Belonging and betrayal

More evidence surfaced recently to support the truism that one country’s traitor can become another country’s hero.

In October, Queen Elizabeth honored Oleg Gordievsky, formerly a senior KGB officer and double agent for the British who defected to the West in 1985, naming him Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George. After the ceremony Gordievsky was photographed with Baroness Margaret Thatcher, and the Cold War’s Iron Maiden managed a smile for the camera.

In November, in what The Times of London called “tit-for-tat,” Vladimir Putin’s Russia awarded the Order of Friendship to George Blake, a former MI6 agent who had spied for the Soviet Union. Blake was honored at his 85th birthday celebration in Moscow. (The Times described Blake as a “notorious traitor” in the lead sentence of his story, displaying an uncharacteristic lack of Anglo reserve.) “It is hard to overrate the importance of the information received through Blake,” explained Sergei Ivanov, a spokesman for the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.

Blake, who betrayed numerous MI6 operatives to the KGB before his 1961 detection and apprehension, escaped from prison and fled to the Soviet Union in 1966. He is apparently unrepentant about his role as a double agent, telling the English-language Russia Today cable television network:

I could have left the service, and I could have joined the Communist Party, and I could have sold the Daily Worker at a street corner, and many people would say that would have been a more honorable cause. But I felt that I could do more for the cause, make a far greater contribution if I set aside my scruples.

Also in November Putin saw fit to posthumously honor a previously obscure American double agent, George Koval, awarding him the Hero of Russia medal for his role in penetrating the Manhattan Project, which developed America’s atomic bomb. Koval, dubbed the “spy who came in from the cornfields,” had what William J. Broad of the New York Times called “an all-American cover“: born in Iowa, educated in New York, and by all accounts a decent baseball player (a sport also beloved by Fidel Castro).

Whether Koval’s spying actually “helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own,” as the Russians claimed, is unknowable, given that the KGB and GRU archives have been closed to Western scholars. Putin’s intelligence agencies are fully capable of trying to rewrite history to shield other double agents, even those long gone, or to obscure the true outlines of the conspiracy.

There is some irony here, of course; Gordievsky, Blake, and Koval all earned these national decorations for their treachery, for behavior (lying, double dealing, revealing secrets, betraying trust) that is normally considered beyond the pale in any other circumstances by all civilized communities.

Their betrayals are not completely symmetrical, however, for they betrayed different societies: Blake and Koval conspired against the tolerant liberal Western democracies of Great Britain and the United States, while Gordiesvsky’s covert work was directed against a totalitarian police state. Certainly we can judge Gordiesvky’s treason differently; an argument can be made that he chose the lesser of two evils in spying on his colleagues, even if we don’t fully endorse the 17th century dramatist Pierre Corneille’s belief that “treachery is noble when aimed at tyranny.” And history suggests that Gordiesvky chose correctly, in the broadest sense.

The complexity of betrayal

This may all be true, and yet “honoring” a double agent, even a Gordiesvsky, can be tricky, an exercise fraught with ambiguity. What is being honored? Motives or results? Many of these agents became spies for reasons more personal than political. If their treachery was spurred by circumstance, rather than conviction or principle, should it be judged differently? (Which brings to mind the words of Archbishop Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the worst treason/ To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”)

Blake’s comments to Russia Today raised another complication for those who may be tempted to admire the “courage” of the double agent: Soviet moles in the West consciously chose to support the Communist cause covertly, instead of openly espousing their Marxist-Leninist beliefs. They could have opposed Western political systems directly and openly. Instead, they chose to “set aside their scruples,” as Blake did, and abandon those decadent bourgeois notions of patriotism, integrity, trust, and honor.

It is ironic, then, that some revisionist historians still try to find something honorable in the actions of those American Communists who spied for Stalin, arguing, as has Ellen Schrecker, that these men and women “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.” Gordiesvsky and other Iron Curtain spies, on the other hand, did not have the option of open political activism, unless they hankered for the Gulag or execution.

In considering the decisions made in the 1930s and 1940s, we should remember that many Americans and Britons opposed the rise of Hitler and Mussolini without volunteering to spy on their friends and colleagues. While the archival research of historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr has convincingly demonstrated the close connection between the American Communist Party leadership and Soviet-directed espionage, those who decided to spy for the KGB nevertheless had to elect to do so. The historical record shows that some refused to take that step; others agreed to disloyalty.

The mind of the traitor

What, then, compels people to betray their country? Historians, psychiatrists, and intelligence experts offer explanations which can be broadly grouped into three categories: betrayal for money; betrayal for ideological or political reasons; and betrayal linked to a spy’s personality. All of these factors can come into play in the making of a traitor.

The mercenary strain of double agent was prevalent during the last few decades of the Cold War: Aldrich H. Ames, Robert P. Hanssen, Earl Edwin Pitts, and John Anthony Walker, Jr., all accepted payment from the Soviets in exchange for classified information. These cases represented a break from the more ideologically-prompted espionage of the past.

Indeed, until the mid-1960s ideological commitment was the most common reason for spying against the U.S. or its Western allies. For example, historian Maurice Isserman, in his essay “Disloyalty As a Principle: Why Communists Spied” (published in 2000) argued that American Communists who doubled for the Soviets in the 1930s and 1940s did so because they felt they were “serving a greater cause,” what Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev called “romantic anti-fascism.” While Isserman conceded that some of this spying resulted from “the same complicated mixtures of reasons that almost always motivate people to break with accepted patterns of behavior and belief,” he nonetheless saw principle as a primary motivation.

Yet the more we learn about the psychology of the double agent, the less ideology alone appears to be a factor. The narcissistic excitement of wielding secret power, of revenging imagined or actual slights, of converting alienation into action, at some level seems more vital to the traitor than does “serving the cause.” Jerrold M. Post, a psychiatrist and psychological profiler for the CIA, wrote in his now de-classified 1975 paper “Anatomy of Treason,” that narcissism, or extreme self-absorption, was a characteristic quality found in many double agents; further, Post noted, these figures “… feel they are destined to play a special role, have an insatiable appetite for recognition and success.” Thus being passed over for promotion often triggered the spying, as it did with GRU mole Oleg Penkovsky, whose career was blocked because of his father’s past as a White Russian officer. (Penkovsky was discovered, convicted after a show trial, and executed by the Soviets in 1963).

