February 2010: Those daunting unemployment numbers, when fact follows fiction, and other observations

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

THE FEBRUARY UNEMPLOYMENT NUMBERS SUGGEST THAT IT MAY BE MANY YEARS BEFORE THE GREAT RECESSION’S IMPACT WANES. While there were some positive signs in the Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, the number of unemployed remained at 14.9 million, an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent. An additional 8.8 million Americans were working part time, according to the BLS, because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job. Then there were another 2.5 million or so described as “marginally attached to the labor force,” primarily discouraged workers.

These are big numbers, and they aren’t going to improve quickly. High rates of unemployment will present a daunting challenge in the years ahead with unknown consequences for the social fabric of the U.S.

To return to pre-Great Recession levels of unemployment will require significant job growth—the creation of seven or eight million jobs. Add to that the need for another one million jobs annually to meet the needs of young Americans entering the job market, and the extent of the challenge becomes clearer.

Rutgers economists Jim Hughes and Joseph Seneca estimated in September 2009 that it might take until 2017 before unemployment dropped to pre-recession levels. They optimistically projected the U.S. economy adding two million jobs a year for seven years. That sort of expansionary growth seems unlikely.

What will this mean for the already frayed safety net of unemployment insurance and food stamps? What will be the political impact in hard-hit states like Michigan, Florida, and California? What about the social costs? It is uncharted territory: since the Great Depression the U.S. has not experienced lengthy sustained high unemployment rates, unlike many European nations. Count on this, and not health care, as the key issue in the 2012 presidential election.

FACT FOLLOWING FICTION: READERS OF DANIEL SILVA‘S THRILLERS WOULD HAVE IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZED THE MOSSAD MODUS OPERANDI in the recent assassination of a Hamas operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai.

In several of his best-sellers, Silva features Israeli assassin and art restorer Gabriel Allon; the details of his fictional missions match those of the al-Mabhouh killing: the careful planning, the staking out of the target, the team of agents (including females) equipped with fake passports, and the stone walling when the operation goes awry. Of course the Israeli government denies that the Dubai hit was a Mossad operation, just as it does Allon’s skullduggery in Silva’s imagined world.

“WHAT WOULD KEYNES DO?” IS A QUESTION ECONOMISTS HAVE ASKED ABOUT GOVERNMENT POLICY AND THE GREAT RECESSION. Carnegie Mellon’s Allan Meltzer pointed out in a Fortune magazine interview that John Maynard Keynes did not approve of large structural deficits and would have been aghast at the Obama stimulus plan:

The type of stimulus he advocated was very specific. He said it should be geared towards increasing private investment. He viewed private investment, as opposed to big government spending, as the source of durable job creation. He also said that the deficits should be self-liquidating, so that the increased economic activity caused by the stimulus inevitably generated a combination of extra tax revenues and lower unemployment payments. With higher revenues and lower outlays, the deficit would disappear.

GIVE CREDIT TO THE SLATE EDITOR WHO CRAFTED THIS HEADLINE: “I Should Have Read My Islamic Marriage Contract“: it’s certainly provocative enough. The author, Ayesha Nasir, explains the cultural reasons for the lack of “due diligence” by her and other Pakistani Muslim women when it comes time to sign a marriage contract.

The consequences under Islamic law can be serious: many women sign away their right to file for divorce and agree in advance to unfair financial settlements or child support if the marriage does end. Nasir doesn’t offer any solutions to the practice in her essay; will change for the better come only when civil law replaces Islamic law?

THE RICH DID INDEED GET RICHER IN THE PAST DECADE. I was struck by a recent brief item in the Sunday New York Times noting that the average amount earned by the top 400-highest-earning households in the U.S. in 2007 hit $345 million. And these mega-rich households paid an average tax rate of 16.6 percent, “the lowest since the I.R.S. began tracking the data in 1992.”

It’s true that the financial meltdown in the fall of 2008 has probably hit the Golden 400 hard, but the absolute level of income reported is staggering, as is the relatively minimal percentage of taxes paid. You don’t have to be a Leveller or a socialist to find the numbers disturbing, or to ask: when is enough, enough?

