The Quest to Pin the 90s Murder of a CIA Agent on the KGB
Twenty-five years ago, an American spy in Georgia was killed, supposedly by a drunken villager. Michael Pullara didn't buy that.
Left Image: An AK-47 in the mid 1990s. Photo by Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images. Right Image: Freddie Woodruff, right, before his death. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster/Scribner
This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In 1993, Michael Pullara, a lawyer in Texas, was having breakfast when he came across a New York Times article about a CIA agent being shot dead in a car near Tbilisi, Georgia. He recognized the victim, Freddie Woodruff, immediately as the brother of a close friend from childhood. Intrigued, Pullara didn't fully believe the explanation soon offered by Georgian authorities: that Woodruff had been hit by a stray bullet fired from the gun of a drunk villager, Anzor Sharmaidze.
What followed took him across Eastern Europe to learn more about the CIA-agent-turned-KGB-mole, Aldrich Ames, who met with Woodruff not long before his killing; to a prison, to learn about the fate of Sharmaidze, who was convicted and originally sentenced to 15 years; and to back alleys to meet thugs and former Soviet officials. The theory he lays out, one he believes to be bolstered by former FBI and CIA agents, is somewhat complex: He suggests the feds knew Ames was a mole and temporarily left him alone to trade secrets—perhaps hoping he might lead to more moles or hostile spies—but never considered what would happen if Ames and Woodruff had any sort of run-in. If Pullara is to be believed, Ames passed along information about Woodruff to the Russians, whose military intelligence service, the GRU, killed him as a favor to ex-KGB diehards.
Such a scenario would have left the US stuck in a position where it contributed to its own agent's demise, and officials may have preferred to end the investigation as quickly as possible. Bolstering the idea of a nefarious spy plot, in 2008, Sharmaidze was released from prison after witnesses said they were tortured into identifying him as the culprit. Though he had confessed to the crime, Sharmaidze later claimed he, too, was coerced into doing so, though his conviction for Woodruff's murder was never officially overturned. (It's worth noting that despite any desire US officials may have had to avoid an international spotlight, they nonetheless spent years digging into the killing.)
Naturally, the line from on high has been decidedly less conspiratorial. When Russian security state spokespeople have officially weighed in on the saga over the years, they have denied involvement. And in 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, James Woolsey, then the head of the CIA who personally picked up Woodruff's body in Tbilisi, was not convinced by any of the theories floating around about the agent's death, even if he did not offer a total denial: "In that part of the world," he told the paper, "it is impossible to say anything is beyond the possible." (Bill Lofgren, the man in charge at the time of the CIA in the former Soviet Union, was more emphatic: "We found no hidden hand in the killing of Freddie. None.") When I asked, Pullara said he was not aware of any official reactions from the FBI or the CIA following the recent publication of his book on the saga, The Spy Who Was Left Behind. But he did express confidence that it resonated at the highest levels, and might even spark a new probe of the incident.
(In an email, an FBI spokesperson told me that "based on [Department of Justice] policy, [it] neither confirms nor denies the existence of any investigations." Through a spokesperson, the CIA declined to comment.)
For fresh perspective on a strange 90s episode in a time of Russia panic in America, I talked to Pullara about his writing process, the toll a nearly three-decade-long obsession can take, and the history of violence between spies working for America and Moscow.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Can you give me an idea of what the country of Georgia was like at the time of Freddie Woodruff's killing, and how it's different now? I'm asking less for a history lesson, and more for context about the environment in which Woodruff died, and how it's evolved over the years you've been looking into the murder.
Michael Pullara: The established order of the Soviet Union was fracturing into individual pieces. The KGB, the GRU—these are wonderful and highly sophisticated machines, which, the minute you cut off the money, they're going to start to fall apart. So those entities had decided to go into organized crime on a full-time basis in order to fund their legitimate activities. And, in 1993, you had basically all of organized crime merging with all of the established government. It sounds dystopian—but it's real.
At the same time that this is happening at the highest level, at the lowest level, anybody who had control over any limited resource would exercise that control in order to get whatever they needed to survive. If you're the guy at the post office who has authority over who and who doesn't receive their mail, you simply charge them a fee to get their mail. This kind of high-level and low-level corruption was the rule, and not the exception. In '93, everyone who could get a gun, carried a gun. It was a very, very violent place.
Then, what happened was: As the United States moved in, and marginalized the mafia leaders, George Soros created an extraordinary exercise in government. He started paying all the low-level salaries of low-level people, and all the high-level salaries of high-level people. And basically said: If you steal, you're going to get fired. But as long as you work, and don't steal, you're going to get a very good salary. So he weened them off corruption, at every level, except for the very top. It's become, now, a tourist destination. You can drive in any direction 100 miles, and you can be in a totally different climate zone—mountains, beautiful beaches, spectacular deserts. But, again, at the top, it's still corrupt.
