Here's What Happened to Edward Lee Howard, RPCV & CIA Defector to the Soviet Union

Howard joined the Peace Corps in 1973, right after he graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. He went to Costa Rica for Training for the Dominican Republic, then in February ’73 was reassigned to Colombia.  His site in Colombia was Bucaramanga and in June of that year he met another new PCV, Mary Cedarleaf, the woman he would marry. In October Howard was sent to Cali, a major sugar and manufacturing center in the tropical Cauca River valley, fifty miles from the Pacific.

He COSed on August 31, 1974 and then worked for a few months as a  Peace Corps recruiter out of the Dallas office. He would have another brief Peace Corps recruitment job in St. Paul, met up again with Mary Cedarleaf, dated, and when he returned to graduate school in business administration at America University they would get married in D.C.

Now, as Paul Harvard would say on the radio, here’s the rest of the story from other sources.

Edward Lee Howard

Edward Lee Howard

In 1985, a 33-year-old former spook named Edward Lee Howard shocked the American intelligence community by evading FBI surveillance teams and defecting to Russia.

Howard had applied to the agency in 1980. An ideal candidate, he was 29, married, well-traveled, and well-educated-with an MBA from American University in Washington.

Howard was also a former boy scout, altar boy, and Peace Corps volunteer. He was tri-lingual and he already held a top secret security clearance from work with the Agency for International Development. A background investigation turned up nothing more than some past drug use, and in January 1981, he was hired by the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (a.k.a., the Clandestine Services).

Howard was sent to the Farm, a secret CIA boot camp at Camp Peary, Va., where he learned what spooks and spy-novelists call tradecraft: the recruitment of assets, the use of dead drops, techniques associated with counter surveillance and evasion, etc, as practiced by the CIA. In a hint of things to come, Farm instructors noted that Howard had a knack for counter surveillance. In the fall of ’81, Howard’s wife, Mary, joined him at the CIA and she too was trained for clandestine work.

By late 1982, things were looking good for the Howards. Upon graduating the Farm, Edward had been assigned to a desk in the East German section of the Agency’s European division. The EUR was a decent posting with good career potential, but soon afterward the couple was invited to fill a vacancy in the elite Soviet European division -then unquestionably the Agency’s most prestigious posting. The couple eagerly accepted and began instruction in the SE’s techniques, procedures, and assets: the ins and outs of the Agency’s most secretive operations.

But, just before the couple was scheduled to depart for Moscow, things suddenly fell apart. A routine polygraph indicated Howard had been “deceptive” concerning his past drug use, says CIA spokesperson Patti Volz, and worse, she adds: it suggested a history of petty theft. A series of further tests were read to confirm that Howard was unfit for clandestine service1, and on 2 May 1983, he was unceremoniously dismissed from the CIA.

The loss of his job at what appeared to be such a promising moment in his career was devastating for Howard, and his state of mind quickly became a matter of concern for his superiors in the directorate. Here they had a man who’d been taught the intimate details of the agency’s most secretive operations, who’d later been found untrustworthy, and whose fall from grace had likely left him disgruntled.

Their worst fears were confirmed just days after his firing, when Howard made several reportedly drunken phone calls to the American Embassy in Moscow. In a rather childish act of vengeance, Howard used a KGB-monitored direct line he’d learned of in SE training, exposing his would-be supervisor there as a CIA operative.

The agency was now, understandably, very concerned. Efforts were made to get Howard some counseling, but he was beyond consolation-particularly by agency psychiatrists who, as he wrote later in his memoirs, “seemed far more interested in limiting my potential damage to the CIA than in helping me.”

The couple moved back to New Mexico, where Edward had grown up, and tried to start life anew. But Howard’s drinking became destructive. He hit rock bottom in February 1984, when a drunken brawl landed him in jail for assault with a deadly weapon. The charges were later reduced to aggravated assault, but Edward had become a felon.

Howard’s real trouble began, however, when he was indirectly fingered by the Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko as an agent of the KGB. Yurchenko, himself a KGB colonel who had defected in August of 1985, told his CIA debriefers of a KGB asset codenamed “Robert.”

