Zach Dorfman is a senior staff writer at the Aspen Institute’s Cyber & Technology Program and senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
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.Story Continued Below
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.
Today, Schiff is more familiar as the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and one of the country’s most vocal critics of the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia-connected figures during the 2016 presidential race—entanglements Schiff called, in a phone interview, “deeply unethical” and in some cases “fundamentally compromising.” To some observers, Schiff’s vehemence—he frequently appears on TV, and often gets attacked by President Donald Trump on Twitter—seems politically opportunistic, or misplaced. But his toughness on Russia and his wariness of Moscow’s intelligence apparatus far predate Trump. In key ways, Schiff’s perspective on Russia was shaped decades earlier, during his prosecution of Richard Miller.
“I learned a lot about Russian tradecraft: how the Russians operate, who they target, the vulnerabilities they look for,” Schiff recalls. “They want people with access to information that is of use to them. They look for people who are sort of at the margins at what they do, that have financial problems, who have marital problems that they can exploit. And they found a very good target with Richard Miller.”
During his work on the case, Schiff was also in frequent contact with FBI agents investigating Miller—giving the future congressman an intimate look at, and respect for, the Bureau’s counterintelligence mission.
At left: FBI Special Agent Richard W. Miller. At right: Miller’s Lynwood, California, home, where authorities found classified FBI documents.
| Bettman/Getty Images
Since the release last month of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Trump and Russia, Schiff has made an increasingly assertive push for the counterintelligence information the FBI and Mueller’s team gathered about Trump-Russia, which was largely excluded from the redacted Mueller report. In a May 8 subpoena to Attorney General Bill Barr, Schiff demanded “all documents and materials, regardless of form or classification,” relating to the counterintelligence or foreign intelligence side of the investigation. (On May 21, Schiff and the Justice Department reached a tentative deal for Schiff’s committee to access these materials.) Schiff has also asked for a briefing by Justice Department officials on the FBI’s counterintelligence probe into Trump-Russia, which began before Mueller’s probe but whose current status is unclear.
Schiff accepts that Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between Trump associates and the Russian government (though he has said there is “plenty of evidence of collusion.”) For the congressman, the Trump-Russia affair goes beyond the domain of the potentially prosecutable, and broaches the broader question of compromise—whether, say, one’s financial or personal entanglements can create improper levers of influence for a hostile foreign state. In the counterintelligence world, behavior need not be criminal to represent a threat to the country’s national security interests.
Schiff, unusually for someone in Congress, first learned this lesson decades ago. To fully understand why he has continued to ring the alarm on Trump-Russia, we need to travel back to Los Angeles in 1984, and the strange, sordid saga of Richard Miller.
Almost everyone who interacted with him professionally seemed to agree: Miller should never have become an FBI agent.
According to contemporaneous reporting and recent interviews with former FBI officials, Miller was slovenly and overweight, which earned him sanctions from his FBI superiors, designed to induce him into getting into shape. He was chastised by his bosses for selling Amway products out of the trunk of his car. He was known to pilfer comic books and candy bars from 7-Eleven, and consume them with abandon. At one point, he admitted to skimming from payments he was supposed to give to Bureau informants, and to selling FBI data to a local private investigator.
Miller’s home life was complicated. He lived alone during the workweek in a rundown house in Los Angeles and commuted back on the weekend to San Diego County, where his wife and eight children lived near a small avocado ranch that he tended. With Miller’s modest government salary, money was tight. His marriage was also suffering: In 1983, Miller, a practicing Mormon, was excommunicated from the church over an ongoing affair.
John Libby, a former federal prosecutor who worked with Schiff on the 1990 conviction, called Miller “a complete mess.” He was a “goofball” and an “idiot,” says a former FBI counterintelligence agent who worked the Miller case. Another former FBI agent who was involved in the investigation described Miller to me, variously, as a “moron,” a “misfit,” a “putz” whose “clothes looked like he slept in them,” and an all-around “terrible person.”
Miller “was a case of the FBI carrying its wounded too far,” recalls this person. “He screwed up everything he did.”
Miller came to the Soviet squad with no background in Russian language or culture, and no prior experience in counterintelligence. Many of the Bureau’s senior-most officials in Los Angeles, however, were important figures in the local Mormon community; re-assigning Miller to the Soviet squad was, ironically, part of an effort to keep an eye on him—to bring him back “into the FBI fold, and the Mormon fold,” Libby recalls.
It didn’t work. Miller once again failed to distinguish himself. Then, in May 1984, he met Svetlana Ogorodonikov.
