The U.S. government's top espionage agency ruled this month that it would jeopardize national security if it complied with an OC Weekly request to declassify records on Paul Tatum, the colorful Laguna Beach businessman and Republican fund-raiser who was mysteriously gunned down by a professional hit man outside a Moscow subway in 1996. Tatum's gruesome murder--which intensified tensions between the U.S. and Russia--remains officially unsolved. Now it appears likely to stay that way. As first reported in the Weekly in October 1997, Russians have publicly accused CIA assassins of killing Tatum to keep him quiet about clandestine U.S. operations in the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, U.S. officials--including those at the FBI and State Department--strongly suggest that the hit was ordered by powerful Moscow politicians and carried out by the Russian Mafia.
Tatum was arguably Moscow's most important resident American. Through his Irvine-based Americom Business Centers, the 33-year-old Tatum built the hugely successful Radisson Slavyanskaya, Moscow's first swank Western-style hotel, retail and office complex. Located a short distance from the Kremlin, the hotel housed Moscow's most sophisticated private satellite-communications systems.
In a March 9 letter to the Weekly, Joann H. Grube, deputy director of the National Security Agency (NSA), acknowledged that the sought-after records exist, but she claimed their release "could reasonably be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security." Specifically, Grube said Tatum's records--which have been classified "Top Secret"--contained "certain information" detailing NSA "activities." The NSA is the largest and most secretive U.S. spy agency. It is charged with, among other clandestine duties, intercepting foreign-government communications through worldwide eavesdropping operations.
"The plot thickens," said Rick Furmanek, Tatum's brother-in-law, who lives in Arizona. "I can't understand all the secrecy. We want Paul's murder solved. There's been nothing but silence about the case for so long. It is like [the killing] never happened. This is all just bizarre."
According to Grube, President Bill Clinton's 1995 Executive Order on safeguarding secrets authorizes the agency to block the Weekly's 14-month-old federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Because the NSA invoked the Executive Order, Tatum's records must contain at least one of the following categories of information: secret military plans; U.S. weapons systems; sensitive foreign-government information; scientific, technological or economic matters relating to national security; or intelligence activities, including special operations, cryptology and the identity of American spies.
For its part, the CIA has refused to confirm or deny they knew anyone named Paul Tatum. But confidential U.S. government cables declassified last year at the request of the Weekly show that American officials--including those in such top-secret posts as the Defense Intelligence Agency--were greatly interested in Tatum before and after his death. A Dec. 31, 1996, cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to the secretary of state shows diplomats fretted over the foreign media publishing reports of an alleged CIA connection to Tatum's murder. They dismissed the reports as "plants" by "those elements of the Russian intelligence world that consider Cold War-style conflict to serve their interests." Interviews and records obtained under the FOIA showed that the U.S. government awarded Tatum--who was on a first-name basis with presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush--$1.6 million, starting in 1993, to advance U.S. business interests in Russia. The award was administered by the Commerce Department, which has reportedly been used to front overseas activities for U.S. intelligence operations. (Tatum named his company Americom Business Centers. A few years later, the government launched its American Business Centers programs--officially labeled a coincidence--for the expansion of overseas business interests.) Stubborn Commerce Department officials reluctantly released some records detailing their relationship with Tatum but held others back. On the other side of the world, questions are handled less gently. A Moscow-based reporter for USA Today was physically attacked and threatened for investigating the murder; he was escorted out of Russia under guard. Even an FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., conceded that the Tatum case is unusual. "There were some things we just couldn't say about this," he said.
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Furmanek believes government bureaucrats continue to stonewall on information that might solve the hit. "We may not ever know what really happened because the powers that be seem to want this [case] swept under the rug," he said. "This has taken a tremendous toll on our family."
Although U.S. and Russian government investigators appear to have lost interest in Tatum's murder, Hollywood has not. Several eager film producers have contacted the Weekly for copies of the Oct. 24, 1997, article, "Who Killed Paul Tatum?"
Tatum's relatives, including his elderly parents, who live in Oklahoma, said they are finalizing plans to sell the rights for a movie to a producer and an undisclosed Emmy Award-winning director. Sources said Los Angeles Times Moscow reporter Carol Williams is co-writing the screenplay. Juicy material is plentiful. Tatum--who was politically connected and counted among his close associates former Nixon administration Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman--hired a crew of 19 bodyguards to protect him during his last months alive. At one point, the Oklahoma native was making $300,000 per month from the Radisson business, socializing with Russian and American powerbrokers, living in a $40,000-per-month art-filled apartment on Moscow's most exclusive street, and cruising in a lady-filled fleet of limousines from one nightclub to the next. Stories of his excesses--including routinely tipping strippers $100--earned him a spot on a Moscow publication's list of "most eligible bachelors." He served as Sharon Stone's travel companion when the actress visited Moscow.
During daylight, Tatum's life was equally vigorous. An unapologetic advocate of hypercapitalism, he had a bitter public feud with Moscow's autocratic bowling ball-shaped Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (an expected presidential candidate in 2000). Tatum hosted several high-profile dignitaries at his hotel, including Clinton. When Russian President Boris Yeltsin's communication lines were severed during an attempted 1991 coup, it was Tatum who slipped through a barricade of hostile rebel tanks and soldiers to give the trapped Russian Federation president a satellite link to the White House. Ironically, the day Tatum was gunned down, he had been enjoying Frederick Forsyth's latest international-espionage thriller, Icon, a tale of an American secret agent in Moscow.