THE FIRST POST ON “NEITHER RED NOR BLUE” APPEARED IN FEBRUARY 2006. Much to the surprise of its author, NRNB has reached its fourth anniversary, avoiding the fate of most blogs (death by abandonment—only some 5.6% of the 133 million blogs Technorati has tracked since 2002 are still considered active.) For what it’s worth, we’ll persevere with NRNB in 2010.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM ENGLISH AUTHOR H.G. WELLS (1866-1946): “The uglier a man’s legs are, the better he plays golf. It’s almost a law.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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Tom Rob Smith’s “The Secret Speech” and the Stalinist past

On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, the then-leader of the Soviet Union, addressed a closed session of the 20th Communist Party Congress and denounced the cult of personality of his predecessor, Josef Stalin. Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” was a four-hour long condemnation of Stalin’s myriad abuses of power, a shocking and detailed indictment of the dictator’s crimes delivered just three years after his death.

British author Tom Rob Smith’s new historical thriller The Secret Speech (Grand Central Publishing) traces the ripple effects of Khrushchev’s denunciation of the “pockmarked Caligula” (to use Boris Pasternak’s chilling description), and explores how those revelations profoundly altered the lives of both persecutors and persecuted in the totalitarian state Stalin had fashioned.

While Khrushchev tried to narrow the focus to Stalin and his depraved comrade Lavrenty Beria, the chief of secret police (and serial rapist of young girls) who was executed after Stalin’s death, there was broad complicity in the horrors of Stalinism, beginning with Communist Party elites. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in the Soviet national security apparatus aided in the torture, abuse, summary execution, and unjust imprisonment of their fellow citizens. Some were willing accomplices in the purges and show trials, convinced that they were defending against subversion by enemies of the state. Others collaborated or informed out of fear or self-interest. The exposure of Stalinism’s systemic perversion of justice shattered the faith of true believers around the world (the American Communist Party was devastated by the revelations). They discovered that they been lied to for decades about the “necessary evil” of Stalin’s repression—it served not to advance scientific socialism, but to consolidate the power of a paranoid tyrant.

Shocking the system

The Secret Speech is set just after Khrushchev’s shock to the system, and Smith dramatizes its effects through the story of Leo Demidov, a hero of the Great Patriotic War and former MGB officer (and the protagonist of Smith’s bestselling debut novel, Child 44). As the book opens, Demidov is working as a homicide detective in Moscow, a job that brings him into contact with all levels of Soviet society and lets us watch as word of Khrushchev’s revelations quickly spreads. (The conceit—a skeptical Russian insider/outsider with police powers—is a familiar one: Martin Cruz Smith’s character Arkady Renko, also a detective, memorably explored the contradictions of Soviet life in Gorky Park and a follow-on series of thrillers.)

Leo hopes that his new position will help him make amends for his own culpability in the abuses of the past. He and his wife Raisa have adopted sisters, Zoya and Elena, in part because Leo failed to stop the murder of their parents by one of his MGB subordinates. On his self-chosen path to redemption, Leo discovers that some victims are not ready to forgive. Fraera, a woman Leo had helped wrongly condemn to the Gulag along with her husband as enemies of the state for their religious activities, has returned to Moscow, joined the vory v zakone (“thieves in law”), (the tattooed Russian mafia so vividly depicted in director David Cronenberg’s movie Eastern Promises), and has targeted Demidov for vengeance. To protect his family, Leo must journey to the Kolyma region (the Gulag’s “pole of cold and cruelty” according to Alexander Solzhenitsyn) and attempt, against long odds, to liberate Fraera’s still-imprisoned husband, Lazar.

Smith paints a vivid portrait of the bleak, unforgiving world of the forced labor camps in Siberia. Leo’s scheme to infiltrate Gulag 57 and free Lazar goes awry when his true identify is discovered; only a camp uprising triggered by news of Khrushchev’s speech saves Demidov from immediate reprisal at the hands of the prisoners. In one of the novel’s most arresting scenes, Gulag 57’s commander Zhores Sinyavksy faces a makeshift court convened to pass judgment on his treatment of the imprisoned. Sinyavksy pleads his case in vain—he receives a just, but not merciful, sentence from the convicts before Red Army tanks end their brief moment of freedom.