Though Yurchenko insisted he had never seen or spoken to this mysterious Robert, he had two critical clues for CIA counterintelligence officials: 1) Robert was a CIA man who had been slated for posting in Moscow, but taken off the assignment. 2) Robert had met with senior KGB officials in Austria in the fall of 1984. Yurchenko’s testimony was extraordinarily timely, as only months before the CIA Moscow station chief had expressed concern that his work was being compromised.

A major operation had been blown, a case officer had been exposed and expelled for espionage, and a key asset, Russian stealth technology researcher Adolf Tolkachev, had been convicted of espionage and sentenced to death.

The ensuing investigation quickly focused on Howard, who was apparently the only officer recently pulled from a Moscow posting, and who had visited Austria with Mary in September 1984. The FBI was brought on to the case and began watching the Howards in New Mexico. A short time later, a warrant was secured to tap the Howards’ phone.

Yet the Howards were not your typical couple and proved a challenge for the bureau. They’d been extensively trained to thwart the very techniques its agents now employed. A month after Yurchenko’s damning testimony, and still lacking enough evidence to arrest Edward, the FBI decided to confront him directly.

He agreed to some questioning but revealed little of substance. Surveillance was stepped up. Then, Sept. 20, 1985, Howard walked up to a member of a surveillance team and indicated that he was ready to talk. He said he simply wanted to get a lawyer first, and a meeting was scheduled for the following week. The following night, however, Howard disappeared.

As the couple drove home from a dinner out, Howard later explained, he leapt from the car as Mary slowed to turn a corner. He left a dummy made from stuffed clothes and an old wig stand in his seat to fool the pursuing agents, and fled to Albuquerque where he took a plane to New York.

Once at home, Mary placed a call to a number she knew would reach an answering machine, and played a pre-recorded message from Edward to fool the wire tap and buy her husband more time-all tricks they’d learned at the Farm. From New York Howard flew to Helsinki, and there he walked into the Soviet Embassy, offering information in exchange for protection.

Howard maintained his innocence until his death. He only fled, he said, because he could see the agency had chosen him to fill Yurchenko’s profile and wanted a scapegoat. He insisted he’d refused to divulge anything of real importance in exchange for his Soviet protection.

He even took his case to Russian state television, where in a 1986 interview he claimed to love America and insisted that he’d never done anything to harm his country. Nonetheless, Edward Lee Howard joined the ranks of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean-infamous western diplomatic and intelligence officials who went against what Howard’s biographer calls “the normal flow of traffic” and defected East.

Howard was the first, and last, American to do so, and his dramatic escape made him a source of embarrassment for both the CIA and FBI. Of course, each of these organizations would eventually find they had much bigger moles in their ranks-in light of which, Howard’s claims of innocence may not have been as outrageous as they once seemed.

Howard’s father once told the New York Times that the CIA “might be playing some strange games” with his son. Others have speculated that Edward was an extraordinarily deep-cover double-agent. FBI officials have publicly dismissed the idea, however, and one struggles to imagine a role for Howard so important that both the CIA and FBI were willing to endure the public scrutiny and humiliation his escape brought with it.

Even still, the dubious circumstances under which suspicions centered on Howard suggest his case was never as open and shut as the agency once believed.

Five days after Yurchenko put the Americans on Howard’s trail, the Russian himself shocked the Western intelligence community by re-defecting to Moscow. He was rewarded with an instructor’s post (though without access to classified materiel) in a KGB training school.

His American interrogator, moreover, had been none other than future agency nightmare Aldrich Ames, and Ames’ bank records show payments suggesting that by this time he’d been working for the KGB for several months.

Could Howard have been innocent? A convenient scapegoat for botched or betrayed operations in Moscow? It seems unlikely. A more plausible explanation might be that he was a minor asset betrayed skillfully by the Yurchenko-Ames team to shore up Ames’ position within the Agency. Similar betrayals have long been a part of the intelligence game.

The practice’s original advocate was the infamous World War I German spymaster Elsbeth Schragmueller, who may have done the same thing to an inept but later romanticized agent named Mata Hari. In industry terms then, Hari and Howard might have been “sacrificed”-though the similarities end there as Hari failed to escape and was executed.

And this brings us back to the subject of Howard’s own death. If, as the Post’s anonymous informant suggests, Howard’s body was found with a broken neck, could he simply have fallen? Perhaps he was tipsy from one of his notorious bouts with drinking. Yet Howard had almost certainly outlived his usefulness to the Russians. In 1991, a Washington Times article noted that he’d lost his once round-the-clock KGB protection and feared he might be turned over to U.S. authorities for prosecution.

