Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Spy Games: How KGB Tried to Recruit NYPD Spokesman Paul Browne
Tuesday, July 06, 2010
New York, NY —
One person who has been following the recent arrest of the 11 suspected Russian spies is a New Yorker with his own spy story to tell. Deputy New York City Police Commissioner Paul Browne was himself recruited to be a secret Soviet agent nearly 40 years ago, and he says it doesn't seem like the Russians have changed their tactics much since then.
Browne was just a 24-year-old journalism student when he first met Alexander Yakovlev in the early 1970s. He was taking a class at the United Nations and sitting alone in the cafeteria when three men approached his table.
"As they approached, I said, 'Hey, I'll get up,'" Browne says. "I volunteered, 'I'll go to the bar, you guys can have my table,' and Yokovlev said, 'No, no, sit down.' I don't know if he said, 'Comrade,' but he asked me if they could join me."
Yakovlev told Browne he was a broadcast journalist from Moscow, and Browne said he was looking for a career in journalism or government. That seemed to intrigue Yakovlev, Browne says. Within days, the two were meeting twice a week.
Yakovlev asked Browne for names of any teachers or classmates who were foreigners, suggested Browne attend Jewish Defense League meetings and talked about sending Browne to the Soviet Union for advanced graduate studies. By the third meeting, Browne says he was pretty sure this guy was no TV reporter. He told a faculty member, who got the FBI involved. And they told Browne that Yakovlev was in fact a KGB agent who appeared to be cultivating him.
"The notion of investing that much time in anybody was baffling to me at the time," says Browne. "In retrospect, after I read more about the Soviet espionage apparatus, that wasn't surprising."
Browne says, as a young reporter, he smelled a really good story, so he let his relationship with Yakovlev go on for a year and a half. Browne later wrote about his experience for the Washington Post. And he says when the piece came out, Yakovlev was immediately recalled back to the Soviet Union.
Ironically, since then, Browne has become privy to some of the most sensitive security information in the country, first as chief of staff for U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan and now as a right-hand man to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Browne says maybe Yakovlev had a knack for spotting promise. But too bad he wasn't a smooth operator.
"He was trying to close the deals too soon," Browne says. "To move quickly to asking me which professors and which classmates were foreign-born, who was Jewish -- aggressive, but a little too ham-handed."
Browne says he would hope that when the NYPD is trying to cultivate sources, its undercover officers won't be as obvious as Alexander Yakovlev was.