Edward Lee Howard, the former CIA case officer who escaped to Moscow in September 1985 after coming under suspicion as a spy for the Soviet Union, died there July 12, according to a family friend.
Howard, 50, the first CIA officer believed to have defected to the KGB, was said to have broken his neck in a fall down steps in his dacha outside the Russian capital, according to the friend, who asked not to be identified.
A CIA spokesman said yesterday that the agency had received reports that Howard "passed away" last week "but we have not yet been able to confirm them."
Although Howard continued over the years to deny he was a spy, he had lived in Moscow as a "guest of the state" since 1985, according to senior intelligence officials. Among the information he was said to have turned over were the names of a CIA officer serving in Moscow and a top Soviet scientist who specialized in stealth technology. The U.S. officer was expelled from Moscow, and the scientist was jailed and subsequently executed.
Howard's death would mark the end of one of the more memorable espionage stories of the Cold War.
Howard joined the CIA in 1981. In 1983, as a newly trained case officer, he and his wife, Mary, also a CIA officer, were prepared for an initial posting to Moscow. But Howard failed a polygraph on the eve of their departure.
Howard was fired from the agency after his case was reviewed, an investigation during which his heavy consumption of alcohol also became an issue.
Although the CIA helped him get employment with a state government agency in Santa Fe, N.M., Howard's drinking got him in trouble there. Faced with financial problems, he apparently made contact with Soviet agents in Vienna in 1984 while on vacation with his wife, and allegedly sold them secrets he had learned while preparing for the posting in Moscow.
He then had a second meeting with Soviet agents in early 1985. After those two trips Howard displayed to New Mexico friends a new collection of Swiss gold coins, a Rolex watch and Russian-style hats he and his young son modeled.
In August 1985, armed with a tip provided by Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko, the FBI identified Howard as a possible CIA mole. The agents interviewed him -- and he denied being a spy.
The FBI placed his home under constant surveillance, a move that prompted Howard to undertake an escape operation fitting for a spy. He dressed up a dummy and spirited it into his car, then went out to dinner with his wife. When returning from the restaurant, his wife at the wheel, Howard slid out of the car as she turned a corner, having put the dummy in the passenger seat.
When his wife returned to their house, she called an office and played a tape Howard had recorded setting up an interview for the next morning. With that, the FBI, which was listening to Howard's phone calls, decided he was home.
Meanwhile, Howard apparently went to the airport, flew to Dallas and then overseas, finally arriving in Helsinki, where he took refuge in the Soviet Embassy. Shortly thereafter he walked across the Finnish-Soviet border and turned up in Moscow, where the KGB supplied him with an apartment and a dacha in the country.
The Howard case led to many changes in how the CIA recruits its officers and how it handles those determined not fit to serve overseas. After Howard's escape, agents deemed unfit for foreign service were kept as CIA employees until their knowledge of current secrets diminished, a former intelligence officer said. In addition, the agency kept track of retirees and developed a system of providing medical assistance for those who may have psychological problems.
Howard over the past years was able to travel from Moscow on occasion. His wife, who was never prosecuted for aiding his escape, moved briefly to Europe with their son to be near him. After returning to the United States, she and the son continued to visit him annually, according to friends. He was said to have visited Bangkok recently, the family friend said.
Among the ironies of Howard's life was its intertwining with that of Aldrich H. Ames, another CIA officer who spied for the Soviets, and perhaps even that of FBI spy Robert P. Hanssen. Ames, a counterintelligence specialist, was among the debriefers of Yurchenko in the summer of 1985 when Yurchenko identified a CIA intelligence officer code-named "Robert." Robert turned out to be Howard, but Ames, himself, just months earlier had begun turning over the names of Soviet CIA agents to the KGB.
In fact, Ames reported to the Soviets about his debriefings of Yurchenko and the identification of a CIA mole. Within a month, Yurchenko re-defected to Moscow in one of the more amazing turns in the Cold War battle between the CIA and the KGB.
As the CIA and FBI began to realize in 1985 and 1986 that they were losing almost all their Soviet agents, Howard's defection actually served temporarily as a cover for Ames's and Hanssen's continued spying. Agency officials initially attributed the losses to Howard; Ames was not caught until 1994 and Hanssen not until 2001.