June 2010: Suburban spy capers, those elusive high tech jobs, and other observations

A tip of the sun visor to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE NEWS THAT THE FBI HAD ARRESTED RUSSIAN SLEEPER SPIES HAD A COLD WAR “RETRO” FEEL TO IT. Much of the media coverage focused on the incongruity of international espionage being conducted in the suburbs, as several of the 12 agents had established their cover identities in comfortable leafy places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, Montclair, N.J., and Arlington, Virginia. The New York Times quoted a young neighbor of one of the Russian couples joking that: “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.”

The mainstream media quickly concluded that foreign agents in suburbia couldn’t really pose a threat to national security; the entire episode was, therefore, treated as comic in nature (“Boris and Natasha at the mall”). That dismissive slant, however, ignored the reality that much of the country’s high technology is created and developed in suburban settings—the Route 128 corridor outside Boston, Silicon Valley, and Beltway communities in Maryland and Virginia.

Any spy service worth its salt seeking information about American advances in robotics, drones, nuclear weaponry, and other military technology recognizes that while Washington and New York may offer political intelligence, high technology secrets will be found in, well, the suburbs.

This decade-long deep cover spy operation has been portrayed as a clumsy and amateurish failure on the part of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Yet targeting the scientific and political elites responsible for the laboratories and think tanks where they live isn’t stupid or irrational. U.S. counterintelligence has been dealing with repeated Chinese attempts over the past decade to acquire (and steal) U.S. defense secrets and this espionage has been directed at American high tech workers.

Did the Russian spy ring succeed in collecting any vital information or in cultivating any valuable American sources? Are there more sleeper agents in place? Answers to those questions were lost in the hasty spy swap engineered by the Obama administration, a deal which appears to have been driven primarily by diplomatic concerns. Holding the agents for a longer period of time could have allowed a more comprehensive interrogation by U.S. counterintelligence. David J. Kramer, a former State Department official, raised a number of questions in a Moscow Times op-ed piece (“U.S. Acted Too Hastily in Spy Swap”
about the eagerness of the Russian government in agreeing to a deal:

… Was the Kremlin afraid the arrested Russians might spill the beans about some larger plot or implicate officials at the Russian Embassy in Washington or its mission to the United Nations? Were the 10 Russians or others not apprehended up to more than U.S. authorities accused them of?

For those who applaud the Obama adminstration’s “reset” foreign policy with Russia, it was all too easy to discount the sleeper program as overreaching by Russian intelligence officers nostalgic for the good old KGB days. Yet former Russian premier Vladimir Putin, a veteran of Soviet intelligence, would not have countenanced such a considerable and risky investment in a spy ring on American soil unless he was convinced of its value. The nagging question that remains: what does he know that we don’t?

FORMER INTEL FOUNDER ANDY GROVE NOW ARGUES THAT THE U.S. IS EXPORTING TWO MANY HIGH-TECH JOBS DURING THE “SCALE UP” TO MASS PRODUCTION. His Business Week article (““How America Can Create Jobs” challenges the idea that tech startups will produce enough domestic jobs in the future if emerging companies decide to outsource product manufacturing to Asia. Grove maintains that for every American high tech employee performing high value tasks, there are 10 outsourced manufacturing workers (most in China); he worries that this arrangement causes us not only to lose out on domestic jobs and but also to fail to reap the benefits of follow-on innovation.

Grove’s diagnosis also applies to startups designing new environmental technologies, which is why the promise of “clean, green jobs in America” may prove more of a political slogan than a reality if the outsourcing pattern continues. His solution—taxing tech products made overseas and creating a “Scaling Bank” to assist companies that will produce them domestically—would face strong opposition not only in Washington, but also in Beijing.

WHAT IS THE OPTIMAL PERCENTAGE OF GDP THAT SHOULD BE CONSUMED BY U.S. GOVERNMENT SPENDING? A recent Wall Street Journal editorial warned that the Obama administration is hoping to lock in such spending at 25%-30% of gross domestic Product (GDP) and finance it through raising tax rates or thorough a value added tax (VAT). Government spending as a percentage of U.S. GDP historically has been in the low 20% range, bumping up during wars and recessions.

A higher percentage represents more government control of the economy and a crowding out of private investment and, if taxes are not raised, a growing federal deficit. The fundamental dispute is over whether the U.S. should become more like the social democracies of Europe, which feature less economic inequality but higher tax rates. The congressional elections of 2010 will help determine that question, and it’s hard to envision a center-right electorate voting for expanded government.

IS NEOCOLONIALISM THE SOLUTION FOR BETTER GOVERNANCE IN THE THIRD WORLD? Economist Paul Romer is “trying to help the poorest countries grow rich—by convincing them to establish foreign-run ‘charter cities’ within their borders,” according to an Atlantic Monthly piece by Sebastian Mallaby (“ “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty.”

