MOSCOW -- A fugitive ex-CIA agent, who was accused of selling U.S. intelligence secrets to Moscow, has been given political asylum in the Soviet Union, the government newspaper Izvestia said today.
Edward Lee Howard was "given the right of residence in the U.S.S.R. for political" and humanitarian reasons, the paper said in a brief announcement on its back page.
He was believed to be the first former CIA agent known to defect to the Soviet Union.
Howard, 34, worked for the CIA from January 1981 until June 1983, when he was fired, according to the FBI. He had been preparing for a post at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where he was to operate under the cover of being a budget analyst.
He later got a job in Sante Fe with the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee. There he reportedly had close dealings with workers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where top-secret weapons research is done.
He quit his job suddenly last Sept. 22, and was charged the next day by the FBI with selling U.S. intelligence to Soviet KGB agents in Austria. But by then, he had disappeared.
Administration sources said last October that he had flown to Finland and was believed to have entered the Soviet Union.
Howard was believed to be the first American to defect to the Soviet Union since the 1960s.
The Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post have reported that the CIA fired Howard for drug abuse and mental instability.
On June 27, the Times quoted a classified report as saying information Howard gave the Soviets devastated U.S. intelligence operations in Moscow and led to the execution of one of the CIA's prime contacts, a Soviet engineer. CIA Director William Casey, through a spokeswoman, refused at the time to confirm or deny the existence of such a report.
The Times quoted an unidentified source as saying, `Howard disclosed virtually every active operation we had. He wiped out Moscow station."
Last year, a U.S. official in Washington said Howard may have been identified as a Soviet agent by Vitaly Yurchenko, a former high-ranking KGB official who defected in Rome but later returned to the Soviet Union.
Izvestia identified Howard simply as "a former CIA worker" and said he had applied for asylum.
"His request was motivated by the fact that he has been forced to hide from the special services of the United States, which were persecuting him without grounds," Izvestia said.
"Guided by humane considerations, the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet complied with the request of Edward Lee Howard. He has been granted the right to live in the U.S.S.R. for political reasons," the newpaper said.
There were a string of U.S. defectors to the Soviet Union in the 1960s, including American servicemen who later appeared on Soviet television or in the state-run press to denounce the United States.
American defector John Smith surfaced in Moscow in 1967 and wrote stories in the official press saying he had been a CIA agent, a claim that U.S. officials denied.
Howard, a New Mexico native, grew up traveling the world with his Air Force father. He was a Peace Corps volunteer from August 1972 to August 1974 in the Dominican Republic and Colombia, and worked from 1976-79 for the Agency for International Development.