying to develop some sort of friendship with a Russian was assumed to be CIA until proven otherwise. There were KGB officers assigned to each embassy specifically to keep an eye on the Russian diplomats. One false step and the diplomat would be sent home and, at best, would be penalized for some time, usually years. A more severe punishment would be jail. To get at these Russians, intelligence services recruited individuals from countries that were not viewed as a threat by the Russians and had natural access to the Russian community. These individuals would provide information on the particular Russian target, and accept guidance from their CIA case officer on what and how to ask questions. Sometimes they were worthless because they were not suited to the job. Other times they provided useful information, obtaining assessment on the Russian and even getting the Russian to do things that would be viewed as forbidden by their systems, such as black market activity, illegal currency exchange, etc.


Now we come to Alexandr Ogorodnik. Ogorodnik was born in 1939, the son of a Russian naval officer. Poor eyesight kept him from following his father into the navy, but he managed to obtain a place in the Institute of Foreign Affairs, the university that trained Russian diplomats. The soviet system had a multiplicity of universities and institutes that were pipelines into specific careers. If you did not get into one of the prestigious universities you were never going to succeed in life.




Alexandr Ogorodnik


During this time Ogorodnik married, learned Spanish, and was posted as a diplomat to the Russian embassy in Bogota, Colombia. Pretty soon Ogorodnik began to display traits that would get him into trouble if the KGB found out. He had an affair with the wife of another Russian, enjoyed living the highlife and western goods, and bought a car. The Russians did not like their personnel to be out and about alone because this made it easier for western intelligence services to get at them.


Ogorodnik also began to develop what the Soviets would term deviant thoughts. He began to hate the Soviet system. Coming to the west was a big shock. Even though he was in Colombia, the standard of living was significantly better than in Russia. Yes, there was poverty and injustice in Colombia, but a greater swath of society had access to goods and services that Russians never experienced. The “workers’ paradise” was full of corruption and inefficiency. While the majority of Russian families in Moscow lived in cramped one or two-room apartments, shared by one family if you were fortunate, the senior party officials lived in comparative luxury. New cars, drivers, multiroom apartments, summer homes, and access to the best goods from the West.


Communism was also killing the Russian soul. It was a police state that enforced conformity and punished thought and behavior outside what the party dictated.


What Ogorodnik experienced were not uncommon reactions among Russians when they first came out to the west, especially if they lived in a western country for any length of time. The issue was how they handled these feelings and their reaction. For the CIA this was a godsend, something to take advantage of and exploit. And the CIA was looking at Ogorodnik.


The details of how he came to the attention of the CIA may never be known. The CIA rightly keeps its secrets, but one can take an educated guess. There could have been technical coverage of Ogorodnik like having his phones tapped. There might have been surveillance placed upon him by the local Colombian security service and the information passed to the CIA. There could have been access agents directed at Ogorodnik. As more and more was revealed about his activities and feelings, more and more resources would have been placed on him. He was not only interesting, but he was also clearly demonstrating vulnerabilities and motivations that could be exploited for his eventual recruitment.


As things progressed, Ogorodnik developed a relationship with a Spanish woman, Pilar Suarez Barcala, who was living and working in Bogota. The Russians believe she was already working for the CIA and was directed to have an affair with Ogorodnik in order to compromise him (The Death of Trigon | Espionage History Archive). Others believe the affair was ongoing and both had fallen in love when the CIA stepped in and convinced her to cooperate regarding Ogorodnik. Regardless, the wheels were turning. Ogorodnik made a major mistake when he sold an embassy car in order to obtain money for his lavish lifestyle, lavish at least by Soviet standards. He was caught by the embassy and forced to pay back the $800.


All this was enough for the CIA. Up to now, there had been a desultory exchange of messages between Bogota Station and SE Division at CIA Headquarters (HQS). Initially, Bogota Station would have provided basic information on Ogorodnik and asked SE for traces (whatever information they had available on him), and for an expression of interest, that is, whether it was worth recruiting him or not. Since this was a Russian, SE Division would make the call as to whether to recruit him or not. In the early stages of the operation, there would have been infrequent communications, usually only when there had been some change or additional, new information. As more vulnerabilities became apparent, there would have been more frequent communications between Bogota and HQS. The focus would be how to advance the case, meaning how to get Ogorodnik closer to being recruited.


