I met Thomas Mills of Williamsburg more than two decades ago. I’ve known him as a retired State Department official who served for many years during the Cold War, at U.S. embassies behind the Iron Curtain, including such hotspots as East Berlin, Moscow and Belgrade.
I found him a highly-educated person with deep knowledge about Eastern Europe, its history, culture and political landscape. We had many lively discussions about his experiences there. I asked him what were his functions at the embassies where he served.
“I was in charge of maintenance at the embassies” he used to say.
Considering his education and intellect, I wondered why those qualities didn’t elevate him to more important positions.
Then, in 2015 “The Billion Dollar Spy,” by David E Hoffman, was published. In it he describes in great detail the story of Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer in a Soviet military design bureau with high-level access to the most important technical secrets.
Tolkachev became a spy for the CIA, and his revelations, according to the introduction of the book, “Allowed America to reshape its weapon systems to defeat Soviet radar on the ground and in the air, giving the United States near total superiority in the skies over Europe.”
Hoffman’s research concluded that Tolkachev was the most successful and valued agent the United States had run inside the Soviet Union in two decades.
“His documents and drawings had unlocked the secrets of Soviet weapons systems a decade into the future,” Hoffman wrote. “He was a man motivated by the depredations of the Soviet state to master the craft of spying against his own country.... Tolkachev, and his CIA handlers, succeeded for years in eluding the feared KGB in its own backyard, until the day of the shocking betrayal by a disgruntled CIA agent.”
I learned about Mills’ true background on page 208 of Hoffman’s book:
“Thomas Mills was an experienced hand at clandestine operations,” he wrote. “Balding and slender, known for his mild manner, Mills was chief of the CIA headquarter branch that handled espionage operations inside the Soviet Union. In addition to other duties, he spent time getting to know young case officers in training, before they left for Moscow duty.... Mills also participated in the training courses in surveillance and tradecraft for a new generation of case officers.”
One of those trainers was Edward Lee Howard. He was preparing to go to Moscow, where he would become the next case officer to handle Tolkachev. “But the CIA,” Hoffman writes, “lost confidence in him, and he had been forced out of the agency.”
Hoffman than relates, that one evening in late May 1984, Mills and his wife, Joby, were entertaining diplomats from Eastern Europe as guest at their home in Vienna, Virginia. Unexpectedly, Howard showed up at the door, his face flushed with anger. He wanted to talk to Mills, hoping that he could help him to reverse the CIA’s decision. Mills, couldn’t invite Howard inside, it would disrupt the dinner. “He told Howard it was not a good time to talk.”
Mills was glad that Howard was not being sent to the Moscow station. The CIA wanted nothing more to do with Howard. But, he was under FBI surveillance. In Sept. 1985, using methods he learned at the CIA training facility, Howard, escaped to the Soviet Union.
There, he provided the KGB with information that led to the arrest of Tolkachev. The Russian spy, who saved billions of dollars for the U.S. by preventing investments in useless weapon systems, was tried and executed.
The Moscow spy drama was played out in what former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once called the “back alleys of the world.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected column. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.