Those Were Simpler Times: How the Russians Tried to Spy on Reagan

The Kremlin wanted Ronald Reagan defeated. Soviet leaders worried with some justification that he would start a war. Reagan waged his 1980 campaign with such red-meat Cold War rhetoric that the London branch of the KGB warned Moscow that Reagan, if he won the election, might launch a preemptive nuclear strike early in his presidency.

A long period of détente between the two super powers had ended when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan over the Christmas holidays in 1979, undermining President Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection as critics labeled him weak and naïve.

Reagan ran a campaign saying it was time to get tough on the Soviets. Russian operatives were desperate to get a read on Reagan, sought inroads with the young campaign aides who would be heading to the White House if Reagan won.

John Roberts, now a Colorado-based communications consultant, was on the Reagan campaign team, and the story he tells The Daily Beast about Russian infiltration is a reminder that the Russians have been at this a long time. The Reagan-era story is right out of The Americans, the hit series about Soviet espionage in the 1980s.

The difference between then and now is the sophisticated tools available to infiltrators, and the reaction of the campaign aides on the receiving end of the Russian probing.

“We were much more sensitive to foreign intervention, and much more skeptical—why are they wanting this—what do they want, why are we receiving this over the transom,” says Roberts, who was deputized by his boss, campaign manager Lyn Nofziger, to accept some papers from a Russian “walk-in” source.

“He handed me a bunch of documents which I looked at briefly, gave them to Lyn, who probably just threw them away. Of course Bill Casey (who would become CIA director) was our campaign manager then. I don’t know what he would have done,” Roberts concludes with a laugh.

“We never determined whether he was legitimate or a crank,” he says.

They didn’t suspect foul play, and they didn’t report the incident to the FBI: “We would never have believed a foreign power was going to help Carter win in ’80 and Mondale in ’84. We would not have thought our opponent would do that.”

Reagan’s hardline stance against the Soviet Union had defined his candidacy and his presidency. His landslide victory in 1980 denied Carter a second term, and left the Soviets flatfooted. “They didn’t know how to get a read on him,” says Roberts, “and there was a serious fear that he might start a war with the Soviet Union.”

After Reagan won the election, the number of Russian contacts increased. Roberts recalls a party during the transition in the Alexandria town house he shared with three roommates where two Russians who said they were diplomats showed up. It was an interesting mix of people with a handful of high-powered guests, and lots of young people just getting their first taste of power. But this was the height of the Cold War, and tensions were high between the two super powers. Russians did not casually mingle in Washington’s political circles.

Seymour Bolten, a senior official with the CIA was there. He was on loan to the office of drug policy. (His son, Josh Bolten, would become George W. Bush’s chief of staff.) There were people with connections to Carlton Turner, who would become Reagan’s drug czar. Roberts took note of the Russians but figured with the CIA there, it was okay. But then a young Reaganite, James Pinkerton, waylaid him, seriously alarmed. “He grabbed me, wanted to know what are these Russians doing here, and he made a call to the FBI right there,” says Roberts.

Pinkerton is a distinguished alum of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses, and he confirms the incident. “It’s true, it’s accurate,” he says. He dialed 411 to find the FBI. “I got through to someone who asked if it was an emergency, and I said, well, they’re not killing people. They said if it’s still serious, call on Monday.”

To Pinkerton, 22 at the time and a true-believing Reaganite, “the Cold War was pretty cold.” In two years, in a February 1983 speech to evangelicals, Reagan would use the phrase “evil empire.”

“I was a very, very junior Cold Warrior,” Pinkerton told The Daily Beast. And he didn’t hesitate to call the FBI. “I was a government official, even a junior one, and I was doing what I thought they (the government) wanted me to do.”

Asked how he knew the two men at the party were Russians, “They said they were Russians,” he replied. “I don’t think they said Russian government, but I knew enough that any Soviet citizen by the nature of the system could be presumed to be a government employee.”

Pinkerton couldn’t remember what they said, but “they triggered me with something. They asked some question, I don’t remember what it was, but I thought it was a little too snoopy. These guys were Russians and they seemed a little too curious.”

