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A BYTE OUT OF HISTORY
Hollow Nickel, Hidden Agent

06/07/04

Photograph of hollow nickel and message it contained.What's a nickel worth?

No, it's not a riddle. It's a case straight from the pages of FBI history.

It all started 51 years ago this month, when a Brooklyn newspaper boy picked up a nickel he'd just dropped. Almost like magic, the coin split in half. And inside was a tiny photograph, showing a series of numbers too small to read.

Even if the boy kept up with the front page news on the papers he delivered, he probably never would have guessed that this extraordinary coin was the product of one of the most vital national security issues of the day: the growing Cold War between the world's two nuclear powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

The investigation begins. The coin ultimately made its way to the FBI, which opened a counterintelligence case, believing the coin suggested there was an active spy in New York City. But who?

New York agents quickly began working to trace the hollow nickel. They talked to the ladies who passed the nickel on to the delivery boy, with no success. They talked to local novelty store owners to see if they had sold something similar. None had seen anything like it. A lot of shoe leather was ruined, but no hot leads emerged.

Meanwhile, the coin itself was turned over for expert examination. FBI Lab scientists in Washington pored over it. They immediately realized the photograph contained a coded message, but they couldn't crack it. But the coin did yield clues. The type-print, Lab experts concluded, must have come from a foreign typewriter. Metallurgy showed that the back half was from a coin minted during World War II. Ultimately, the coin was filed away ... but not forgotten.

The key break came four years later ... when a Russian spy named Reino Hayhanen defected to the U.S. Hayhanen – really the American born Eugene Maki – shared all kinds of secrets on Soviet spies. He led FBI agents to one out-of-the-way hiding place, called a "dead drop," where FBI agents found a hollowed-out bolt with a typewritten message inside. When asked about it, Hayhanen said the Soviets had given him all kinds of hollowed-out objects: pens, screws, batteries, even coins. He turned over one such coin, which instantly reminded agents of the Brooklyn nickel. The link was made.

From there ... Hayhanen helped investigators crack the code of the mysterious hollow coin and then put them on the trail of his case officer, a Soviet spy named "Mark" operating without diplomatic cover and under several false identities.

After painstaking detective work, agents figured out that "Mark" was Colonel Rudolf Abel, who was arrested on June 21, 1957. Though Abel refused to talk, his hotel room and office revealed an important prize: a treasure trove of modern espionage equipment.

Abel was eventually convicted of espionage and sentenced to a long jail term. In 1962, he was exchanged for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down over the USSR.

In the end, a nickel was worth a great deal: the end of a Soviet spy and the protection of a nation.

For all the details and more pictures, see Famous Cases: Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (Hollow Nickel Case).

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