Dining with a double agent: Your next dinner companion could be a spy

WASHINGTON — Naveed Jamali spent four years of his life looking over his shoulder, noting every parked van and imitating Daniel Craig’s best Bond smirk.

He recited lines from thrillers such as “Spy Game,” arranged meetings with Russian intelligence officers, and even drove around in a black corvette.

Jamali was a real-life spy — a double agent, to be exact — and he’s sharing his story over dinner at the Spy Museum’s Dinner with a Spy event Oct. 5.

Jamali got into espionage at a young age. His immigrant parents owned a small store in New York that specialized in acquiring books and scholarly articles for businesses and government agencies.

In the late 80s, a man who identified himself as a U.N. employee came in and requested several books and documents dealing with nuclear disarmament and weapons control.

Shortly after he placed his order, two FBI agents walked in and told Jamali’s father that the previous man was a Soviet intelligence officer. They said they’d be in touch when the order was picked up.

“That started off a nearly two-decade long relationship between my family, the Soviets and then the Russians, and the FBI. So as a young boy, I kind of grew up in this weird world,” Jamali said.

From that point on, Jamali remembers going to the grocery store “and suddenly there are the Russians following us.” To make light of a situation that could otherwise be very scary for a young child, Jamali’s father joked about his family’s involvement.

“I grew up thinking this was all this big comedy, and really that normal thing inside of a person that was scared was kind of broken, just because I grew up in this atmosphere that looked at this as kind of a big joke,” Jamali said.

And it was a joke he wanted to be in on when he grew up.

After applying to the U.S. Navy and not getting in, Jamali figured some work experience would give him an edge the next time around. He approached the FBI, mentioning his family’s longtime relationship, and asked if he could lend a hand in exchange for a letter of recommendation.

“I almost saw it as a summer internship. I really had no sense of what I was getting myself into,” Jamali said.

He started working as a low-level spy for the U.S. government, and eventually convinced a Russian handler, Oleg Kulikov, that he could spy on the U.S. for the Russians.

“Being able to convince them that I was real and legitimate and a real spy, and to bring them into that fold is something that is not a simple thing,” Jamali said about becoming a double agent.

Keeping up the cover for nearly four years was also not a simple feat. Jamali said he would often walk out into a parking lot and see a black van with tinted windows and wonder whether it was the Russians or the FBI following him.

“They knew where I lived, they knew what my wife’s name was, they knew what kind of car I drove,” he said.

Despite it all, Jamali rarely got scared. He says not dwelling on the possibilities helped him stay calm.

“There are things that you will just never know. And you just have to be OK with that; otherwise it will literally drive you mad,” he said. “You kind of put the other stuff aside and that’s how you get up in the morning and don’t freak yourself out.”

Watching spy movies also helped Jamali play out his secretive role. He would memorize lines from famous films and use them in real conversations. Jamali recalls one moment when Kulikov asked him to sign a receipt for a cash exchange.

“I was like, ‘I’m not signing this. Oleg, how do I know you’re not the FBI? You’re asking me to sign this? How do I know you’re not a cop.’”

The exchange was lifted from scene in “Miami Vice.”

“And it worked. I couldn’t believe it,” Jamali said.

Jamali’s career as a spy culminated in a Hooters parking lot. The FBI apprehended Kulikov, which crippled the Russians’ intelligence network in New York.

“My little operation had a pretty chilling effect on the Russians,” said Jamali, who eventually went on to work as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy and as a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute.

He also wrote a book, called “How to Catch a Russian Spy,” about his experience in espionage, which he describes as “intense,” but a “tremendous amount of fun.”

At Dinner with a Spy, he’ll share all of his stories with an intimate group over four courses and a few rounds of margaritas at Rosa Mexicano. The event is one of several adult weekend workshops and evening programs The International Spy Museum is offering this fall.

Former FBI operative Eric O’Neill will head-up a surveillance course on Friday, Sept. 9, where participants will learn to spy on secret meetings and uncover clues on the streets of D.C., and on Nov. 5, the museum will host its 10th annual Parade of Trabants — a free festival that shows off the car that was once the symbol of East Germany and the fall of communism.

Event information, including times and tickets, can be found at the Spy Museum’s website.

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