Compared to security today, government buildings were so open in the pre-9/11 era that “if you wanted to enter the Reagan transition office at 1726 M Street, there were no magnetometers, maybe you waved a badge at someone,” says Pinkerton. “The place was crawling with people you didn’t know. There’s more security to go to a law firm on K Street today” than there was in those days to get into the headquarters of the next president.

“The Russians targeted junior administration officials and Capitol Hill aides trying to get information from these young people,” says Roberts. He was more amused than alarmed and suggested to his boss, Nofziger, that with Reagan elected and in the White House, they should publicize the fact that “the Soviets are aggressively spying on us.” Roberts proposed getting photos of Russians hobnobbing with Washington’s young elite and publishing the pictures in First Monday, the RNC (Republican National Committee) magazine.

His pitch was that it would vindicate Reagan’s position of getting tough with the Russians. White House national security adviser Richard Allen said okay, and “having come up with the idea, I got to execute it,” Roberts says.

Roberts learned of a meeting at a K Street restaurant, he doesn’t remember which one, and he took a table some distance away, placed his camera on a ledge, periodically reaching up to touch the shutter, never putting the camera to his face. Satisfied he had the goods, he left the restaurant. Suspecting he might be followed, he ducked in and out of stores, “and sure enough, I had a tail, a young black woman, unobtrusive, but she was FBI.”

The next day, Roberts got a phone call from Dale Pugh with the FBI asking to meet for 15 minutes in Lafayette Park across from the White House. “We hopped into his car and drove around for several minutes. He asked why was I photographing the meeting. I told him what the plan is (to publish in the RNC magazine) and he asked me to call off what we were doing. He said, ‘I would like to continue to run this operation to find out what the Russians want.’”

The very next day The Washington Post had a front-page story with Bob Woodward’s byline about how aggressive the FBI was in protecting the Reagan administration from Soviet espionage. “I went ballistic,” says Roberts. He called Pugh to complain. “What happened was what you told me you didn’t want to happen.” Pugh claimed he was unhappy too, says Roberts, blaming the Post story on a leak.

Pugh’s bio notes that he was an FBI special agent from 1979-1986. A highlight of his career was heading Soviet Counter Intelligence during the Cold War when he was “one of three to ever recruit a KGB agent into the FBI.” He was the real deal.

Reagan would go on to win a second landslide, carrying 49 states against Walter Mondale in 1984, but in the spring of ’84, Gary Hart had a last-minute surge, and the Reagan team worried about Soviet attempts to destabilize Reagan as a warmonger. A million people had taken to the streets in New York to support a nuclear freeze, and “after monitoring all these events, we came to the conclusion that the Soviets were behind much of the agitation,” says Roberts.

Charles Wick, who headed the United States Information Agency (USIA), America’s propaganda arm, reported that the Soviets were increasingly active in Europe and Africa using undercover alliances.

“I don’t think they had a horse in the race. They would have been happy to see any Democrat or any other Republican,” says Roberts. Casey at the CIA had implemented what Roberts calls a “roll back strategy” with operations in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. “The administration was very consciously going after a defeat or a setback for the Soviet Union internationally using proxy armies,” Roberts says, which included supplying shoulder-held missiles to Afghanistan and Nicaragua.

Roberts had studied Marxism at Oxford, and in 1982, he met with Commander Zero, a Nicaraguan guerilla leader, in a safe house in Costa Rica, to determine whether he was disaffected from the Sandinistas but still a committed Marxist or interested in shifting to democracy and accepting U.S. military aid if he were to come over. “It sounded pretty rosy, a lot didn’t materialize,” is how Roberts sums it up.

And though Reagan would win reelection, his second term would be marred by the Iran-Contra scandal, a remnant of the Cold War power struggle that dominated so much of the eighties. Telling this story now is a reminder that Russian espionage is not new, what’s new is the president we have in power, and the tone he sets, which is a world away from Reagan’s “evil empire.”

© Eleanor Clift  All rights reserved.


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