This narcissism is often coupled with feelings of isolation, alienation, and marginalization. As Harold “Kim” Philby, who betrayed both Crown and country during the Cold War, once explained: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” A sense of separation, of “not fitting in,” can arise from many factors: an awkward childhood; sexual orientation or behavior at odds with societal norms; outsider status (because of religion or class) in a closed community, such as a British public school or an Ivy League college; troubled family relationships; excessive drug and alcohol use; perhaps an innate aversion to authority.

Thus it is possible for even the most privileged members of a society, such as Philby and his fellow Cambridge Spies, Britain’s most infamous spy ring, to feel alienated, often for hidden or private reasons. The Cambridge Five were sexually rebellious in a morally conservative time: Philby and John Cairncross were drawn to adultery and sexual adventure; Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess were closeted homosexuals; and Donald Maclean struggled with his bisexuality.

Another example: while George Blake now claims that it was indiscriminate American bombing of villages during the Korean War that turned him towards Moscow, it is more likely that he was reacting to upper class English anti-Semitism. The son of a Egyptian Jew, Blake was spurned as a suitor by the family of a proper English girl because of his background. Joel Barr, who was part of the Rosenberg spy ring, cited the eviction of his family from their Brooklyn apartment during the Depression as what spurred him to become a Communist, and later, a spy (Barr’s story is recounted in Steve Usdin’s Engineering Communism).

Secret compensation

There are compensations, primarily psychic, for becoming a double agent. Whether spying for the KGB, CIA, or MI6, the betrayer joins a welcoming new community, one that has not injured him and can help him settle old scores. The betrayer finally belongs. (Not surprisingly, intelligence agencies have often awarded secret medals and other honors, including high rank, to the double agent—recognizing that “insatiable appetite for recognition.”) In Alan Furst’s historical novel, Night Soldiers, the young Russians and Eastern Europeans recruited into the NKVD find they have joined a family of sorts, one that responds harshly to injustice and punishes its enemies. There is also the added pleasure of hitting back, secretly, at those who have wronged the double agent.

Intelligence agency talent spotters have long recognized the profile of the potential mole. As Ben Macintyre of The Times of London has noted, the KGB’s Pavel Sudoplatov looked for those “…who are hurt by fate or nature —the ugly, those craving power or influence but defeated by unfavorable circumstances. In co-operation with us, all these find a peculiar compensation. The sense of belonging to an influential, powerful organization will give them a feeling of superiority over the handsome and prosperous people around them.”

Macintyre adds: “As a trade, espionage attracts more than its share of the damaged, the lonely and the plain weird. But all spies crave undetected influence, that secret compensation. Espionage may spring from patriotism or treachery, but ultimately it is an act of imagination.”

Timeless concerns

If the Cold War drama involving Gordievsky, Blake, and Koval seemed a trifle dated, news reports in November of the discovery of a possible mole in the CIA with ties to the radical group Hezbollah served as a reminder that the dynamics of betrayal are timeless.

Nada Nadim Prouty, a Lebanese national who became an American citizen and had been employed by both the FBI and CIA, pleaded guilty to “charges of conspiracy, naturalization fraud and unauthorized computer access” and, according to court documents “at one point used her security clearance to access restricted files about the terrorist group Hezbollah.”

U.S. authorities said there was no evidence that Prouty had passed secrets to Hezbollah, but, as the Washington Post noted, Prouty’s “ability to conceal her past from two of the nation’s top anti-terrorism agencies raised new concerns about their vulnerability to infiltration.”

Whether Prouty’s crimes represented a serious security breach or not (and in a reflection of the inter-agency distrust endemic to Washington, the Daily News reported that former FBI and CIA officials disagreed on this question), her case is both disturbing and yet quite predictable. In fact, it’s safe to say it will not be the last time Western intelligence agencies confront their “vulnerability to infiltration.” Why should the “War on Terror” prove any different when it comes to the matter of betrayal?


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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November 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

The missing GOP candidates, farewell to Cold War warriors, and other observations…

With a tip of the hat to New York’s man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER AND JEB BUSH WOULD BE LIKELY REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES TODAY, and probable frontrunners, but for two factors: the U.S. Constitution, which legally bars the California Governator from running because of his foreign birth; and Bush clan fatigue, which effectively bars the President’s younger brother and former Florida governor from pursuing the Oval Office. It would have been a different primary season with either of these “missing candidates” on the ballot.

On paper, at least, Schwarzenegger would have been formidable, especially in a general election. Consider: Schwarzenegger offers a rags-to-riches life story; he has instant national name recognition as a famous movie star; he married into America’s most prominent Democratic political family; and he is chief executive of our largest state, and, from all accounts, a leader who is mastering the art of political compromise. Not only that, Schwarzenegger’s eclectic political beliefs track fairly closely to those of many Americans: the action-hero governor espouses free market economics, environmentalism, moderate immigration policies, and libertarian views on social issues.

Sure, Schwarzenegger has his political liabilities and personal flaws—sordid behavior towards women during his Hollywood days; some ethical questions about his business ventures; possibly some lingering health issues from his heart bypass; and, reportedly, a fascination with political power for power’s sake—but none more damaging than those of, say, Rudy Giuliani.

California’s 55 Electoral College votes, which haven’t been in play for a long, long time, would have made Arnie’s bid irresistable for conservative Republicans (who might otherwise have looked askance at the former bodybuilder’s candidacy).

Speaking of Golden State electoral votes, some California Republicans are pushing a June 2008 ballot initiative that would allocate them by congressional district, rather than the current winner-take-all system. If the initiative passes (which is very unlikely), it would mean any GOP candidate could count on an additional 15-20 electoral votes, enough to guarantee a national victory.