Two things happened to push the case to its ultimate conclusion. Ogorodnik had to pay back $800, a princely sum to a soviet diplomat, especially one who had his lifestyle. And his Spanish girlfriend became pregnant.


At this point, Bogota Station felt it had enough on Ogorodnik to make a recruitment attempt. HQS felt the same way.




Russian Embassy


Making a recruitment pitch against a target, especially a hard target like Russians, is a complex and nerve-wracking experience. Everyone in HQS involved in the operation, and those at the station, are looking at you, silently critiquing your performance. If you fail, that is, if your target rejects the recruitment pitch and reports it to his embassy, there will be a fairly big stink. The ambassador will likely lodge a formal protest with the host government and the U.S. government. There will be some type of retaliation in Moscow and/or somewhere else against a CIA officer. The Russians in Bogota, in this case, will be put on alert, making it difficult for anyone else to approach a Russian. Finally, the individual you tried to recruit would be sent home in disgrace. His organization, and the KGB in this case, would wonder what he did wrong, what weakness he displayed to make the CIA try to recruit him. Bad all around.


Recruiting Ogorodink would be doubly harder since no CIA officer was in direct contact with him. No CIA officer would have been able to provide direct assessment of the individual. No CIA officer would have been able to develop a relationship, a friendship, or trust with Ogorodnik. Instead, the CIA would have to rely on third-party information. There would have been many hours of planning. Who would be the right officer to make the approach? Would it be a senior, more experienced officer, or someone of Ogorodnik’s own age who might better connect? Where would the recruitment attempt occur? It is always best if you have a degree of privacy so you cannot be overheard and can handle potential rejection. How do you handle rejection?


I knew a case officer who was making a recruitment pitch in a foreign language. The individual he was trying to recruit became upset and not only loudly rejected the pitch, being made in a quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant, but began to make a scene. The case officer calmly explained to him that he had misunderstood what had been said because of the case officer’s poor language skills (he actually spoke the language excellently), claimed that his feelings had been hurt by the target’s poor opinion of the case officer and slowly walked him back to the point the target was profusely apologizing for having insulted the case officer.


Crafting the recruitment pitch, and delivering it, is an art form. This would have taken time and much back and forth discussion. Bogota Station would likely have practiced the pitch. You must remember, you are asking the individual, Ogorodnik in this case, to commit treason against his country. If caught, he will be executed and his family would lose all privilege and live a life of poverty and humiliation. How would they use Ogorodnik’s lover and how would they convince her to cooperate? She could be key to this operation if he was really in love with her.


I can imagine how it went down. Convincing Pilar to cooperate would have followed along the lines of offering to help her and the unborn baby. The CIA would provide the couple with money and potentially resettlement in a friendly country, maybe Pilar’s own Spain. They would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Ogorodnik would not have to go back to the hated communist hell. They could be together. Her role would be to reassure Ogorodnik and help convince him that working with the CIA would be good for both of them. They could start a new family together, a new life. This would be critical after the recruitment pitch and should Ogorodnik accept. It is common after an individual accepts a pitch to commit espionage to have buyer’s remorse. They go home and begin to think about what they have done, think about the consequences of their actions. Some will try to get out of the agreement and the case officer will have to re-recruit the new agent all over again.


I can also imagine how the recruitment pitch went down. There is a rhythm to making a recruitment pitch. Each is as unique as the person you are recruiting, but they have a certain rhythm. They would have started out saying they understood he had problems that would likely get him recalled and ruin his career and any chance he had of coming out of Russia again. However, there was a way of avoiding this. He would be able to pay off whatever he owed, save money for a future life with Pilar, etc. The key is laying out the benefits to him. Most people will focus on the beginning of any presentation and the end. It is therefore important to start and end with the benefits.


There would have been back and forth: questions asked, questions answered. The case officer would lay out assurances about Ogorodnik’s security and how it was paramount for the CIA to keep him safe (very true). The case officer would have explained what was expected of him, providing the U.S. with secret information on Soviet foreign policy that he would come across. There would have been concern expressed by Ogorodnik, whether he could trust the CIA, the dangers posed by accepting. He might have verbalized his hatred of the Soviet system. He might have even convinced himself as he spoke that it was a patriotic duty to help bring down the Soviet Union.