What Romer proposes appears unworkable because of the political instability in the countries involved, to say nothing of the nationalist opposition such a paternalistic approach will surface. Yet there are some failed nation-states where a United Nations-backed receivership would represent the best chance for building a stable and prosperous society.


THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM EDWARD PLUNKETT, 18TH BARON OF DUNSANY (1878-1957): “A man is a very small thing, and the night is very large and full of wonders.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved


June 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Obama’s Afghan war-by-drone, Sanford as tabloid delight, and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon: nobody asked me, but…

IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT PRESIDENT OBAMA INTENDS TO FIGHT THE CONFLICT IN AFGHANISTAN ON THE CHEAP, with bare-minimum American troops levels and drone strikes on suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders substituting for the more substantial commitment many counterinsurgency experts believe is needed. But will this limited-resource strategy (war-by-drone), coupled with political reforms and a build-up of Afghan troops, work in establishing a stable Afghanistan?

The odds of war-by-drone succeeding are long. Despite the introduction of additional ground troops in June, the level of NATO forces in Afghanistan aren’t adequate for the mission of nation-building. The subtext of U.S. Afghan commander David McKiernan’s replacement by Stan McChrystal is that McKiernan wanted more troops than the Obama Administration was prepared to furnish. Already there are signs that force levels aren’t sufficient for a “clear and hold strategy”: the complaints by Allied field commanders in the Helmand River valley that Afghan military support is lacking illustrates one disconnect between strategy and resources. The substitution of air power for ground troops has also led to counterproductive bombing raids on Afghan villages.

Obama has dramatically expanded the drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is some irony that this tactic—of questionable legality under international law—has been embraced by an Administration concerned that harsh interrogation tactics are war crimes. Would an international court consider drone attacks an acceptable military tactic, or would they be regarded as illegal assassinations? What about the loss of civilian life when drones launch missiles at residential compounds thought to house Taliban and al Qaeda leaders? What about Pakistani sovereignty?

Obama campaigned on the idea that Afghanistan should be the chosen battlefield in confronting America’s Islamist adversaries. Convinced that the situation on the ground in early 2009 was rapidly deteriorating, Obama chose incremental escalation, a more politically palatable course, but one that ignores the lessons of Vietnam (encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine) by failing to bring overwhelming force to bear and by finessing the exit option. Will it buy enough time for the recruitment, training, and deployment of an indigenous Afghan military? What will Obama do when “clear and hold” requires much higher troop levels and the Afghan government and military can’t deliver? Will he endorse further escalation and pay the political price at home with the left wing of the Democratic Party? Or will Afghanistan in 2010 look like pre-surge Iraq in 2006-2007?

The strategy Obama is adopting may allow for a temporary, and fragile, stability in Afghanistan, but it will mean American ground troops must remain in the country for a much longer period of time. A true surge could accomplish more, produce fewer civilian casualties by lessening the need for airpower, and allow for a faster NATO exit.

THE PHILANDERING OF SOUTH CAROLINA’S GOVERNOR MARK SANFORD HAS BEEN A DELIGHT FOR TABLOID NEWSPAPERS. Sanford’s affair with an Argentine woman and his public disclosure of his messy emotional state inspired editors at the New York Daily News to produce this memorable front-page headline (wood): “BUENOS AIRHEAD.”

ANOTHER HOLE IN THE “BUSH LIED, PEOPLE DIED” MEME, COURTESY OF SADDAM HUSSEIN, FROM THE GRAVE. Before his execution, Iraq’s former ruler told his American interrogator that he refused U.N inspection and let the world believe that he had weapons of mass destruction because he didn’t want Iraq to appear weak in the eyes of his Iranian adversaries. This approach, of course, convinced Western intelligence agencies that Saddam was continuing to pursue WMDs.

Further debunking of the “Bush Lied” allegation: Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post (“‘Bush Lied?’ If Only It Was That Simple.”) notes that in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report released by Sen. Jay Rockefeller in June that Bush’s pre-war claims about the threat from Hussein were generally substantiated by intelligence information. The report found that the consensus in the intelligence community supported Bush’s claims about Iraq’s biological weapons, chemical weapons, its nuclear weapons program and it links to terrorist groups. Yes, the intelligence was later proved to be flawed in the extreme—but until Bush’s critics can show that the president knew that what he was hearing from the CIA, and other Western intelligence agencies, was faulty, he can’t be accused of lying.

WHILE IT’S A FUNCTIONAL AND PRETTY PLACE, THE RECENTLY OPENED CITI FIELD, HOME OF THE NEW YORK METS, has a decidedly artificial feel to it. By choosing to build an “instant classic” ballpark with red-brick facades and wrought-iron gates, the Mets are fabricating a tradition that doesn’t exist. That’s evident with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which celebrates the legendary African-American pioneer who broke the color bar in major league baseball, but who played for the Dodgers and has the flimsiest of historical connections with the Mets, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

RECOMMENDED READING: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS’ ABILITY TO ENTERTAIN AND ENLIGHTEN is evident in his Atlantic Monthly reminiscence of an obscure British author, Edward Upward, “The Captive Mind.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM BRITISH SCIENTIST AND PHYSICIAN SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682): “Men live by intervals of reason under the sovereignty of humor and passion.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

The Vassiliev notebooks, American elites, and Cold War espionage

Since the end of the Cold War we have learned a great deal more about how American and British elites—government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers—spied for the Soviets, and how surprisingly widespread this activity was. Nearly twenty years after the collapse of Communism, revelations about espionage by well-placed Westerners on behalf of the KGB* or Soviet military intelligence continue to emerge.

