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Opinion What a KGB arrest of a journalist in 1986 tells us today

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Philip Taubman, author of “In the Nation’s Service: The Life and Times of George P. Shultz,” was a New York Times correspondent in Moscow from 1985 to 1988.

Russia’s security services play by their own devious rules when it comes to framing American journalists. Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter imprisoned in Moscow, is the latest victim.

It’s probably a pipe dream, but I hope he is spared the kind of elaborate facade of manufactured charges that Nicholas Daniloff faced when he was arrested by the KGB 36 years ago. The accusations against the U.S. News and World Report Moscow bureau chief were a case study in Russian subterfuge — and, sadly, CIA incompetence that played into the hands of the KGB and infuriated Secretary of State George P. Shultz.

I was among the first Americans in Moscow to learn of Daniloff’s arrest. I still vividly recall the Saturday afternoon in late August 1986 when I picked up the phone in the New York Times Moscow bureau to hear the words, “Nick Daniloff has been arrested and will be charged with espionage.” The caller was an American living in Moscow who worked part-time as a translator for the Times. The fact that he had secured a long-term visa to work at a Soviet publishing house suggested that he had KGB connections.

I immediately called Daniloff’s home phone. Ruth, his wife, told me he had gone out to meet a Soviet acquaintance and was long overdue to return home. She was stunned when I told her what I had heard.

Within hours, it became clear that Daniloff had been set up by the KGB. He had gone to a Moscow park to meet Misha Luzin, a Soviet contact he had first met in 1982 in Kirghizia (now Kyrgyzstan). The two men had become friends, meeting a number of times over the years.

At the park, Daniloff handed Luzin two Stephen King novels. Luzin gave Daniloff an envelope that he said contained newspaper clippings from Kirgizia. It actually contained Soviet maps stamped “Secret.” Within seconds, KGB agents arrested Nick.

The backstory of the Daniloff affair shows how Soviet security services lured him into a devious entrapment web over many years. The KGB operation that began in 1982 moved into a new phase in December 1984, when Daniloff warily met with a man who said he was a Russian Orthodox priest named Roman Potemkin. A month later, Potemkin left a package at the U.S. News bureau containing envelopes addressed to Arthur Hartman, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, and William Casey, the CIA director.

Though American journalists were generally wary of acting as intermediaries between Russians and the U.S. Embassy, Daniloff delivered the package, expecting that would be the end of the matter. The CIA determined that the handwriting on the letter to Casey was the same as the writing on a document it had received in 1981 that had contained valuable information about Soviet strategic missiles. A CIA officer at the embassy tried to reach Potemkin by phone and mail, recklessly naming Daniloff in a letter that was later shown to the journalist while he was incarcerated at Lefortovo Prison and cited as evidence that he was working with the CIA.

Shultz learned this background several days after Daniloff’s arrest. He was incensed by the CIA’s clumsy tradecraft. “What idiocy,” he later recalled. Shultz advised President Ronald Reagan that with the “secret” maps and the Potemkin ruse, the KGB had produced “evidence” that would make an espionage charge look credible.

The unexpected crisis stirred debate within the Reagan administration over whether Washington should take punitive action against the Soviet Union. Reagan and Shultz opted not to aggravate the situation and instead sought a negotiated resolution.

Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze engaged in intensive negotiations in September 1986 in Washington and New York. The trusting relationship that Shultz had built with Shevardnadze kept the talks on track after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed a message Reagan sent on Sept. 4 that said, “I can give you my personal assurance that Mr. Daniloff has no connection whatever with the U.S. Government. If you have been informed otherwise, you have been misinformed.”

Gorbachev wrote back two days later: “As was reported to me by the competent authorities, Daniloff, the Moscow correspondent of the U.S. News and World Report magazine, had for a long time been engaged in impermissible activities damaging to the state interests of the USSR.”

Reagan was furious. “Word came the Soviets were going to officially charge Daniloff with espionage,” he noted in his diary on Sept. 7. “Gorbachev’s response to my letter was arrogant. … I’m mad as h–l.” Reagan angrily denounced Daniloff’s detention during an Oval Office meeting with Shevardnadze.

But, critically, both Gorbachev and Reagan independently decided that the Daniloff deadlock should not blow up U.S.-Soviet relations. Shultz and Shevardnadze ultimately worked out a deal freeing Daniloff in return for the release of Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet diplomat the FBI had arrested in New York several days before Daniloff was seized. Nearly simultaneously with news of the deal, the White House and Kremlin announced that Reagan and Gorbachev would meet at a snap summit in Iceland.

By contrast, Gershkovich’s fate is entangled in a U.S.-Russian relationship inflamed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and his obsession with perceived threats from the United States and NATO. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken may wish to follow the crisis resolution model that Reagan and Shultz bequeathed them in the Daniloff affair. But absent the goodwill that existed in 1986, the road to resolution promises to be grueling and littered with phony evidence of espionage.