A defector to Moscow in September 1985, Howard is still blamed—although the Central Intelligence Agency’s damage assessment has been revised following the confessions of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen—for having betrayed many sources and operations, including TAW and TRIGON.
Howard’s CIA career had been brief, and he had been forced to resign in June 1983 when a routine polygraph examination, prior to his posting to Carl Gebhardt’s Moscow station, revealed petty theft and drug use. When Howard was identified in July 1985 by the KGB’s Vitali Yurchenko as a Soviet source code-named ROBERT who had sold secrets to the Soviets in Austria in September 1984, he was placed under surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigation at his home in Albuquerque but, using tradecraft he had learned during Jack Platt’s “pipeliners” course for case officers assigned to Moscow, he easily eluded the watchers and fled the country in September 1985. Ayear later, in August 1986, the Soviets announced that Howard had been granted political asylum and Soviet citizenship.
Howard’s defection was an enormous embarrassment to both the CIA and the FBI, not least because he was the first CIA officer to defect to Moscow. But a greater problem was the assessment of the damage he had inflicted, as initially he was blamed for the various operational failures later attributed to Ames and Hanssen. The expulsion of five U.S. diplomats from the Soviet Union was considered to be his handiwork, and it was also believed that he had been responsible for compromising Adolf Tolkachev, the aeronautics engineer who had been supplying classified material to the CIA since 1977 and was seized by the KGB on 9 June 1985 and executed soon afterward. Howard had been briefed to handle Tolkachev in Moscow and, following the failure of a colleague to complete the pipeliner course, had also been trained to service the source code-named TAW. When the CIA’s Office of Security recommended Howard be fired for what his polygraph had disclosed, it had not been told of the sensitive knowledge with which he had been entrusted. The need to preserve secrecy, on this occasion, had meant that instead of being kept “on the reservation,” he had been fired, allowing a disgruntled ex-employee to exercise his bitterness and apparently his wish for revenge.
Howard’s escape from his home in Albuquerque also served to highlight some additional problems with the way the CIA shared, or failed to share, secret information. The FBI special agents assigned to watch Howard had not been told that he had attended the pipeliner course and should therefore have been considered well versed in countersurveillance techniques. The awkward location of Howard’s house meant that it could only be watched remotely via a video link to a van parked nearby, inside which were two FBI special agents monitoring the camera and the wiretap. Whenever Howard or his wife Mary—who had also been trained by the CIA—left the building, the van warned a team in surveillance vehicles that were in the vicinity, ready to pick up his trail. On the night of his escape, his departure from the house, driven by his wife, had gone unnoticed. The setting sun had temporarily obscured the video camera, and the special agent on duty had been distracted by a telephone conversation conducted by the Howards’ babysitter in which she gave a graphic account of a sexual adventure with her boyfriend the previous evening.
Not realizing that the FBI had failed to spot their exit, Howard and his wife had gone out for dinner, and then on the journey home he had slipped out of the car and left a “jack-in-the-box” replacement dummy in the passenger seat. This was classic Moscow rules tradecraft, but in fact had been entirely unnecessary because the FBI team had not detected their absence until their car returned to the garage, apparently with two people aboard. Howard had actually caught a bus to the airport and flown abroad unhindered, ingeniously leaving a tape recording, which his wife later played over the telephone to his doctor’s answering machine, making an appointment and thus giving the impression to the FBI that he was still at home. Accordingly, by the time it dawned on the FBI that their quarry had disappeared, Howard was safely out of reach.
After his defection, Howard cooperated with author David Wise on a biography, The Spy Who Got Away, meeting him in Budapest, and he established a successful insurance business in Moscow. His death was announced in July 2002, apparently as a result of an accident at his dacha outside Moscow.