WASHINGTON -- Last Dec. 28, a retired Russian diplomat sat surrounded by law books in Room 228 of the New York Public Library, waiting to meet an FBI agent.
The retired diplomat was secretly working for the FBI. The FBI says its agent had been secretly working for Moscow.
The agent, Earl Edwin Pitts, wandered around the library for 30 minutes, the FBI says, looking without success for the diplomat, hoping for a Christmas bonus from the Russian spy service.
Pitts' memory had failed him, the bureau says. He had been told to meet the diplomat at "the same place" where he had last had a rendezvous with a Russian, more than eight years before. The diplomat was in the law section; Pitts was in public affairs.
The next day, the bureau says, Pitts met the retired diplomat, who was wearing a concealed tape recorder, at Washington's National Airport. The bureau says Pitts walked with him to a parked car, where an FBI agent posing as a Russian spy handed him $20,000.
On Wednesday, Pitts, by now a supervisor for the FBI, was arrested at the bureau's training academy in Quantico, Va., accused of giving classified information to Moscow from 1987 to 1992 in exchange for payments totaling $224,000.
His court-appointed lawyer, Nina Ginsberg, says he will plead not guilty to an indictment handed up yesterday by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., where he has been held without bail since his arrest.
A 64-page FBI affidavit unsealed after his arrest depicts Pitts' secret life, beginning nine years ago with a series of clandestine meetings with Soviet agents. But what began as a breakdown within the bureau ended with a skillful plot to ensnare the suspect at his own game.
For seven years the bureau was unaware that Pitts was anything but what he appeared to be: a trusted lawyer of middling talents, married to an FBI clerk, mired in the middle of the federal bureaucracy.
A riveting story
And then about two years ago the Russian diplomat started working for U.S. intelligence and told the FBI a riveting story.
In late July 1987, the diplomat said, he was at his desk at the Soviet mission to the United Nations in New York when he opened and read a strange letter from a strange man. The letter said the diplomat was under surveillance by the FBI, which had falsely concluded that he was a spy.
The writer appeared to be an FBI agent offering to betray his country for money. The letter was the purest gold to the Russians' chief spy within the diplomatic mission, Alexander Vasilyevich Karpov: The number of FBI agents who had ever offered their services to Soviet intelligence could be counted on one finger.
Karpov quickly set up an assignation at the New York Public Library. And there, according to the affidavit, Pitts began a long and often clumsy dance, first with Moscow's spies, later with the United States' spycatchers.
The diplomat's story set off a 16-month undercover FBI effort to trap Pitts, whom the affidavit depicts as so greedy that he swallowed nearly every lure cast at him during the investigation.
The affidavit says he kept trying to sell secrets, despite his wife's suspicions that he was a traitor, his discovery of a surveillance camera in his office ceiling and his inability to steal any information of great value. It describes him as a dedicated but deeply nervous spy.
Pitts was 33 years old when he was posted to the FBI's New York office on Jan. 3, 1987. He was immediately assigned to investigations into Soviet intelligence officers posing as diplomats at the United Nations. The bureau kept a directory of their targets that was known as the Soviet administrative list.
The affidavit says Pitts sold this list to Karpov and his friends, along with information about a spy inside the ranks of the Soviet intelligence service and other secrets.
What other secrets? The FBI is unsure. But a senior law enforcement official said Pitts' access to the deepest secrets was limited.
"This was bad and horrendous," the official said, "but it never compromised any major investigations."
By 1992 it had dawned on the FBI that something had gone wrong in New York in the late 1980s. Nobody knew why. Then in walked the retired Russian diplomat.
A Russian at the door
On the afternoon of Aug. 26, 1995, a car rolled down Pitts' 215-foot driveway on Fox Chase Lane in the Virginia town of Spotsylvania. Pitts answered the bell. The Russian was at the door.
"There is a guest visiting me," the Russian said, according to the affidavit. "He wanted to see you. He's in my car. He's from Moscow."
An hour later Pitts left the house in a "panic," according to a telephone call from his wife to her sister that was taped by the FBI.
He met the retired diplomat and an undercover FBI agent, who was posing as a Russian intelligence officer, at a Civil War battlefield, the affidavit says. It says the undercover officer gave Pitts 150 bills of $100 each, and instructions for dropping off secrets.
"I'll do what I can," Pitts said, according to the affidavit.
A wife's suspicions
Meanwhile, Pitts' behavior and the visit of the man with the Russian accent had aroused the suspicions of Pitts' wife, Mary, who was now searching his desk.
In the drawer, the affidavit said, she found a letter from the retired diplomat. Over the next three days, she confronted Pitts, telephoned the FBI to relate her fears and then talked with a friend about the fact that she had informed on her husband.
"I probably shouldn't have gone to the bureau, and it will probably be the end of my marriage either way," she said, according to the affidavit.
"You did the right thing," her friend reassured her. "You did the only thing."
Mrs. Pitts replied: "It's over. My life is over."
Pub Date: 12/20/96