M.I.C.E. – the KGB, the FBI, and Me. Part 1

Author: Jim Hickman

Beginning in the late 1970s and ending as the 20th century came to a close, I traveled extensively between the US and the USSR. For seven years, I was the Director of the Esalen Institute Soviet-American Exchange Program (ESAEP), that flourished during the heightened Cold War tensions following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Over the following 15 years, I started three companies in the USSR in the entertainment and telecommunications sectors. My colleagues and I worked on projects that we believed could open and strengthen non-government communication between the two countries and make some money for ourselves and our shareholders.

My access to both countries became extensive and effective for our programs because of the connections developed by Michael and Dulce Murphy (co-founders of the ESAEP). As well, because there were so few Americans in the Soviet Union in my early years working there, I met many rising stars of government, science, and the media. For the same reason, government and business leaders in the US wanted to meet with me to find out what was going on in the Soviet Union.

We weren’t involved in anything secret, and we didn’t know any secrets. At Esalen, we adopted a policy of open disclosure to anyone who asked about our activities without specifically volunteering information to government representatives. Our approach was to answer all questions fully and honestly without providing information not specifically sought by the interested people. Of course, since we were among the few travellers in those regions, we were also courted by the intelligence and security services from both countries.

Dulce Murphy, Baker Roshi (SF Zen Center Roshi), and Michael Murphy
participating in an Esalen-organized conference on the Moscow River, 1983. Copyright Jim Hickman

My adventures in that realm are stories of fear, humor, and foolishness. It is the story of M.I.C.E., the FBI acronym for the techniques that governments use to turn nice people into agents: Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego. With me, they tried Ego, and, in a way, it worked.  I thought I could rewrite the rules of the game.

As I described in my previous blog post, my relationship with the FBI in the US began in 1981, encouraged by our Soviet colleague, Andrei Kokoshin, who was a guest of the Esalen Exchange Program in San Francisco. The KGB recruitment eventually came also. 

One evening in Moscow, I was invited to have dinner with two representatives of Intourist. This national tourist agency that had been very helpful in arranging visits for various Esalen delegations over the previous three years. Intourist officials had frequently made our visits exceptionally comfortable. I figured it was one of those courtesy-and-show-off events and that I’d be out of there in an hour or two.

I arrived at the Intourist Hotel near Red Square, made my way to Room 636, and was greeted at the door by a man in his early thirties with medium-length dirty blond hair, a friendly smile, and a strong handshake. He introduced himself as Alex and presented his colleague, Igor. Igor was about forty-five and very stern.  I sat on a couch covered with rough wool under a window that looked onto the central courtyard of the hotel. They sat opposite in two chairs drawn up around the coffee table between us. And on the table sat the most important course of Russian business dinners, two liters of potent Russian vodka. 

We drank and kibitzed for an hour and a half, matching shot for shot and analyzing what had worked well and what had gone awry in the logistics of the sixteen trips I had taken to the USSR since September 1979. It seemed to be a cordial meeting among colleagues who shared a common goal of increasing cooperation and contact between our two countries.

Halfway through the second bottle, I was a little blurry-eyed and very relaxed when Alex looked at me earnestly and asked, “Jim, do you know whom you are sitting here with?” I nodded off-handedly. “I don’t think you really do,” he said softly as he reached inside his sportcoat and pulled out a little red leather case about the size of a pocket calculator. “You are now sitting in the presence of two high-ranking members of the KGB,” Alex said as he deftly let the wallet flip open to reveal the red and blue embossed shield pierced by a long sword badge of the KGB.

The two men began to describe with frightening accuracy my past Soviet activities in great detail, identifying my Russian friends and telling me little secrets about their lives. I was scared, especially when Igor leaned across the table and told me, “Don’t ever screw us. The KGB has a very long memory, and we’ll reach across the ocean and pull your balls off.” Now it sounds like a line from a bad spy novel, but it sounded pretty tough sitting in a Moscow hotel room.  Especially when it was spoken by a man who looked like he had been in several wars and probably started a few of them. At the same time, I was elated. I allowed myself to believe that I was important enough to attract the attention of the secret men who wield power in the USSR. I was going to be an insider. I had met the “E” in M.I.C.E.

