The KGB’s Dumbest Double Agent

Yevgeni Brik thought he could outsmart his Russian spymasters. He was terribly wrong.

Photo illustration by Celina Fang/The Daily Beast

The following is excerpted from Paddy Hayes' Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain's Cold War Spy Master.

British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agent Daphne Park was briefed personally by her Director ... after the barest minimum of niceties he got right down to it. The Service, he said, had a potential source in Moscow and she was to be given the opportunity to handle him.

The source was Yevgeni Vladimirovich Brik. Brik was a KGB illegal, originally from Kiev in the Ukraine, who had been sent to Canada by Moscow Center in 1951. Aware that border controls between Canada and the U.S. were lax to the point of invisibility, the KGB plan was to use Canada as a staging post for the infiltration of its illegals into the United States, the ‘Principal Adversary’, Britain being reduced by this time to the status of ‘Principal Ally’. The illegals (officers working under assumed identities) were to be used to handle U.S.-based KGB agents such as the ‘atom spies’.

After two years training Brik was dispatched to Canada using two false identities, the standard KGB insertion methodology at the time. The first he used to gain entry to the country, abandoned immediately after to be replaced by the second, which would serve as his long-term operational name. Once ensconced in the country he settled down in the low-rent Verdun suburb of Montreal under the guise of a professional photographer.

As it turned out, Brik was not a good choice. He had a serious drinking problem probably exacerbated by his clandestine life, and was lonely for his Russian wife. She had remained behind in Russia, as was the norm. Shortly after arrival in Canada he began an affair with the wife of a Canadian soldier and (predictably) after a period he confessed his true role to her. She persuaded him to go to the police. They turned him over to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service who decided to run him as a ‘double’ codenamed GIDEON.

Brik’s life as a ‘double’ lasted for two years. His every move was monitored more closely than a laboratory mouse as the RCMP determined to learn everything possible about KGB operations in Canada. The monitoring led to the uncovering of several KGB sources but it was hard-earned: Brik ‘the double’ was at least as much trouble to his Canadian handlers as Brik ‘the illegal’ had been to his Soviet ones.

Then Brik was recalled to Moscow. This was supposedly to attend a pre-arranged debriefing and to spend some time with his wife. Despite his concerns that he might have been compromised, Brik’s hubris encouraged him to go ahead with the visit, convinced he could outwit the KGB’s interrogators. His RCMP controllers weren’t so sure, but the opportunity to obtain a fuller picture of KGB operations from inside Russia swayed them.

However the Canadians were not set up to handle Brik while he was in Moscow, so they turned to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, who had been briefed on Brik from the beginning. SIS had, in theory at least, the capacity to run an agent in the Russian capital and was happy to take over. The possibility of a source inside the Moscow KGB, if only for a few months, was hugely attractive. Ignorance of the inner workings of the Soviet security apparatus was profound. The Service also wanted anything it could get about the whereabouts and activities of the two defectors, Burgess and Maclean, who had yet to surface after almost four years. SIS was also desperate for anything that might point conclusively to the guilt or otherwise of Kim Philby.

Leslie Mitchell then H/WASHINGTON, was dispatched to Ottawa to brief Brik and take him through the various operational procedures. Mitchell had his work cut out. Brik was at times over-emotional, irrational and arrogant, behaviour that was not uncharacteristic of agents and of double-agents in particular. Mitchell, however, was an old hand and he persevered.

He drilled into Brik the need to memorize the location of a rendez-vous point for his treff (meeting between a case officer and an agent) with his Moscow-based SIS case officer (Park) and a two-word parole (recognition signal). He was provided with the locations of a couple of ‘dead drops’ for ‘comms’ purposes. In the event that he had to make a dash for it, he was provided with the location of a hide containing a short-wave radio, fake passports, internal travel permits, money, maps of the border area between Russia and Norway and a silenced pistol. No one appears to have been particularly optimistic about his chances of making it across the border, but it was something.

Park’s task was to establish contact with Brik and satisfy herself he was not under KGB control. If she suspected that to be the case she was to abort, otherwise she was to put the regular contact arrangements in place. This was a judgment call that was hers alone to make. The prize was attractive but the embarrassment that would follow if an accredited UK diplomat was caught in clandestine contact with a Soviet official had to be avoided. Apart from anything else it would justify the Foreign Office’s original reluctance to sanction the reestablishment of Moscow station and could lead to the ban on operations within Soviet borders being reimposed.

The next day, at her Director’s insistence, Park attended the dentist. ‘In this city you never know who’s watching you,’ he said, ‘always best to be sure.’ Then, with her jaw still hurting, she returned to Moscow to meet her agent.