As Russia moves closer to NATO and the West, might this have been a botched attempt to seize and deliver him to the Americans? Indeed, in light of the inventiveness of his escape, it’s tempting to read into the confusion surrounding his death the possibility that it’s all a sham. Perhaps he’s alive, well, and plotting a return to the West after scrutiny of his supposed death has died down.

In death, it seems, Howard has proven as enigmatic as he was in life.


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  • OMG

    Like Edward Howard , I am an RPCV, M.A. grad from American University, Eagle Scout, Altar Boy and USAID contractor who lived in New Mexico training Peace Corps Volunteers….. what next!!

  • RPCVs – the most useless bunch of losers on Planet Earth, right behind #DNC #Liberals and #GOP #Conservatives ..

    If you want a Truly Great America and a Restoration of Our Planet to a Peaceful co-existence and pre-Global-Warming Temperatures, with Clean Air and Clean Water for All, without all the political bullshit of the two most corrupt and criminal political parties in Global History, stand with and elect #BradleyHartliep2020POTUS – America’s #Republican Leader and the Best Choice for President in 2020 – The Only Presidential Candidate who isn’t an Elitist sell-out and the only Candidate capable of Leading America, and the World, Forward into the 21st Century ..

  • We can no longer speak the same language. Somber, sobering, disorienting particularly at the end of May 2019 here now, and in consideration of the Putin-Trump grappling involvement, I am left with the consolations of a poem by William Butler Yeats

    When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
    And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
    And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
    Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

    How many loved your moments of glad grace,
    And loved your beauty with love false or true,
    But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
    And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

    And bending down beside the glowing bars,
    Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
    And paced upon the mountains overhead
    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

    Not much compensates for the disbelief in what happens in our country now. All compliance slips into some kind of surrender. Comprehension, impossible. Here we are in our land “….as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / ….” (Matthew Arnold, DOVER BEACH)

    The instability in the non-fictional narrative of Edward Lee Howard mirrors codes that cannot be decoded. It is the psychological orientation that has shifted eluding the way the world can be seen. What we know now feels alien, sinister, dispossessing. Sorcery as in a dark time suggests we can no longer trust of citizens to their government. Even the hidden may not know itself.

    To return to DOVER BEACH come the eked-out lines of the 3rd strophe:

    “The Sea of Faith
    was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
    Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
    But now I only hear
    Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

    What to me seemed once more or less transparent, straightforward, to be trusted is now seen a vague, cloudy, fecalfaced, of dishonor, cowardice because we speak the same language torn apart under a mesh of shadows that we can no longer speak.

  • Two points often missed being that agency CI was totally incompetent here, and that William Casey was one of the most vile and foul individuals to ever walk the earth. That sort of ‘leadership’ is typical however for what in effect is a totally failed and incompetent entity.

  • I was in Swedish prison with that fool. He had been arrested going across the Finland/Sweden border. This was in 1992. His name was John Smith at the prison. I was the only American in the prison at the time, when I ask him where he was from he said “Russia”. Dude was very paranoid of me.

  • In 1985 I worked in an office in Santa Fe, NM that handled financial accounts for the state of NM. On several ocassions Mr. Howard came to our office with probably someone associated with NM state investments. I don’t believe he had anything to do with any accounts and was merely with someone who had reason to be there. I don’t remember who or why. The point of this post is that on one of his visits to the office he game me his business card. I must have still had his card when he defected and when he became news, I saved the card and still have it. I am in no way say he had anything going on these ocassions. I must have spoken to him, but have no reason to remember a casual greeting and maybe brief conversation. He only became of interest to me when he defected to Russia. So, that is why I have his business card. Just an unusual momento of his.

  • Alas, I knew Ed Howard briefly as a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Bogotá in 1973. Just a fading memory of a rather arrogant know it all. But I remember much more his later wife, Mary Cedarleaf. We hit it off, as I had once lived in Minneapolis , near her hometown. We chatted often; she was open and very nice. I’ve known this story since the mid 80s and have often wondered about Mary. If anyone has her contact, I’d be happy to get in touch. I’m on Facebook, sort of.

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