Forty years ago, the FBI performed a most
elaborate counter-espionage operation -
codenamed 'Lemon-Aid' to trap KGB officers
intent on stealing valuable intelligence on
the US Navy in New York and New Jersey
"Hello, Ed, please, read this letter very attentively. To-day, as I have already noticed we have a lot of work to do: 1) Receive your material. 2) Make our first payment to you".
'Ed' was actually Art Lindberg - a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy and a double agent. After a series of meetings in the Spring of 1977 with Terry Tate of the Naval Investigative Service (NIS), Lindberg accepted a dangerous top-secret assignment, subsequently codenamed Operation Lemon-Aid by the FBI. The name had no apparent meaning, but as the case developed, officers said 'it seemed to fit more and more.'
"All I knew was that there would be no monetary reward," said Lindberg. "Because the operation was classified Top Secret, it could never be shared with friends, associates, or family. It could involve danger and travel to strange destinations. Specifics of the assignment were not revealed until after I had agreed to accept the challenge."
At the time, the FBI suspected the Soviets were using their United Nations office as a front for espionage - specifically, to spy on US Navy operations in New York and New Jersey. Lindberg's modest income, impending retirement, and information access made him a perfect candidate to fool the Soviets into believing he would sell secrets for cash.
THE PLOT IS HATCHED
In late July 1977, Lindberg purchased a ticket at the New York office of the Soviet-run March Shipping Line and boarded the MS Kazakhstan for a cruise to Bermuda. "It was a very lonely cruise," recalls Lindberg. "I didn't get to interact with anyone. I was assigned my own cabin and sat for meals with three ladies - an older woman and her two daughters. They tolerated me and I tolerated them.
"The crew was aloof, standoffish, and didn't interact. The main reason was because they were afraid someone would see them talking to a non-Soviet and non-Communist. They were on a short leash and very controlled. There was KGB on board, which is what we were trying to find out."
As the trip neared its end, Lindberg passed a letter to one of the ship's officers before disembarking. It contained a few personal details, and more importantly, that he was an American naval officer interested in making some additional money before retirement. He also said he could provide 'interesting information of interest to the Soviets'. The note contained an FBI prescribed telephone number. Lindberg signed it 'Ed.'
On 30 August, Lindberg drove to a diner in central New Jersey with the designated outside pay phone. "Hello, Ed," said an accented voice. "My name is Jim. We got your message and would very much like to meet with you. I'll call you again - same time, same number - a week from today." The Soviet spies had taken the bait.
FBI counter-espionage officers tracked the resultant stream of phone calls and letters between Lindberg and the Soviets, and learned a great deal about Soviet spycraft in the 1970s. The Soviets repeatedly passed messages and money to Lindberg in the most ordinary, everyday items: magnetic key holders placed in phone booths, cigarette packs, softdrink cans, orange juice cartons, even a rubber hose from an appliance. Most of the prearranged dead letter drop sites, where the secrets were supposed to be passed, (it was actually declassified information) were along the busy New Jersey Turnpike.
The FBI moved in on 20 May 1978 - when it had sufficient information to make arrests. A trap was set - the FBI gave Lindberg five canisters with actual classified materials so the Soviets would be caught red-handed. Hiding inside the trunk of Lindberg's car were two FBI agents, with many other agents waiting at the drop site on a back road.
Lindberg approached the site, stopped the car, and picked up a can labelled 'Ann Page Bartlett Pears', as instructed by the Soviets. He grabbed the can, dropped off the canisters, and drove off. Soon after, agents arrested two undercover KGB officers - Valdik Enger and Rudolf Chernyayev. A third Soviet at the scene, Vladimir Zinyakin, had diplomatic immunity and was later expelled from the country.
In the end, it was one of the most important counter-espionage cases of the decade. Enger and Chernyayev were the first Soviet officials to ever stand trial for espionage in the United States. Both were convicted and ultimately exchanged for five Soviet dissidents.
The cat-and-mouse game between FBI and KGB agents would continue, but 'Operation Lemon-Aid' gave the Bureau's counter-intelligence office insights that helped tackle other Soviet spy operations for years to come.