Brian J. Kelley: My Friend the Spy Expert

Brian Kelley telephoned me shortly after my book,  Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames, was published in 1997 and invited me to lunch. At the time, he was working at the CIA and was especially interested in my trip to Moscow where I had met with the KGB (now called the SVR) and also with the relatives of Soviet General Dmitri Polyakov, one of the CIA’s most important assets until he was exposed and executed.  

Soft spoken, intelligent and personable, Kelley impressed me with his knowledge of the Ames case and his questions about Polyakov. I liked him instantly, but didn’t think much about our lunch until August 1999 when I got a telephone call from a friend who worked at the CIA.

“Brian Kelley has been accused of being a Russian spy?” he declared.

I was dumbfounded, but that tip proved to be true. The FBI had shown up at the agency and accused him of being a traitor. Kelley had been escorted out of the building and during the next year, he was hounded by his FBI accusers. One agent told Kelley’s namesake son, Brian, that his father was “worse than Aldrich Ames.” Many of his CIA friends shunned him.

Of course, Kelley insisted he was innocent. But the FBI counter intelligence investigators refused to believe him. When he passed a polygraph test, his accusers said that the results proved that he was a skilled spy who knew how to fool a lie detector. At one point, the bureau sent an imposter posing as a Russian SVR officer to his house. When Kelley answered, the stranger said: 

“I come from your friends, and we’re concerned. Meet us tomorrow night at the Vienna Metro. A person will approach you. We have a passport for you, and we’ll get you out of the country.”

 Kelley shut the door in his face.

Eventually, the FBI realized it had made a terrible mistake.

 How did it learn the identity of the real traitor? The bureau paid an unnamed Russian intelligence officer $7 million and relocated him here in the U.S. in return for him bringing the bureau a tape recording of an American traitor talking to his Russian masters. The FBI thought the voice on that tape would be Brian Kelley’s. But when they flipped on the tape, it was the voice of one of their own: Special Agent Robert Hanssen.  

One reason why Kelley had become a prime suspect was because he lived in the same suburban neighborhood as Hanssen.

In February 2001, the FBI arrested Hanssen and Brian was finally cleared.  Two years later, he told his story to 60 Minutes.  A lesser man would have been bitter. But Brian returned to work and retired in 2007. The  agency gave him the Distinquished Career Intelligence Medal. Not satisfied sitting at home, he became a government contractor and began teaching counterintelligence classes, including ones at the agency. He was an expert at how to catch traitors!

We started getting together regularly after he began writing a still unfinished book about his experiences. I offered him advice and spent hours speaking to him about the ordeal that he had gone through.  One night, I asked him: “What was it like to have the FBI — the entire federal government — accusing you of being a traitor –hounding you — pressuring your family, interrogating your closest friends, destroying your reputation — pressuring you to crack and confess? How did you keep sane?”

“My faith,” he told me.

A devout Roman Catholic, Kelley had become exceptionally close to his local priest and that relationship sustained him through the worst times.

I am writing about Brian Kelley now because this week his wife, Patricia “Trish” McCarthy, called and told me that Brian had died in his sleep at their home. She suspected a heart attack. He was only 68.

Ironically, the next afternoon I had lunch with one of the FBI agents who had investigated Kelley. When I told him that Brian had died, he looked geninuely pained and talked about how much he regretted that Brian had been falsely accused. 

I am writing this on a Sunday night, having just returned a few hours ago from Brian’s wake. I didn’t count , but the line to pay respects to Brian’s family extended out the door. I took me an hour to move through it to the guest book and a half hour more before I was able to give Trish a hug and say goodbye to my deceased friend. That’s how many people Brian had touched.

At one point, I had to shake my head in wonder. Three large movie size posters were on display next to where people were signing the guestbook. All were advertisements for speeches that Brian had given at the agency. The first was for a lecture about Aldrich Ames, the second was about General Polyakov and then at the very end of the line, just before you walked into the sanctuary, was the third and final poster. This one was for a lecture that Brian had given at the CIA about Robert Hanssen.

I’m not sure how many people noted the significance of those posters. One of the key reasons why the FBI suspected that Ames was not the only traitor in our government was because of how Polyakov had been exposed to the KGB. Someone had tipped off the Soviets before Ames had started spying. Only later would that tipster be identified as Hanssen. The three men who had played a role in Brian being falsely accused were represented at his wake.

Brian Kelley was a patriotic American who served his country with honor and who magnanimously  forgave those who falsely accused him. He was nothing like Ames and Hanssen. He was a good friend and I will miss him.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.

  • http://twitter.com/TheRealMrMe DJ Jaffe

    I love whatever you write about: spies, Karman Ghias, whatever!

  • Erin Kelley Aldrich

    Hi Mr. Early,

    As Brian Kelley’s daughter, just wanted to let you know that I am reading every article published about my dad and each seem to add a unique perspective about my life-long hero.  Thanks so much taking the time to express such kind words in memory of my dad. 

    God Bless,
    Erin Kelley Aldrich

  • guest

    Thank you for this lovely piece. I worked for Brian and am just seeing this news after being out of that world for awhile. He was a great boss who instilled confidence. I am glad to know he was recognized after such a horrible ordeal.  Thank you and my condolences to his family.