In seeking to craft a suspenseful page-turner, Smith relies on too many unbelievable twists and turns to advance the narrative of The Secret Speech. A final plot contrivance that brings Leo and Raisa to Budapest to witness the Hungarian revolution in the fall of 1956 is particularly awkward. Smith invents a conspiracy—Kremlin hardliners sending agent provocateurs to Hungary to spark the uprising and justify a crackdown by a resurgent Soviet military—that doesn’t pass historical muster. In fact, the Hungarian revolt represented an authentic expression of discontent by a coalition of intellectuals, students, and workers. It was a development that took the Soviet hierarchy by surprise. The broad popular support for the uprising and the participation of young educated Hungarians posed an existential challenge to Marxist-Leninist ideology which had maintained that such classless solidarity could only develop under Communism.

Budapest 1956 also caught the West off guard. Tim Weiner notes in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA that the American intelligence establishment was clueless, without a network or agents on the ground: “During the two-week life of the Hungarian revolution, the agency knew no more than what it read in the newspapers…Had the White House agreed to send weapons, the agency would have had no clue where to send them.” American involvement was limited to misleading Radio Free Europe broadcasts that raised false hopes of Western intervention.

Despite its over-plotting, The Secret Speech is compelling in its depiction of the first halting steps away from Communism. Leo’s difficult journey from dedicated secret policeman to clear-eyed survivor mirrors in personal terms the beginning of that transformation. The moral reckoning isn’t easy. Some of his MGB colleagues cannot live with their guilt. Careerists and opportunists have less difficulty adjusting to the new order. Others in the bureaucracy calculate the risks of embracing reform should de-Stalinization prove temporary and the ground under them shift once again.

Stalin’s legacy?

The Khrushchev Thaw proved to be a partial one. The Kremlin maintained Stalinist security measures throughout the Soviet empire for another three decades. Indeed, nearly twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former KGB agent who controls the Russian government has shown little appetite for any “truth and reconciliation” process that might comprehensively address the horrors of Stalinism. Some Russians still long for the days of Stalin. In a disturbing sign of this revisionist nostalgia, Stalin was voted the third most popular Russian historical figure in a poll by the Rossiya state television channel in December 2008.

Historical myopia isn’t confined to the Russians. In his Los Angeles Times review of Smith’s novel, Michael Harris compared Stalinist collaborators with Americans today, noting: “…with hardly a repercussion to be afraid of, those who opposed Bush-era policies are acquitting themselves no better, while hard-liners such as Dick Cheney continue to warn that too much concern for civil rights will risk another 9/11.” Harris failed, however, to specify the heroic acts of resistance that he thought Code Pink and other liberal-left opposition groups should have employed during the Bush years. Yes, it’s hard to believe that even someone suffering from such a clear case of Bush Derangement Syndrome could compare Stalin’s Soviet Union to George W. Bush’s America, but, as baseball great Casey Stengel used to say, you can look it up.


Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

A newsworthy history of Soviet espionage: Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America

It’s the rare work of historical scholarship that also makes news but Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press) by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev has accomplished just that, provoking headlines around the world with its revelations of Cold War Soviet espionage.

Based both on KGB* archival material glossed by Vassiliev (the “Vassiliev notebooks“) and extensive research by the authors, Spies has outed several agents who spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s, including physicist Engelbert Broda, who passed vital atomic secrets while working for the British; engineer Russell A. McNutt, who was recruited by Julius Rosenberg for atomic espionage; and U.S. government officials James Hibbens, Stanley Graze, and Henry Ware, among others.

In their heavily footnoted 704-page opus, Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev also seek to resolve some lingering historical questions: they reaffirm that Alger Hiss did indeed spy for the GRU (the chapter on Hiss caused Cambridge historian David A. Garrow to write in Newsweek that “the book provides irrefutable confirmation of guilt”); they argue that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, while a secret member of the American Communist Party, did not pass Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets; and they reveal that the KGB considered using Ethel Rosenberg as an agent independently of her husband, suggesting that she was more deeply entangled in spying than her defenders would care to admit.

That radical journalist I.F. Stone assisted the KGB in the late 1930s as an information source, talent spotter, and courier has proven to be the most controversial claim in Spies. Several of Stone’s biographers (D.D. Guttenplan, Myra McPherson) as well as left-of-center journalists (Eric Alterman, Todd Gitlin) challenged that assertion, arguing that Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev had jumped to unwarranted conclusions about Stone’s relationship with Soviet officials. Stone was engaged in nothing more than trading political gossip with his Russian sources, they argued, and questioned the substance of the case against Stone.

