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The Spy Game

Matt Schudel

John Guilsher was a quiet, modest man who spent 50 years as an officer and consultant for the CIA. For most obituaries of CIA officers, that's about all the information we get. But the story of John Ivan Guilsher is something special.

For Sunday's Local Life, I was able to recreate an amazingly intricate and riveting espionage case of the late 1970s and 1980s in which Guilsher played an instrumental part. The CIA rarely releases information about specific operations, but the case involving Guilsher and a Soviet engineer named Adolf G. Tolkachev is a remarkable exception.

A retired CIA officer named Barry G. Royden has written a dramatic account of this operation, which was made public only last year. Beginning in 1977, Tolkachev, a disaffected Soviet engineer who made repeated attempts to get the attention of U.S. officials in Moscow. At great risk to himself, he became one of the most important spies the United States ever had in the old Soviet Union, passing along detailed plans and photographs of Soviet electronics, weapons, aircraft and other technical developments.

John Guilsher, whose parents were forced out of Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution, spoke Russian as easily as he spoke English, and he played a exceedingly important -- and dangerous -- role in making contact with Tolkachev and helping him ferry information out of Moscow to the United States.

Guilsher was an unassuming man -- they always make the best spies, if you've read your John le Carre -- who, in his wife's words, bored the Soviets with his dull routine of walking the dog and going to the local market. Yet he managed to slip the constant surveillance of the KGB on dozens of occasions, blending in with the Russian populace to meet with Tolkachev in one of the most dramatic and, ultimately, one of the saddest espionage episodes in U.S. history.

Royden's almost day-by-day description of Tolkachev's case makes for riveting reading and opens a rare window on the secret practices of American spycraft.

By Matt Schudel  |  April 20, 2008; 5:12 AM ET
Categories:  Local Lives , Matt Schudel , Washington DC-area people  
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