Whatever the conversation, in the end, Ogorodnik said yes. The case had begun and Ogorodnik was given the code name TRIGON. (CIA sources and staff officers undercover receive code names. The idea is that should any documentation discussing the source or a case officer be compromised there would be a degree of protection for the identity of both.)


These types of operations involving a recruited asset from what is called a denied area are complicated. Denied area operations involve individuals from countries where the counterintelligence environment is particularly harsh, as in the Soviet Union. They are characterized by almost constant surveillance, both physical and technical, for foreigners as well as the citizens of the country. Debriefings of TRIGON would involve detailed planning.


Meeting times would be limited. TRIGON had a full-time job as a Soviet diplomat and could not be gone too often or for too long without arousing the suspicions of other Russian diplomats and the KGB. Meetings would be spaced apart, one every one to three weeks, and would last only as long as TRIGON could be safely unaccounted for, maybe one to two hours at a time. The agenda for such a meeting would be long, covering the communications plan, CI issues, intelligence requirements, information on KGB presence, details on other Russian diplomats (for possible future recruitment). Given the scrutiny on Russian diplomats from their own security personnel, the case officer working with TRIGON could not just call him on the phone to arrange a meeting. Meetings had to be arranged in advance, with contingencies in the event one or the other missed the meeting. There were backups to cover all contingencies.


The case officer would plan for the meeting for days prior and once the meeting was completed would take one or two days to write up all the details for HQS. Getting to the meeting would be time-consuming. The case officer would have to move around Bogota for a few hours trying to determine whether he was under surveillance. If he was, the meeting would be aborted.


TRIGON provided useful information on Russian foreign policy toward Latin America, but the real payoff would come if TRIGON could be convinced to go back to Moscow and provide intelligence from within the foreign ministry. Getting TRIGON to agree to report intelligence from inside the Soviet Union would be an entirely new recruitment approach. In the meantime, he would provide what intelligence and CI information he could, as well as being trained by his case officer on tradecraft:, how to detect surveillance, how to elicit information from people, basic security concepts like not using the telephone to make contact, and other meeting mechanics. His case officer was also constantly assessing TRIGON.


Not everyone is cut out to be an agent. Espionage and committing treason can create significant stress on a person. The case officer must assess if the source can handle the stress. He or she must assess whether the new agent is disciplined enough to practice sound tradecraft so as not to get caught. Do they have sound judgment and are they able to learn and process all that is necessary to survive on the clandestine battlefield?


As TRIGON’s time in Colombia drew to a close, the CIA began its effort to convince TRIGON to continue cooperating once he returned to Moscow. They needed to do this quickly because TRIGON would need additional training to operate inside Russia, a much harsher environment than Bogota.


At this junction, money would be less of a motivator for TRIGON, who would be placing his life in jeopardy. Admittedly, he would earn more money from the CIA for working in Moscow, but that was balanced by the danger. The case officer would have had to accentuate a higher cause, the evils of communism and what it was doing to Russia. The new recruitment pitch would depend on TRIGON’s sense of patriotism, but patriotism to Russia as a whole, and against communism. By now the case officer would have understood TRIGON’s hatred of communism. Ideology has always been a stronger motivator than money. He would have used this to convince TRIGON of the importance of his continued cooperation. He would be making a difference in the struggle.


At this point, I will make an aside and deal with motivation and money in intelligence operations. Many people believe the CIA goes around giving wads of cash to people and that is how they obtain their cooperation. Totally false. The CIA is a government agency, it has to deal with budgetary constraints like everyone else. Few sources get rich. Payment is based on how important the information is that a source can provide. More importantly, money is not the end-all. Money is a tool to get to what that person wants, whether it is paying for college for their children, financing a new home, etc. The best sources don’t do it for the money, but for what they view as a greater good. We will touch upon that in a later post.


In the end, TRIGON agreed. He would cooperate while in Moscow. Now a new phase of the operation began.


TO BE CONTINUED.


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