TRIGON Part 2
Now that TRIGON had agreed to what the CIA calls "work inside," serious preparations had to be made before he departed for home, Moscow. As I described in part one, conducting espionage operations inside Russia is extremely complex and difficult. The CIA needed to understand TRIGON's lifestyle in order to create a communications plan for him. The communications plan would allow the CIA to maintain sustained contact with TRIGON without using telephones or actually meeting TRIGON face to face. Telephones and face-to-face contact were deemed too dangerous given the pervasive surveillance.
The communication plan would be based on a series of signals and dead drops. A dead drop is a method used to pass items or information between two people - in this case, the case officer and the agent - using a secret location. By avoiding direct contact operational security can be maintained. Usually, the material being passed is hidden in what is called a concealment device. This can take the form of a crushed pack of cigarettes, a piece of wood, a rock, or even a dead animal like a rat. The idea is to also make sure that no one would want to pick up the concealment device thinking it had some value.
These dead drops had to be placed at specific days and times so that the agent could pick them up and not leave them lying around, subject to the vagaries of climate, people, and luck. Therefore, the case officer and agent would place signals that could be read from a distance telling the other person when the dead drop had been placed and when it had been retrieved. This could be as simple as a chalk mark placed along a specific wall or lamp post or parking your car on a certain street. The possibilities were as many as the imagination.
TRIGON would be given a series of dead drop and signal sites to use when he returned to Moscow. This would allow him to pass intelligence and receive items for the first few months of being in Russia. Afterward, another dead drop would provide a new series of sites and material.
To do this the CIA would need to know a lot about TRIGON's lifestyle when back in Moscow. Where would he live and work? What did he do during his off-hours? What time did he go to work and come home? Did he own a car? Did he live alone? They would need details on friends and family, hobbies, everything necessary to incorporate the communications plan into TRIGON's normal patterns and movements. It would be important that TRIGON not do anything out of his normal pattern that could attract unwanted attention. All these instructions would be written in tiny font either on small sheets of paper that could be instantly destroyed or on microfilm and hidden in some concealment TRIGON would take home with him. These instructions would include photos and drawings of the dead drop and signal locations.
At the same time, TRIGON had to be instructed on how to operate miniature cameras hidden inside a pen or a disposable lighter. This would allow him to photograph documents that were of interest to the U.S. Since the camera was hidden in a pen, there would be no way to make adjustments and focus. The camera would be set to use TRIGON's arm length as the focal point so that by holding the camera in his hand and placing his elbow on the desk the camera would be in focus to photograph the documents placed on the desk (see drawing below). Each miniature roll of film could photograph 100 documents. It would take time to master the photography techniques as well as loading and unloading the tiny rolls of film.
TRIGON using his cigarette lighter camera
TRIGON would also have been given training on how to detect surveillance and operational security and cautioned on not taking any risks greater than he was already taking. Fortunately, TRIGON proved an adept pupil and learned quickly.
During the training period, TRIGON made an unusual request. He asked his case officer for a suicide pill. He explained that he was fearful of torture if arrested and would prefer to take his own life. This created a problem for the CIA. Unlike in books and films, the CIA does not like to issue suicide capsules. To begin with, to be effective, a suicide capsule, usually containing cyanide, must be easy to break open, thus making it fragile. It is usually concealed in something like a pen, but its very fragility makes it dangerous to store since it can break accidentally. Then there is the burden to the individual carrying the capsule. Few people do not dwell on their mortality when carrying around the instrument of their own death. Finally, while the CIA has little problem waging unconventional wars where thousands die, the death of an individual agent weighs heavily on the CIA. It doesn't like its agents to die.
There was much back and forth between CIA HQS, Bogota Station and TRIGON. It became clear that the L Pill, L for lethal, as the CIA called the suicide capsule, was critically important to TRIGON and would negatively impact his cooperation in Moscow. Finally, the CIA relented and issued an L pill concealed in a pen.
TRIGON was also trained in One Way Voice Link (OWVL) and one-time pads. OWVL was a long used espionage technique to communicate with agents used by all major intelligence services. The agent would have a radio receiver that they tuned to a particular frequency provided by their handlers. There were a variety of methods to transmit: short wave, burst transmission, etc. The actual transmission was preceded by an indicator, such as some music, or a preamble, but it was followed by a voice reading a long string of numbers, usually in groups of five. The numbers made no sense to anyone listening, having been randomly selected. However, the agent listening to the broadcast could decipher the message using a one-time pad (OTP).
Russian One-time Pad
The OTP was printed on very thin, small sheets of paper and would allow the agent to decipher the numbers being read over the radio into words. Once the page was used, it was torn off and destroyed, hence the one-time. As I noted, the numbers were chosen at random, had no pattern, and were only readable with the unique one-time pad. Without access to the pad, it was unbreakable.