SOME KEY FIGURES IN COLD WAR HISTORY DEPARTED THE SCENE in the last month or so. Among them: Soviet spy Alexander Feklisov, who claimed to have overseen the espionage of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; Kremlin hawk Vladimir Kryuchkov, one of the last heads of the KGB; Victor Rabinowitz, American lawyer (and Communist Party member) whose clients included Paul Robeson and Alger Hiss; John Noble, an American who survived some nine years in Russia’s gulag; and Milo Radulovich, a casualty of McCarthyism, unfairly fired from the Air Force Reserve as a security risk, whose cause was championed by Edward R. Murrow.

WASN’T NEIL DIAMOND’S REVELATION THAT HE WAS INSPIRED by JFK’s daughter Caroline Kennedy in writing the hit song “Sweet Caroline” touching? Or am I going soft?

WILL THAT WIND FARM IN NANTUCKET SOUND EVER BE BUILT? The Cape Cod Commission recently denied a permit for local transmission lines for the project; it seeks to generate clean power through some 130 wind turbines sited six miles off the Massachusetts coast. The wind farm developer, Cape Wind Associates, began the regulatory process in 2001 and has faced stiff opposition from local NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) activists. Cape Wind now seeks regulatory relief from the state’s energy facilities siting board, but it looks like timely approval for this much-needed alternative to fossil fuel generation will remain a long shot.

REALCLEAR POLITICS’ BLAKE DVORAK’S TOUGH CRITIQUE OF THE CNN/YouTube debates includes this memorable line: “With the fare presented ranging from the inventive to the ridiculous, the experiment was certainly a nice reminder for why the Founders cherished individual freedom but dreaded direct democracy.”

ROSIE O’DONNELL MAY HAVE LOST A SHOT AT A TALK-SHOW ON MSNBC, but, based on her blog entry announcing that news, she may have a future as a haiku poet. Think any MSNBC executive would cop to the “Rosie Show” as his or her idea today?

KNUTE ROCKNE, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, provides this month’s quotation (one that might resonate with the embattled current Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis): “I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Wilder Foote and “The Mystery of Ales”

Author Kai Bird and researcher Svetlana Chervonnaya announced at a NYU conference in April that they had uncovered evidence suggesting that U.S. diplomat Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—had spied for the Soviets under the code name ALES in the 1930s and 1940s.

Most Cold War historians had concluded that Hiss—a prominent New Deal liberal and State Department official accused in 1948 by former Communist agent Whittaker Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950—was ALES, based on research in Russian archives, and the release in the mid-1990s of intercepted Soviet cables decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort.

Bird and Chervonnaya have challenged that conventional wisdom. Their essay in the summer edition of The American Scholar entitled “The Mystery of Ales” argues flatly:

…Hiss was not Ales. The historians who have maintained that he was Ales turned an assumption and a few clues into a conclusion without bothering to determine if Hiss actually fit the profile of Ales — or asking whether a better candidate for Ales existed.

In the article they repeat their NYU conference assertion that Wilder Foote, a minor State Department official, is that better ALES candidate (although they stop short of unequivocally labeling Foote as ALES). Bird and Chervonnaya cite their research on key ALES-related cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the Soviet NKGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. They argue that Foote, and Foote alone, best fits the profile of ALES drawn from those messages.

Yet it is an uphill climb for Bird and Chervonnaya. Of the eight significant clues to ALES’s identity found in the two cables, six match Hiss closely and only two track to Foote’s biography (a comparison outlined in greater detail here). The Library of Congress’s John Earl Haynes in two recent articles (“Ales: Hiss, Foote, Stettinius?” and “Hiss Was Guilty,” co-authored with Harvey Klehr) has made a strong case for the conventional historical conclusion that Hiss was ALES. While “The Mystery of Ales” runs on for nearly 26,000 words and includes 184 footnotes in its expanded online version, it nonetheless fails to mount a convincing argument for Foote as dedicated spy—the preponderance of the evidence strongly points to Hiss.

Five flaws

There are five major flaws in “The Mystery of Ales” readily apparent to those who have followed the historiography of the Hiss Case; these flaws undercut any notion that Foote was ALES. They are:

1). Excluding Hiss as a suspect through the flawed analysis of one clue. Bird and Chervonnaya eliminate Hiss as a candidate for ALES because of his presence in Washington, D.C. on March 5 when Gorsky informed Moscow that ALES was in Mexico City with a U.S. State Department delegation. Bird and Chervonnaya maintain: “… Gorsky would have to have been incompetent not to know that Alger Hiss had returned from Mexico City.” If Gorsky was telling his NKGB superiors that ALES was out of the country, then logically Hiss could not be ALES.

Yet it is also possible that Gorsky was unaware of Hiss’s return. John Earl Haynes has countered that Soviet intelligence did not keep a day-to-day check on the whereabouts of its sources, and further, Gorsky had only a distant relationship with ALES (who worked for military intelligence, the GRU, not NKGB) with any contact arranged by an intermediary, the agent RUBLE. In their analysis, Bird and Chervonnaya focus on news stories in the Sunday editions of the New York Times and Washington Star mentioning Hiss’s participation in a NBC radio show broadcast on Saturday, March 3 to argue Gorsky should have known. But did he? There is no proof, only conjecture. It is not a “firm alibi” for Hiss, as Bird and Chervonnaya maintain, but a possible alibi. It should not be used to rule out Hiss as an ALES suspect.

Further, Bird and Chervonnaya’s scholarship is inconsistent when it comes to Gorsky and his reliability. They reject what Gorsky’s March 30 cable says about ALES being thanked for his spying by Soviet diplomat Andrey Vyshinsky during a Moscow visit (after the Yalta Conference); instead Bird and Chervonnaya claim that Colonel Mikhail Abramovich Milstein of the GRU thanked ALES. Why do Bird and Chervonnaya trust Gorsky to get it right on ALES’s whereabouts on March 5, but not on the substance of ALES’s meetings in Moscow?

2). Substituting Foote as the “better candidate” for ALES largely on circumstantial evidence. Bird and Chervonnaya focus on Foote because—like ALES, according to the cables—he traveled with Secretary of State Edward Stettinius to Yalta, Moscow, Mexico City and San Francisco in 1945. But so did Hiss! (Haynes notes, wryly, that Stettinius fits that geographical bill for ALES, as well.)

