Obituaries

CIA Officer Richard Kovich; Helped Notable Soviets Defect

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

Richard Kovich, 79, a Central Intelligence Agency case officer whose career stalled amid accusations of disloyalty but who eventually won financial compensation for damage to his reputation, died Feb. 11 at his home in Jacksonville, N.C. He had heart disease.

Mr. Kovich, who spoke Serbian from childhood, was a promising figure in the CIA's Soviet Russia division early in the Cold War. Based in Europe for many years, he aided in the defection and debriefing of notable Soviet intelligence figures.

Among them was Mikhail Federov, a former confidant to the Soviet minister of defense. Federov told Mr. Kovich about a planned Soviet rocket mission and its technological capabilities, crucial information after the Sputnik launch into space.

At first, Mr. Kovich's work with Federov brought a congratulatory note and orchids from James Jesus Angleton, the agency's mysterious and powerful chief of counterintelligence. This attitude soon changed.

Provoked by high-profile moles in the British secret service, Angleton was growing increasingly alarmed that a mole existed in the CIA. He instigated an internal mole hunt under the code name HONETOL, a notorious operation that scuttled many careers, including Mr. Kovich's.

Angleton's suspicion toward Mr. Kovich was given added credibility by KGB defector Anatoly M. Golitsin, who said a Soviet double agent existed -- one of Slavic background whose code name was Sasha and whose last name started with the letter "K."

Meanwhile, Mr. Kovich received praise in his official fitness reports. At Angleton's behest, the CIA bugged his home and office but found nothing suspicious. Nevertheless, as a member of the promotion board, Angleton prevented Mr. Kovich from rising in government rank.

After a heart attack in 1966, Mr. Kovich spent several years teaching at the CIA school at Camp Peary, Va., followed by an assignment as the CIA's Soviet division liaison to the FBI.

During those years, he was a leading voice working to discredit Golitsin in favor of a far-more-reliable defector named Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko.

By the time Mr. Kovich decided to leave the CIA in 1974, much had changed. The new CIA chief, William Colby, dismissed Angleton for domestic snooping, and Mr. Kovich became a full-time agency consultant, which instantly elevated him two government grades.

Still unsatisfied, Mr. Kovich requested his personnel files and began to see for the first time the extent of the accusations against him. He wrote to the new central intelligence director, George H.W. Bush, receiving a reply saying that his continued employment should suffice as vindication.

In retirement in North Carolina, he carried on a fight for recognition of the agency's abuses toward its own employees.


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