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The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

Publisher: Doubleday • 2015 • 336 pages

Pulitzer Prize winning author David E. Hoffman immerses his readers in the deception of cold War espionage in his book, The Billion Dollar Spy.  In a tale that reads more like a novel than a piece of non-fiction, Hoffman takes his audience through the moment that Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet designer and engineer, first approaches Moscow’s CIA Station Chief to defect to the United States, all the way to the when he was betrayed by a disgruntled CIA intelligence trainee – eventually leading to Tolkachev’s death.  

Thinking at first that Tolkachev was a KGB “dangle” seeking to flush out American intelligence officials, it took over a year for the CIA Moscow Station to come to trust the engineer and his intentions.  Only after passing an eleven page handwritten note detailing who he was, where he worked, and other background information helpful to American intelligence, did the CIA finally decide to make contact.  

Through the course of an astronomic eight year career working for the CIA, Adolf Tolkachev passed tens of thousands of pages of Soviet military secrets to America.  Putting his life in danger time and time again, Tolkachev, codename CKSPHERE, would sign documents out of the library at military radar developer Phazotron, and take them home to photograph with a CIA issue Pentax camera clamped to the back of a chair.  He would later boldly photograph the documents in a bathroom stall inside Phazotron with a Tropel camera hidden in a key fob.  “A dissident at heart,” CKSPHERE was motivated to do as much damage to the Soviet Union as possible in as little time as possible, due in part to the brutal treatment of his wife’s family under Stalin’s regime and his own disillusionment with the Soviet system.  

Adolf Tolkachev saved the United States government billions of dollars in research and development, and the intelligence he passed from Russia was used by the military well into the 1990s.  It was because of CKSPHERE that the United States was able to establish the air superiority which led it to victories in battles fought by the United States in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 against Saddam Hussein.

The value of the intelligence Tolkachev passed to the American government could never be properly rewarded.   He wanted money that he did not need, but only as a reassurance that his work was valued by the CIA.  He often asked for things for his son, Oleg, like a Sony Walkman and albums by artists like Led Zeppelin.  Tolkachev was a different kind of spy as he did not come from the security services or military.  He was not even a member of the Communist Party.  Most of the twenty one meetings Tolkachev held with the CIA took place right under the nose of the KGB, within three miles of the doors of their headquarters, yet neither he nor his handlers were ever caught in the act.  

The Billion Dollar Spy is an excellent and thoroughly engaging read.  It is easy to follow, and readers will find it hard to put down.  Mr. Hoffman shows us why he is a Pulitzer winning author, and this reviewer cannot recommend his book highly enough.
Original CBC review by Jonathan Parker.   

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