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The meeting with Yevgeni Brik, Park’s first operational treff, did not go as planned, though not through any lack of preparation by Park. She approached the meeting with the thoroughness that would mark her career. Her first priority was to ensure that she was not under KGB surveillance when the two met. Case officers use the term ‘to dry-clean’ to describe the process through which they ensure they are not being watched when they meet an agent. Typically they will spend two to four hours checking for the presence of hostile surveillance, longer if they are the nervous type. Park’s plan was to take advantage of a weakness she had discovered in the KGB’s surveillance procedures.

One day, when she was still settling into her role, she had noticed something odd; it happened shortly after she’d left the chancery with a colleague on some routine business. Halfway there the colleague had excused himself, remembering some errand or other he had to run. After a quick ‘confab’, the KGB followers, who made no effort to disguise their presence, apparently decided to stick with following the (male) colleague and abandoned their surveillance of Park. Ten days later the same thing occurred when another male colleague left her company to go his separate way; once again the watchers wheeled off to follow him leaving her unwatched.

She decided to run a proper test, to establish if it was a real pattern and thus predictable, exploitable. Over a few weeks she tested. But it seemed to be so—each time she left the embassy accompanied by one of her male colleagues and they later split up, the watchers concentrated solely on the man, leaving her by herself, in the clear. The only explanation that made sense was that the watchers (all men) assumed that the man, being a man, had to be the important one and therefore their target. She must be just a lowly female, probably just a clerk and not as worth following in her own right. KGB practice at the time was to use women only as ‘swallows’ (sexual bait) and decoys. It was an easy mistake for the KGB watchers to make, to assume that the British SIS would have the same attitude to its female employees as did the Soviets. (In the Intelligence business it is known as ‘transferred imaginings’—the practice of ascribing to the subjects of intelligence assessments the same behavioural characteristics as the person preparing the assessment.) Park decided she would turn that chauvinistic assumption to her advantage. The planned treff with Brik would give her the opportunity.

On the day of the treff with Brik she left the chancery well ahead of the scheduled time of the meeting, accompanied by one of her male colleagues. At a pre-arranged time he left her company. As predicted, the surveillance team wheeled off leaving her unwatched. She spent another couple of hours making absolutely certain she was in the clear before heading for the rendezvous. Finally as she walked down the street, her heart racing, she saw a man approaching who looked like Brik. She waited to make sure she had identified him correctly; the two had never met so all she had was his picture, now safely ensconced in the office safe. It was Brik, but there was a problem—two in fact. The first was that he was accompanied (by a tough-looking woman) when the arrangements called for him to be on his own. The second was that the visual recognition signal was wrong.

Park had a big problem and only seconds to decide whether to continue with the meeting or to abort. She decided to abort, reasoning that meeting protocols are there for a purpose and are designed to be followed to the letter. Any deviation should be seen as an attempt by a blown agent, under enemy control, to alert his handlers to his situation. Park returned to the chancery and sent a coded signal to Broadway describing the outcome. In London, SIS assumed that Brik had been rumbled and was under KGB control and that Park had done extremely well to spot the attempted deception and act as she had.

According to the Mitrokhin Archive, the situation was not quite what it seemed. Yevgeni Brik had been betrayed all right. A heavily indebted driver in the RCMP Security Service, a Corporal James Morrison, who had once been given the job of driving Brik from the Security Service offices to his home, contacted the Ottawa KGB legal residency and gave them Brik’s name in return for a payment of $5,000. While initially suspicious that Morrison might be a provocation, the KGB decided to investigate. Soon they became convinced that in all probability Brik had been turned by the Canadians. Aware that their spy was due to return to Moscow for a pre-arranged period of R&R, the KGB decided to bide their time and wait until he was back on home soil, where he could be interrogated at leisure. Unaware of his impending fate, Brik set out for home via Paris and Helsinki, monitored all the way by KGB shadows.

Immediately on arrival in Moscow in August 1955 Brik was arrested. Again according to the archive he confessed after considerable ‘pressure’ and ‘told all’. He gave his interrogators details of the arrangements of his treff with his SIS Moscow controller but was instructed not to make contact. He was permitted to live in his flat with his wife in order to maintain the illusion that he was not under KGB control. The flat was bugged and he was recorded trying to persuade his wife to flee the country with him; wisely (as it turned out) she refused. The KGB then ordered Brik to send a message to SIS that he was ready to resume contact at a pre-agreed rendezvous. According to the KGB file on Brik he was not permitted to attend the rendezvous but Park did, enabling the KGB to identify her as an operational SIS officer in Moscow.

