The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and BetrayalThe Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to congratulate Hoffman on writing a non-fiction book that reads like a thriller. This book is phenomenally interesting while also being eye-opening. Hoffman goes into detail about the spying tactics employed by the CIA; their schemes and successes and failures; while simultaneously crafting a detailed portrait of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the States for nearly six years. Despite having no intelligence training and working in a heavily supervised profession literally blocks away from KGB headquarters, he sent pictures of hundreds of classified documents to the CIA. The title comes from one analyst’s estimate that Tolkachev’s intelligence saved the CIA “billions of dollars” in research by letting them know what the Soviets knew (121). And what they didn’t. The CIA could tell the military where to direct their armament research to best exploit the gaps in Soviet technology. Hoffman manages not to get too “super-duper States” in his book, but there are some interesting juxtapositions. He talks about a few CIA agents who defected or spied for the Soviets. In most of those cases, it seems that their reasons for committing treason were based on personal grievances. They typically felt the CIA had screwed them over. Contrast that with the Soviet’s reasons for committing treason: they wanted to stop the system they were trapped in. These people saw their families torn apart by false denunciations, watched relatives rot in gulags, and struggled every day to get even the most basic necessities. It’s 180° different. The punishments were complete opposites too. American traitors were sent to prison. Soviets were executed. I’m sure this was Hoffman’s intent, but I couldn’t help sympathizing with the Soviet traitors. They were trapped in a system designed to crush everything into powder, and many of them gave their lives to try to stop it.

I also learned a bit about the CIA while reading this book. I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist. I don’t think the world is controlled by a shadowy society of fashion designers who monitor our every move and turn hapless victims into sleeper agents via a brainwashing program built around 80’s songs. But the CIA tapped subterranean communication cables and was able to eavesdrop on every word. They sabotaged pipeline components, sold those pieces to the Soviets on the black market, and engineered the largest “nonnuclear explosion” in history (182). Hoffman represents this as a triumph. As the CIA discovering it can run penetrating spy operations under the nose of the KGB. He glosses over how many people must have died in the fires. It appears the KGB was not the only organization fully prepared to sacrifice people to their cause. It made me wonder if maybe the biggest difference between them is only that we know all the terrible things the KGB did. And the CIA has kept theirs secret.

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