Gardner R. Hathaway, a former CIA chief of counterintelligence whose nearly four-decade career with the agency took him to Cold War focal points ranging from Berlin to Moscow and placed him at the center of many espionage episodes, died Nov. 20 at the Vitas hospice in Vienna, Va. He was 88.

The cause was complications from cancer, said his wife, Karin Hathaway.

“Gus” Hathaway was an undercover officer known for his mastery of espionage tradecraft and his aggressive efforts to best the Soviet KGB.

Hathaway convinced superiors at agency headquarters in Langley to approve an operation in 1978 involving a Russian engineer named Adolf Tolkachev. The episode provided the CIA with a huge amount of sensitive intelligence on the Soviet military for a nearly a decade.

One celebrated incident in Hathaway’s career took place soon after he arrived in Moscow as the CIA station chief in 1977. When a fire broke out on the U.S. embassy’s eighth floor, Hathaway barred arriving firefighters from entering the CIA station located on the floor below the blaze. He suspected some of the firemen were KGB agents, and refused to evacuate until the fire was contained.

Hathaway was awarded the prestigious Intelligence Star for his actions, with a citation noting that he had protected sensitive areas from penetration “at great personal risk.”

Gardner Rugg Hathaway was born in Norfolk on March 13, 1925. He was 2 when his father died, and he grew up in Danville, Va., with his mother and stepfather.

He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and was wounded in the leg by mortar shrapnel. After his discharge, he enrolled at the University of Virginia and joined the CIA a year after graduation in 1950.

He worked in Frankfurt, Germany, and then Berlin as a case officer. He later served in South America before arriving in Moscow as chief of station in 1977.

At the time, the CIA was reticent about running operations in the Soviet capital. Two CIA operations in Moscow recently had been discovered by the KGB, and the new CIA director, Adm. Stansfield Turner, ordered the station not to undertake any operations.

Tolkachev, a military electronics expert, had approached the Americans several times, leaving notes trying to establish contact.

Senior CIA officials were wary, fearing it was a KGB-run provocation that could flush out American agents and sabotage hopes for improving bilateral relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Hathaway, who was approached by Tolkachev on a Moscow street, argued it was worth the risk.

He won approval, and the result was one of the most productive operations the CIA ever had. The stream of information continued until 1985, when rogue officer Edward Lee Howard informed the Soviets about the breach. Tolkachev was arrested and executed the following year.

Hathaway was determined to protect such agents, believing none should ever be caught because of mistakes by American handlers.

“Gus never had an operation rolled up (compromised) because of bad tradecraft,” said Barry Royden, a former senior counterintelligence officer.