Yet the key KGB documents presented in Spies, coupled with later references in decoded Soviet cables, strongly suggests that Stone was under the operational control of Soviet intelligence from 1936-1938, and that his involvement went well beyond that of a journalist working his sources. (Max Holland’s Journal of Cold War Studies essay on Stone and the Soviets provides more detail and context, none of it helpful to Stone’s defense). While Spies does not accuse Stone of full-bore espionage (stealing government secrets), only of working for the KGB, a journalist who covertly assists a foreign intelligence service betrays some of the basic tenets of the profession (independence, transparency, integrity). Can Harvard’s Nieman Foundation continue to award the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence without some reservations?

Some argue that if Stone assisted the KGB, it was only a reflection of his commitment to fighting fascism. But do these “noble intentions” mitigate his actions? What of an American journalist of the 1930s with isolationist views sharing information with German intelligence in the hopes of keeping the U.S. out of any European conflict? Would that also be acceptable? Collaborating with the intelligence agency of a totalitarian power should be beyond the pale for any journalist. Further, the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939 resulted in close cooperation between the Abwehr, Gestapo, and the KGB, which meant that information passed to the Soviets in the late 1930s may very well have ended up in Berlin.

The historian as detective

The findings in Spies reflect painstaking historical detective work—comparing the Vassiliev notebook materials with Venona intercepts, FBI agent reports, and other historical records, to identify American agents, couriers, and sources for the KGB.

Haynes, Klehr, and Vassiliev unearthed some amazing stories, none more bizarre than that of Stanley Graze, a former OSS operative and State Department official who went from handing intelligence reports to Moscow Center in the 1940s to assisting swindler Robert Vesco in defrauding American investors in the 1960s. At a cocktail party in Costa Rica in 1976, Graze told a Soviet agent that his spying had been “most interesting, fruitful and beneficial to the cause of world peace.”

Other Americans, famous and obscure, were all too willing to help the KGB: Ernest Hemingway flirted with Soviet intelligence but never engaged in any clandestine work; journalist Bernard Redmond, later Moscow bureau chief for CBS and dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, became a source for the KGB in the late 1940s; and Martha Dodd Stern, the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany, saw herself as a left-wing Mata Hari but her casual sexual liaisons made the puritanical comrades nervous.

By telling these stories, Spies chronicles the decades-long love affair many American intellectuals had with Communism and how ideological fervor blinded them to the true nature of Stalinism. Despite the Great Terror, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Katyn massacre, the invasion of Finland, the establishment of the Iron Curtain, and the never-ending purges in Moscow, many still kept faith, many remained willing to spy against their own country.

The historical significance

In the end, did this Soviet penetration of British and American political elites matter? Did the presence of Soviet agents in the corridors of power in the West change the course of history? Did it prolong, or extend, the Cold War? As the extent of Soviet espionage becomes clearer, its greater significance is also emerging.

It was the “XY line,” the KGB term for scientific, technical, and industrial espionage, where Soviet efforts bore the most fruit. As Spies relates, and historian Steve Usdin and others have documented, Soviet spying in the U.S. successfully focused on stealing technical and military secrets. As Spies concludes in assessing the performance of KGB operatives in pursuing the XY line:

…The scientific and technical data they transmitted to Moscow saved the Soviet Union untold amounts of money and resources by transferring American technology, which enabled it to build an atomic bomb and deploy jet planes, radar, sonar, artillery proximity fuses, and many other military advances long before its own industry, strained by rapid growth and immense wartime damage, could have developed them independently.

What was the benefit to Stalin of having well-placed agents and sources in the corridors of American and British power providing political intelligence? Laurence Rees in World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West notes that Soviet agent Harry Dexter White pushed for the Morgenthau Plan for demilitarizing Germany and conjectures that advocacy was at the behest of the Soviets (although Morgenthau’s scheme was eventually discarded as too punitive).

It’s now clear that Stalin knew the negotiating positions of the Allies in advance of the Yalta, Potsdam, and San Francisco conferences, and that knowledge may have helped Moscow. But a strong argument can be made that it didn’t matter—the failure of Anglo-American policy toward the Soviet Union stemmed primarily from the misreading of “Uncle Joe” and his intentions by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and, initially, Harry Truman. The flawed notion that the Allies could “do business with Stalin” in Eastern Europe had more to do with the shape of the post-war world than any covert assistance to the Kremlin by Western spies.

