Excerpt From the Book, Lost Son, About the Hunt for a U.S. FBI Asset – Rolling Stone

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In the summer of 2018, I traveled to Russia in search of a lost American named Billy Reilly. He had disappeared three years prior in connection to the war in Ukraine. While scores of Americans encounter trouble abroad each year, Reilly’s case was unique: He worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and agents there weren’t talking.

Reilly was a member of the FBI’s Confidential Human Source program, a largely anonymous group of thousands of freelance informants and operatives who assist agents with investigative and intelligence work. For five years, Reilly worked with counterterrorism agents in the FBI’s Detroit office, employing aliases to insinuate himself into the lives of investigative targets in the U.S. and abroad. Using the Arabic language he’d taught himself online, he learned of terrorist plots, financing networks, and the routes that recruits took to terror. He also appeared to develop a romantic attachment to an ISIS operative. 

When war first broke out in Ukraine in 2014, Reilly’s focus shifted to Eastern Europe. He became determined to witness the clash between Kyiv and the Kremlin. In 2015, Reilly, 28 years old and eager to make his mark, set off for Russia. 

In Rostov-on-Don, in the Russian south near the Ukrainian border, Reilly became involved with a paramilitary movement. Men volunteering to fight against Ukraine collected at a Rostov camp before crossing the border and joining battalions. At the end of June 2015, while Reilly was at the Rostov base, his communications with his family summarily stopped. Shortly thereafter, his FBI handler visited the Reilly family home outside Detroit and instead of providing answers only heightened the mystery by confiscating phones and laptops. 

I became aware of the case as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. I wanted to know if the FBI was involved in Reilly’s disappearance. Had his handlers sent him overseas? Russia is one of the most difficult theaters for U.S. intelligence operatives, and with relations between our two countries bottoming out, I struggled to understand why the FBI—or another U.S. agency—would have dispatched someone like Reilly there. 

His case revealed much about the FBI’s use and misuse of Confidential Human Sources. The FBI was in crisis, as then-President Donald Trump accused it of political partisanship. The Bureau was still recovering from its central failure, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which had caused the agency to overreach in recruiting and sometimes discarding rank amateurs like Billy Reilly. His story, a personal mystery encased within an institutional riddle, underscored the need for oversight of an agency that was cutting corners in the fight for its existence. 

I set out on my own quest to Russia, intent on discovering Billy Reilly and his purpose. How much of his activity did the FBI direct? His own restless urges might well have led him far beyond his handler’s orders. The line between his FBI work and his own desires had seemed to dissolve.

I wanted to know if Reilly had found what he was seeking in Russia—adventure, manhood, self-realization, or maybe even a greater role with the FBI. Was he collecting intelligence for the U.S.? Was he fighting in the war in Ukraine? Had he gone rogue? Was he still alive? 

In Rostov-on-Don, I met with intelligence and investigative contacts. Eventually, I brokered a meeting that I believed could break open the case. Risk attended the opportunity. I would have to travel deeply into the Russian steppe, exposing myself to counterintelligence agents far from anyone’s view. Like the FBI, Russian agencies were trying to bury the mystery of Billy Reilly. 

Below is the account of that clandestine meeting, adapted from Lost Son: An American Family Trapped Inside the FBI’s Secret Wars.

The M4 highway carried evenly through the far-reaching steppe from Rostov-on-Don toward Moscow, four lanes in either direction. Andrei, the driver, preferred smoking to talking. The scenery provided its own manner of interaction. There were no billboards along its margins spoiling it. We steered through it and were a part of it. We approached towns. Wooden stands dotted the highway margins with fruits and vegetables. Dried fish hung head-down on laundry lines. Signs beckoned: honey for sale. We left towns behind. 

Fields of sunflowers, cultivated for their oil, surged into view. Beyond lay the plains, yellow and bare after the wheat harvest. The landscape extended for miles along the steppe, offering great vistas. Far to the northeast, a dark cloud hovered, emptying rain on the earth below it. We drove for hours into the sun. 

The phone in my pocket vibrated. It was a text message from the Journal’s security department. My colleagues and I sometimes covered war and protests, and the paper kept an eye on us. The murder of Daniel Pearl, a Journal reporter abducted in Pakistan in 2002, remained an example of the potential dangers of this work. In recent years, the paper no longer allowed reporters a free hand in the field. Before my trip to Russia, I had agreed to alert our security chief to risky contacts and meetings. The day before the drive out of Rostov, he and I had vetted my driver and route. I had granted the security unit access to my location through an app on my phone. As Andrei drove onward, the security team back in the United States monitored my progress and checked in with me periodically, asking me to confirm that all was well. 

I didn’t mind the coverage. But as Andrei and I burrowed into the steppe, I knew that there was little our security unit could do if trouble came. The group would know my final location and not much more. No one would come to save me. Billy’s predicament had shown how feckless or helpless the State Department could be when bad things happened in Russia. But moving out beyond safe harbors was the way to solve Billy’s mystery. 

Andrei had driven four hours north of Rostov when he turned off the highway, steering the local road toward Veshenskaya, the home of Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of And Quiet Flows the Don.