Alex became my regular dinner partner and drinking companion whenever I came to Moscow. Unlike with Barry Hatfield (my FBI contact in the US), I never had to call Alex. He would know I was in town, call me, give me a hotel room number and “invite” me for a chat. I told him what I had told Barry: I don’t know any secrets; I’ll answer any questions I can, and I won’t take any action on your behalf. I considered him my friend, even though I knew that his assignment would always take precedence over our relationship.

Over the next few years, I talked regularly to Barry in the US, honoring my promise to answer all of his questions. During the same time, I was also meeting with people from the US State Department, the White House, and the CIA, bringing them my views and insights and answering their questions about our (Esalen’s) activities and current events in the Soviet Union. We had access to many of the USSR’s leading thinkers and cutting-edge personalities, and I was happy to share my knowledge and information with everyone. No secrets, no spy stuff, just what I had seen and what I had heard in meetings.

Meanwhile, the FBI began testing the limits of my full disclosure in little ways and asking for small degrees of affirmative action on my part – requesting photos of things they could easily get without my assistance. From Barry’s first little request during the Makarov visit to the Zen Center, I recognized the beginning of a recruitment effort:  get the little commitment before you ask for – or demand – the big one. As I was to learn firsthand, there is a dramatic and terrible difference between the request of a repressive and totalitarian state and one made by far more open democracy. 

At the same time, Alex made clear to me that the KGB suspected I was an American intelligence officer. Who else would be able to travel regularly to the USSR on “foundation funds” and have such an interesting job? For them, this life was only possible with the full support of the US government. In retrospect, I realize that the KGB was intrigued by the high-level contacts the Murphys and I were developing in Washington – Congressmen, members of the National Security Council, and advisors to the President.

Alex began to ask for more and more information from me, although I never knew anything that wasn’t available to any other US citizen. There were awkward attempts to induce me to influence policymakers (not realizing I had no such influence). There were offers of sexual favors (none of them terribly attractive) and continued assistance for some of our more difficult projects.  Eventually, there was even a serious KGB-supported plan to put singer John Denver into space with one of the Soviet space crews. OK, so it sounds ridiculous now, but John had been one of the Americans considered by NASA to become a citizen astronaut, and he came close to flying in one of the two space programs.

The discussions about John Denver flying in the Soviet space program emerged because our project began in 1981 to bring Soviet cosmonauts and US astronauts together to discuss the psychological and spiritual impact of their experiences in space. Astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Lunar Module Pilot, was Esalen’s friend and described the time when he and cosmonaut Alexei Yeleseyev were seated in the two seats of a newly designed jet fighter. Yeleseyev had turned to him and asked, “When you were in space, did you see God?” Creating an opportunity for such conversations was the mission of the Esalen program, so we pursued it.

Over the following three years, Rusty and I visited Moscow several times to further the Astronaut/Cosmonaut Project within the Soviet bureaucracy while, at home, Rusty lobbied NASA to allow astronaut participation. Eventually, the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) was established in 1984. Today, this is the official organization of people who have flown in space.  While my contacts in the KGB rarely discussed this project with me, it was clear that the reliable reputation within the intelligence community of the Esalen Soviet-American Exchange Program and our association with astronauts Schweikart and Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot) were crucial aspects of the eventual permission for Soviet cosmonauts to meet their US counterparts.

Jim facilitating Astronaut-Cosmonaut organizing meeting. Cernay, France, 1984.
Copyright Victoria Elliot
Organizing Committee of the Association of Space Explorers. From left:  Oleg Makarov (USSR), Donn Eisele (USA), Harry Coulter (interpreter), Rusty Schweikart (USA), Ed Mitchell’s wife Anita (hostess of the meeting), Ed Mitchell (USA), Jim Hickman (US coordinator), Alexei Leonov (USSR), Andrei Kokoshin (USSR coordinator), Andrei Melville (USSR coordinator), USSR Trip Coordinator, another USSR coordinator. Cernay, France, 1984. Copyright Victoria Elliot

Read the Part 2 of this blog post

Cite this article as: Jim Hickman, “M.I.C.E. – the KGB, the FBI, and Me”, in New Age in Russia, 10/03/2023, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=6614

Cite this blog post
Anna Grechanaia (2023, March 10). M.I.C.E. – the KGB, the FBI, and Me. Part 1. New Age in Russia. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/sblt

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