Countering espionage

Spies should be required reading for those responsible for countering espionage against the United States. One stark lesson: members of the elite (government officials, diplomats, journalists, scientists, academics, engineers), who on the surface should have no reason for spying, are often responsible for the most damaging betrayals. Attending the “right schools” and knowing the “right people” is no guarantee of loyalty: the American agents serving Stalin included Rhodes Scholars, numerous Ivy Leaguers, and others drawn from the ranks of the privileged “best and brightest.” During the Cold War years covered by Spies (roughly 1930-1950) most spied for ideological reasons, although other factors (the narcissistic thrill of wielding secret power, or a hidden resentment of authority) also played a part.

Just weeks after the publication of Spies came allegations that two members of the Washington’s contemporary elite, Walter Kendall Myers and his wife, Gwendolyn, spied for the Cubans for nearly three decades. Myers, a graduate of Brown and Johns Hopkins, came from a privileged background and yet embraced the leftist causes of the 1960s.

Did State Department officials know of Myers’ political radicalism and counterculture lifestyle, including a police drug raid on his South Dakota home, (risk factors for espionage which Ginger Thompson of the New York Times’ quickly uncovered) before granting him top-secret clearance? Did the vetting process surface other troubling signs of an erratic or narcissistic personality? That Myers, hired as a State Department analyst, was an open admirer of Neville Chamberlain’s policies of appeasement toward the Nazis adds a comic, but fitting, touch to this disturbing tale of lax security.


* 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

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
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Confronting reality: Occam’s Razor and the 9/11 “Truth Movement”

When I walked across Cooper Square last Thursday just after dark, I found two columns of bluish light rising into the Manhattan night sky, an illuminated reminder of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The “Tribute in Light” was a sight that stirred memories of that tragic day in New York seven years ago, and all that has followed.

It is a changed country now: innocence lost; American soldiers and marines in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq; and many Americans deeply conflicted about the “War on Terror” and what focusing on homeland security means for civil liberties in a democratic society. And, after the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London, and numerous foiled plots, there is a deep unease about our continued vulnerability to terrorism.

Others have responded to the danger of Islamic terrorism, however, by minimizing the threat, or blaming the victim, or embracing conspiracy theories that obscure the reality of 9/11. I found evidence of that last week when, along with John Ray, a very bright Carnegie-Mellon student who blogs at Conspiracies R Not Us, I appeared on the Toronto-based show “The Agenda with Steve Paikin” to offer the skeptics’ view of the “evidence” behind 9/11 conspiracy theories. Also on the show: two Canadian academics, Graeme MacQueen and Michael Keefer, who argued that the American government deliberately staged the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to provide a pretext for war in the Middle East. (You can view the program in its entirety here.)

I was somewhat surprised that MacQueen and Keefer proved to be such fervent members of the 9/11 “Made it Happen on Purpose” (MIHOP) school, because it’s a hard position to defend considering its logical gaps and inconsistencies. For starters, MIHOP advocates won’t concede the obvious: that 19 Arab terrorists hijacked four airplanes on 9/11; that Al Qaeda engineered the attacks; that jetliners loaded with fuel made effective weapons; and that the explanations of structural engineers and fire safety experts for why the World Trade Center towers and nearby buildings collapsed make sense. Instead, most in the MIHOP school contend that the Twin Towers and World Trade Center 7 were brought down by controlled demolition; many think the Pentagon was hit not by a plane but by a missile; and few accept what they call the “official story” about the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIHOP believers see “an inside job” and/or a “false flag operation” behind the events of 9/11 and blame the “neo-cons” in the Bush Administration (and sometimes, with an anti-Semitic twist, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, as well).

Occam’s Razor and 9/11 conspiracies

As I pointed out on “The Agenda,” these grand conspiracy theories violate Occam’s Razor, the insight of a 14th century Franciscan that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is the best. These theories also run afoul of basic logic: Why crash airliners into buildings AND bother rigging them beforehand for controlled demolition? Wouldn’t the attacks alone be enough of a provocation? For that matter, why bother with hijacking planes? Wouldn’t a massive truck bomb, or bombs, work just as well and present fewer logistical challenges? Why not replicate the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center (or Oklahoma City)? Why make the conspiracy so elaborate and so complex?

