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Felix Bloch, one of the great unsolved mysteries of Cold War espionage, is back in the headlines--and still driving a bus in Chapel Hill.

Spy Like Us? 

Felix Bloch, one of the great unsolved mysteries of Cold War espionage, is back in the headlines--and still driving a bus in Chapel Hill

Remember Walter Mitty? A character in a short story by James Thurber, he made his way through a humdrum domestic life by living in various fantasy worlds. One moment he was a Navy hydroplane pilot, the next a master surgeon. For Mitty, the banal fabric of daily life provided a rich tapestry of imaginary intrigue.

In real life, some people go the other way. Consider Felix Bloch, who could be Mitty's alter-ego. For Bloch, the work-a-day world is a welcome respite from years in the spotlight. A former high-ranking diplomat, Bloch worked 32 years for the State Department before his dismissal in 1990 under a cloud of suspicion that he had spied for the KGB. Mobbed by the media wherever he went in Washington, he moved to North Carolina to start fresh.

A decade later, Bloch's career reads like a r&233;sum&233; written in reverse. In 1992, the man who had run embassies, courted prime ministers, and helped craft U.S. foreign policy walked into a Chapel Hill Harris Teeter and signed up for a job bagging groceries. ("From Envoy to Bag Boy," snickered a headline in The News & Observer.) Then he took a second job as a bus driver for Chapel Hill Transit. When a reporter asked him why he'd sought such employment, he said, "to prove that people in this country can work and eat." His response to further inquiries was simply, "I won't talk with you, now or ever."

Friends offered clues about what Bloch was up to. "He has inferred that the job was something to do to continue to function as a human being, to function with and among other human beings," reported Henry Mattox, a longtime Bloch acquaintance and fellow veteran of the foreign service. Such comments, coupled with Bloch's silence, have left the impression that it's really anybody's guess why Bloch, who has reportedly never lacked money, put on a blue collar. Shoplifting arrests in 1993 and 1994 didn't help clear up questions about his motivations.

The mercurial Mr. Bloch seeks a life out of the limelight, but publicity dogs him with the persistence of the gumshoes that once shadowed his every move. And now he's back in the news, part of the fallout from the FBI's case against one of its own counterintelligence officers. Special Agent Robert Hanssen was arrested on Feb. 18 and charged with selling secrets to the Soviet KGB and its Russian successor, the SVR. An FBI affidavit says that among his many damaging betrayals, Hanssen "disclosed to the KGB the FBI's secret investigation of Felix Bloch, a Foreign Service Officer, for espionage, which led the KGB to warn Bloch that he was under investigation, and completely compromised the investigation."

In a rare telephone interview, last week Bloch told The Independent that he has a copy of the Hanssen affidavit, provided by a friend who printed it off the FBI's Web site. "I've found it rather tough going," he said. "I've been through about page 20."

There are 80 more pages, and if Bloch keeps going to the end, he will have read what is the FBI's only public exposition of its case against him. Bloch was never charged with espionage, but the affidavit spells out much of why some government officials thought he should have been.

With another potential media storm gathering around him, Bloch wants none of it. When I called and said I was hoping against hope he could answer some questions about the Hanssen case, he answered: "I think you're hopeless. I don't think there's anything you can say or do to convince me to speak.

"I don't know if I can understand why so many people want to know about my life now," he added.

T

he reasons why people want to know were neatly summed up by intelligence reporter David Wise in his May 13, 1990, New York Times Magazine cover story, "The Felix Bloch Affair." "The case has everything," Wise wrote. "A media and FBI circus; an elusive Soviet agent with three identities; his mistress, an attractive widow who lives behind barbed wire in Vienna; a blond Viennese prostitute; and a high-ranking American diplomat who says he brought his stamp albums to meetings with the KGB."

The Soviet agent was Reine Gikman, Bloch's alleged KGB handler; the prostitute supposedly charged a pretty penny to indulge Bloch's supposed taste for S&M; and the guy who said he was swapping stamps--not secret documents--was Bloch.

Back then, Wise and other journalists were forced to rely on leaks from government sources who suspected Bloch but lacked conclusive evidence. The Hanssen affidavit finally puts the government's suspicions to paper.

On April 27, 1989, it says, U.S. authorities eavesdropped on a telephone call between Bloch and Gikman, a known KGB agent based in Austria. (Bloch had served at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna from 1980 to 1987.) The next day, the FBI opened a classified investigation of Bloch, who was then serving as a high-ranking Europe specialist at the State Department.

With assistance from the CIA and French intelligence, the bureau observed two meetings between Bloch and Gikman in Paris in May. At one of them, Bloch was observed passing a piece of luggage, a shoulder bag, to the KGB man.

