Military | October 12, 2018 5:00 am

How the U.S. Outsmarted a Cold War Bugging Plot

An American double agent fooled his handlers -- and family -- for five years.

The listening device was fairly subtle for the 1960s – a wooden box about 13 inches long, a little more than an inch wide and half an inch thick. On the side there was a small opening for a microphone, good enough to hear spoken conversations in the room. And it could be activated remotely.

The plan outlined by his Czechoslovakian handlers was for U.S. State Department employee and secret Czech spy Frank Mrkva to plant the device in the bookcase of the office of Raymond Lisle, the State Department’s director of Eastern European Affairs. The device, which had been designed specifically to blend in in that book case, would then presumably transmit whatever it heard to the Czech embassy about half a mile away.

The device was small, but the stakes were huge. The bug held the promise of allowing Czech intelligence to listen in on secret discussions about U.S. plans in Eastern Europe, the front line of the intensifying Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. At the time Czechoslovakia was within the Soviet sphere of influence, which meant it was all the more likely that those U.S. secrets would wind up deep within the walls of the Kremlin in Moscow.

But there was one small — actually not so small — problem with the whole plan: Frank Mrkva wasn’t actually a Czech spy – he had only been pretending, at the behest of the FBI, for the past five years.

Mrkva was an unassuming man, far from the sleek silver screen spy, but he was dedicated to the mission — so much so that even his wife didn’t know until it was over that he was walking the espionage high wire.

As the State Department and Mrkva later described it to reporters, Mrkva’s “recruitment” in 1961 was straight out of the espionage playbook. A Czech speaker who worked in the Passport Office in Washington, D.C., Mrkva had been spotted by Czech officials, who casually invited him to social functions at the Czech embassy. The social functions turned into a one-on-one dinner with the high-ranking diplomat, Zdenek Pisk, who charmed Mrkva and then mentioned Mrkva’s financial and family health troubles. That’s when the Czechs offered Mrkva a significant pay raise to pass along the odd bit of information.

Mrkva, however, had alerted the State Department immediately to even the invitations to the social events, so when the Czechs made their pitch, he and the FBI were ready. Mrkva accepted the Czech money and for the next half a decade fed them only information the FBI provided.

The New York Times later wrote that Mrkva met with Czech officials approximately 40 times and was paid around $3,500 – all of which went straight to the FBI. (At the time this began Mrkva’s salary was reportedly around $6,500 per year.)

“In return for the money, Mr. Mrkva supplied such generally available and unclassified documents as the State Department telephone book, press releases and administrative reports,” the Times said.

In Life Magazine, Mrkva later described some of the tradecraft he used as a fake spy. If the Czechs wanted to make contact, for instance, they would send one of their agents to wait by a bus stop that was on Mrkva’s route home. If Mrkva saw the agent, he knew to meet with him minutes later at a nearby grocery market.

This went on until 1965 when the Czechs came up with the listening device gambit and Mrkva dutifully played along. By then running Mrkva had fallen to another Czech official, Jiri Opatrny.

“When Opatrny delivered the device to Mr. Mrkva on May 29, he instructed that it be placed in the base of a bookcase in Mr. Lisle’s office. Immediately after entering the State Department building, Mr. Mrkva turned the device over to waiting FBI agents,” the Times wrote.

When the device didn’t work as planned, Mrkva told the Czechs he had dropped it, after which the two argued about the $1,000 Mrkva was supposed to be paid for completing the mission.

By July the FBI decided to pull the plug on the counter-intelligence operation and Mrkva stepped from the shadows and into the spotlight. At a press conference, he explained his incredible tale, posing happily with the listening device.

Suddenly something of a national hero, Mrkva told Life that he went home and did his best to explain it all to his 10-year-old son. “There were some men who were trying to tear up the country and wanted your father to help. Well, your father’s just not built that way. We caught them real good. God damn good,” he said.

As for the Czechs, Opatrny was immediately PNG-ed, or kicked out of the country. Mrkva’s original recruiter, Pisk, by then a Czech official at the United Nations, was initially permitted to stay but soon joined his erstwhile colleague.

A couple days after Opatrny’s unceremonious expulsion, Czechoslovakia expelled an American diplomat it accused of being a spy. The State Department said at the time the charge was “absolutely without foundation” and was clearly retaliation for the Czech embarrassment in D.C.