The controlled demolition theory doesn’t make much sense either. To rig a large office building with explosives takes professional demolition firms months to accomplish. How could massive amounts of explosives been placed secretly in three skyscrapers, let alone one, without detection? And as John Ray noted, the larger the conspiracy gets, the greater the number of people involved—to the point where hundreds of thousands must be part of the “cover-up.” Would they all remain silent? Would no one be moved to confess? With all of the media attention following 9/11, wouldn’t the secret have leaked out? Further, there isn’t any evidence of controlled demolition, something that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) noted in its reports on the collapse of WTC 1, 2 and 7: no witnesses, no seismic record, no demolition equipment in the wreckage.

The “Alice in Wonderland” nature of the MIHOP fantasies makes them relatively easy to debunk. The Let It Happen on Purpose (LIHOP) argument, on the other hand, while also flawed, relies on a more subjective approach to the question of 9/11. LIHOP advocates say 9/11 happened because the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of Al Qaeda’s plans and, eager to fight a war for oil, either turned a blind eye to the plot, or worked to facilitate it. There is no “smoking gun” evidence for LIHOP, and the record suggests incompetence, indifference, and ignorance on the part of the authorities, not collusion, but since LIHOP asks us to assume the worst about the U.S. government, it has gained adherents from the far Left and Right, and will continue to attract support.

Confronting the reality of 9/11

My appearance on “The Agenda” provoked further comment in the days that followed: I received several emails from Canadians (including those from a retired pilot and a firefighter) apologizing for what they saw as the anti-Americanism of MacQueen and Keefer, and assuring me that most Canadians accepted the reality of 9/11. I replied that no apologies were necessary, that Canada had supported the U.S. in its pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that the leaders of the 9/11 “Truth Movement” were Americans. I also received some nasty feedback from foot soldiers in that movement, denouncing me as a CIA media plant and hinting darkly of the fate that awaited such “traitors.”

Despite their nastiness, my sense is that that the 9/11 “Truth Movement” is losing ground. The debunking done by Popular Mechanics, the BBC, and independent bloggers and skeptics, and the recent release of the NIST’s WTC 7 report ruling out controlled demolition as a cause of the building’s collapse, has put the 9/11 deniers on the defensive.

At the same time, it seems that many in the U.S. are slipping back into a pre-9/11 complacency on the question of terrorism. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll released last week found only one in 10 Americans who say terrorism is the most important issue in voting for president, and “concerns about an impending terrorist strike are at the lowest point on record” since 9/11.

Also last week the New York Times carried a chilling op-ed piece by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic (“On Nov. 4, Remember 9/11“) warning of the dangers of nuclear terrorism and noting that “[m]any proliferation experts I have spoken to judge the chance of such a detonation to be as high as 50 percent in the next 10 years. I am an optimist, so I put the chance at 10 percent to 20 percent.” Goldberg doesn’t flinch from confronting the reality of 9/11 seven years later: “The next president must do one thing, and one thing only, if he is to be judged a success: He must prevent Al Qaeda, or a Qaeda imitator, from gaining control of a nuclear device and detonating it in America.” It is advice that we can only hope that Senator Obama or Senator McCain will heed.


Debunking some specific claims made by MacQueen and Keefer on “The Agenda”

John Ray and I tried to refute as many of the outlandish claims made by Professors MacQueen and Keefer during our appearance on “The Agenda.” We didn’t get to deal with all of them, and so, in the interests of setting the record straight, I am offering a more detailed debunking of six of their claims.

1. American air defenses were deliberately weakened by war games on 9/11. FALSE.

While it is true there were a number of military exercises that day, it made no difference in the readiness of the American military to respond to a hijacked jet, and, if anything, might have allowed a quicker response to terror attacks (if there had been more timely communication between civilian air traffic controllers and their military counterparts, which there wasn’t). There were only 14 fighter jets on alert in the contiguous 48 states, none of which were diverted because of the “war games.”

SEE: Popular Mechanics, “Debunking the 9/11 Myths” and the website Debunk 9/11 Myths.