The potholes were so deep and numerous that our progress reduced to a crawl. The car’s radio lost its signal and pumped out static. The road bent distantly into uncultivated lands. 

We had driven seventy miles off the M4. Seeking our bearings, we found a squat building set back from the road and parked there. Inside, a slow-moving man with white hair stood lonely behind a cashbox, sundries scattered on the shelves behind him. Sitting on a counter in plastic bags were bubliki, a sort of small, hardened bagel. The clerk poured out coffee, ten rubles a paper cup, or about 15 cents. Wind kicked up outside and whistled through the cracks in the walls. 

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Standing on the steppe, I couldn’t be sure of the risk I was undertaking. All I knew was where we were headed. The instructions had been simple. Drive until you see the tank, where the roads to Veshenskaya and Bokovskaya diverge. The café will be across the road. 

Andrei stubbed out a cigarette. He said we were getting close. 

We drove an hour more along the road that was perforated with potholes. The landscape rolled by in its evenness and beauty. Up ahead rose a man-made object. 

It was a tank, the one foretold, a T-34. This T-34 was raised on a plinth, a monument to Soviet glory. The T-34 had halted the advance of the Heer, Germany’s land forces, and now it halted ours. 

Nearby was the café. It was shrouded by a stand of trees, and wisps of gray smoke were curling from its chimney. A worn sign dangled in the breeze beneath an awning: Fireplace Snackhouse. Parked out front of the café was a white Volga sedan. The setting, remote and windblown, had the feel of America’s Western frontier, before the railroads, before the law. 

I stepped from the car and approached the café. I saw that there was a courtyard in front of the building and that a stone wall bordered it. Within the courtyard, several picnic tables burned in the afternoon sun. 

At one of the tables sat a man, in his thirties or so, and across from him a boy of maybe ten. They were dressed like country people who dirtied themselves working the land. They ate quietly. 

There was one other person in the courtyard, a man at a nearby table. He had a large head and Asian features. He wore camouflage pants and jacket, with metal stars pinned to its shoulder boards. He nodded when he saw me. 

In front of him, resting on the table, were three white ceramic plates. They were empty but for a shimmer of grease. He was chewing a final bit of food. Wiping his mouth with a sleeve, he invited me to sit on the bench across the table from him. 

I shook the man’s fleshy right hand. This caused the medals pinned to his jacket front to tinkle against one another like pieces from a board game. This drew my eye to them, and from there to the name tag that was stitched over the left breast of his jacket: “Bronya.” The manager of the Rostov volunteer-fighter camp was sitting before me. 

Bronya was a burly man. A belt strained across the arc of his belly. Acne scars sprinkled his cheeks. His hair was shaved close to the scalp. He had few teeth, only one I could see, and it hung crookedly in his mouth as though it were about to drop. 

Bronya was uneasy. His eyes darted in many directions. He said he was leaving, that he had to return to the volunteer-fighter camp, which he said he had relocated to a nearby farm. He reached for a wooden cane. 

“Hold on,” I said, having come so far. “Let me show you something.” 

I held up my phone. On it was a photo from the Kazan train station in Moscow, the day that Billy had arrived in Russia in May 2015. At the sight of the picture, Bronya’s features brightened. He jabbed an index finger at the phone. “That’s Vasily,” he bellowed, uttering Billy’s Russian alias. He set aside leaving for now. 

I asked Bronya how he had met the American. “In Rostov at that time, there were a lot of people in fatigues,” he said. “He probably asked one of those guys where to go. I had a lot of foreigners at that time. French, Italian, Australian, American. Vasily just showed up. I never heard anything about him from [recruiter Mikhail] Polynkov. He came. And he left in a couple days. Then he came back.” 

A pack of cigarettes lay on the table, Donskoy Tabak, a brown wrapper, gold trim. The cigarette looked like a toothpick between Bronya’s large fingers as he lit it and took a pull. He described Billy at the Rostov camp, saying that he had fallen in with a rough crowd. “‘Russian vodka,’ he would say. If he drank fifty grams, he couldn’t stop. He was drunk all the time.” 

Billy hadn’t been much of a drinker. That’s what his family had said. Adventure encouraged one to try new things. 

“All different kinds of people came to the base,” Bronya said. “Some were drunks, some were drug addicts, some were crazy, some were aggressive.” Bronya said that several men at the camp found Billy an easy mark, stealing his money. 

I knew that some of what Bronya said was true. But would he be truthful about the portions of the story that mattered? I asked what had become of Billy. 

“Vasya wanted to go to Donbas [in eastern Ukraine],” Bronya said. “But he didn’t want to get a stamp in his passport at the border. When he got home, your CIA would arrest him.” Bronya laughed, and his medals tapped out a tune. “I told him there was another way he could go.” Bronya’s voice dropped to a confidential tone. “He told me he didn’t want to fight.” 

I had expected Bronya to boast and prevaricate, but here he spoke what felt like the truth. I pressed for more of it. I asked what Billy had intended to do, if not to join the battle. 

But Bronya suddenly wasn’t paying attention. He was looking beyond me. 