How motivated were you to go forward by the sheer narrative force of the case? In other words: Was your goal answers and justice? Or was it fun? Or both?
I'm not an adrenaline junkie. This whole thing was, at every step, a very interesting puzzle. But there were a few occasions when I wondered if I should stop. In the book, there's the story of us getting inside the prison and videotaping Anzor [Sharmaidze] as he described in detail how the police had tortured him and made him confess to a murder that he didn't commit. I didn't sleep for about a week after that. I was so disturbed, [but] it caused me to want to redouble my efforts on his behalf.
I can tell you, the times I was sitting in Moscow, talking to [ex-]KGB officers, I was afraid. I can tell you when I would wait—like I had to wait on the street to meet somebody—I would step into the shadows. I was certainly aware that it was dangerous. If you and I are talking over a beer, boy, does this all sound exciting. But when you're living it, it's less exciting and much more frightening.
I was in Belgrade, Yugoslavia [at] the beginning of [their] civil war. So I know what it's like to be in a place where order is breaking down. So, when Freddie is killed, and this masterful detective work grabs the killer within hours after the event, even though he is completely unconnected to the victim—and then he comes forward and confesses to crime, and lo and behold, it's a complete accident, which is just what it needs to be for everybody [actually involved] to get away from it clean, I go, "No, no, no." It just wasn't the world that I know.
You write in the opening chapter:
"I had just completed a decade-long investigation into the circumstances of my father's death in the Vietnam War and had discovered that the air force had deceived my grieving family. Contrary to their earnest representations, my father did not die in a quaint hamlet in South Vietnam. Instead, he was killed in Laos fighting a war that no one would officially acknowledge."
Do you operate, then, under the assumption that the United States government is composed of a bunch of liars? Or, if you'd rather: You've learned, personally, not to trust everything public officials, right? But where does that stop, reasonably? What are the parallels between your father and Woodruff, specifically?
The one you mention is an obvious similarity, yes. Less obvious is that the process of grieving is actually advanced by knowing the truth. I didn't know Freddie—he was the one I didn't one know—but the Woodruff family, of course, when I was growing up, they were dear to me. As soon as I realized the nature of the inquiry, I felt I wanted to give them the comfort of reliable information—how did he actually die, where did he actually die, why did he actually die. That was my goal, initially, and then it became an uncomfortable reality that I had discovered a lie—and that I had discovered that Anzor was innocent. I expected that he would be innocent, but I never expected him to be framed in such a ham-handed way, and that I would discovered it through documents I had FOIAed from my own government.
Again, I never got into this to make it a quest. I got into for a very discrete purpose, and it changed.
Does this killing shed any light on what's happening today, with Russia's election hacking and other tradecraft?
Oh, absolutely. The people who actually killed Woodruff—the logistical support, the shooter (if you will)—were the GRU. It was Russian military intelligence. And those are the same people who hacked our election. Exactly the same. Just as a truism: The [ex-]KGB officers are practical, pragmatic, business-oriented people. Some of them I met, I found to be extraordinary in every respect. But some of them, I found to be, well, pretty much lowlifes. But the GRU are true believers—they are committed to asserting the greatness of Russia forever. It's an interesting approach, really: They believe by making America shorter, they can make themselves taller. So they subvert America at every turn, because it makes them more powerful; it's a zero-sum game, if you will.
Now the killing of Woodruff, by the GRU, was done strictly as a favor to the KGB, but their hacking of the election was done intentionally. But in both cases, they do it and leave a footprint. They simply cannot fail to be noticed. It's a big part of what they're trying to accomplish: “Notice our will to power. Notice how forcefully we act against you. Fear us.” And they did the same thing with Woodruff. It was a sloppy murder that everybody involved knew who had really done it. I met with [agents of] both the [ex-]KGB and GRU. They were coy in answering questions about their involvement in the murder, but they were emphatic about their professionalism, patriotism, and absolute dedication to the Russian empire.
Do you really expect tangible consequences from the book?
The official status of the FBI investigation of Freddie’s murder is “open but unassigned.” That means the case has not yet been officially closed, but no agent is actively pursuing it. Several current and retired intelligence agents have told me that the evidence collected in my book is likely to prompt the CIA to revisit the case—both to address the issue of the perpetrators’ guilt and to analyze the governmental decisions that contributed to Freddie's death. I am confident that professionals at the highest levels of the agency are reading and studying my book.
Are you relieved to have this out there at last?
The Austrian philosopher [Ludwig] Wittgenstein said that if you don't have a word for a thing you can't think the thought. And I think that a lot of the experiences I had, I hadn't vocalized, and therefore hadn't yet thought about them. In the process of writing, I was compelled to actually put them in words and think about them. At some points, it scared the living pee out of me. That act was very cathartic, but I can see as the book is published, I now relate to the experience through the words that I had found, as opposed to the rawness of the memory.
Learn more about Pullara's book here.
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