Is George Trofimoff one of the greatest spies ever to betray America, or a loyal army officer who spent a career defending this country?
One thing is sure: Col. Trofimoff, retired from the U.S. Army Reserve, is the highest ranking American officer ever convicted of espionage. Last summer, a federal judge sent him to prison for life.
During his trial, prosecutors called Trofimoff the perfect spy. He was perfect, they said, because of the extraordinary crime he managed to pull off without ever getting caught.
Interviewed by 60 Minutes II correspondent Scott Pelley in a Florida prison, Trofimoff, 74, calls himself "a patriot that served this country for 46 years and a half or 47 years."
His story is intertwined with the bloody history of Europe. The Trofimoff family was Russian. He says his grandparents were murdered in the revolution and, as a boy in World War II, he was rescued by American GIs. When Trofimoff joined the U.S. army to fight the communists that murdered his grandparents, he left behind a brother, Igor, who became a clergyman and was a cardinal in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Trofimoff spent his career in military intelligence. He was so far above suspicion that he was put in charge of a house in Nuremberg, Germany, where American intelligence would interview defectors from the Soviet Union. The interrogation center contained a library of classified information, everything the U.S. knew about the Soviet Union that interrogators used in questioning defectors.
Then in 1992, a Soviet KGB clerk named Vasili Mitrokhin defected and claimed that one of the U.S. interrogation centers was being looted by a spy. He handed over KGB records that showed the stolen American secrets exceeded 80 volumes - 50,000 pages taken over 25 years.
Christopher Andrew, a Cambridge University professor who helped British intelligence analyze Mitrokhin’s revelations, says the information included military intelligence operations planned and carried out by the United States against the Soviet Union.
Mitrokhin didn’t have the name of the traitor, but the Soviet files he delivered described the spy as a “career American intelligence officer.” And the courier who carried the secrets was a "clergyman" in the Russian Orthodox church.
"An American officer who gave it to the Soviets through a Russian priest. And that fit me like a glove. No question about it," says Trofimoff who often met his brother in Germany.
"My brother was traveling outside the Soviet Union," he says. "So I have no doubt in my mind that the KGB had their eyes on him. And controlled him in a way."
In 1994, Trofimoff and his brother were arrested by the Germans, an arrest based solely on the sketchy description in Mitrokhin’s KGB archive. The brothers were released immediately. A judge said there was no evidence that they were the men described in the files.
Cleared, Trofimoff left Germany to retire in Melbourne, Fla., where he bought a house on Patriot Drive and settled into a quiet retirement.
Then on July 10, 1997, he received a hand-delivered letter from "friends" in the Russian embassy. One of them, Igor Galkin, wrote and phoned from the embassy repeatedly seeking a meeting and offering him money.
Trofimoff tells Pelley he thought his brother’s church was trying to send him money through Russia’s Washington embassy. Trofimoff was in debt and once told his brother he needed cash. So Trofimoff agreed to meet Galkin in Florida.
Galkin was an undercover FBI agent and there was a hidden camera in the room. Galkin turned the conversation to military intelligence and asked Trofimoff whether he had ever met KGB agents in Europe.
For six hours, the conversation rolled out like a confession with Galkin asking what documents, Trofimoff had stolen from the interrogation center.
Trofimoff says he invented a story because he believed if he pretended to be a retired spy, the Russian church would have reason give him money
“At the time, I wanted to convince him that I worked for the KGB,” Trofimoff tells Pelley.
"I can’t explain the logic behind it anymore. My major logic was, I need money, they need a reason to help me. They need a justification, so I’m going to try to provide them with that. And that’s what I did."
At his trial, prosecutors called a star witness, Gen. Oleg Kalugin of the Soviet KGB, who told the jury the names of KGB agents who worked with Trofimoff. They were the same names Trofimoff remembered in one of those phone calls with the FBI undercover agent.
But Trofimoff tells Pelley, "I have never met any of these people anywhere. And when I picked those names, I just happened to pick them."
In his testimony, Kalugin said he arranged a meeting with Trofimoff in Bad Ischl, Austria, about 150 miles from Nuremberg.
Kalugin wrote about this unnamed American spy in his memoirs, but there are key differences between the story he told on the stand and the one in the book. Among other things, the book says there were several meetings and in a different city. Trofimoff says Kalugin is lying.
"If you look at the entire trial, they don’t have single piece of evidence, except Kalugin," says Trofimoff. "It’s what Kalugin says against what I say."
But Trofimoff himself said plenty to the undercover FBI agents. He explains this, saying “Kalugin says a lot of things in this book and he admits he lied, right? Now, I said a lot of things during the interview with Galkin, which I admit were lies. If they believed Kalugin’s lies were lies, why don’t they believe my lies were lies? You see?”
The jury believed the prosecution. Prosecutors said Trofimoff took the files from the interrogation center little by little, photographed them, and gave the film to his brother. They said the motive was money, but they also admitted it was a perfect crime. There’s no physical evidence, just the word of a former KGB general.
Since this all began, the Communists have fallen and his brother has died. But Trofimoff maintains his innocence.
"I can’t say something that I don’t know," he says. "Because I have never, never had anything to do with them. And I will repeat that until I die, or until I clear my name."