Episode 9: ‘Elizabeth’

There are several heroes who have given me hope throughout my time reporting on the Russia investigation — namely Bob Mueller, James Comey, Sally Yates, and Michael Flynn. None, however, has been as straightforward, thorough, and consistent as Elizabeth Jennings, Agent #24 of the FBI Counterintelligence Division. When Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, Russian spies and agents of the KGB, returned to the United States in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s popular Bicentennial celebration in 1988, Elizabeth’s passport was revoked. When Elizabeth tried to prove her relationship with her spy, Zhenya, her husband, who remained in Moscow, she was hit with a “bullet” through the chest. Unfortunately, even though Philip proved their romance was nothing but an illusion, to Elizabeth, love was as real as a Glock or a Dallas sniper.

In the early years of their marriage, Elizabeth played along. Then the twists and turns began. The man she thought was her husband had two wives. She had been tortured by KGB sadists and watched as their cover was blown — the American KGB. She knew there were terrorists in Russia and in America who would like nothing more than to see the KGB hit. The FBI investigated the family’s ties to the KGB and uncovered a new love child. Elizabeth shuttered her cold war skeletons and resumed a living arrangement with Philip. Life was so peaceful that her and Phillip’s children thought her marriage was the real deal.

Into this happy family they were married in 1992 came Washington, D.C. and the glare of paparazzi. Elizabeth frantically tried to protect their image — including requesting an official government identity card — but her naïve optimism was put to the test. She was assaulted by FBI agents while going home one night, the evidence of her activism against the American and Russian governments collected, when she took a step towards explaining her role in a Pussy Riot protest. Elizabeth was injured in the back by a tipsy agent and was later transported back to the Soviet Union. She and her husband had lived peacefully for nearly 10 years with a child, now a teenager, whose anger was never far from the surface.

“What was I thinking?” she told Philip one night. “I was 24 years old, man, when I married my husband.”

“If you think you’re old enough to marry a man and hide this life from him, you’re crazy,” he replied.

“Yes,” she replied, “because it is my life.”

Elizabeth figured out how to conceal her mission in high society and society itself began to support her. She started teaching Sunday school and tennis. Perhaps most impressively, she kept up her undercover work and surprised the FBI.

With the end of the Cold War and the way Americans and Russians see one another, I have seen the resilience of Philip and Elizabeth. After their second wedding, they discovered that the KGB had made plans to kill them. They had been ordered to kill Elizabeth’s father and kill her mother — the KGB knew the location of the two Americans and so they placed an offer on their desks, one they could not refuse: The KGB will leave them alive and have Elizabeth’s father and mother killed.

“My daddy has no feelings,” Philip bitterly told his wife. “He doesn’t care about you.”

We have seen this resilience before. Elizabeth won over her daughter, allowing Paige to listen to Jimmy Carter’s speech in a portion of the video where he urges Americans to opt out of nuclear holocaust. Elizabeth hid their increasingly creepy pastor from her daughter when Paige developed an “inappropriate” friendship with him. In the next episode, Elizabeth asked Phillip for a favor. In order to find her daughter’s friend Zach, they are going to Cuba. She wants to expose and embarrass him.

I saw Elizabeth’s resolve to continue her work as she watched Zach before him drink a coke and get into a car with a prostitute. Like Zach, Elizabeth has been on the receiving end of such abuse from the highest levels of the Russian government. And like Zach, Elizabeth has demanded respect and the same qualities. Elizabeth has steadfastly opposed and resisted the corruption, deception, and corruption of their own system for her entire life. If there’s anyone who can master and use the skills and technology of a modern spy and extreme surveillance on a person, it’s Elizabeth. But why do I care about her?

There is a pattern that I hope I’ll be able to unravel in this series — how the woman who was thinking of her husband and

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