A rich source for Cold War historians on this Soviet penetration has been once-secret intelligence files copied by two former KGB officers: Vasili Mitrokhin (who left for the West in 1992) and Alexander Vassiliev, who was provided access to the agency’s archives in the pre-Putin era. Vassiliev’s notebooks have served as a foundation for two books, The Haunted Wood, authored by Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev, and the just published Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by Vassiliev and two leading scholars of American Communism, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. (A full review of Spies can be found here.)

The donation of the Vassiliev notebooks to the Library of Congress, and a consideration of the findings in Spies and other recent research on Soviet intelligence operations in the U.S., prompted a May 21-22 conference sponsored by the Cold War International History Project held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. The conference attracted leading Cold War historians, including experts on the Alger Hiss case (R. Bruce Craig, Eduard Mark, G. Edward White), the extended Rosenberg spy ring (Ron Radosh, Steve Usdin), and Soviet atomic espionage (Gregg Herken, Robert S. Norris).

Some in the revisionist camp also attended, including Hiss defender Jeff Kisseloff, who critiqued the conference on Blogging Hisstory, and two biographers of the radical journalist I.F. Stone—D.D. Guttenplan, author of the just released American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, and Myra MacPherson (All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone )—who challenged the assertion in Spies (first broached in an excerpt in Commentary magazine) that Stone had been an active Soviet agent in the 1930s, with the code-name “Blin” (Russian for “Pancake”), acting as a courier and talent spotter.

I.F. Stone and the KGB

The question of Stone’s relationship with the KGB provoked the most heated exchanges at the conference. (In one of the more humorous moments, Vassiliev pronounced himself “bewildered by the interest in I.F. Stone.”) Was the radical journalist simply exchanging gossip and information with sources who happened to be Soviet intelligence officers, as his defenders claim? Or was he consciously working under the direction of the KGB? Journalists such as Kim Philby, Whittaker Chambers, and Hede Massing stood at the center of several 20th century espionage cases, and this was not by chance. Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev note in Spies that the KGB targeted journalists for recruitment—an internal report listed 22 journalists working for the agency in the 1930s, with only engineers/scientists (49) providing more agents. The authors add:

The KGB recruited journalists in part for their access to inside information and sources on politics and policy, insights into personalities, and confidential and non-public information that never made it into published stories.

Spies asserts that Stone worked for the KGB from 1936-1938, and cites a key passage from a May 1936 letter to Moscow as proof: “Relations with Pancake have entered the channel of normal operational work.” In a presentation on the second day of the conference, journalist Max Holland summarized his Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone’s encounters with Soviet intelligence, and concluded that Stone had indeed performed intelligence functions for the KGB in the late 1930s. As for Stone’s career post-1938, Holland reviewed the few references to Blin/Pancake in intercepted Soviet cables (decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort), and comments made in 1992 by KGB operative Oleg Kalugin that appeared to implicate Stone. Holland’s conclusion: there is no hard evidence suggesting further KGB operational control of the radical journalist after 1938.

Holland also considered a different, and somewhat provocative, question. To what extent did Stone’s contact with Soviet intelligence, both covert and overt, influence his writing over the course of his life? At given points in his career, did he consciously retail KGB disinformation? Or did Stone’s radical views simply, and naturally, correspond to the Stalinist line?

It is a complex question: Holland found that Stone embraced doctrinaire Comintern positions on the Spanish Civil War and the Great Terror, but remained doggedly independent in calling for American intervention against the Nazis (even during the Hitler-Stalin pact). Yet Stone’s 1952 The Hidden History of the Korean War, which parroted Soviet propaganda in blaming a U.S. conspiracy for starting the Korean conflict, seems suspect in light of what we now know. Did the KGB encourage Stone to write The Hidden History of the Korean War? The book’s obvious bias led Richard Rovere of The New Yorker to categorize Stone as “a man who thinks up good arguments for poor Communist positions.” After Stone’s public break with Stalinism in 1956, however, Holland found Stone pursuing an anti-establishment journalism with no signs of outside influence.

Yet Stone remained remarkably quiet about the high-profile espionage cases of the late 1940s and 1950s, according to Holland. Stone was notably silent about the Hiss case (“perhaps it cut too close”) and Stone confined his commentary on the Rosenbergs to questioning the fairness of their death sentence (never directly addressing their guilt or innocence). Had he not been conflicted about his own past, what might have Stone contributed to the discussion about the extent of Soviet control of the American Communist Party and its implications for national security?