2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has been politicized by the Bush Administration, and therefore cannot be trusted to investigate the WTC collapses. FALSE.

There is no evidence that NIST has been politicized. The WTC reports were reviewed by professional associations of architects, structural engineers, and fire safety experts (for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Structural Engineers Association of New York (SEONY), and National Fire Protection Association) without anyone questioning NIST’s objectivity, professionalism or adherence to the scientific method. The one dissenter cited by Professor Keefer, fire safety expert James Quintiere, has differed with NIST over its investigative approach but agreed with NIST’s conclusion that controlled demolition was not involved. In Quintere’s comments on NIST’s WTC 7 report, he dismissed demolition claims, according to Newsday:

Quintiere stressed, however, that he never believed explosives played a role. He said NIST wasted time employing outside experts to consider it.

3. At the Zacarias Moussaoui trial, the FBI testified that conservative commentator Barbara Olson could not have called her husband from the doomed flight (AA 77) that crashed into the Pentagon. FALSE.

The FBI identified one interrupted phone call from Olson, and could not determine who was the source for four other calls from the plane. It is likely that some of these unidentified calls were made by Olson, as reported by her husband. The 9/11 Commission reported:

The records available for the phone calls from American 77 do not allow for a determination of which of four “connected calls to unknown numbers” represent the two between Barbara and Ted Olson, although the FBI and DOJ believe that all four represent communications between Barbara Olson and her husband’s office (all family members of the Flight 77 passengers and crew were canvassed to see if they had received any phone calls from the hijacked flight, and only Renee May’s parents and Ted Olson indicated that they had received such calls).The four calls were at 9:15:34 for 1 minute, 42 seconds; 9:20:15 for 4 minutes, 34 seconds; 9:25:48 for 2 minutes, 34 seconds; and 9:30:56 for 4 minutes, 20 seconds. FBI report, “American Airlines Airphone Usage,” Sept. 20, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Theodore Olson, Sept. 11, 2001; FBI report of investigation, interview of Helen Voss, Sept. 14, 2001; AAL response to the Commission’s supplemental document request, Jan. 20, 2004.

SEE: 9/11 Commission Report, Note 57

4. The WTC 7 fires “died down” and couldn’t have caused the thermal expansion described by NIST and the resulting progressive collapse. FALSE.

Fires raged, unchecked, on many floors of WTC 7 for some seven hours. Firefighters reported this at the time, and FEMA and NIST found photographic evidence of this.

SEE: Photos here from the scene.

5. The steel sample taken from WTC 7 had damage suggesting the impact of thermite or some unexplained chemical. FALSE.

Here’s what the BBC has reported about his claim.

In New England the claims of the mysterious melted steel from Tower Seven has been unravelled at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston.

Professor Richard Sisson says it did not melt, it eroded. The cause was the very hot fires in the debris after 9/11 that cooked the steel over days and weeks.

Professor Sisson determined that the steel was attacked by a liquid slag which contained iron, sulphur and oxygen.

However, rather than coming from thermite, the metallurgist Professor Sisson thinks the sulphur came from masses of gypsum wallboard that was pulverised and burnt in the fires. He says:

“I don’t find it very mysterious at all, that if I have steel in this sort of a high temperature atmosphere that’s rich in oxygen and sulphur this would be the kind of result I would expect.”

SEE: BBC News, “The Conspiracy Files

6. WTC 7 is the only steel-framed skyscraper in the world to have collapsed solely because of fire. TRUE.

WTC 7 is also the only steel-framed skyscraper with vulnerable long-span construction subjected to unchecked fires for seven hours (a sprinkler system was disabled when the water main broke). 9/11 “Truth Movement” advocates point to office tower fires in Madrid and Caracas which didn’t bring those structures down, yet fail to note that these buildings had their steels columns encased in cement (unlike WTC 1, 2 and 7).

SEE: Debunking 9/11 Conspiracy Theories


An extended commentary on the 9/11 “Truth Movement” can be found at “Exposing the 9/11 conspiracy fantasies.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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March 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Mamet unchained, Shin Bet bloggers, the New York Times discovers vegan strippers, and other observations

With a tip of the fedora to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

WAS THAT REALLY DAVID MAMET, PLAYWRIGHT OF THE PROFANE, ANNOUNCING IN THE Village Voice, of all places, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal“? Apparently so. Mamet’s political epiphany came, he has announced, as he wrote his recent play “November” and found himself contrasting the conservative tragic view of life with liberal perfectionism and deciding: “I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.”

