WASHINGTON — The first step of Earl Edwin Pitts's career as a double agent was direct. In July 1987, he sent a letter to a Soviet official at the United Nations seeking a meeting with the KGB.
According to federal officials, Mr. Pitts, a trained counterintelligence agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, developed into a highly successful spy for the Soviet KGB and later for the Russian intelligence service.
But this week, Pitts's secret life came crashing down as FBI agents placed one of their own under arrest for espionage for only the second time in the history of the bureau.
The story of Pitts's double life and the trap the FBI laid to catch him is outlined in a 64-page sworn affidavit submitted with Pitts's criminal complaint. It is a tale of intrigue and betrayal, of a man who sold out his country and his fellow agents for $224,000.
Although Pitts was arrested following an apparent successful sting operation, his case raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the FBI's counterintelligence efforts in the 1980s, a time when the bureau was going head to head with the KGB.
FBI director Louis Freeh says many of the apparent counterintelligence deficiencies have already been corrected, including requiring employees to undergo full background investigations every five years and increased use of polygraph tests.
But federal documents show the big break in the Pitts case was not the result of FBI gumshoe work. Rather, he was exposed because the Russian official who relayed Pitts's original letter to the KGB remembered him. Sometime last year that Russian, now a legal US resident, shared his information with the FBI.
Perhaps the most enduring mystery surrounding the Pitts case will be the question of why he became a double agent. Court documents suggest that his motive went beyond money. He seems to have approached his new career as a kind of high-stakes game in which he and his handlers shared more loyalty to each other than to any one nation.
Agents faced two major hurdles in investigating Pitts. They needed to build an air-tight legal case against the suspected traitor, and they needed to gather enough information to assess how much damage Pitts had caused to US national security.
The FBI set up a sting operation using a US intelligence officer to pose as a Russian spy. The bureau also enlisted the help of the former Soviet official who received Pitts's 1987 letter. The former official contacted Pitts in August 1995 under the guise of reactivating him as a double agent.
The plan worked.
Pitts had not undertaken any spying since 1992. But when approached last year by American intelligence agents posing as Russians, he told them: "I'll do what I can." And he did.
During the past 16 months, Pitts made 22 drops of FBI internal information and documents, held nine telephone conversations, conducted two face-to-face meetings with his supposed Russian handlers, and accepted $65,000 in new payments from undercover agents.
During the course of the investigation, agents worked to encourage Pitts to reveal as much as possible about the extent of his prior spying. Last Friday, Pitts wrote to the people he believed were his Russian handlers and told them that he no longer had access to the kind of highly sensitive information he obtained during his New York counterintelligence assignment in the late 1980s. He added, referring to his earlier spying, "I believe I have provided you with everything I was aware of."
The FBI affidavit says that from 1987 to 1989 Pitts had access to the full range of operations being conducted by the bureau at that time. They included: attempts to recruit Russian intelligence officers, double-agent operations, the true identities of human assets, the true identities of defector sources, surveillance schedules, and identification, targeting, and reporting on known and suspected KGB agents in New York. In short, Pitts was a counterintelligence gold mine.
The Soviets also received the FBI's internal Soviet Administrative List. It is considered a master plan of American counterintelligence, cataloging not only all Soviet officials assigned to the US but all the FBI agents assigned to spy on them.
According to the affidavit, the FBI investigation was aided by Pitts's wife, Mary, who met with an FBI agent to express concerns about her husband after she found a letter (written by the US agent posing as a Russian) asking her husband to spy.
If convicted, Pitts faces up to life in prison.