Stone’s reputation has been badly damaged by the revelations in Spies; Holland’s essay raises further questions about the nature of Stone’s relationship with Soviet intelligence after 1938. Concealing a secret past hardly fits Stone’s iconic public image of an independent journalist committed to openness and transparency, but it would have been natural for Stone to want his association with Soviet intelligence to remain hidden. One Venona intercept highlighted Blin/Pancake’s fear of exposure—while he was open to collaboration, he didn’t want to “spoil his career.” What was the psychic cost of Stone’s decades-long deception? How may it have shaped Stone’s journalism? These intriguing questions may never be answered.

Alger Hiss and “Ales”

If some ambiguity remains about the depth and breadth of Stone’s involvement with the KGB, it’s hard to find any remaining ambiguity in the case of American diplomat Alger Hiss. As Spies notes, the Vassiliev notebooks provide additional confirmation of what Whittaker Chambers long maintained and Allen Weinstein’s book Perjury confirmed: despite his protestations of innocence, Hiss spied for the GRU during the 1930s and 1940s. (A prominent New Deal liberal, Hiss was accused in 1948 by Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950.)

In his presentation to the conference, historian Eduard Marks knocked down a theory advanced by Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya in The American Scholar and embraced by die-hard Hiss defenders: that former journalist Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—was “Ales,” the code name for an American State Department official spying for the Soviets. (I’ve previously written about the holes in the Bird/Chervonnaya thesis in “Wilder Foote and ‘The Mystery of Ales’.“)

Mark drew on the Vassiliev notebooks and other research to conclude (as does Spies) that Hiss alone fit the profile of Ales drawn from cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the KGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. Gorsky had informed Moscow on March 5 that Ales was in Mexico City with a State Department delegation. Bird and Chervonnaya documented that Hiss was in Washington that day, therefore, they maintained, eliminating him as a candidate for Ales. They argued that Foote, who had remained in the Mexican capital, had to be the Soviet agent.

The Bird/Chervonnaya theory presumed that Gorsky was relaying information he knew to be accurate. Yet in his remarks Mark pointed to Gorsky’s confusion about the whereabouts of Hiss’ handler (“Ruble”/Harold Glasser) as proof that the Russian was not particularly well-informed. Mark added that Hiss had been listed by the State Department as part of the Mexico City delegation on March 5. Gorsky was mistaken: he was reporting about GRU agents, not KGB-controlled ones, so his information was second-hand, and faulty. Finally, Mark found no facts during his research to support the Foote-as-Ales theory, which, it is fair to say, resembles magical thinking more than it does serious historical inquiry.

The question of closure

Many previously unanswered questions about Cold War KGB espionage have been resolved by the Vassiliev notebooks and subsequent research. Spies has “outed” a number of Soviet agents and has provided greater specificity in the Hiss and Rosenberg cases.

Yet there remains much we don’t know. Revelations about Soviet spying have continued to emerge. In 2007, Russian intelligence officials honored George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” a previously unknown GRU agent who had infiltrated the Manhattan Project. In 2008, 91-year-old Morton Sobell admitted that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s. Near the end of 2008, an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab who had betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s was identified by Robert S. Norris as Darol Froman.

In May, Germans learned that the West German policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, who killed a left-wing demonstrator in 1967 with “the shot that changed Germany” and ignited violent radicalism, was actually an East German Stasi agent. While Kurras has denied he acted as a provocateur, some have suggested that the history of German extremism in the late 1960s and 1970s may need to be rewritten. Further, the head of the Stasi archives reports that there are many East German secret police files yet to be examined.

The history of Cold War espionage is incomplete. There are questions still to be resolved. What do the full KGB and GRU archives contain? What further connections might historians make if granted access to the files? Are there other members of the British or American elite who betrayed their country? Are there covert agents yet to be identified? Have the GRU’s files on Walter Krivitsky, George Koval, Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss and other agents been preserved? What might that information add to our knowledge of Soviet espionage in the 20th century?

Unfettered access to the Soviet archives would, no doubt, give us a clearer picture of the extent of betrayal of the Western democracies by some of its elites. As the Vassiliev notebooks have demonstrated, some of what we learn will cause a rethinking and reappraisal of Cold War history. With a resurgent Russia, that is as it should be, for as G.K. Chesterton once observed, we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.

*For the purposes of this essay, I use “KGB” to describe the Soviet foreign intelligence service and “GRU” for Soviet military intelligence, although both had several name changes during the 20th century.

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Morton Sobell, Soviet espionage, and Cold War mysteries

For those interested in Cold War history, one of the more surprising stories of 2008 was the admission by Morton Sobell that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s.

Why did Sobell, now 91 years old, a former spy in the winter of his life, decide to tell the truth to Sam Roberts of the New York Times, after having proclaimed his innocence since his trial and conviction on espionage charges in 1951? Was he tired of lying on behalf of a discredited Marxist-Leninist ideology? (“Now, I know it was an illusion,” Sobell told Roberts. “I was taken in.”)