Mamet unchained goes further, arguing “that we in the United States get from day to day under rather wonderful and privileged circumstances—that we are not and never have been the villains that some of the world and some of our citizens make us out to be, but that we are a confection of normal (greedy, lustful, duplicitous, corrupt, inspired—in short, human) individuals living under a spectacularly effective compact called the Constitution, and lucky to get it.”

Count on the author of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” for macho provocation: Mamet terms National Public Radio (NPR) “National Palestinian Radio,” sees similarities between George W. Bush and John F. Kennedy, and pronounces: “I am hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow.”

Yet this transformation isn’t completely a surprise as Mamet has never been a doctrinaire Man of the Left: he has displayed little patience with political correctness (vide “Oleanna”), and in some of his recent work (the movies Ronin and Spartan, the television series “The Unit,” and his book The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews,) Mamet has moved right-of-center on national security issues.

Mamet has picked an awkward time, however, to sing the praises of laissez-faire capitalism (calling Thomas Sowell “our greatest contemporary philosopher”); anemic regulatory checks-and-balances on Wall Street greed have contributed to the recent subprime mortgage meltdown. That, of course, may be the point: Mamet likes nothing better than to shock, and what better way to shock than to embrace free markets in the middle of a financial crisis?

SHIN BET, ISRAEL’S SECURITY AGENCY, HAS EMPLOYEES BLOGGING about their office routines. The Associated Press reports: “The new project is part of an attempt by the organization to attract more high-tech workers to its ranks, and the bloggers work on the technological side of the Shin Bet’s operations rather than in the field. Identified only by the first letter of their names, they appear in black silhouette on the site’s home page.” The blogs, however, are “pretty boring,” according to the AP, proving that the mind-numbing curse of the cubicle extends even to Spyworld.

IT’S COMFORTING TO KNOW THAT THE NEW YORK TIMES TAKES ITS JOURNALISTIC RESPONSIBILITIES SERIOUSLY: otherwise we might never have learned about the vegan strip club trend.

That’s right, clubs with vegan strippers serving authentic vegan food, according to Kara Jesella’s story “The Carrot Some Vegans Deplore” carried in the Gray Lady’s Fashion & Style section. Well, actually it’s only one strip club in Portland, Oregon—Casa Diablo Gentleman’s Club—one that is failing, but reporting “All the News That’s Fit to Print” demands comprehensive coverage, including a photo of a young tattooed Goth-looking lass in a black halter top gazing forlornly at a sign which proclaims: “Please Do Not Wear Fur, Feathers, Silk, Wool, or Leather on the Stage.” The strippers apparently must resort to donning and undonning pleather. (But wouldn’t silk produced in the wild be acceptable? Or feathers that naturally molted from a bird?)

Our intrepid Times reporter pursues the story further, discovering a Southern California girl group called the Vegan Vixens (“a kind of animal-loving Pussycat Dolls”) who perform at animal rights events. The nation’s newspaper of record happily provides a photo of the five Vegan Vixens in very short skirts so our First Amendment rights are fully observed.

SPEAKING OF JOURNALISM 101, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES HAS APOLOGIZED FOR ITS BOGUS STORY ON THE 1994 wounding of rapper Tupac Shakur. The newspaper was duped by a con man who had provided false FBI documents implicating associates of another rapper, Sean “Puffy” Combs, in the shooting. The author, Chuck Phillips, admitted that he never directly asked FBI officials about the authenticity of the documents, and the paper was apparently told by Combs’ lawyer that the story was false. Defamation lawsuits to follow?

THE CORNELL MATHEMATICIANS WHO CONCLUDED THAT JOE DIMAGGIO’S 56-GAME HITTING STREAK wasn’t all that remarkable (after computer-simulations of parallel baseball universes) couldn’t have ever experienced a 99-mile-per hour fastball from the vantage point of the batter’s box. If they did, they would know better.

FROM OGDEN NASH, 20TH CENTURY MASTER OF DOGGEREL, COMES THIS month’s closing sentiment (proving April wasn’t always IRS time): “Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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