Ogorodnik’s last request before leaving Bogota was for the CIA to help resettle his girlfriend back in Spain, which the CIA did.
With all his training completed and camera pen, suicide pen, OTP, communications plans, and radio receiver all carefully concealed in his personal effects, TRIGON headed home in October of 1974 (more on dates at the end of this story). He had taken a job at the foreign ministry (MFA). It wasn't a promotion, rather a lateral move, but it gave him access to all the messages being sent between the MFA and Russian embassies overseas. He would have access to Russian foreign policy at every level. A gold mine for the U.S. government.
As is normal, TRIGON went to work and had no contact with the CIA until the following year. When Russian diplomats return home from a foreign posting they are usually placed under scrutiny by the KGB to determine if they have been recruited by a Western intelligence service. It is best to have the agent do nothing for the first few months so that he gets a clean bill of health from the KGB. In February of 1975, TRIGON gave Moscow station a sign of life signal. He was alive and still willing to cooperate.
The TRIGON operation was in full swing. A schedule was established where an exchange between TRIGON and the station took place once per month. Unlike Bogota, where TRIGON was likely met every week, exchanges in Moscow occurred less frequently because of the security environment and the heavy workload associated with handling an agent in a denied area. Every exchange required concealment devices to be built for the case officer and TRIGON so they could hide the material being passed. Intelligence requirements had to be prepared. Maps of the various signal and dead drop sites had to be drawn and miniaturized. The photos taken by TRIGON had to be developed, the intelligence processed and new requirements based on the material he provided had to be created. Surveillance detection runs (SDR) had to be prepared and executed. Once a month was an aggressive schedule for Moscow.
For the next two years, TRIGON produced valuable intelligence. His information on Russian foreign policy, their efforts to influence governments, and Russian negotiating positions proved invaluable and reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. Within the CIA there are all types of agents, from those that provide various support activities through intelligence producers. TRIGON was at the top of the pyramid, a truly valuable source that had a direct impact on U.S. national security.
Handling TRIGON was the first female case officer assigned to Moscow station, Marti Peterson. Like most U.S. institutions, the CIA was generally the purview of male case officers, but times were changing and more and more women were being hired and trained as case officers. The station wanted a female case officer because it believed that the KGB would not suspect her of being a spy. The KGB did not use women in the role and believed the CIA would not use them as well. The station was right. Peterson was able to operate relatively surveillance-free.
While this sounds ideal, it presents the case officer with a lot of pressure. As her male colleagues reported surveillance, Peterson did not. She had to wonder whether she was really surveillance-free or missing surveillance. If she was missing surveillance, she would drag the KGB to a dead drop and compromise TRIGON. Every time she went out to load a dead drop she would be on her own. No one to rely on, no one to ask for help, it was Peterson against the KGB.
Being a case officer in Moscow station was high pressure. You normally worked a full, eight-hour day doing your cover job. You then had your lunch break and after hours to work your CIA job. Every time you went out and about you were looking for surveillance and new locations for dead drops and signal sites. You devoted considerable time to prepare for the next exchange with the various sources handled by Moscow station. If you made a mistake, bad things happened, and if the mistake was serious enough, people died. It was more than a full-time job, you were working every moment you were awake. There was no rest.
The operation proceeded but not without some issues. At one point TRIGON became nervous that he was under KGB suspicion and destroyed the pen with the L pill. The station would have to procure and drop a new one to TRIGON. At another point, KGB officers were spotted near a TRIGON dead drop. Why they were there was inconclusive. Was it a coincidence? Were they following someone totally unrelated or were they on to TRIGON? TRIGON did not initiate contact in February and March of 1976. Worrisome, but it happens. Sometimes the agent is unable to make contact for legitimate reasons. Contact picked up again in April 1976 with the monthly schedule back on track.
TRIGON himself was experiencing the stress of conducting espionage. Imagine yourself living in a police state that is geared toward finding spies, people just like you. TRIGON had to bring his camera into his office and photograph documents at his desk because he could not take them out of the building. The chances of someone walking in and seeing him taking photographs were very real. He began to lose weight. His hair started falling out and he was developing ulcers. The stress was literally killing him slowly. The CIA feared for TRIGON and discussed exfiltrating him from Russia. They raised the issue of his safety and potential departure with TRIGON, but he refused. He was committed to the struggle against the Soviet system. He found purpose in his work for the CIA and would continue. He had become a committed anti-communist.
What happened next is sketchy and both intelligence services are probably concealing information and downright lying. TRIGON's photography up to now was excellent. Remember, he had been an excellent student of tradecraft. However, by 1977 his photographs of documents were blurry, out of focus, and hard to read. Were there problems with the camera? Then, TRIGON missed a dead drop. He was supposed to have dropped the film to the station, but nothing was located at the site. Peterson searched and searched in the snow but found nothing. The panic was tangible. You were not supposed to lose an agent's photographs and other compromising material. Had she missed it? Was she at fault? In a situation like that, a case officer will always second guess themselves.
