By Jay Holmes
Last week we looked at the early days of Christopher Boyce and Andrew Daulton Lee — the Falcon and the Snowman — and how they went from childhood friends to conspirators in spying for the Soviets. When Altar Boys Get Bored — The TRW National Security Disaster brings them up to 1975. At that time Christopher Boyce worked in the Black Vault at TRW. This is where the company stored Top Secret Codes, and where incoming data from satellites were decoded.
In 1975, Christopher Boyce, a.k.a. the Falcon, suggested to his longtime friend Andrew Daulton Lee, a.k.a. the Snowman, that Lee traffic Top Secret information to the KGB. Lee was quick to agree. In Lee’s mind, the chance to help Boyce spy on the US government seemed like the perfect opportunity. By that time, he had already served prison time for dealing cocaine and heroin, and, after being busted on drug charges again, he had worked as a snitch for the police. Lee knew enough about the drug dealing world to know that his long term prospects for health and happiness as a snitch were rather dim. For him, spying not only meant money, but the prospect of broadening his criminal horizons. It also provided the emotionally fragile Lee with a sense of importance.
Lee traveled to Mexico City and made a personal visit to the Soviet embassy, where he told the receptionist that he had very important information for the Soviets. The receptionist alerted senior resident KGB officer Vasiliy Okana, and Okana agreed to interview Lee in a secure room in the embassy.
The bright and talented Okana was very well educated, well trained, and experienced. He was used to using patience and hard work to gather intelligence. Based on his long experience, Lee seemed like one more mentally unbalanced, third rate crook trying to run a poorly designed spy cam.
Unfortunately for the US, Okana was highly disciplined and listened to Lee dispassionately in spite of the horrible first impression that Lee made on him. By the end of the conversation, Okana realized that, although Lee was indeed a flake, he likely was working for someone with access to valuable information. Okana decided to invest time, effort, and scarce KGB cash to see what information Lee could supply.
Working with the emotionally unbalanced Lee quickly became a nightmare. The coke snorting, booze gulping Lee grew impatient and recklessly ignored the protocols and procedures that the KGB had given him to keep him safe from detection by the US and Mexican authorities. Even though he had been told that the Soviet Embassy was under constant surveillance by the Mexican government and foreign intelligence services, Lee visited the embassy and demanded attention.
Lee knew that the KGB would have happily cut him out of the operation and replaced him with a professional KGB courier, so Lee was careful to not identify Boyce to the Soviets. Okana and his boss must have had to exercise every last ounce of patience and persuasion to keep Lee from self-destructing. They despised Lee, but he served as a vital link between the KGB and the mysterious agent that was sending such a windfall of valuable intelligence.
In addition to daily message and telemetry codes, Boyce sent decoded messages and information about the satellites. We now know that the Soviets had other sources that were delivering the same technical intelligence about the same US spy satellite systems. However, the KGB was not about to tip its hand by failing to show an interest in the technical intelligence that Boyce was providing along with the precious codes and message copies.
In spite of having to rely on one of history’s least talented spies—the Snowman—the Soviets managed to keep the operation working for two years. The damage that Christopher Boyce did to US security was tremendous. The code strips allowed massive volumes of secret US communications around the world to be quickly decoded by the USSR. Besides having a clear picture of US military and diplomatic intentions, the information was a great help to the KGB’s counter-intelligence efforts. By adding valuable pieces to the many puzzles that the KGB was constantly trying to complete to identify spies in the Soviet system, Boyce indirectly helped the KGB round up people behind the Iron Curtain who were working for the West.
On one of his chemically-enhanced, unwelcome visits to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, Lee aroused the suspicion of the Mexican police. They recognized him as a criminal, but they were mistaken about which particular flavor of criminal he was. The police arrested him with the mistaken belief that Lee had murdered a Mexican policeman.
Lee demanded his rights as a US citizen, and the Mexican police did what they always do to felony suspects. They laughed and then continued to torture him. Lee confessed to spying against the US for the Soviets. The Mexicans realized that he was, in fact, not the criminal that they were looking for and deported him to the US. When he crossed the border into America, he was arrested.
Using his full powers of intellect and every ounce of his self-discipline, he resisted the verbal interrogation at the hands of the FBI. For about two minutes. Then he talked a blue streak and identified his lifelong best friend, Christopher Boyce, as the source of the intelligence that he had been delivering to the Mexicans. Had Lee been slightly brighter, he would have traded Boyce for a light sentence. He wasn’t slightly brighter, so he spilled the beans in exchange for nothing.
The FBI and US Marshal Service quickly detained Boyce, capturing him on the seaside cliffs of Palo Verde. Boyce’s last act before his arrest was to free his pet falcon. Lee and Boyce were convicted of spying for the Soviets, and they received life sentences.
But the Falcon’s adventures were not quite over yet. In our next episode, we will look at how the Christopher Boyce managed to escape custody.