The Spy Who Got Away

Howard’s escape was an embarrassing and devastating blow to the United States. Howard, with his history of drug use and alcohol abuse, should never have been hired by the CIA. He was, nevertheless, and after a year was selected to prepare for an overseas post in the Soviet/Eastern European division. Preparation for a position in Moscow meant initiation into the “secrets of the entire operation.” Just as Howard’s training was completed, a few months before he and his wife were to go to Moscow, the CIA asked him to take a routine polygraph test. He failed. After repeatedly questioning Howard about petty theft, drug use, and his drinking, the agency decided to fire him, though perhaps a more practical, safer course would have been to transfer him to a less sensitive desk job.

Ed Howard’s resentment over what he saw as cavalier treatment ended up not only compromising the entire American operation in Moscow but also yielded strained relations between the FBI and CIA: The CIA failed to inform the bureau of Howard’s dismissal, even after indications that Howard was becoming a serious security risk. His escape embarrassed the FBI, too, because he was under heavy surveillance at the time. In every respect, the Howard case was a disaster.

David Wise initially investigated the Edward Lee Howard case as a cover-story assignment for THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE. The story should be intrinsically interesting--Howard is the first CIA employee ever to take political asylum in the Soviet Union--but the book seems padded with irrelevant detail and repetition. Reporting that the Howards’ dog liked rawhide chew sticks may prove that Wise was thorough, but nothing else. The book also suffers from a portentous tone that often falls flat; chapters end with such sentences as “he had done his best to warn Langley of the gathering storm.” There is a wealth of information in THE SPY WHO GOT AWAY, and Wise had the advantage of interviewing Howard in Budapest in 1987, but lackluster writing and the apparent inability to discard any information as unimportant will make even the most curious reader impatient.