Another dead drop was scheduled via OWVL and Peterson went to read the signal TRIGON should have placed to indicate he had planted the drop. The signal was a red circle on a particular street sign. Usually, signals are placed while moving very quickly. You don't want to attract the attention of passersby as you stand there drawing something where you shouldn't be drawing. In a place like Moscow, people are suspicious and could alert the police. When Peterson arrived at the signal site, she noticed the red circle but it looked strange. It was almost perfect as if it had been stenciled on the sign. No agent would have the time to stand there and draw a perfect circle. Not to mention, TRIGON knew better.
Despite this, it was decided that Peterson should go to the location where TRIGON was to place the dead drop. His information was too important. The location of the drop was a pedestrian crossing next to a railroad bridge. Peterson would leave the drop for TRIGON to pick up.
Pedestrian walkway by the railroad bridge. The dead drop would have been placed on the lower righthand side of the tower.
Peterson walked toward the tower and placed the concealment device as planned. Immediately, KGB agents leaped out from their hiding places and arrested her. It had been a trap.
Peterson was taken to KGB HQS, photographed and filmed, as was all the espionage equipment she had with her. After the media spectacle, Peterson was released into the custody of the U.S. Embassy and declared persona non grata (PNG), a Latin term meaning “the person is no longer welcome.” She could never return to the Soviet Union.
Marti Peterson under arrest at KGB HQS
It took some time to reconstruct events, and to this day we don't know all the details. TRIGON was compromised at least a month before Peterson's arrest. The missed drops and final signal were done by the KGB in an effort to control the operation in order to get the most CI information possible. There are several stories circulating as to how he was compromised.
Karl Koecher was a Czech exile who defected from Czechoslovakia, professing to be a strong anti-communist. He was able to obtain a job at the CIA as a translator. In reality, he was a double agent actually working for the Czechoslovakian intelligence service. Supposedly, Koecher had access to information on TRIGON during the period when the CIA had an interest in him, though before his recruitment. Koecher passed the information to his headquarters, who, in turn, passed it to the KGB. At that point, the KGB mounted surveillance on TRIGON and caught him. This is a strong possibility but does not explain why the KGB would let TRIGON operate and pass intelligence to the CIA for almost two years. The KGB seldom has the patience and tends to arrest their own people very quickly before they can give up any information. TRIGON's information had been validated by the CIA and U.S. policymakers in the best way possible. The information he provided came to pass. It was true.
Another theory that floated around was that the Russians became suspicious when U.S. negotiators and diplomats seemed to always know Russian negotiating positions and policy objectives. They suspected a leak, mounted multiple CI investigations, eventually narrowing it down to a few people. A camera was concealed in TRIGON's office and he was observed photographing documents.
The KGB claims they found TRIGON's betrayal through good counterintelligence and tradecraft mistakes TRIGON made, not from Koecher. They claim TRIGON was observed parking his car several times along a route traveled by a CIA officer. They assumed he was using it as a signal for a dead drop exchange. That doesn't sound very plausible because TRIGON and the CIA never used the same signal site more than once, just to avoid this very same danger. Furthermore, why would they single out TRIGON for observation if they didn't suspect? It is in the KGB's interest not to reveal how TRIGON was compromised, and in their own interest to show how good they are at catching spies.
What we do know is that after his apartment was searched and after he was caught with all the spy paraphernalia, they arrested TRIGON at his home. TRIGON immediately confessed and offered to write his confession. If nothing else, the Soviets are very bureaucratic and legalistic. Even when they know the outcome, they will hold a trial with a defense witness and a prosecutor, witnesses, judges, etc. They were happy to have TRIGON write out his confession. He asked for his pen, they gave it to him and he bit down on the cyanide capsule. He was dead by the time he hit the floor.
Thus ended the TRIGON operation, and thus ended the life of Aleksandr Ogorodnik: a traitor to his country, as viewed by those in power, and a patriot and hero to those who worked tirelessly with him to help defeat communism.
(Note: For those of you keeping score, you will notice that some of the dates don't match up. As an example, if you notice that TRIGON's girlfriend was pregnant when he was recruited and still pregnant when he departed you would notice that his girlfriend had a particularly long gestation period. The dates used for significant events in this operation have been obtained from CIA and KGB material and personal recollection of the individuals involved in the case. The dates are fungible. Intelligence services do not reveal all or accurate details since they might give an advantage to the adversary. If the CIA provides an accurate date for TRIGON's recruitment, the Russians can work backward in time and get a better understanding of what material was compromised. In the same way, the Russians will obfuscate the timeline of TRIGON's compromise in order to make it difficult for the CIA to resolve how he was compromised.)