Did he no longer care about any embarrassment and pain he might cause for that dwindling legion of defenders who had proclaimed his innocence, and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for more than half a century? (His stepdaughter told Roberts that Sobell’s confession “complicated history and the personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the world, who gave time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to support his claims of innocence.”) Did he want to set the historical record straight while he still could? Or did Sobell hope to preempt embarrassing disclosures in Rosenberg case grand jury testimony about to be released? (Ron Radosh, the leading historian of the Rosenberg case, believes Sobell broke his silence because, contrary to his public statements, the released testimony would make it “clear that Mr. Sobell had access to important classified military data, and was in a position to hand it over to the Soviets.”)

In the fullest account of the Roberts-Sobell conversation, it’s clear that Sobell remains conflicted about his dealings with the Soviets:

“I haven’t considered myself a spy,” he said. “Isn’t that funny? You use that word ‘spy,’ it has connotations.”

Was Julius Rosenberg a spy?

“He was a spy, but no more than I was,” Sobell replied. “He gave nothing, in the end it was nothing. The sketch was negligible and the government lied in presenting it as the secret to the atomic bomb. They never harmed this country, because what they transmitted was wrong.”

Further, Sobell argued he had passed information to a World War II ally, the Soviet Union, not then an American adversary—an excuse used by many on the Old Left to defend the Communist spies of the period. This, of course, ignores the fact that (as Radosh has tartly noted) the Rosenberg network commenced spying during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, prior to Germany’s 1941 invasion of Russia.

Yet Sobell’s attempts to downplay his and Julius Rosenberg’s culpability can be seen as signs of deep psychic conflict. Some of the Soviet atomic spies have been less repentant. Ted Hall, the Harvard-trained physicist perhaps most responsible for passing the design of the atomic bomb to the Russians, expressed little regret for his actions. (Hall deserves a special place in Harvard’s 20th century Hall of Shame alongside Nazi publicist Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl). After his death, Hall’s wife published a brief memoir in 2003 which included the following passage:

He [Hall] said that if he had then understood the real nature of Stalin’s dictatorship, he would not have had the stomach to share information about the atomic bomb with the USSR. However, looking back, he concluded that though he had been mistaken about some important things, ultimately his decision had proved right. In the early postwar period the risk that the US would use the bomb, for example against China or North Korea, was really serious. Hawks in the government seemingly had no comprehension of the danger this would involve for the whole world, and certainly no concern for the human lives they would have destroyed. If they had not been made cautious by the Soviets’ retaliatory power, enhanced to an unknown extent by the contributions of Ted and (far more importantly) [Klaus] Fuchs, there is no telling what they might have been capable of.

To his credit, Sobell appears ashamed of his “contributions,” and has refrained from claiming the moral high ground for his treachery. Instead, he has tried to minimize whatever damage he and Julius Rosenberg may have caused by passing classified military information, although the details they provided the Russians about American radar may have been used against U.S. planes in Korea and Vietnam.

Other repercussions

Sobell’s confession was jarring to many Rosenberg defenders, as Roberts of the Times chronicled in his piece “A Spy Confesses, and Still Some Weep for the Rosenbergs.” It also prompted the Rosenberg’s sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, to acknowledge that their father, Julius, had been involved in espionage, although, they maintained, of a non-atomic sort. They continued to argue for their mother’s innocence and for prosecutorial misconduct in the case. (Certainly the executions of the Rosenbergs represented a failure of justice, as the death sentence was grossly disproportionate.)

Sobell’s admission also had to represent a chilling development for those last-ditch defenders of Alger Hiss, another Cold War figure accused of spying for the Soviets and convicted of perjury on a related charge in 1950. Hiss steadfastly maintained his innocence until his death at the age of 92 in 1996. Sobell’s confession suggested that decades-long protestations of innocence might not be indicative of anything.

There was some gloating, as well, by those who were proved right about the Rosenberg spy ring, and some attempted score-settling. In the New Republic, Martin Peretz went after Victor Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation, calling him “the cheerleader of the ‘everybody was innocent’ school in American sentimental thought about communism and its fellow-travelers” and challenging the Columbia University journalism professor to acknowledge that “innocence of the Rosenbergs is now exposed as false.” (Navasky on Sobell and Rosenberg: “these guys thought they were helping our ally in wartime, and yes, they broke the law, shouldn’t have done what they did, and should have been proportionally punished for it; but the greater betrayal was by the state.”)

Cold War mysteries

While Morton Sobell confirmed what most Cold War scholars had already accepted—the existence of the Rosenberg spy network—there are still questions about the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and how deeply the American military/scientific establishment was penetrated.

For example, nearly 350 Americans had some sort of covert relationship with Soviet intelligence in the 1940s, according to Venona Project decrypted Russian cables. Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have matched roughly half of the Venona code names with individuals. What more might we learn if more identifications could be made? How might that alter our understanding of U.S.-Soviet relations during the period?