Some of the more significant clues just don’t match Foote. One of the more striking aspects of the March 5 Gorsky cable is its description of ALES as a fervent Communist “fully aware” of the illegality of his underground role. Foote apparently held conventional New Deal liberal views (Bird and Chervonnaya concede he was “a man of the democratic left”), and this Harvard graduate and one-time Vermont weekly newspaper publisher seems an unlikely Soviet master spy. I envision Foote as the real-life embodiment of Doremus Jessup, the small-town Vermont newspaperman in Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, whose opposition to fascism is founded on the democratic ideals, common sense, and decency embodied in what was quaintly called the American way—not on Marxist ideology.

Despite combing through Russian and American archival records, and reviewing FBI and U.S. Senate investigative files, Bird and Chervonnaya found nothing tying Foote to Communist Party membership, overt or covert. Several federal loyalty investigations in the 1940s and 1950s concluded that Foote posed no security risk. In contrast, the historical record is replete with sources identifying Alger Hiss as a covert Communist (Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, Hede Massing, Itzhak Ahkmerov and Nathaniel Weyl) and FBI and State Department internal investigators began treating Hiss as a bona fide espionage suspect in 1945.

In “The Mystery of Ales” Bird and Chervonnaya give us (unintentionally) Wilder Foote as extroverted editorialist, not calculating conspiracist. Even as U.S.-Soviet relations cooled in the late 1940s, Foote continued to openly assert his liberal internationalist views, refused to accept Hiss’s guilt or to renounce his friendship with his colleague, and denounced Senator McCarran’s loyalty investigations. Were these the actions of a Soviet spy looking to avoid notice and escape detection? The contrast with Alger Hiss’s opaqueness and evasions during the same period of time could not be more stark.

3). Relying on guilt-by-association to link Foote to the ALES clues. Without documentary evidence of Communist Party membership for Foote, or any credible allegations of espionage or other subversive activity, Bird and Chervonnaya can only summarize the FBI’s background investigation, which included Foote’s associations. They then ask, rhetorically:

…Do his associations convict him? No. But they help to answer the question of how plausible a candidate he may be for Ales. If Foote is Ales, readers will naturally ask if he knew men or women who viewed the Soviet Communist “experiment” with sympathy.

“The Mystery of Ales” recounts Foote’s friendships with possible or actual Communists—employees at his weekly newspapers, Harvard classmates, a second cousin with lefty leanings—and concludes that he had contacts “who conceivably might have served to introduce him to the Soviets.”

Of course the same exercise would produce the same result (lots of fellow traveling and Communist friends) for most Ivy League New Dealers of the period; applying the Bird-Chervonnaya argument by innuendo, we could easily conclude that they all were potential KGB agents! To be intellectually consistent, Bird and Chervonnaya should endorse Ann Coulter’s smear of journalist I.F. Stone as a Soviet agent based on his associations and contacts, for they imply as much for Foote with far less evidence—with Stone, there are at least Venona decrypts of KGB efforts to persuade him (unsuccessfully) to trade information for money.

4). Ignoring or slighting those ALES clues that point directly to Hiss. By excluding Hiss as an ALES suspect at the outset, “The Mystery of Ales” either ignores the close fit between Hiss and several major clues or tries to gin up similar incriminating evidence against Foote.

For example, nowhere in “The Mystery of Ales” do we find a consideration of the claim in the March 5 cable that ALES and RUBLE had been part of a Soviet spy ring in Washington headed by KARL (the codename for Whittaker Chambers) until the “connection with KARL was lost.” A memo by Gorsky in 1948 had identified Hiss (under a different code-name, LEONARD) as a member of KARL’s group, along with RUBLE. How does Wilder Foote fit into this scenario? “The Mystery of Ales” leaves this as a mystery.

And what of the clues in the March 30 cable that ALES had been working for the GRU since 1935, had supplied military intelligence from the State Department, and had assistance from family members—all clues that matched Hiss? Bird and Chervonnaya never really address how Foote could have been of any help to the GRU from 1935-1941 when he was a weekly newspaper publisher (historian Eduard Mark has noted Foote’s “absence from the seats of power throughout the first half of ‘Ales’s’ service to the GRU makes him an intrinsically unlikely figure”); they weakly offer that thousands of government workers had the surname Foote (including some, they note, in the military); and they struggle mightily to maintain that Foote, a government press officer for much of his time in Washington, had access to sensitive military information.

5). Implying that members of the Foote family accept the Bird-Chervonnaya suspicions about Wilder Foote, when in fact they reject them. “The Mystery of Ales” closes with an email from Wilder Foote’s son (“I am confident that the actions of my father will ultimately be proven to be above reproach.”) that falls far short of the sort of denial you would expect from someone whose father has been accused of treason. What Bird and Chervonnaya fail to include in their essay are the post-NYU conference comments made by a Foote family representative:

Responding to a query by The Associated Press, Foote’s grandson said in an e-mail signed Wilder Foote 5 that his grandfather “was cleared of any suspicion” of wrongdoing by the FBI and the McCarthy Commission investigating spy activities. “He was and still is innocent.”

“I can only assume that Mr. Bird has ulterior motives to besmirch my grandfather’s name, possibly for Mr. Bird’s own celebrity,” he added. “Quite convenient for him that everyone involved is dead and cannot speak in their own defense against allegations.”

“Mr. Bird’s unsubstantiated statements will undoubtedly damage my grandfather’s name with little or no recourse on my part … I am glad that my grandfather is not here to endure this sort of attack,” said Foote, a commercial pilot who lives in Belleville, Michigan.

In one sense it doesn’t matter what the Foote family believes—their opinions will not change objective historical fact. (For example, Tony Hiss has defended his father’s innocence for decades.) However, if you are going to selectively quote family members (as “The Mystery of Ales” does), then you have an obligation to note that they violently disagree with your conclusions.