The father and son at the next table were gone, and three men were entering the courtyard. They were tall and athletic. Their short haircuts were fresh. Their clothes were new and had a casual style, like the sort one might purchase in a city. The men took seats at a nearby table and fell into quiet discussion, close enough to pick up what Bronya and I were saying. 

The arrival of these men appeared to unnerve Bronya. He spoke loudly, with a swaggering quality. “I gave Vasily a helmet,” he said. “And a flak jacket, a shoulder holster, and an outfit of camouflage fatigues.” 

I reminded Bronya that he’d just said that Billy had no interest in fighting. Bronya waved me off. 

Changing the subject, he said that the separatists periodically gained control of portions of the Russia-Ukraine border and secreted people and matériel through them into Donbas. He said these passageways were called black corridors. 

“There were a few other foreigners with Vasily,” Bronya said. “I told them to leave their SIM cards behind, because the Ukrainians locate the pulse and send in rockets. The black corridor opened. I put them in the red van, the one [Russian intelligence officer Igor] Strelkov gave us. And they went across the border.” 

I asked him where the van had gone once it had driven into Donbas. Bronya said that commanders had assigned the foreigners to fighting brigades. 

If Bronya was telling the truth about Billy being deposited into the care of Donbas commanders, this appeared to match an account of a volunteer-fighter roundup I’d read in a Russian investigative file. 

I told Bronya about the file, but he tilted his head, doubting that it was true. His voice dropped to a whisper. “Vasily was naïve,” he said. “I told him to stay away from those guys.” Bronya’s eyes flashed to the men sitting at the nearby table. I knew that amid Russia’s war in Donbas, there were competing factions: local Donbas fighters, intelligence operatives from Moscow, and many more in between struggling over power, money, and ideology. 

Bronya appeared to catch himself, and again his tone and direction shifted. “He probably got involved in an attack, and they buried him somewhere in DNR [the Donetsk People’s Republic]. Do you know what’s left of a body after a tank rolls over it?” I was trying to separate Bronya’s fact from his fiction, when he abruptly swiped his pack of cigarettes off the table. “I’ve told all I know,” he said. 

With difficulty, he rose from the table and grabbed for the wooden cane. He relied on it as we proceeded to the exit of the courtyard, passing by the three men, who didn’t watch us go. 

Out by the road, Bronya rested a hand on the hood of the white Volga sedan. This car had been the preferred model of the Soviet apparatchik, a marker of status and influence. It still held meaning these decades later, like the T-34, each a symbol of former Soviet glory that many Russian people resisted relinquishing. 

Bronya wheezed from the effort it had taken him to make it to the car. He looked out over its roof, across the plains. The sun had passed its meridian and its shafts were slanting, causing him to squint. 

“Why did Vasily come here?” he asked. “For adventure? He could have gone to the next town for adventure. Why did he need to come all the way to Russia?” It sounded like Bronya was mourning someone he’d known who’d been lost. 

He caught himself. A thought occurred to him, and he laughed. “It would be better if we had a war against America,” Bronya said. “I want to go to Fifth Avenue. That’s where Angelina Jolie lives?” He looked at me searchingly. “I’ll go there and fuck her,” he said. 

Bronya climbed into the white Volga. I watched the car go.

Andrei and I drove some distance from the café. I pointed him to the side of the road. I needed to get everything down in a notebook before I lost the details of my talk with Bronya. 

There were facts and story points. There were the places in between them where I believed the truth about Billy lived and was hidden. I took down Bronya’s version of Billy’s crossing into Donbas and thought of the account in the investigative file but was unprepared to credit either of them fully. I thought of the three men in the café courtyard and if they had come to put eyes and ears on us. I thought of Russia’s unknowable layers of secrecy. I wrote in the notebook, my thoughts compounding. 

My phone vibrated. The Journal ’s security unit was requesting a status report. “When will you move from the tank?” the message read. Through the car’s windshield, I saw Andrei, a cigarette in his teeth, leaning against the T-34. 

Bronya had opened a door to understanding Billy Reilly’s fate, and over succeeding months and years, I substantiated portions of what I’d heard that day at the café on the steppe. But I also learned that Bronya had participated in the events that triggered Reilly’s disappearance. A cast of Russian military and counterintelligence figures had likewise played a role. And when I replayed my meeting with Bronya, the presence of what I took to be Russian security agents underscored the danger of the encounter. The days of freely reporting in Russia were coming to an end, presaging a darker sort of night for the people of Ukraine. Russia’s clandestine 2014 invasion of Ukraine served only as preamble to the Kremlin’s full-scale escalation of the war eight years later. Many casualties were to come.


Perhaps Billy Reilly was the first, a signal of Russia’s intention to alter the rules of engagement with the West and the world. Reilly was lost. Yet he was still out there pursuing a young man’s quest, his mystery alive with meaning for his family, his country, and the FBI.

Excerpted from the book LOST SON by Brett Forrest. Copyright © 2023 by Brett Forrest. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/billy-reilly-fbi-asset-russia-lost-son-excerpt-1234799119/

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