Trapped by the KGB

Moscow correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was a Cold War pawn—just as that era was coming to an end.

Daniloff after his release from a KGB prison.

Daniloff after his release from a KGB prison.

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Journalists, for the most part, shun the idea of becoming part of the story. But that is precisely what happened to the U.S. News Moscow correspondent in the latter days of the Cold War in August and September of 1986.

Correspondent Nicholas Daniloff was snared in a classic KGB operation to create a bargaining chip with which to win the release of a Soviet spy who had been arrested working undercover at the United Nations. Here's how it went down: Just before finishing a five-year assignment in the Soviet capital, Daniloff met with a longtime news contact. Daniloff gave him some requested Stephen King novels. His contact was to give Daniloff newspaper clippings from a distant Soviet republic.

Trapped. After they parted, a van pulled up; six men jumped out, handcuffed Daniloff, and hustled him away. The sealed packet from Daniloff's contact, it turned out, included two maps stamped "secret." The fix was in. Daniloff spent 13 days at the notorious Lefortovo Prison, where he was interrogated six hours a day but, he says, never physically manhandled. Daniloff, who recounts the incident in his new memoir, Of Spies and Spokesmen: My Life as a Cold War Correspondent, calls his prison interlude "mental torture"—a period when he was cut off from the outside world and facing the prospect of years in a Siberian labor camp.

With encouragement from the magazine and its then new owner, Mort Zuckerman, Daniloff's case drew international attention and occasioned fruitful negotiations between Secretary of State George Shultz and reformist Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Their talks proved pivotal both in engineering Daniloff's release and in improving U.S.-Soviet relations under President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Reagan took a personal interest in Daniloff's case, sending a letter to Gorbachev insisting that the correspondent had no U.S. government connection. The diplomacy first got Daniloff out of prison; his next stop was as a "parolee" housed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for 17 more days. The deal done, he was then free to leave the Soviet Union. (Gorbachev himself confirmed years later that Daniloff's arrest had been a "retaliatory act.")

Back in Washington, Daniloff and his family had to deal with an unaccustomed blast of celebrity. They met with the president and Nancy Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and others. Reagan told a few jokes, but it was Nancy who pressed Daniloff to describe Soviet life. Now a journalism professor at Northeastern University, Daniloff says his memoirs are intended "to pass on some interesting tales" to his students.