Ogorodonikov was considered an outré and not entirely trustworthy figure in the local Soviet émigré community, which was largely populated by “refuseniks”—Jews who had fought for exit visas, and who were stripped of their Soviet citizenship upon leaving the country and banned from returning. According to Sleeping With The FBI, a 1993 book about the Miller case by Russell Warren Howe, Ogorodonikov’s husband, Nikolay, was Jewish, and the family used an exemption allowing Jews to leave the Soviet Union permanently to re-settle in Los Angeles.
Svetlana trained to become a medical technician; Nikolay worked in a sausage factory. But for the Ogorodnikovs, Los Angeles was strange and desiccated. The marriage soured. They were poor. They fought. They drank, especially Svetlana. Homesick, she decided she wanted to visit her family back in Russia, and to send the couple’s son to a Crimean summer camp favored by the children of Soviet apparatchiks. Both required special dispensation from Soviet officials, so, according to reports in the L.A. Times and conversations with former FBI officials, she started serving as a sort of social host and fixer to Soviet diplomats traveling from San Francisco to Los Angeles—and to intelligence officers working undercover as diplomats, like Aleksander Grishin.
By the early 1980s, Ogorodnikov was running a Soviet film series that catered to local Russian speakers in Los Angeles. This part-time job not only helped her keep tabs on the community but allowed her to travel occasionally to the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco—the USSR’s West Coast spy base—where she picked up the films. Ogorodnikov served as a sort of clearinghouse for information about members of the Soviet émigré community in Los Angeles, which she passed on to her to consular contacts. According to the L.A. Times, she was once dispatched by Soviet consular personnel in San Francisco to help quash a mutiny of Soviet sailors at the Port of Los Angeles and even briefly initiated a search for a Soviet defector who was believed to live in Southern California.
In an FBI surveillance photo released June 4, 1985, former FBI agent Richard Miller, pictured here in a white shirt with dark pants, was pictured walking with Svetlana Ogorodnikov. | Bettman/Getty Images
By 1980, Ogorodikov’s frequent trips to the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco had piqued the interest of the FBI’s Los Angeles office. In 1982, she was approached by the Bureau, meeting regularly with FBI counterintelligence agent John Hunt, but he ended their relationship early the next year, claiming it wasn’t resulting in any valuable information. There were also questions about where her ultimate loyalties lay. And there might have been another factor at play: Ogorodonikov would later claim that she and Hunt were sleeping together, and Hunt would retire quietly around the time of Miller’s arrest in 1984. (Hunt denied the affair.)
Ogorodnikov wasn’t a trained spy, but U.S. officials believed her work showed she was acting as a Soviet intelligence asset. (“The Svetlana equivalent [today] is Maria Butina,” says Libby, referring to the U.S.-based Russian gun-rights activist, who in April was sentenced to 18 months in prison for being an unregistered Russian agent. “It’s literally the same MO.”)
In the spring of 1984, Ogorodnikov again reached out to Hunt at the main FBI office in Los Angeles, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle their relationship. Hunt continued to avoid her. But Miller, it appears, got wind of her calls and made contact. The two started meeting regularly; part of Miller’s job was to develop sources in the local Russian-speaking community. Things quickly moved from the professional to the personal.
According to reports in the L.A. Times, their first rendezvous, in May 1984, was at a beach in Malibu. They met again, soon afterward, at a park in Westwood—and this time had sex, in Miller’s car, which was parked next to a Little League baseball field. Miller and Ogorodnikov continued to sleep together thereafter, often at Miller’s home away from his wife and children.
In August 1984, Ogorodnikov made her pitch, telling Miller that she worked for the Soviet government, and that it would pay him for classified FBI documents he could provide, given his position on the Soviet counterintelligence squad. Miller asked for $50,000 in gold and $15,000 in cash, put in three separate safety-deposit boxes in different banks as payment, according to the L.A. Times.
The Soviets wanted proof that Miller could deliver. So later that month, Miller and Ogorodnikov drove north, to San Francisco, where her contacts at the consulate were based. It was a wild ride up. Ogorodnikov brought a container of cognac and margarita mix, taking slugs on the drive, and plied Miller—who never drank—with the cocktail. By the time they arrived in the Bay Area, both Ogorodnikov and Miller later said in court, they were well lubricated.
Miller deposited himself at a restaurant near the consulate, while Ogorodnikov walked inside. Before they separated, prosecutors later said, Miller gave her his FBI credentials, to prove his identity to the Soviets, and a copy of a classified FBI counterintelligence reporting manual, to prove his access to documents. After meeting nearby, Ogorodnikov and Miller drove to a motel out in the East Bay to continue their boozy rendezvous.
