When a CIA branch chief was murdered

When a CIA branch chief was murdered

By Joseph C. Goulden

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE SPY WHO WAS LEFT BEHIND: RUSSIA, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE TRUE STORY OF THE BETRAYAL AND ASSASSINATION OF A CIA AGENT

By Michael Pullara

Scribner, $37, 352 pages

The 1993 murder was a mystery from the start. A single rifle shot to the head killed Fred Woodruff, CIA branch chief in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, as he rode in a car on a remote mountain road.

The driver was the body guard for Eduard Shevardnadze, formerly foreign minister under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Once the USSR dissolved, he became chair of Georgia’s governing State Council.

Woodruff was in Georgia to help Shevardnadze form a protective security force. The country was suffering political and social turmoil, with crime syndicates running the equivalent of a shadow government. And the Soviets were trying to regain control of Georgia.

Author Michael Pullara, a Houston attorney, became interested in the murder because he had known the Woodruff family as a boy in the small town of Searcy, Arkansas.

Early press reports blamed the killing on a Georgian soldier, Anzor Sharmaidze, 19, who was angered when the car carrying Woodruff ignored his wave for help with his own broken-down car.

Although Sharmaidze claimed he was tortured into falsely confessing, a judge found him guilty and sentenced him to six years in prison.

A veteran trial lawyer, Mr. Pullara doubted that the full truth was told. The military had fuzzed the truth about the death of his father In Vietnam, thus he was no stranger to official fibbing.

He wanted to know more. As he writes, “I wondered what I can do with a law license, a passport and a credit card.” Thus began an odyssey for the truth that consumed almost 20 years.

The Georgians permited the FBI access to forensic evidence. Right away, discrepancies. Accounts said Woodruff was shot through the back of the head. But there was no evidence of a bullet hole through the rear window. The autopsy had the fatal shot to the front of the head.

A new trial resulted in the soldier’s release. The trial judge admitted that higher authorities had ordered the initial conviction.

But why the murder — and the false blame?

Theories abounded. One suspicion was that the GRU murdered Woodruff because he was providing Mr. Shevardnadze with intelligence on Russian military support for Georgian separatists — a thesis that Moscow publicly rejected.

Another scenario centered on Woodruff’s role in investigating Georgia’s role as a conduit for heroin being smuggled to the West.

And then Mr. Pullara read about Aldrich Ames, revealed as a Soviet spy within CIA for years. Just before Woodruff’s murder, Ames had worked on a CIA task force investigating regional drug smuggling. He thus was in a position to forward any reports from Woodruff to his Soviet control.

Ames and Woodruff were casual acquaintances, but not close friends. Ames had rented a house in Reston, Virginia, to Woodruff. Perhaps by happenstance, they met again in Georgia when Ames visited the country on a counter-narcotics mission.

By Mr. Pullara’s account, Ames got staggering drunk in a bar and had a “loud and angry exchange” with Woodruff. He postulates that Ames let slip to Woodruff that he was spying for the Soviets.

Mr. Pullara thus offers a reason for Woodruff’s murder: Once the Soviets learned of Ames’ blunder, they ordered that Woodruff be killed to keep his confession secret.

When Ames heard of Woodruff’s murder, he supposedly collapsed to the floor sobbing. Guilt? Who knows?

The Ames scenario has a seeming hole. Had Woodruff indeed heard such a confession, common sense dictates that he would have immediately passed the information to CIA headquarters.

Mr. Pullara maintains that a CIA officer would not have accused a colleague of treachery by cable; that he would have returned to Washington before voicing his suspicion.

Mr. Pullara ultimately interviewed a Georgian intelligence source who asserted that the killer was a GRU assassin — an operative named Vladimir Rachman. Protecting Ames was the reason. And he firmly believes that the CIA knew as much.

Further, he contends that the Soviets deliberately let Ames be exposed “to protect a more valuable and more highly placed intelligence asset.”

At least two former CIA officers Mr. Pullara interviewed support his cover-up thesis.

One is G.I. Lamborn, a 26-year veteran now living in San Antonio, Texas. Of the murder, Mr. Lamborn told him, “His murder was professionally planned and carefully executed.”

So why did the U.S. government not retaliate? Retired officer Robert Baer told him, “Nobody is ever going to avenge Freddie’s death every CIA officer who ever went into harm’s way knows that the answer to that question is an emphatic ‘Hell no!’”

The decision, of course, was not for the CIA to make — but President Bill Clinton. For whatever reason of state, Freddie Woodruff remains unrevenged.

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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