WASHINGTON -- Former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard, who fled to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s after he was accused of selling secrets to the KGB, has reportedly died after an accident at his residence outside Moscow.
Howard vanished from Santa Fe, N.M., in September 1985 before the FBI charged him with espionage. He surfaced about a year later in Moscow, where he was granted political asylum.
Disclosures made by Howard reportedly dealt a powerful blow to U.S. intelligence networks in the Soviet capital, and a Soviet aviation expert said to have been turned in by Howard was executed for spying.
Richard Cote, ghostwriter of "Safe House," Howard's 1995 memoir, said Sunday that he received an e-mail Friday about the death from a friend who was "intimately involved with Howard's business dealings around the world." Cote would not name the man who sent him the note, which said Howard died from a broken neck suffered in an "accident" at his home. The friend added: "As far as I can tell, the Russians are covering it up."
The CIA said it was unable to confirm the death officially, which was first reported by The Washington Post, citing a friend of Howard. In Moscow, a U.S. Embassy spokesman speaking on the basis of anonymity said the embassy had received reports of Howard's death and was seeking to verify them with the Russian government but had not received a response.
Howard joined the CIA in 1981 and was being groomed for a Moscow posting in 1983 when he failed a polygraph test. He was eventually fired. He got a new job with the legislature in New Mexico, where he was born in 1951, but in 1984 allegedly met KGB agents in Austria and sold them secrets for $6,000.
As the FBI closed in on him, he eluded capture with an elaborate ruse involving a dummy made to look like him and a tape recording of his voice.
Howard and his wife, Mary, went out to dinner. As they drove home, he jumped out of the car as it rounded a corner and popped up the dummy in his place. Once his wife arrived home, she placed a phone call using the recording.
The FBI, which had Howard's residence under surveillance and was listening to calls from the home, apparently believed he was there.
He left behind his wife and his toddler son, Lee.
"That man's life was such a strong story of tragedy, a tragedy for the United States, for Edward Lee Howard, for his wife, for his kid," Cote said.
Cote spent 11 days with Howard in Russia in 1995 but has not kept up with him since.
Cote said the "dacha" where Howard apparently died was owned by the KGB and had been used as a safe house. It was about 10 miles outside of Moscow.
The two men grilled steaks there while Cote interviewed Howard for the book. Howard also had an apartment in Moscow.
Cote said both dwellings would have been considered "luxurious" by Russian standards but "decidedly lower-middle class" by American standards.
He said Howard lived in "total isolation" for years, his only contacts KGB and Soviet officials. He was allowed to visit with his wife and son once a year.
In infrequent public comments over the years, the defector claimed that he loved the United States and denied giving the KGB vital information that led to the arrest and execution of U.S. agents.