Western scholars had some access to KGB and GRU archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, and much was learned about the clandestine links between the American Communist Party and Soviet intelligence. The rise to power of Vladimir Putin curtailed much of that research, although there have still been surprise revelations, such as the naming in 2007 of George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” as a GRU agent who infiltrated the Manhattan Project.

And Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman’s just published “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation” makes the claim that an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s. The authors do not name the alleged spy, but say that the FBI bungled its investigation of the security breach. (Nuclear weapons expert Robert S. Norris has suggested that the alleged spy was Darol Froman, a long-time Los Alamos scientist.)

No doubt the Russians could clear up more of these Cold War mysteries, but a Kremlin dominated by former KGB officials has resisted further transparency. It may take a recrudescence of glasnot, and the reopening of the Soviet-era archives, for the full historical story to be told.

Copyright © 2008-2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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January 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Overdue open government, selective recounts, a Super Bowl winner, and other observations

With all due credit to Big Apple columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

GOVERNMENT SECRECY HARMS THE DEMOCRATIC PROCESS, so it was heartening news that on New Year’s Eve President Bush signed into law an improved version of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The legislation should accelerate the release of millions of government documents and will make it easier to prod federal agencies to provide information. The enhanced FOIA also broadens the definition of who is a journalist to include bloggers and non-traditional journalists.

The improved FOIA, along with other signs of greater openness , suggested that 2008 might be a banner year for open government—long overdue, considering the Bush Administration’s woeful record on transparency. Secrecy is often the ally of the corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest in government at all levels, federal, state, and local. The more sunshine, the better.

WHERE WERE THOSE CALLS FROM THE LEFT FOR A RECOUNT OF THE SOUTH CAROLINA DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY? Consider: Sen. Barack Obama’s share of the final vote (55.4%) was much larger than pre-vote polls (38.4% in the RCP average). And South Carolina employed touch-screen iVotronic voting machines, considered vulnerable to rigging by some. Didn’t that raise eyebrows, if not suspicions, among Democratic activists and bloggers?

After all, these factors—a gap between final opinion poll and final vote totals, and the potential for voting machine fraud—were cited by the Democratic Netroots in questioning Sen. Hillary Clinton’s surprising victory over Obama in the Jan. 8th New Hampshire primary. The angry Web buzz and rumors of vote fraud prompted Rep. Dennis Kucinich to pay for a partial recount (which validated the vote, finding no significant differences between hand and machine counts.)

So why no rumors of vote fraud in South Carolina? Why no call for a recount? True, the race wasn’t close (Clinton lost by double digits), but if the question was actually one of “election integrity,” as Kucinich and others claimed in the Granite State, then intellectual consistency would require a recount. What was different, however, in South Carolina was that Obama won, not Clinton. Apparently the Netroots saves its voter fraud conspiracy theories only for when a favored candidate loses an election.

BRANDEIS PROFESSOR DONALD HINDLEY COULD BE FORGIVEN FOR WONDERING IF he had somehow been transported into one of Franz Kafka’s surreal short stories. Hindley faced discipline from the Brandeis administration after student complaints in the fall of 2007 over his use of the word “wetback” to illustrate, Hindley maintained, the mindset of immigration foes. Brandeis then assigned a monitor to his class and wanted Hindley, who has been teaching at the school for some 47 years, to attend anti-discrimination classes (he refused).

Hindley took his case public, with backing by the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE), a nonprofit focused on insuring free speech in higher education, and later received support from the Massachusetts ACLU. Brandeis quickly backed away from the controversy, telling Hindley in a letter on Jan. 7 that it considered the matter closed. But the troubling questions of ignored due process and slighted academic freedom raised in the Hindley matter remained unanswered by Brandeis.

REDBLUEAMERICA, A NEW WEBSITE, with a slogan of “Best Thinking. Both Sides.” features a “blue” and “red” moderator. Shades of CNN’s Crossfire anyone?

JANUARY 2008 PROVED TO BE AN AMAZING MONTH FOR AMERICAN POLITICS, and it also featured some top notch commentary, including: Froma Harrop of the Providence Journal on some of the impacts of gender in Campaign 2008, “N.H. Women Had Enough Insults” and “Single Women Coming Out to Vote“; Slate‘s Christopher Hitchens on the Clintons and the race card; William Kristol in the New York Times on John McCain as a neo-Victorian hero; and the Boston Globe’s Ellen Goodman on “The dream ticket” (and her dream ain’t Romney-Huckabee).


FROM POET T.S. ELIOT COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/And next year’s words await another voice.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (April 13th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

In the words of legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon, Nobody asked me, but…

I WROTE “ALGER HISS, WILDER FOOTE, AND THE VERDICT OF HISTORY,” after author Kai Bird’s NYU presentation on April 5 which argued that U.S. diplomat Wilder Foote, not Alger Hiss, was the Soviet spy codenamed ALES. At the time, I did not have access to the complete text of the crucial NKGB cable of March 5, 1945 on which Bird largely based his conclusions, but even with the partial information that was available, it was clear that the evidence still pointed to Hiss as the spy.