Convinced they were onto a major espionage case, the FBI made plans for long-term surveillance in order to snare Bloch. But then, on the morning of June 22, 1989, with the FBI listening in, Bloch received a phone call from a man who said he was calling "in behalf of Pierre" who "cannot see you in the near future" because "he is sick." "Pierre," the FBI says, was one of Gikman's aliases. "A contagious disease is suspected," the caller warned Bloch. "I am worried about you. You have to take care of yourself."

The FBI "concluded that this call alerted Bloch that his association with Gikman had been compromised," according to the Hanssen affidavit. That afternoon, they confronted Bloch at his State Department office, telling him it was time to fess up to his life as a spy. Bloch declined to do so. The FBI whipped out its best evidence: surveillance photos of meetings with Gikman and the passing of the luggage. Bloch replied that he knew Gikman as a fellow stamp collector, and that the bag had merely contained display albums stuffed with stamps.

According to Bloch, the FBI then tried to bluff him, pointing to a stack of papers and claiming they had intercepted classified documents he passed to Gikman. That's not true either, Bloch insisted.

The hottest espionage case on the FBI's docket had suddenly gone cold. The investigators lacked a smoking gun to prove the spying allegations in court. During two days of questioning, the affidavit says, "Bloch denied he had engaged in espionage and ultimately declined to answer any further questions. The FBI was unable further to develop its investigation of Bloch."

In July, ABC News broke the story of the diplomat suspected of spying. What followed was a comic opera of the Washington kind--with FBI agents and reporters trailing Bloch wherever he went. An avid walker, he once led the entourage on a 22-mile trek. Bloch had little to say, other than the occasional jab at the "Fucking Bureau of Incompetents."

A federal grand jury was opened to probe Bloch's alleged crimes, but it failed to turn up anything more than circumstantial evidence. In 1990, Secretary of State James Baker fired Bloch for making "deliberate false statements or misrepresentations to the FBI," invoking a rarely used national security clause that allows the government to fire suspect employees without detailing the case against them.

Now, the FBI says, some key pieces of the Bloch puzzle have at last fallen into place. The affidavit pinpoints a date in May 1989 when Hanssen alerted the KGB that Bloch was under investigation. And it quotes a damning letter Hanssen allegedly sent to the SVR in November 2000: "Bloch was such a schnook. ... I almost hated protecting him, but then he was your friend."

Hanssen went on to speculate that Bloch would have been caught in the act of committing treason, were it not for the FBI's over-cautiousness. "If our guy sent to Paris had balls or brains, both [Bloch and Gikman] would have been dead meat. Fortunately for you he had neither. ... The French said, 'Should we take them down?' He went all wet. He'd never made a decision before, why start then. It was that close."

H

aving escaped arrest in Paris and indictment in Washington, Bloch might have faded into obscurity by now, were it not for the Hanssen case and other events that have thrust the bus driver back into the public eye.The shoplifting arrests, for example. Bloch had been working at Harris Teeter for less than a year when he was arrested in January 1993 for trying to take $100 worth of groceries from the store without paying. He was fired, but the charge was dropped when he agreed to pay a $60 fine and do 48 hours of community service. Then, in December 1994, Bloch walked out of a Carrboro Sav-A-Center with $21.74 worth of unbought merchandise: two pepperonis, a package of pita bread, a can of Crystal Light and two bottles of aspirin. He had little to say in court, but assured the judge that "I view this as a one-time, singular occurrence." This time the charge stuck, and Bloch received a 30-day suspended sentence and paid $100.

Through it all, Bloch kept his bus-driver job. It's one area of his life where he appears to have succeeded at achieving the anonymity he seeks. Co-workers have come to respect Bloch, and they don't pry into his scandal-laden history.

"He's a good driver, he works hard," says Mona Moore, operations superintendent for Chapel Hill Transit. "He's pretty low-key, and everybody accepts him. He just blends in well." As to the rumors about spying, Moore says, "That's all confidential, I wouldn't want to speak about that."

"That's nobody else's business, and we don't worry about it," says a Chapel Hill Transit driver who declined to give his name. "He just drives like everybody else. Felix is just Felix."

But to remain just another bus driver, Bloch will have to dodge another wave of publicity and questioning following the disclosures in the Hanssen case. So far, he says, he's been successful, ignoring the deluge of reporters' calls that have come in during the past two weeks.

"I'm sort of accustomed to people writing about me, talking about me," Bloch told The Independent. "I don't have any interest in talking off or on the record. People can write whatever they want."

He ended the two-minute interview with a paraphrase. "Greta Garbo had something to say about divulging personal details: If you do, then they're no longer personal." The secret life of Felix Bloch, it seems, will remain just that. EndBlock

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