In from the cold

Unlikely double agent to be honored for role in freeing refuseniks

By Hinda Mandell
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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Orange juice cartons and soda cans seem more like the contents of a recycling bin than the tools of Soviet spycraft. But these everyday containers held key information about the US Navy during the Cold War.

An American known simply as “Ed’’ sometimes dropped them in designated spots along the New Jersey Turnpike per instruction of his Soviet contacts. Other times, Ed would scoop them up, collecting his cash payments along with his next instructions. .

The Soviets didn’t know it in 1977, but Ed was actually a double agent, Arthur Lindberg, a Navy lieutenant commander recruited by the FBI. His undercover work during “Operation Lemon-Aid’’ resulted in the espionage trial of two Soviet agents, who were ultimately exchanged for the release of five political dissidents from Russia.

Lindberg’s actions three decades ago will receive new recognition in November, when the Brookline-based Russian Jewish Community Foundation honors him with the Soviet Jewry Freedom Award at the organization’s annual gala.

Lindberg is already a recipient of the Legion of Merit, the US military’s highest peacetime honor, for his secret mission. The FBI had him provide doctored information on naval operations to the Russians, hoping to uncover the identities of Soviet spies operating in the United States.

“Somebody like Art could have said ‘Sorry, it’s not my war. It’s not my cup of tea. I’m a Navy guy. I’m not an agent.’ He was really putting his life in danger,’’ said Greg Margolin, 52, of Brighton, the foundation’s cofounder.

Operation Lemon-Aid provided the FBI “with a wealth of intelligence about KGB priorities and tradecraft,’’ agency historian John F. Fox Jr. said in an e-mail providing details on Lindberg’s role.

Unfolding decades before the June arrests of 10 Russian undercover agents leading seemingly ordinary lives in Cambridge and elsewhere across the country, Operation Lemon-Aid is a reminder of Moscow’s long history of covert operations in the United States.

“The spy game doesn’t change,’’ said Lindberg, now 75 and living in Toms River, N.J.

His turn in the game began in 1977, when he was 42 and on his final tour of duty with the Navy. Lindberg was director of procurement at the Naval Air Engineering Center, a major research and development command facility outside Lakehurst, N.J. It was a prime target for the Soviets, he said.

“I had the operation running very smoothly, and frankly I was sitting there bored with two years to go,’’ Lindberg said.

Then one spring day he got a call. A man from the Naval Investigative Service was on the line. He said he was calling on behalf of the FBI.

“He asked me if I would consider taking on a secret assignment. There would be no material benefit. One I can’t share with anyone and can be dangerous,’’ Lindberg said. “Being kind of bored, I said yes, I’d consider it.’’

On a Monday morning that summer, the phone rang again. This time Lindberg’s contact was offering him the assignment. But Lindberg was heading out the door for a family vacation, and the caller agreed to give him a week to make his decision.

While traveling in rural Virginia, Lindberg visited a small Methodist church, and the sermon’s message that Sunday seemed aimed at him: “We should seize opportunities to serve God and country,’’ he recalled.

Lindberg knew there were political dissidents, most of them Jewish, being blocked from leaving the Soviet Union, and felt that they needed his help. “There had to be refuseniks sitting in the gulags praying to God to get him out of that hell,’’ Lindberg said. “God answers prayers through other people,’’ he said. This time, it was his turn.

Lindberg returned home committed to the FBI assignment, and the plan was revealed to him incrementally.

His first task was to buy a ticket for a Soviet cruise ship heading to Bermuda, because the FBI suspected that the MS Kazakhstan was used by the KGB as a rendezvous spot for its operatives.

The cruise catered mostly to Russian Americans and others looking for an inexpensive trip to Bermuda.

“It was like how you’d imagine a Soviet cruise to be,’’ Lindberg said. “Rather drab, the crew wasn’t friendly. It was a totally Soviet KGB-oriented cruise.’’

The night before the ship was to return to New York, Lindberg handed a note to the officer on deck, in an effort to make his debut in Soviet espionage circles.

Addressed to the Soviet ambassador, the note introduced Lindberg as a naval officer interested in making some extra money in exchange for classified information.

The note also provided a date, time and phone number where KGB agents could reach him. Lindberg signed the note with his pseudonym, Ed.

“They made the phone call, and we were off and running,’’ Lindberg said.

Over the next year, Lindberg said, he sent about a dozen sets of documents to his Russian contacts. He never met them in person; they communicated through pay phones at various locations along New Jersey highways.

Lindberg’s contributions, stamped as “Secret’’ for the benefit of the KGB, actually contained declassified information about naval operations, he said.

His Soviet contacts were interested in antisubmarine warfare, cruise missiles, and the Navy’s aviation defense operations.

Lindberg recalled the first time he made a drop, involving about 75 pages of documents.

“They wanted me to put it in a milk container,’’ said Lindberg. So he ran off photocopies of the “secret’’ paperwork, put them in the carton, and dropped it off at a railroad station.

Yet when the Russian spies saw the milk container bursting with crumpled paper, it revealed Lindberg’s amateur spy status. They told him to buy a camera, take pictures of the documents, and put the film containers in the carton, not reams of paper.

“They trained me,’’ he said. “The Soviets trained me to be a spy.’’

On a spring day in 1978, Lindberg made his final drop. This time it included actual classified documents, so the KGB operatives would be caught engaging in a criminal activity, buying state secrets.

The FBI arrested three Soviets as spies; two were initially sentenced to 50 years in prison for espionage before being exchanged for the five dissidents. The third operative was a Russian official with diplomatic immunity. He was deported from the United States.

Lindberg’s work is connected to a pivotal part of refusenik history.

At last year’s Russian Jewish Community Foundation gala, the organization honored a group of refuseniks who, in 1970, plotted to hijack a small charter flight from Leningrad’s airport and escape to Sweden in order to bring attention to the plight of Jews under Soviet Communism. But they were arrested before they boarded the aircraft, and sentenced to the gulags, the USSR’s notorious forced-labor camps.

The plot’s lead organizer, Eduard Kuznetsov, and the would-be pilot in the hijacking, Mark Dymshits, were among the Russian dissidents swapped for the two arrested KGB spies.

“It’s this entire piece of history I was 100 percent oblivious to,’’ said Masha Rifkin, 23, who is helping organize this year’s gala. “Strangers helping other strangers achieve freedom — that plotline still exists.’’

As for Lindberg, based on his months of rummaging through discarded items on highways, he offers this tip:

“If you’re ever in New Jersey and see trash, pick it up. There may be money in it.’’

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