Historian John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress has since included the text of the cable in his article “Ales: Hiss, Foote, Stettinius?“, along with an insightful analysis, thoroughly demolishing Bird’s argument, and demonstrating that with the available clues only Hiss, one of the more controversial figures in Cold War history, could have been ALES.

It was the news coverage of Bird’s talk, given at NYU’s “Alger Hiss in History” Conference, that initially prompted me to address the topic. The stories filed by Richard Pyle of the Associated Press had repeated Bird’s claims without context or comment by historians who could have quickly pointed out the holes in Bird’s thesis; Pyle failed to get direct comment from the Wilder Foote family (who have vehemently denied Bird’s charge) before filing the initial story; and Pyle suggested that claims at the NYU Conference could lead to the “posthumous vindication of Hiss,” a very dubious conclusion, to say the least.

“Scholars Skeptical of Alger Hiss Exoneration Claims” is not as sexy a headline as “New data may vindicate Alger Hiss” or “Author Suggests Alger Hiss Wasn’t a Spy” or “New claims support Alger Hiss” (headlines which all appeared in newspapers around the country) but it has the benefit of being accurate. It’s a shame that Pyle’s story didn’t mirror that reality.

Mark Twain once wrote that “a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” and the AP coverage of Kai Bird’s Wilder Foote spy accusation proves his point—the debunking of Bird’s claim made by historians of the period (such as the article “The New McCarthyism” by Haynes and Harvey Klehr at Washington DeCoded) will never receive the widespread coverage that the NYU Conference story did. I can only imagine how the Foote family feels about that.

WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE COMPARED TO THE NOT-SO-DISTANT PAST argues Anatole Kaletsky in “You think our age is turbulent? What nonsense,” an op-ed published in The Times of London. Kaltesky thinks that “the challenges we face today — whether as families and individuals or as societies and nations — are almost laughably trivial” compared to those of the 20th century.

Kaletsky questions those who “honestly speak of terrorism today in the same breath as the threat from Communists and Nazis to previous generations” believing that such comparisons insult “our intelligence, as well as our courageous forebears.”

There is some merit to Kaletsky’s argument—he is right that contemporary observers exaggerate how much change we are experiencing—but his thesis depends on a continuance of the relative global peace and prosperity we enjoy today. That’s a tough wager to take.

A GOOD “CAMPAIGN 101” COURSE TEACHES THAT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES must know the price of household staples—a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, and a dozen eggs—before they venture out on the campaign trail. Otherwise, they are unprepared for those reporters who delight in “pop quizzes” designed to make candidates appear elitist and out-of-touch with the average American family struggling to make ends meet.

Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani flunked this test—for both Manhattan, where he lives, and Montgomery, Alabama, where he was being questioned. Giuliani thought bread cost $1.30 a loaf (actual: NYC, $2.99-$3.99; Montgomery, $2) and milk $1.50 a gallon (actual: NYC, $4.19; Montgomery, $3.39).

The Guiliani campaign, in response, noted that “that the national average for bread is $1.17 per pound, as listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The government agency also lists milk as costing, on average, $1.60 per half-gallon.”

Note to Giuliani staff: the next ambush quiz will be on the names of foreign leaders, one that candidate George W. Bush failed miserably back in 1999, when he was unable to name the leaders of Chechnya, Pakistan or India.

COLUMNIST ROBERT NOVAK HAS LAUNCHED A BLISTERING ATTACK ON CIA HEAD MICHAEL HAYDEN, questioning his basic integrity. Novak claims that Hayden denied authorizing Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman to say Valerie Plame Wilson had been a “covert” CIA employee (only that Waxman could say she was “undercover”) and that Hayden later recanted.

According to Novak, Hayden maintained that he had described Plame as “undercover” but not “covert” to Waxman; Hayden repeated this claim to Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Republican, Republican lawyer Victoria Toensing and White House Counsel Fred Fielding in conversations at the annual Washington Gridiron dinner.

But then, according to Novak, Hayden reversed himself:

Yet, 10 days later, the CIA and its director asserted to me that the wife of Bush critic Joseph Wilson indeed had been “covert.” The designation could strengthen erroneous claims that she came under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act.

Nobody ever will be prosecuted under the act for revealing Mrs. Wilson worked for the CIA. But Hayden has raised Republican suspicions that he is angling to become intelligence czar — director of national intelligence — under a Democratic president. While Hayden proclaims himself free of politics, his handling of the Valerie Plame case is puzzling.

