Lt. Naveed Jamali has worked for the opposition — and beaten them.
To prove his mettle before joining the Navy, Jamali gained the trust of Russian intelligence agents in New York City and exploited it as an American double agent. With the FBI's OK, he slipped the Russians an F-14 Tomcat flight agents aviation training manuals, and hinted at much more. All the while, Jamali was ensnaring the Russians in an FBI sting that would expose their methods (in-person meetings to avoid eavesdropping) and interests (the Army's Future Combat Systems, the Air Force F-22, cruise missiles) — critical gains in the shadowy game of stealing secrets.
His riveting and candid account is recounted in his new memoir, "How to Catch a Russian Spy." Jamali's story is by turns tense and funny, as he tries to outfox the Russian spy Oleg in clandestine meetings at chain restaurants in the Bronx, while keeping his FBI handlers listening in happy.
Jamali, 39, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer working for the Office of Naval Intelligence, spoke to Military Times in July about what's he's learned from trumping the Russians. Answers have been edited for brevity.
Q. The book ends as your Navy intel career begins. Where has your new career taken you?
A. Everything I did before the Navy was ad hoc, freewheeling. It was just me, by myself, making decisions as I saw fit. And there were very loose bookends of stuff by the FBI. Coming into the Navy, you see the behind the curtain. You have to do [personnel qualification standards], you have to go before various boards. It's been very educational.
Q. How does the experience of being a double agent translate to being a military intel officer?
A. Well it's very different. [As a double agent,] there was no training cycle, there was no guidance. The Russians couldn't detect any influence by the FBI. Look, military intelligence — it's not a new science. It's a traditional path and what that means is that you have schools available to you. There's really an ability to learn in a formal way and that's a really positive thing.
Q. What reaction has the book gotten from your shipmates?
A. People were pretty supportive, and they thought it was pretty cool. Everyone always assumed the Russians were up to no good. You don't always win the war, but at least you can win the battle. I think a lot of it was, 'Wait, you weren't in involved in counter-terrorism?' It was a lot of Bravo Zulus and job well done.
FBI leaders thanked Jamali for his work as a double agent, including this commendation letter written by Joseph Demarest, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's New York Division.
Photo Credit: Courtesy
Q. Your bio says you don't intend to travel to Russia anytime soon. Seriously, are you ever worried about reprisal by the Russians?
A. The Russians are a professional military. They're used to losing, they're used to winning. I think that this is a story that they hope runs its course and they don't want to bring any more attention to this. The other advice I got is not to humiliate them
Q. Putin's Russia has made itself a Western opponent again. You faced down the Russians and won. What are your takeaways from that?
A. I think one of the most interesting things is that my entire operational experience consisted of in-person meetings. The Russians were terrified about using any type of electronic communications. I would talk to my handler [about using email or phones to no avail]. That fear drove their tactics. In-person [meetings were] viewed as less perceptible to being monitored. Their fingerprints are all over the espionage.
Jamali was direct commissioned into the Navy Reserve in a 2009 ceremony aboard the USS Intrepid Museum in New York City.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Naveed Jamali
Q. From your vantage point, what's the bigger worry for service members — having their personal info hacked or being recruited by foreign spies?
A. I don't think that because an intelligence agency has a profile on you makes you vulnerable to being co-opted. The worst spies we've have had have been total volunteers. [Aldrich] Ames, [Chief Warrant Officer John] Walker, Jonathan Pollard, [Robert] Hanssen. These are all people who walked into foreign intelligence services and volunteered to spy without being prompted.
Should service members be worried about foreign intelligence? The smallest piece of information no matter how benign can be the start of uncovering something major. If you're approached or if someone is asking questions that just seem a little off, consider telling your security officer. The best defense is to report. As the NYPD says, if you see something say something.
Q. You write in the book about your love of driving. Now that you're in the service, have you gotten to drive anything big or fast?
A. I used to have a Corvette which sadly I parted with. With the advent of two kids, it changes that. Once I joined the service, there's frankly a lot of cooler things that you can see or smell or touch. Watching that F/A-18 take off and fly patterns is a pretty cool thing to do. I did briefly get to work with a Navy C-130 squadron. I always thought fighters are the coolest, but when I had the chance to see the C-130 up close, I was pretty impressed by what it could do.
The FBI bestowed an undercover code name on Jamali: Green Kryptonite. He got this tattoo'd onto his arm, in Morse code.