On September 25, 1984, three officials from the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco departed for San Francisco Airport to meet with their counterparts from Seattle and exchange confidential “pouched” diplomatic materials.
This exchange happened every other Tuesday, and each time, the Soviets were tailed by a van full of San Francisco-based FBI counterintelligence officials. Although the FBI knew the Soviets were aware of this surveillance, the Bureau didn’t try to conceal it either, according to the Los Angeles Times, which recounted this event from later court testimony.
But this Tuesday in 1984 was different. Normally, there were only two Soviet officials meeting the Seattle diplomats at the airport, not three. And in addition to the usual FBI surveillance team, the Bureau had assigned 20 more agents to track the movement of the third man, Aleksander Grishin, an accredited diplomat—and a Soviet intelligence officer.
When the Soviet officials entered the airport, with FBI agents watching, Grishin detached himself to make a call at a pay phone. Hundreds of miles down the coast, FBI counterintelligence agents working out of a makeshift base of operations in a Los Angeles motel listened as Svetlana Ogorodnikov, a 34-year-old Soviet émigré who had been on the FBI’s radar, picked up the phone in her Hollywood apartment. It was Grishin. Speaking in coded Russian, he asked if she had made arrangements with an “acquaintance” to fly to Europe that October. Ogorodnikov confirmed she had.
This was no ordinary FBI surveillance operation: The “acquaintance” Grishin referred to was himself an FBI agent—a man who, out of greed, desperation, and spite, had begun an affair with Ogorodnikov and agreed to sell classified information to the Soviet government. Eventually, this man—Richard W. Miller, a 47-year-old Los Angeles-based counterintelligence agent on the Bureau’s Soviet squad—would become the first FBI agent ever convicted of espionage.
And the man who would finally secure Miller’s conviction in 1990—after three trials over the course of six years—was a young U.S. attorney in Los Angeles: Adam Schiff. [Continue reading…]