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
All rights reserved

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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 Spanish 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
All rights reserved

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