The Magazine

Spies Like Us

The Schecters get the history of Soviet espionage not quite right.

Jul 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 41 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Sacred Secrets
How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History
by Jerrold and Leona Schecter
Brassey's, 320 pp., $18.95

SINCE THE END of the Cold War a flood of revelations about Soviet espionage in America has discomfited old leftists and startled many Americans. Easy assumptions about how Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs had been framed or Harry Dexter White and Larry Duggan hounded into their graves by false charges have given way to documentary evidence that all of them were guilty of providing confidential information to Soviet intelligence agencies. Reflexive mantras about American overreaction to nonexistent internal security threats have been tempered by revelations that hundreds of Americans cooperated with the KGB and the GRU, turning over secrets from nearly every agency of the federal government.

The sources of this information have been varied and mutually reinforcing. Former Soviet intelligence officers like Aleksandr Feklisov, Oleg Kalugin, Yuri Modin, and Pavel Sudoplatov have written memoirs. Access to Russian archives, first available after 1991, has been uneven and subject to various kinds of restrictions. Still, Comintern files open to scholars have produced evidence of espionage confirmed by KGB records made available to selected academics. The massive Mitrokhin archive, smuggled out of Russia by a disaffected intelligence officer, dovetailed with other intelligence material. In the mid-1990s, the National Security Agency released the Venona decryptions, which amplified and reinforced the Russian material.

NOT ALL of the revelations have been received with the same confidence or respect. In the "wilderness of mirrors" that characterizes the secret world of espionage, private and public agendas, missing data, bureaucratic inertia, and bad memories can easily lead readers astray. Partial and piecemeal accounts of Soviet espionage have sometimes confused rather than clarified what actually took place. Some material comes with limitations: Access might be restricted to one or two people, information might be based on memories of events taking place half a century ago or distorted by selective leaks designed to advance a particular interpretation of the past. Still, each piece of information brings us closer to an accurate understanding of the most contentious era in recent American history.

The latest entry into this minefield is Jerrold and Leona Schecter's "Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History." The Schecters are not newcomers to the controversies about Soviet intelligence operations and their impact on American life. He was Time magazine's bureau chief in Moscow from 1968 to 1972. In addition to serving as diplomatic editor of Time, Schecter was on Jimmy Carter's National Security Council. Together with his wife, he persuaded General Pavel Sudoplatov to tell the rather unsavory story of his life. "Special Tasks" generated headlines and outrage after its 1994 publication. Sudoplatov was a self-confessed assassin, a nasty piece of Stalinist work who had fallen from Soviet grace after Lavrenty Beria's arrest and execution. Jailed from 1953 to 1968, he was "rehabilitated" in 1992. The most spectacular and controversial part of his memoir was his assertion that a number of prominent Western scientists, notably Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, had provided the KGB with vital information about the atomic bomb being developed at Los Alamos. Outraged American scientists defended their old colleagues and noted that the only evidence supplied for the claims was Sudoplatov's own memory of the files he had read or the operations he had overseen. They charged the book was a shoddy, inaccurate, and sensationalist effort to cash in on the public's fascination with conspiracy theories. The Schecters ardently defended the accuracy and reliability of Sudoplatov's charges.

Their new book will reopen many of the same wounds and inaugurate several new debates. "Sacred Secrets" is an exasperating work. A significant segment has very little to do with the ostensible topic. Filled with fascinating and important new data about Soviet espionage and some Americans who engaged in it, at the same time it is seriously flawed by the use of confidential sources whose motivations and reliability are unknown. While the Schecters have unearthed new material, they sometimes fail to integrate it successfully with what has previously been published, including some of Sudoplatov's own claims. And there are numerous small errors that cumulatively cast doubt either on their grasp of material or the care with which the book has been written and edited.