Critics of ousted CIA Director Porter Goss had claimed that he had tried to “politicize” the Agency on behalf of the Bush Administration, (an impression Hayden endorsed by suggesting that he was “restoring” professionalism at Langley). Now Hayden appears to be the political operative, embracing the CIA career bureaucrats whose competence, after 9/11 and the WMD debacle, is questionable, and gladly providing House Democrats dubious ammunition in the Plame case.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK come from the Christian mystic Thomas Merton: “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

With my customary nod to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN Senior Analyst (and onetime speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy and John V. Lindsey), is asking the right questions about the upcoming 2006 election, one of which (the key in my view) is: “Will Democrats catchup on turnout?” The key to the 2004 election, Greenfield notes, became the GOP’s get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts masterminded by Karl Rove.

Greenfield writes:

This year, the Democrats appear late off the mark in tapping the wealthy supporters who underwrote the formally independent vote-getting operations. Will they show up again this year, or will Republicans have a significant money advantage? And even if they don’t, how well have Democrats and their allies built their turnout machine?

What Greenfield doesn’t mention is the qualitative difference between Republican and Democratic GOTV in 2004. Rove had the Republicans focused on using the social networks of Christian churches in Florida and Ohio—where a fellow church member would offer to accompany the prospective voter to the polls. Democrats relied more on traditional turnout methods, including labor unions, phone banks and volunteers (often out-of-state college students). As Matt Bai pointed out in a brilliant piece of reporting from Ohio in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the GOP tactics proved superior.

BOB DYLAN doesn’t deserve the soft treatment he’s getting over “borrowing” phrases from Civil War-era poet Henry Timrod for the lyrics on his critically acclaimed album “Modern Times.” His defenders claim that it isn’t somehow quite plagiarism because appropriating is part of the “folk process.” Sorry, but couldn’t Dylan mention his use of Timrod’s words in his liner notes? There shouldn’t be double standards on plagiarism for the famous (Dylan, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, etc.) and the relatively unknown (would-be “chick-lit” novelist Kaavya Viswanathan). Yes, T.S. Eliot made the argument that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal” but doesn’t the truly secure artist acknowledge (whether slyly or openly) his or her literary or musical inspiration?

SENATOR GEORGE ALLEN of Virginia, stung by questions about his racial sensitivities, held what his campaign called an “Ethnic Community Campaign Rally.” A bit awkward…to say the least.(Stephen Colbert pounced on this contrived event with glee, his eviseration of Allen can be found here). Allen’s frantic damage control over his “macaca comment” is an attempt to stop his slide in the polls as Democrat James Webb closes on him (within three percentage points of the incumbent, according to the latest SurveyUSA poll).

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post opines in his blog that Allen’s Senate seat can now be considered “in play.”

WHEN HISTORIANS TURN TO THE IRAQ CONFLICT, I do not think they will be kind in their assessment of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s stewardship of the U.S. military. Rumsfeld’s decision to proceed with dramatically lower troop levels than recommended by senior military commanders for the occupation of Iraq, and to demand multiple tours by active duty troops has had significant negative consquences—a destabilized Iraq and a U.S. Army under great strain.

Neoconservatives William Kristol and Rich Lowry belatedly called for more troops to be sent to Baghdad this week in a Washington Post op-ed piece:

The bottom line is this: More U.S. troops in Iraq would improve our chances of winning a decisive battle at a decisive moment. This means the ability to succeed in Iraq is, to some significant degree, within our control. The president should therefore order a substantial surge in overall troop levels in Iraq, with the additional forces focused on securing Baghdad.

The question, however, may not be whether President Bush should agree to more troops, but whether he can.

Daniel Benjamin and Michèle A. Flournoy, both from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argue in Slate that “We can’t send more troops to Iraq.” Their assessment is grim:

That is the unmistakable message of an Army briefing making the rounds in Washington. According to in-house assessments, fully two-thirds of the Army’s operating force, both active and reserve, is now reporting in as “unready”—that is, they lack the equipment, people, or training they need to execute their assigned missions. Not a single one of the Army’s Brigade Combat Teams—its core fighting units—currently in the United States is ready to deploy. In short, the Army has no strategic reserve to speak of. The other key U.S. fighting force in Iraq, the Marine Corps, is also hurting, with much of its equipment badly in need of repair or replacement.

If Benjamin and Flournoy are correct—and the available evidence supports their contention— then Rumsfeld’s decision to fight the Iraq war on the cheap has to be regarded as a colossal miscalculation.

FIVE YEARS AFTER 9/11, more filmmakers, novelists and poets are beginning to address the sudden terrorist attack against America. British poet Simon Armitage has written “Out of the Blue,” an arresting poem about 9/11 which traces the experiences of “a fictional British trader trapped in one of the twin towers as the planes strike.” Armitage told The Times of London, “I wanted to do something which was both commemorative and elegiac, but not political.”

The poem’s opening lines are striking in their evocative simplicity:

All lost.
All lost in the dust.
Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
Now all coming back.

I found the poem both moving and disturbing; along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” Armitage’s verses rise to the artistic challenge without trivializing or sentimentalizing. (You can download “Out of the Blue” here.)

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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