Naveed Jamali has, probably far too many times. “Top Gun” and “Point Break.” “Rocky IV” (that’s the one where Rock knocks out Ivan Drago, the Soviet champion) and “Miami Vice” (not the ’80s television series, but the 2006 movie with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx). He imagines himself as Tom Cruise suspended by cables over a top-secret computer in “Mission Impossible” and even reminisces about the unseen boss in “Magnum, P.I.” Jamali knows dialogue, characters, scenes. You know those guys who trot out a film or TV reference for any life event? He’s one of those guys.
But unlike those guys, Jamali was lucky enough to live out his fantasy. No, the FBI didn’t pay him to learn how to surf, but Jamali, a smart, young New York techie, somehow spent three years going toe to toe with a Russian intelligence officer who thought he was developing an asset, even though all the while Jamali was quietly collaborating with U.S. federal agents. The fast-paced, occasionally stressful, often hilarious and invariably self-involved story of how it all went down is the subject of “How to Catch a Russian Spy.”
Jamali’s mother and father emigrated from France and Pakistan, respectively, and met in graduate school in New York, where they married and formed a company called Books & Research. It specialized in digging up articles, reports, technical data and books for businesses and government agencies, a sort of “Google for a pre-Google age,” their son explains.
This small business soon became a minor front in the waning days of the Cold War. In 1988, when Jamali was 12, a Soviet official from the U.N. mission in New York came into the office. “You were recommended by a colleague at the United Nations,” said the man, who identified himself as Tomakhin. “My colleague said that you might be able to help us with some materials.” He presented a list of documents he needed: a special issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a SIPRI World Armaments and Disarmament Yearbook, stuff like that. Jamali’s father took the order and told him to come back in two weeks.
Half an hour later, two FBI agents entered the shop and politely asked to see what the prior visitor had ordered. “Mr. Tomakhin is part of Soviet intelligence,” they explained. Jamali’s father showed them the list. “Complete his order,” the agents said. “Treat him like you would any customer. When he returns — if he returns — we will be in touch.”
And just like that began a two-decade collaboration between Jamali’s parents and a rotating cast of Soviet (later Russian) officials on one side, and the FBI on the other. Scattered among their more innocuous requests, the Russians would occasionally ask for official U.S. government documents — unclassified, but not easy for the Russians to get on their own. (They always paid with crisp $100 bills and never accepted change.) And the FBI kept track of what the Russians wanted to read.
In the meantime, Jamali was dipping in and out of college, becoming a programmer, getting married and developing a muscle-car fetish. Sept. 11, 2001, made him feel he had to finally find a purpose. “ ‘I want to be part of this,’ I said to myself. ‘I want to feel like I’m contributing something,’ ” he recalls. He decided to try to become a naval intelligence officer but was told he needed more experience in the field.
That’s when he remembered his parents’ Cold War customers. “Twenty years later,” he writes, “even after the Soviet Union fell and so much else had changed in the world, the Russians were still coming to Books & Research and the FBI was still keeping tabs on them.” So he reached out to the FBI and suggested that he take more risks, entice the enemy further. “My parents are getting older,” he explains. “They’ll be retiring soon. From now on, I’ll be the one dealing with the Russians.”
And deal he did. At the time, the Russian official coming by Books & Research was a gruff, short, cheap, middle-aged and monosyllabic intelligence officer named Oleg, who Jamali thought sounded a bit like Borat. Watching Jamali and Oleg trying to outsmart each other is the joy of the book, because they’re both so awkward at it.
Early on, Jamali tries to put Oleg at ease with an old glasnost joke. (Oleg isn’t amused.) Jamali is crushed when he finds that their clandestine meeting places are all chain restaurants in strip malls. “We were going to Pizzeria Uno?” Jamali asks himself. “Was this really where treason was committed these days?”At one point, Oleg asks Jamali to sign a receipt for the thousands of dollars he was paying the American to retrieve sensitive documents. (I guess spies need to file expense reports, too.)
If you’ve watched too much “Homeland” or “The Americans,” then “How to Catch a Russian Spy” is a nice corrective showing how prosaic low-level espionage can be. Even the FBI messes up: After two agents come by Jamali’s apartment for a morning meeting and one of them leaves a tampon wrapper in the bathroom trash can, Jamali’s wife finds it and concludes that he’s having an affair. “You’re telling me this just magically showed up?” she demands. “Well, it isn’t mine!” (Jamali explains the situation, only to get into deeper trouble for not having cleaned the bathroom ahead of time.)
Jamali decides he can fool Oleg by developing a traitorous persona based on the fictional stories he loved. “I went looking for characters I could copy and learn from,” he explains. “Then I’d stand in front of the bathroom mirror and practice some of the juicier lines,” mimicking Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” Al Pacino in “Scarface” and of course James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos.” Before each meeting, Jamali goes into character as a money-loving American willing to betray his country not because of ideology or coercion, but for cash.
When Jamali delivers Oleg the proceedings of a closed defense industry conference — provided to him by the FBI — the Russian is impressed. Even more so when Jamali teases him with a secretive defense database and transfers one document to a thumb drive as proof of his access. Eventually Jamali begins recording their meetings via a watch the FBI provides him, which unnerves him but makes him feel cool, like “a genuine double agent.” When the FBI agents assign Jamali the code name “Green Kryptonite,” I was convinced they were messing with him, but he regards it as so “thoroughly badass” that he gets it tattooed on his forearm. (In Morse code, of course. You can never be too careful.)
When the FBI learns that Oleg is going to be transferred out of his U.N. post, the feds decide to wrap up the operation. I won’t give away the ending to this spy caper, except to say that it goes down at a Hooters in Wayne, N.J., and involves $20,000 in cash, secret signals and a trio of government-owned Ford Fusions screeching into a strip-mall parking lot. And the “catch” in the book title slightly overstates things.
Normally when I read a book for review, my copy ends up full of underlining and marginalia. Not here. “How to Catch a Russian Spy,” co-written with journalist Ellis Henican, is an entertaining and breezy read, with little to overthink. 20th Century Fox has acquired the movie rights and is reportedly planning a 2017 thriller. The book is perfect for a big-screen adaptation — with one caveat. This tale is more funny than thrilling.
I hope they make it a comedy.
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