The trip set off, for the Bureau, the counterintelligence equivalent of a five-alarm fire. Miller’s bosses in Los Angeles and FBI officials in San Francisco had not been aware of Miller and Ogorodnikov’s dalliance—let alone his potential recruitment—but the San Francisco FBI officials quickly pieced the picture together. “Everything in the Soviet consulate was bugged,” recalls the second former FBI agent. “You couldn’t go into the bathroom there without us knowing about it. We immediately opened an investigation.”
FBI agents swarmed onto the case. Separate teams from San Francisco and Washington, D.C., headed down to Los Angeles to work with agents there. Taps went up on the Ogorodnikovs’ house phone and Miller’s phones. Bugs were surreptitiously placed in Miller’s car, according to media reports at the time.
Yet Ogorodnikov and Miller’s involvement deepened. After their trip to the Bay Area, Ogorodnikov, at the direction of KGB handler Grishin, started coaxing Miller to agree to meet with Soviet officials overseas—preferably a city in a neutral location, like Vienna, or better yet, one in the Eastern Bloc, like Warsaw, to deliver more documents. Ogorodnikov even took the unkempt Miller shopping for more dapper clothes, including a $675 Burberry trench coat and Italian dress shoes, the L.A. Times reported.
He never made the journey. In late September, Miller spotted the FBI surveillance that had been placed on him. Now ensnared, he went to his superiors and claimed that he was in fact acting as a double agent—an explanation that was wholly unconvincing to his FBI colleagues. In early October, Miller was arrested at his home in San Diego County. He broke down and confessed, at length and in detail, to his betrayal—but walked back his story days later, returning to his “secret double agent” alibi.
FBI agents also abruptly arrested Svetlana and Nikolay Ogorodnikov at their Hollywood apartment. “At one point,” recalls the first former FBI counterintelligence agent, hours into her post-arrest interview at the FBI’s Los Angeles offices, “Svetlana asked, ‘Are there two FBIs?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, you guys are very serious,’” in contrast with Miller.
The FBI agent told Ogorodnikov that they were serious indeed.
FBI Special Agent Richard Bretzing makes an official statement to the media following the announcement that Miller had been arrested on charges that he funneled American secrets to Soviet KGB agents. | Bettman/Getty Images
Both Ogorodnikovs pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit espionage midway through a June 1985 trial; prosecutors said Nikolay helped to support Svetlana’s scheme to ensnare Miller. Grishin, Svetlana’s KGB handler—who was named an unindicted co-conspirator—quietly left the country, shielded by diplomatic immunity. (Svetlana later recanted her confession, but never formally challenged her conviction.)
Miller, however, fought on. His first prosecution, which ended in November 1985, concluded in a mistrial, devastating the FBI. In 1986, at his second trial, he was convicted and given two consecutive life terms, plus an extra 50 years. But the conviction was later reversed on appeal; a higher court ruled that his polygraphs, which prosecutors drew on, were inadmissible as evidence.
Much had changed by 1990, when the third trial was set to commence. The judge who had overseen the first two trials had decided to recuse himself. The original prosecutors had also moved on from the U.S. attorney’s office. (One was later chosen to lead the Drug Enforcement Agency and tapped his former co-prosecutor as his deputy.) The Soviet Union was wobbling toward collapse. The Cold War was essentially over. But the prosecution of a serious episode of Cold War espionage was not.
Schiff, then a Los Angeles-based assistant U.S. attorney in his early 30s, was chosen by his superiors to lead the prosecution for the third trial. Libby accepted his request to join in prosecuting the case. It would be the future House Intelligence Committee chairman’s “first introduction to Russian tradecraft,” Schiff recalls.
Schiff had never found Miller’s double-agent story convincing. “It may be that Miller entered into this relationship initially feeling that he knew exactly what Svetlana was doing and why she was doing it. But he was happy to exploit the situation, and only later, as he became entangled with her, was willing to provide classified information [to her],” the congressman says now. Miller might have come across “in a clownish way,” Schiff argues, but was “really quite manipulative.”
This time, Miller had waived his right to a jury trial, hoping the new judge overseeing the case, who was known for his pro-defense views, might impose less jail time, or perhaps even acquit him entirely. Schiff and Libby, meanwhile, sought to ensure a life sentence for Miller, given what they perceived as the seriousness of his crimes.
The case was a “mammoth undertaking,” recalls Schiff, and “certainly the most important one for the FBI at the time.” During preparations for the trial, he says, he came in contact with “dozens and dozens” of FBI agents who had investigated Miller or worked alongside him, as part of what became, in essence, a crash course for Schiff in the Bureau’s counterintelligence mission and Russian espionage more broadly.
The FBI provided Schiff with a primitive portable phone (“which looked like . . . the nuclear football”), and the young prosecutor was in constant contact with his Bureau counterparts. “They would joke with me that they could tell when I got home at night,” recalls Schiff. “We would work together in the office, then I would be on the phone with them, driving home, with that portable. And then there would be a respite before I would call again after dinner.”