Second Wave Cold War revisionism

“The Mystery of Ales” is part of a Second Wave of Cold War revisionism, one that tries to cope with the revelations that the American Communist Party and its members, public and secret, aided and abetted Soviet espionage in the U.S. in a broad and sustained way. Some historians on the Left have tried to downplay the importance of this spying; others to draw a distinction between cooperation and espionage; and a small group has focused on the noble motives of those implicated (thus Ellen Schrecker’s Newspeak-like explanation that those who spied “did not subscribe to traditional forms of patriotism.”)

In that light, the Hiss Case—and maintaining Alger Hiss’s innocence—has taken on greater meaning for those hoping to salvage something from the historical wreckage of the Stalinist-era American Left. Bird and Chervonnaya argue:

Even today, the Hiss affair remains a painful metaphor for the marginalization of left-wing New Dealers by anti-Communist crusaders, the weakness of the American Left for the last half century, and the less-than-courageous performance of American liberals during two generations of conservative ascendancy.

An alternative metaphorical reading, however, is that the Hiss affair—and the revisionists’ reluctance to accept Alger Hiss as the active tool of a foreign intelligence agency, not the passive victim of Cold War hysteria and McCarthyism—reflects an unwillingness to accept historical responsibility for covert American support of Stalin and his crimes against humanity. Those within the U.S. government who spied for the Soviets served a monstrous regime, one that matched Hitler’s Third Reich in its ruthlessness (indeed, as Paul Johnson notes in Modern Times, Nazi and Soviet intelligence agencies collaborated closely during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact). To deny this is to deny historical truth.

Even as Bird and Chervonnaya attempt to “solve” the “mystery of Ales” (primarily to assert Alger Hiss’s innocence, it should be noted), they also try to downplay the extent and seriousness of Soviet penetration of the State Department in the 1940s. What was going on, however, was not cooperation between diplomatic allies or an innocent mutual exchange of information but rather the passing of secrets to a foreign power—the very definition of espionage.

Bird and Chervonnaya may see ambiguity in the actions of ALES (“…Ales might not have thought of himself as a spy.”), but their interpretation cannot bear scrutiny. Oleg Gordievsky, former KGB resident in London, defined an agent (in his 1991 book Instructions from the Centre) as one who agrees to secret “conspiratorial” collaboration, and is willing to accept KGB instructions—exactly what ALES was doing.

The Gorsky cables show that ALES was conscious of this and understood that he was an agent in every sense of the word; ALES gladly accepted a decoration from the GRU in recognition of his service to his Soviet masters. ALES knew that he was betraying his country, perhaps in hopes of building a Marxist New Jerusalem, but betraying his country nonetheless. It is a disservice to history to suggest otherwise.


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Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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Hollywood’s CIA fantasies and “The Good Shepherd”

Why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a compelling and serious film about the Central Intelligence Agency?

Robert DeNiro’s The Good Shepherd (2006), recently released on DVD, like so many other formulaic movie treatments of the CIA, recycles the same tired old anti-Langley themes. It’s a shame, for DeNiro has assembled a talented cast and he focuses the movie on a fascinating time for America’s new intelligence agency, the period from the CIA’s post-World War II inception to the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

What greatly hampers The Good Shepherd is the apparent unwillingness by DeNiro, or his screenwriter, Eric Roth, to take seriously the reasons for the creation of the CIA: the clear and present danger represented by a Stalinist Soviet Union, and the need—first enunciated by Harry S Truman—for accurate intelligence on its expansionist designs. Roth’s flat screenplay is a puzzlement—he is credited with scripting both Munich and Forrest Gump and so he knows how to tell a story and how to deal with ambiguity, but he does neither in The Good Shepherd.

CIA fantasies

That Hollywood has a CIA problem shouldn’t come as a surprise. With few exceptions American producers, directors, and screenwriters hold left-of-center political views; consequently, it seems, they regard the CIA as an unnecessary and distasteful legacy of the Cold War, or a villainous organization willing to commit all sorts of heinous crimes to insure American hegemony in the world.

Other recent films from the “Left Coast” reflect those prejudices: see, for example, the conspiracy-fueled Syriana (2005) where the CIA blithely assassinates a Middle Eastern leader via a Predator-drone-delivered missile, or any of the recent Robert Ludlum-inspired Jason Bourne films where CIA executives calmly approve the murder of apostate agents. (The notion that the CIA has the proverbial “license to kill” ignores the history of the past 15 or 20 years, where any CIA covert action has required the clearance of battalions of government lawyers to say nothing of direct presidential approval). True, these are thrillers, not bound to reality, but their negative portrayal of the CIA speaks to the Hollywood mindset.

Despite DeNiro’s comments in some PR interviews that he wanted to offer a more nuanced history of the CIA, the underlying negative point-of-view behind these other “above-the-law” CIA fantasies also informs The Good Shepherd. That is artistically problematic, however, since it insures that what reaches the screen is ideologically-driven and clichéd (so much so that I kept looking for an appearance by Chris Cooper, Hollywood’s favorite all-American CIA/military villain). It certainly doesn’t make for anywhere near as authentic or entertaining art as would a movie with more ambiguity and an appreciation for the moral dilemmas of espionage. (Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t all wrong when he counseled: “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”)

What goes missing in is a sense of why the CIA exists, and why people are drawn to work for such an organization (patriotism? thrills? the intellectual challenge? a mixture of these motives?). We never get a sense of the conflicts that arise in operating an intelligence agency in an open society that prizes the rule of law. The nature of the Soviet threat is never explored, nor the historical debate over the best way of addressing Soviet gambits in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and whether containment would prove effective as a strategy or more aggressive “roll back” tactics should be employed.

The CIA as social club

Instead, in The Good Shepherd we get the CIA as Yale’s Skull and Bones writ large, a secret society aimed at defending establishment male privilege (or so the movie suggests). While it’s true that the OSS, and then the CIA, had Ivy League roots, the history of the period suggests that the men and women attracted to the CIA—especially the adventurers drawn to covert work—saw themselves as enlisting in an ideological struggle against Communism, not joining a post-college social club.

Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, The Good Shepherd’s repressed upper crust protagonist, as such a cipher that we can never quite understand what motivates or drives him. The tag-line for the movie proclaims, “Edward Wilson believed in America, and he would sacrifice everything he loved to protect it,” but it’s never clear that Wilson believes in much of anything, let alone America, or that he is capable of love. Damon’s emotionless performance made me long for a voice-over narration for some sense of the character’s interior life—not a positive sign for a movie. No doubt the idea of Wilson as a bloodless WASP was drawn from the real-life CIA mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, but centering The Good Shepherd on this humorless workaholic robs the movie of any humanity.

The Good Shepherd explores the CIA’s misguided role in 1950s coups in Latin America and elsewhere, the continuing espionage battles with the KGB, and the agency’s Kennedy-inspired early 1960s obsession with Cuba. There’s no context to this, however, no Stalin, Beria, Mao, Korean War, Berlin Wall or Hungarian revolution, and the screenplay suggests that the CIA remained more interested in protecting American business interests in Cuba and Latin America than in countering Soviet aggression.

The CIA’s role in gathering and analyzing intelligence is slighted (no surprise) in favor of covert skulduggery. Among American films, perhaps only Patriot Games (1992) has tried to capture the pain-staking work of solving the intelligence puzzle that is at the heart of what spy agencies actually do.

That those who work for the CIA are also corrupt or motivated by elitism is another recurring theme in The Good Shepherd. Thus we have a Mafia capo, Joseph Palmi, questioning Wilson/Damon about his world view in this exchange:

Palmi: Let me ask you something… we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish they have the homeland; Jews, their tradition; even the niggas, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?

Wilson: The United States of America…and the rest of you are just visiting.

In this ham-handed bit of WASP-bashing we are meant to see that Wilson’s patriotism (if it can be called that) is sparked solely by elitism. But does DeNiro really want us to conclude that the Cold War was about defending the right to exclude Italians, Irish, Jews, and blacks from establishment country clubs? And weren’t the most aggressive “clients” of the CIA, the ones pushing for assassinations and muscular covert action —Jack and Bobby Kennedy—Irish Catholics?

Flirting with Bruckheimerism

In an attempt to balance The Good Shepherd‘s thinly-veiled ideology with entertainment, DeNiro flirts with elements of Bruckheimerism—that Hollywood penchant , perfected by the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, for grand-scale blockbusters filled with violence and car-chases aimed at 17-year-old suburban boys. While DeNiro does not employ much “bang-bang” in The Good Shepherd (it actually might have given the film some needed zip), he does aspire for something grand—the PR for the film calls it “an epic drama.” (Some reports have suggested DeNiro sees the potential for a Godfather-like series of films on the CIA).

This fascination with the epic is yet another mistake—the characters get lost in the narrative sweep, and the underlying family drama seems manufactured and contrived. To provide some structure to the film, DeNiro resorts to popping up every 20 minutes as the character Bill Sullivan to provide us an awkward explanation for the latest turn in CIA history.

Spy stories don’t translate well into epics. Some of the better espionage films have been quiet, focused on a simple tale. Think of The Third Man (1949), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), the BBC mini-series based on John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982), The Conversation (1974), The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), Patriot Games (1992), and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s much-under-rated Munich (2005), which was criticized by some for the very ambiguity that, laudably, challenged the viewer’s pre-conceptions.

The best spots in The Good Shepherd are the quieter parts of the film. Tammy Blanchard is marvelous as Wilson’s college love interest, the deaf student Laura; Oleg Stefan makes a believable KGB foil; and Michael Gambon’s British agent/university don adds some needed color. When DeNiro narrows his directorial focus, and gives the actors some space and time, The Good Shepherd begins to intrigue. It makes you wish that DeNiro had chosen to adapt Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper, which covers the same historical territory but in a much more personal way, or even Ward Just’s post 9/11 novel Forgetfulness.

Don’t expect Hollywood to change the formula anytime in the near future. This summer Turner Network Television will broadcast The Company, a series based on the epic—yes, another epic—CIA novel by Robert Littell on the history of the agency. A hint as to the likely villains in this cinematic exercise: they won’t reside in Moscow’s Lubyanka Square.


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Copyright © 2007 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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Alger Hiss, Wilder Foote, and the verdict of history

The headlines that followed last Thursday’s daylong NYU conference, “Alger Hiss and History,” focused on author Kai Bird’s claim that “new evidence” suggested that U.S. diplomat Wilder Foote—not Alger Hiss—had spied for the Soviets under the code name ALES in the 1930s and 1940s.

A widely-distributed Associated Press story on the conference maintained that if Bird’s contention held up, it “could point towards a posthumous vindication of Hiss.” What the story obscured was that Bird’s theory of “Foote as ALES” relies primarily on ruling out Hiss as the prime suspect, not by any “smoking gun” research establishing Foote’s treachery. Despite Bird’s publicly-expressed certainty at NYU, the weight of evidence still points to Hiss as ALES, the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) agent, not Foote.

A prominent New Deal liberal and State Department official, Hiss had been accused in 1948 by former Communist agent Whittaker Chambers of spying for the Soviets, and was convicted on a related perjury charge in 1950. Hiss vigorously maintained his innocence until his death in 1996, at the age of 92, and the Hiss Case became a cause célèbre for many on the Left, who saw the patrician diplomat as a victim of “America’s second Red Scare.”

The view of Hiss as an American Dreyfus changed for many after the 1978 publication of historian Allen Weinstein’s Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, which marshalled damaging evidence of Hiss’s complicity in espionage. Further research in Russian archives, and the release in the mid-1990s of intercepted Soviet cables decrypted as part of the U.S. Venona counterintelligence effort, convinced many mainstream historians of Hiss’s guilt.

A different ALES?

At the NYU conference, Bird and his Russian co-researcher Svetlana A. Chervonnaya sought to challenge the prevailing assumption that Hiss and the Soviet agent ALES were one and the same. During the panel entitled “The Case as History,” Bird focused on cables sent on March 5 and 30, 1945 by the Soviet NKGB station chief in Washington, Anatoly Gorsky. The FBI had connected Hiss to ALES after analyzing the March 30 cable, and when it was released as a Venona document, many historians had accepted the idea that Hiss was, most likely, the agent in question.

