Gardner R. Hathaway, at right, inside the CIA station at what was then the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1977. (Family Photo)

Gardner R. Hathaway, a former CIA chief of counterintelligence whose nearly four-decade career with the agency took him to Cold War focal points ranging from Berlin to Moscow and placed him at the center of many espionage episodes, died Nov. 20 at the Vitas hospice in Vienna. He was 88.

The cause was complications from cancer, said his wife, Karin Hathaway. He was a Falls Church resident.

Taciturn but courtly, “Gus” Hathaway was an undercover officer known for his mastery of espionage tradecraft and his aggressive efforts to best the Soviet KGB.

“Gus was a risk-taker,” said Jack Downing, a former CIA deputy director of operations who served with Mr. Hathaway. “We needed good intelligence, and we needed to be aggressive to get it. He was canny and smart about how to do it.”

Mr. Hathaway convinced skittish superiors at agency headquarters in Langley to approve an operation in 1978 involving a Russian engineer named Adolf Tolkachev. The episode provided the CIA with a huge amount of sensitive intelligence on the Soviet military for a nearly a decade.

One celebrated incident in Mr. Hathaway’s career took place soon after he arrived in Moscow as the CIA station chief in 1977. When a fire broke out on the U.S. embassy’s eighth floor, Mr. Hathaway barred arriving firefighters from entering the CIA station — located the floor below the blaze.

He suspected some of the firemen were KGB agents, and he refused to evacuate until the fire was contained.

Mr. Hathaway was awarded the prestigious Intelligence Star for his actions, with a citation noting that he had protected sensitive areas from penetration “at great personal risk.”

Gardner Rugg Hathaway was born in Norfolk on March 13, 1925. He was 2 when his father died, and he grew up in Danville, Va., with his mother and stepfather.

He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and was wounded in the leg by mortar shrapnel. After his discharge, he enrolled at the University of Virginia and joined the CIA a year after graduation in 1950.

He worked in Frankfurt, Germany and then Berlin as a case officer. He later served in South America before arriving in Moscow as chief of station in 1977.

At the time, the CIA was reticent about running operations in the Soviet capital. Two CIA operations in Moscow recently had been discovered by the KGB, and the new CIA director, Adm. Stansfield Turner, ordered the station not to undertake any operations.

Tolkachev, a military electronics expert, had approached the Americans several times, leaving notes trying to establish contact. Senior CIA officials were wary, fearing it was a KGB-run provocation that could flush out American agents and sabotage hopes for improving bilateral relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Hathaway, who was approached by Tolkachev on a Moscow street, argued it was worth the risk.

He won approval, and the result was “one of the most productive operations we ever had,” said Downing. The stream of information continued until 1985, when rogue officer Edward Lee Howard informed the Soviets about the breach. Tolkachev was arrested and executed the following year.

Mr. Hathaway was determined to protect such agents, believing none should ever be caught because of mistakes by American handlers. “Gus never had an operation rolled up [compromised] because of bad tradecraft,” said Barry Royden, a former senior counterintelligence officer.

When the agency feared a published book in 1978 would compromise the identity of Aleksey Kulak, a decorated KGB officer who had fed valuable information to the FBI for years, Mr. Hathaway was determined to warn the mole.

To avert KGB surveillance, Mr. Hathaway donned a female disguise kept in the station and headed into the Moscow night to telephone Kulak. The KGB officer declined Mr. Hathaway’s offer of being spirited from the country and was left unmolested by the Soviets.

In 1985, after a stint as chief of the CIA station in Bonn, Germany, Mr. Hathaway was appointed chief of counterintelligence.

He became alarmed after a number of Soviet agents working for the Americans were taken into custody or disappeared during the last eight months of 1985. He suspected a mole had penetrated the agency.

In 1986, Mr. Hathaway assembled a team of trusted colleagues to investigate and look for common threads. The hunt would culminate in 1994 with the arrest of Aldrich Ames, a CIA counterintelligence officer who had been selling secrets to the Soviets.

By then, Mr. Hathaway had retired, but he and others who had served in senior positions “caught the brunt of the firestorm” that followed, said Sandra Grimes, a former CIA officer who was part of the team that caught Ames.

Yet it had been Mr. Hathaway’s early suspicion that the agency had been penetrated and his determination to find the mole that made him “one of the real heroes” of the episode, Grimes added.

At Mr. Hathaway’s retirement ceremony in 1990, CIA Director William H. Webster called him “a consummate operations officer.” He was presented with the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, which noted in part his “willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom, inspiring leadership . . . penetrating intellect and profound compassion.”

Mr. Hathaway’s first marriage, to Marjorie Charlton, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Karin Kadereit Hathaway of Falls Church, three sons from his first marriage, Gardner R. Hathaway of Asheville, N.C., and W. Charlton Hathaway and Taylor Hathaway, both of Charlottesville; a stepdaughter he adopted, Sandra B. Hathaway of New York City; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Shortly after his retirement, Mr. Hathaway traveled to East Berlin at the behest of the agency and met with Markus Wolf, the East German spy chief and one of the most effective espionage agents of the Cold War.

Reunification with West Germany was looming following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Mr. Hathaway hoped to coax Wolf to move to the United States and cooperate with the CIA. Over coffee at his dacha, Wolf politely declined the offer, but presented his rival with an autographed copy of his memoir.