It is difficult to reconcile Park’s account with that of the KGB as reported in the Mitrokhin Archive. (Mitrokhin claims that ‘Brik was not allowed to meet any member of the SIS station in the Moscow embassy for fear that he would blurt out what had happened to him, but was instructed to arrange a rendezvous which he did not keep’.) Perhaps Park made a mistake and mistook someone else for Brik: a perfectly innocent man out for an afternoon’s shopping with his wife, maybe. Park had little direct field experience prior to being posted to Moscow. She wasn’t a total neophyte; while her wartime work in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was tutoring in codes and ciphers, and wasn’t field work as such, she would have spent considerable time in the company of the agents and some of their training regimen would have rubbed off on her. And she had spent a couple of years working in Vienna with FIAT which would have required some familiarity with basic tradecraft at least. But, and it is a significant ‘but’, she was handling her first ever live treff in the toughest operating environment in the world. That meant performing well beyond her operational experience and to the very limits of her capabilities, and it could be that she got it wrong.

Perhaps the archive record is slightly inaccurate and Brik was allowed to be present at the rendezvous (in order to flush out the SIS operative) but not to make contact. This would suggest that Brik had after all held something back and in the end honoured his arrangement with SIS and warned them that he was under control. But that’s a stretch. Former RCMP Security Service officer, Dan Mulvenna, says that in his view Mitrokhin got it wrong:

… as part of a KGB ‘Operational Game’ to ensnare SIS, GIDEON was subsequently pressed to fly a prearranged emergency signal for a ‘meet’, as per the joint RCMP/ SIS emergency exfiltration plan, which by the way both Services regarded as being probably unrealistic, to which Daphne responded. As Daphne reported, and told me personally many years later when I spoke with her in the UK, when she arrived at the rendezvous site she immediately picked up on KGB surveillance. And when GIDEON arrived at the rendezvous, arm in arm with a rather burly Russian woman, certainly not his [common-law] ‘wife’, Daphne further observed that his ‘signal’ [which was not a shopping bag] was not correct. She aborted the meet thereby avoiding a possible ambush arrest. But of course her ‘cover’ was now blown.

This author agrees with Mulvenna that the most likely explanation is that the KGB engaged in some more of their ‘operativnaya igra’ (operational games) in order to flush out Park (or whomever). It is likely therefore that they decided to seize the opportunity and deployed a decoy, possibly a lookalike, whom Park mistook for Brik. We shall probably never know which for certain (though SIS does). What is known is that in place of the automatic sentence of death handed out for treachery Brik received a sentence of fifteen years. Such a sentence of imprisonment was in itself unusual, as the absolute norm under Soviet rule for betrayal by a serving intelligence officer was death. Civilians, such as scientists, might on occasion be allowed off with a hefty prison sentence, but for those in the Great Game, betrayal was treason, treason was punishable by death, and death was invariably the result.

Were allowances made for Brik’s cooperation in this operational game? The KGB file on Brik indicated that he had cooperated in such a manner, so that might well have been the case. It is impossible at this time to say with any certainty what if any were the reasons for the comparative clemency. And it was comparative—fifteen years in the special camp, Perm-35, was no picnic. Better that, though, than a bullet in the back of the head. It would be interesting to know what Park really thought about her abortive encounter with the ‘man with the shopping bag in the wrong hand’ all those years later when Brik told his tale. Her cover as a ‘clean-skin’ diplomat was blown, at least from the autumn of 1955 until she left Moscow the following year. She never alluded to that in her reminiscences though she did recount the tale of the KGB being fooled into following ‘the male’ on several occasions, it forming part of her mystique.

In the mid-1980s, thirty years after the missed treff in Moscow, Yevgeni Brik, now released from the Gulag and seeing the communist world collapsing all around him, made his way to Riga in Latvia where he telephoned an official in the British consulate and gave him his two-word recognition codeword, held precious for all those years. The SIS station head in the consulate contacted London, unsure whether he was dealing with a hoax or the real thing. There wasn’t anybody left in the Service from that time who’d been involved operationally with GIDEON, but there were plenty of retirees, including Park, who remembered it well. They now knew that their putative spy had not been sentenced to death as they had assumed, but to a term in the Gulag.

They consulted the archives and their memories and confirmed the authenticity of the parole. A meeting was arranged to confirm that Brik was indeed their man. The spy, codename GIDEON, long thought dead was in fact alive. The Canadian government retrieved details of KEYSTONE from the archives and were encouraged to step in on the basis that Brik had in fact been their spy. With some assistance from SIS the Canadians smuggled Brik out of the Soviet Union and resettled him in Canada under a false identity. However the turncoat spy never settled down to enjoy his late retirement. His imprisonment had left him far too damaged for that, and he remained bitter and paranoid to the end.

Paddy Hayes is the author of Queen of Spies: Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master, from which this excerpt was adapted. Copyright © 2016 by Paddy Hayes. Published in 2016 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc. All rights reserved.