Bird presented new background research on the March 5 cable (which resides in the KGB archives) in which Gorsky told his Moscow superiors that ALES had been at the Yalta Conference, then Mexico City, and had not returned to Washington. Bird and Chervonnaya concluded that Hiss could not have been ALES because he had returned to Washington in February, and had participated in a National Broadcasting System radio interview on the night of Saturday, March 3 (which was reported in the Sunday newspapers)—something they argue Gorsky, whose diplomatic cover was as a press officer, would have known. This discrepancy in schedules rules out Hiss as ALES, Bird maintained.

Who was ALES, then? After reviewing the travel itineraries of State Department officials against the other ALES clues, they narrowed the suspect list, leaving “only one man standing,” to use Bird’s words—Wilder Foote, a Harvard-educated journalist and assistant to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius. Foote had remained in Mexico City and his travels (Yalta Conference, Moscow, Mexico City) matched those reported for ALES. Further, Bird and Chervonnaya had discovered that Foote, an internationalist who later worked for the United Nations, had been the target of loyalty investigations by the FBI.

Other scholars who have studied the cables have reached different conclusions. John Earl Haynes of the Library of Congress has argued that Soviet intelligence did not keep a day-to-day check on the whereabouts of its sources, and that Gorsky only had contact with ALES through another agent, RUBLE (believed to be Treasury Department official Harold Glasser), who was often traveling.

Considering the ALES clues

A broader consideration of the clues in the cables, however, casts considerable doubt on the substitution of Foote for Hiss as the prime ALES suspect. In the March 30 cable, ALES was described as having spied continuously for the GRU since 1935. Hiss’s involvement with Soviet military intelligence in the mid-1930s has been corroborated by several witnesses, while Foote was a newspaper publisher in Vermont for the entire decade. (As historian Eduard Mark has written, Foote’s “absence from the seats of power throughout the first half of ‘Ales’s’ service to the GRU makes him an intrinsically unlikely figure.”)

Gorsky’s March 30 cable also stated that ALES was being assisted by relatives in collecting government secrets; Foote had no relatives in the government, while Hiss’s brother Donald was a State Department employee and Hiss’s wife, Priscilla, had been accused by Chambers as an accomplice in her husband’s covert activities.

Of the eight clues provided in the two cables, the existing evidence suggests a strong match to Hiss on six clues, and to Foote on two.** (Please click here for a chart comparing Hiss, Foote and ALES to the cables’ clues).

The chair of NYU’s “The Case as History” panel, David Oshinsky of the University of Texas, focused his remarks on some of the loose threads in the Bird-Chervonnaya theory. Did Gorsky know Hiss was in Washington, and not Mexico City? How could Foote’s rural Vermont publisher’s life be squared with Gorsky’s contention that ALES had provided information continuously since 1935?

Oshinsky added that a “vast majority of historians” accepted Chambers’s overall version of events—that Alger Hiss had indeed spied for the Soviets in the 1930s—an account backed by other Communist agents like Elizabeth Bentley and Hede Massing and contemporary witnesses like writer Josephine Herbst. Oshinsky finished his remarks by arguing that it would “cheat history” to deny the grim role of the U.S. Communist Party (CPUSA) in assisting the Soviet espionage machine, even while acknowledging that McCarthyites exaggerated the Communist spy threat in the 1950s.

Journalism or stenography?

In his initial coverage of the NYU conference, the Associated Press’s Richard Pyle highlighted Bird’s naming of Wilder Foote as ALES. Unfortunately Pyle’s story resembled stenography more than journalism, as he repeated the Bird-Chervonnaya thesis without much in the way of qualifications, critical analysis, or any balancing comment from historians familiar with Venona and the ALES narrative.

Pyle apparently did not contact leading Cold War historians in advance of the NYU conference, so he could turn to them for response after the Bird-Chervonnaya presentation. In March, Hudson Institute fellow Ronald Radosh had listed some of the scholars who would be absent from NYU’s event (Eduard Mark, John Earl Haynes, Sam Tanenhaus, Mark Kramer) in arguing that the conference deck had been stacked with Hiss partisans. Pyle could have started by phoning Radosh’s list. Instead, Pyle balanced Bird’s claim with a quote from one of the conference panelists, G. Edward White of the University of Virginia Law School, who said that whether Hiss was ALES “need not rely on a single piece of evidence.” (White, author of Alger Hiss’s Looking Glass Wars, believes that Hiss was a Soviet agent).

Pyle’s reportage was further weakened by his failure to get comment from the Foote family on Thursday (“telephone and email queries…were not immediately returned…”). Rather than holding his story for their response, Pyle relied on quoting a somewhat ambiguous e-mail Bird said that he had received from Foote’s son (“I am confident that the actions of my father will ultimately be proven to be above reproach.”).

On Friday, the family’s belated response proved to be anything but ambiguous.

Responding to a query by The Associated Press, Foote’s grandson said in an e-mail signed Wilder Foote 5 that his grandfather “was cleared of any suspicion” of wrongdoing by the FBI and the McCarthy Commission investigating spy activities. “He was and still is innocent.”

“I can only assume that Mr. Bird has ulterior motives to besmirch my grandfather’s name, possibly for Mr. Bird’s own celebrity,” he added. “Quite convenient for him that everyone involved is dead and cannot speak in their own defense against allegations.”

“Mr. Bird’s unsubstantiated statements will undoubtedly damage my grandfather’s name with little or no recourse on my part … I am glad that my grandfather is not here to endure this sort of attack,” said Foote, a commercial pilot who lives in Belleville, Michigan.

While Foote’s anger is understandable—he believes that his grandfather has been falsely accused of betraying his country—it’s unlikely that the pursuit of celebrity motivated Bird (he shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Biography). A more likely explanation: Bird’s eagerness to advance Wilder Foote as ALES reflects a desire to clear Hiss of the charge. Many revisionist historians of the period regard the Hiss Case as a miscarriage of justice, a calculated attack on the reformist policies of the New Deal, and a “trial run” for McCarthyism; it’s fair to include Bird in that group.