The trial commenced in the summer of 1990, less than a year after the Berlin Wall had fallen. Both Schiff and Libby recall the importance the Bureau attached to securing a conviction, and the attention and resources the case received from the FBI. Even though the evidence against Miller was strong, the prosecution presented some unusual challenges. “FBI agents are trained to detect when they’re being surveilled,” Schiff says. “Miller figured that he was under investigation, and before he could be arrested, he went to his supervisor and laid out what would be his defense.”
In Schiff’s closing argument, recounted in Sleeping With The FBI, he painted a damning portrait of Miller, enumerating the disgraced FBI agent’s compromise step-by-step. Whatever his initial motivations, Schiff said, in the end, Miller—scorned, resentful, sexually “infatuated” with Ogorodnikov—“betrayed his job, his family and the entire community that placed its trust in his hands” by passing classified documents to the Soviets. “This is a case of government misconduct and government corruption of the highest and most disturbing order,” he said during this statement, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The judge agreed, in part. Although Miller was found guilty of espionage, the new sentence—20 years—was far less punitive than at the second jury trial, or what Schiff and Libby had hoped. “We fought against it,” Libby recalls. “I did not think it was fair at the time, and I still don’t think it was fair, given what Miller had done.” Still, Miller’s fate was secured. He was now the first FBI agent in U.S. history convicted of espionage.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Schiff during the Richard Miller trial in 1990. | Courtroom sketch courtesy Adam Schiff’s office
Miller served a total of nine years and was released in 1994. According to Stanley I. Greenberg, one of Miller’s former lawyers, Miller trained to become a computer technician while in prison, moved back to Utah and remarried. He died about three or four years ago, Greenberg told me.
Svetlana Ogorodnikov was also released from prison in 1994. She later moved to Mexico and married a convicted drug trafficker she had met in prison, re-entered the United States illegally in 1999, and was later a witness in a bizarre torture and murder case, according to the Associated Press. Nikolay Ogorodnikov was released from prison in 1990.
Schiff has thought back to the Miller case over the past two and a half years. As in the 1980s in Los Angeles, during the 2016 presidential campaign the Russian government made a clear attempt to gain leverage over key figures, Schiff says—this time in Donald Trump’s orbit. “Just like in the 1980s with Miller, the Russians looked for people with access to information, and they used a variety of different modalities to entangle them,” Schiff says. “They’ll dangle financial opportunities; they’ll use other ways to exact information. … It does feel like an echo of the past.”
The offer by Russia-connected figures of politically damaging information about the Hillary Clinton campaign proffered to Donald Trump Jr.; former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s gambit to feed the Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin confidant Oleg Deripaska private updates about the Trump campaign; the discussions, led by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and with the candidate’s knowledge, about the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, which continued well into the 2016 campaign: These were evidence, Schiff says, of the Russian government’s latent capacity for leverage over key figures in the Trump orbit, including the president himself.
While some Trump associates might not have initially realized the road they were embarking on in engaging with Russian agents, to Schiff, their pleas of ignorance—like Miller’s—ultimately ring false. For example, Manafort, who spent years representing pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine, “had enough experience working with Russian interests to understand how they do business,” Schiff says. Manafort’s longtime business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who supported Manafort’s activities in Kiev and whom the FBI says has longstanding ties to Russian intelligence, “had his own experience to draw on,” Schiff continues. “So, I don’t think this was, in either circumstance, the case of a naïve person who was somehow duped.” (As part of the Mueller investigation, Manafort was convicted on bank fraud and tax fraud charges, and later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his lobbying work in Ukraine. Kilimnik, who is believed to be in Moscow, was also indicted by the special counsel’s office on obstruction of justice charges related to his work with Manafort.)
But Schiff argues that an action need not be criminally prosecutable—as in Miller’s case—to represent a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and therefore be worth investigation. This is why he has demanded that his committee receive all the documents tied to the underlying Trump-Russia counterintelligence probe. The broader matter, he says, is “whether Americans were acting as witting or unwitting agents of a foreign power.”
For Richard Miller, avarice and moral turpitude cracked the door ajar for future compromise. It was pried open by a Russian intelligence agent, who, sensing an easy mark, proceeded to ensnare Miller, until that compromise shaded into outright conspiracy.
The Mueller investigation could not establish that the Trump campaign took that momentous second step. But compromise takes place in a continuum. The counterintelligence world, unlike that of criminal justice, rarely traffics in absolutes. This will likely be, for Schiff, the paramount lesson of the Miller case, as the investigation of the Trump-Russia affair moves from the well-ordered confines of the prosecutor’s office and into what longtime former CIA counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton called the wilderness of mirrors.
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