KGB ambushed western spies in winery sting

Re-discovered files in the British National Archives have revealed that, at the height of the Cold War, the KGB used drugged wine on two western officials in a sting at a Moldovan winery.

The files recount how two senior army officers, one British and one American, were on a trip to Moldova in 1967 when they were apparently drugged on a visit to a winery so the KGB could ransack their hotel rooms.

The files were uncovered by Dr Juliette Desplat of the National Archives, who came across a file entitled, ‘Incident at Kishinev involving British Military Attaché’ late last year.

Intrigued she read it over and “wasn’t disappointed” by the story she found inside.

The file recounted how British military attaché Brigadier Tony Harper and his American counterpart, Colonel Bill Spahr, were on an official visit to the USSR in late November of 1967, travelling with diplomatic status.

On the Moldovan leg of their visit, having arrived in Kishinev (now the Moldovan capital Chisnau) the officers’ travel agent suggested a trip to a local winery on one of their days off.

The pair agreed though stated in their report afterwards they’d talked among themselves about being very careful with regards how much they drank.

At the winery they tasted “three sherries” (likely a local fortified wine made in an oxidative style) and “one or two red wines”. They “sipped slowly” and there was plenty of food which they also ate.

But as they were leaving they offered a red wine that was “very thick and oily” but with a taste that was “non-existent”. No one else in the party, it was recalled afterwards, had tasted from that particular bottle.

They quickly felt the effects of whatever drug was in the wine, neither man remaking being driven back to the hotel.

They locked themselves inside their room and were both violently sick before collapsing. Some time later six men forced themselves into the room and began to search each man for the notebooks they carried in body belts.

The violence of the search woke Harper and Spahr up but despite their protests about their diplomatic status, the searchers photographed all of their documents and later filed a false police report that the two men had been reported for being drunk and disorderly.

An examination back at the American embassy in Moscow led a doctor to conclude that the pair had been drugged with a chemical agent.

There was discussion between the British and Americans about how to handle the incident. It had been intended to issue a joint notice of protest concerning the treatment of two diplomats but Soviet officials stonewalled and stuck to their story that the two men had got “full to the gills” and said all witnesses would corroborate this ‘fact’.

The Soviets also hinted they would go public with their account of the incident if the British issued their “distorted account”.

In the end, although the story did leak out and receive some limited coverage in both Eastern and Western press (in Russia the state paper Izvestia gave it the headline: ‘The Fifth Glass – Or the Merry Adventures of Two Military Attachés’), nothing came of it.

It is thought the KGB organised the sting after Spahr was approached in Lvov (now Lviv) in the Ukraine two days before the incident by a woman who wanted Spahr to take a letter to a defector who was then working in the US State Department. Although Spahr had refused, the local KGB ‘minders’ had likely become suspicious of the pair’s motives.

Both men survived unharmed following the incident. Brigadier Harper died in 1997 aged 80 and Colonel Spahr aged 89 in 2011.

Dr Desplat, who had been looking for other files when she made the discovery, said: “Serendipity often occurs in the course of archival research”.

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