The verdict of history

The historical case against Alger Hiss does not ride on the question of the identity of ALES. While it is unlikely that Wilder Foote was the GRU agent with the cryptonym ALES, even if he was, that discovery alone would not vindicate Hiss.

The evidence of Hiss’s involvement with the Soviet intelligence apparatus of the 1930s is considerable, although it should be said that the depth of that entanglement (naive idealist duped into espionage? CPUSA member reluctantly “doing his duty”? committed covert agent?) is not as clear.

There is some irony that Hiss partisans, who generally downplay the prevalence of Soviet espionage in government circles, are now arguing that Foote was ALES; if true, it would further strengthen the argument that Communist agents had deeply penetrated the highest levels of the State Department. It would mean that Secretary of State Stettinius attended the Yalta Conference accompanied by two close aides (Hiss and Foote) with GRU links.

The research by Bird and Chervonnaya has raised questions about Wilder Foote’s personal history, questions that will no doubt be further addressed by Cold War historians and experts on Soviet espionage in the U.S. A closer examination of the archival evidence and material from FBI and Senate investigations may help determine whether the claim that Foote was ALES has credibility, or whether it represents another Hiss Case red herring.

It is possible, of course, that scholars may stumble upon evidence that could exonerate Alger Hiss of the charge of passing secrets to Stalin’s Soviet Union, discoveries that could alter the verdict of history. The new research of Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya on the identity of ALES falls far, far short of clearing that very difficult historical hurdle.


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**Revised April 15, 2007 to increase number of clues from cables; see chart for details

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (January 5th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

As newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: Nobody asked me, but…

KUDOS TO WALDO PROFFITT, former editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, still sharp as a tack entering (by my rough-and-ready count) his sixth decade of newspapering; his column on the upcoming Florida-Ohio State national championship football game showcases his uncommon sense, while including a few zingers about the state of collegiate athletics:

…when watching college football, I sometimes recall the remark by a president of the University of Oklahoma, a perennial powerhouse. He said something like this: “I am pleased to be able to report we have a university of which our football team can be justly proud.”

And I ponder the idea that if university presidents, and boards of trustees and state legislators seriously wanted to end the hypocrisy, they could establish within the college an academic department of athletics in which students could spend the whole academic year playing their favorite sport, with classes in sports finance, sports language, sports ethics, sports history, sports medicine and other aspects of the sports world, and maybe graduate in four years with a degree indicating they had learned something useful for their future careers.

Proffitt is no killjoy, however, closing his Sunday Herald Tribune column with: “Go Gators!!!!” (That’s four exclamation points, for those counting).

JOHN NEGROPONTE’S SUDDEN DEPARTURE as Director of National Intelligence (DNI) proves, among other things, that bureaucratic insiders make unlikely reformers. While we are told that there is now more collaboration among the agencies, Negroponte’s chief accomplishment appears to be the rapid construction of another centralized bureaucracy, more than 1,000 strong, if we believe published reports, centered in Washington!

The DNI position was, according to the 9/11 Commission, meant to oversee and improve intelligence integration. Instead, it has meant centralization for centralization’s sake. For the Washington Establishment there’s something very comforting about the idea of a Big Daddy (remember that a Drug Czar was going to win the War on Drugs?).

The problem, of course, is that American intelligence failures can be attributed as much to centralized groupthink as to the problem of feuding agencies. The much-maligned ex-director of CIA, Porter Goss, had identified overdue reforms in other areas: an expansion of human intelligence (humint), more Arabic speakers, more feet on the ground in the Middle East and South Asia. Goss argued, correctly I think, for a more flexible, decentralized and networked approach to assessing the intentions of our 21st century adversaries.

Adding thousands of analysts in Washington—and additional layers of oversight—may be comforting to Beltway types (and raise real estate prices in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs), but it fails to address these key needs.

Negroponte, and his hand-picked CIA director, Michael V. Hayden, have worked the media assiduously (this fawning profile of Hayden by the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus is a prime example), but they haven’t addressed these structural issues. Hayden has apparently thrown in his lot with the CIA’s permanent bureaucracy—sidestepping any institutional reform.

And Negroponte’s move to the State Department, and the appointment of his successor, retired Navy Admiral Mike McConnell, means that former military men now run the three top American intelligence agencies (DCI, CIA, and NSA). Groupthink, anyone?

TWO CHEERS FOR MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATORS for voting on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—as they were constitutionally-bound to do—but only two cheers, because they avoided voting on a universal health care amendment that required the same legislative consideration. The marriage amendment received 62 votes (more than the 50 needed to keep the ballot initiative alive until the next session), and could reach the ballot in 2008.

Some same-sex marriage defenders have argued that any popular vote on the “civil rights of a minority” is not only wrong, but immoral.

Yet all societies legislate “civil rights” when it comes to marriage—whether it is setting an age of consent, or limiting the number people you can marry, or establishing guidelines for divorce or separation. Letting voters decide on these matters is just as legitimate as having judges make the call.

My guess is that if it reaches the ballot, Massachusetts voters will vote down the amendment—accurately reflecting the attitudes of the majority towards same-sex marriage in the Commonwealth. And as the New Republic‘s Benjamin Wittes points out: “supporters of gay marriage have no choice in the long run but to persuade their fellow citizens. At some point, in other words, they have to start winning referenda. One of the country’s most liberal states, having had the benefit of several years of marriage equality to raise public comfort with it, is a good place to start.”

SHAWN MACOMBER’S AMERICAN SPECTATOR PIECE ON JOHN EDWARDS, Democratic presidential hopeful, notes some contradictions in Edwards’ foreign policy pronouncements: the former North Carolina Senator calls for American intervention in the Sudan and tough action on North Korea and Iran, but backs a retreat from Iraq. Macomber comments: “Principled military isolationism is fine, admirable, even. Attempting to build both national security and anti-war credentials simultaneously by abandoning one partisan intervention for another is grossly inhumane.”

IT SEEMS FITTING TO CLOSE THIS FIRST COLUMN of the New Year with Nelson Algren’s timeless advice: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”


Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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