Spies Like Us
The Schecters get the history of Soviet espionage not quite right.
Jul 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 41 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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.
Portions of "Sacred Secrets" bear only the flimsiest connection to the major theme--how Soviet intelligence affected American history. The longest single chapter deals with how Jerrold Schecter negotiated with Victor Louis, a shadowy Soviet figure linked to the KGB, to arrange for the publication of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs in the West. Interesting and significant as this coup was, the episode has very little to do with the rest of the book. Similarly, another long chapter detailing how American advances in reconnaissance technology helped end the Cold War is more properly the subject of a book on how American intelligence worked. The final substantive chapter very briefly deals with the Soviet perception that Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative was far more advanced than it really was and how this contributed to the collapse of the USSR. None of this material is particularly pertinent to the central theme of the book.
THE SCHECTERS CLAIM to have unearthed new information about several prominent American figures, Harry Dexter White, Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and Alger Hiss, who all illustrate a Soviet method of espionage tradecraft: "to surround a star source, usually a top policy maker, scientist or political insider, with a ring of satellite figures who did the actual spying and handing over of material to their Soviet handlers." They also claim that Soviet intelligence tried to surround both Franklin Roosevelt and his wife with a similar coterie of agents, although the Roosevelts were unaware of it. They insist that White, Oppenheimer, and Hiss were all cognizant of how they were being used, but leave Einstein's status unclear. And, they argue, Harry Truman was told of the Venona decryptions but out of political expediency chose not to act on them.
There is, however, less to their claims than meets the eye. Their own evidence casts doubt on the validity of the notion of a "star system." Both White and Hiss were, by the Schecters' account, actual spies who handed over material to Soviet controllers. They present no evidence that Einstein was ever a source, either consciously or inadvertently, of information. Only in the case of Oppenheimer is there evidence that he facilitated Soviet espionage by surrounding himself with people willing and able to turn over information.
OUTSIDE THE RANKS of Nation readers and a dwindling coterie of academic leftists, there are few people still willing to claim that Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White were not Soviet agents. In both cases, the only interesting controversy remaining is whether or not they attempted to use their positions to promote Soviet policies. Although he never became as prominent a symbol of Communist infiltration of the government as Hiss, White, who died of a heart attack just days after denying to the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had been a spy, was, arguably, far more influential. As assistant secretary of the treasury, he was Henry Morgenthau's closest aide. During the 1930s he had been a source from whom Whittaker Chambers collected information. Venona decryptions confirmed Elizabeth Bentley's charges that he turned over information to the KGB during World War II. One message shows White briefing Soviet intelligence about American negotiating strategy at the first United Nations conference.
The Schecters accuse White of attempting to tilt American policy in favor of the USSR on at least three different occasions. In 1941 a KGB agent was dispatched from Moscow on "Operation Snow." Fearful of having to fight a two-front war, the Soviets were anxious to deflect Japanese attention and hostility in the Pacific southwards towards American and British interests. Urging White to take a tough stand against the Japanese, Vitaly Pavlov, according to a KGB document quoted by the Schecters, persuaded him to support actions bound to increase American-Japanese tensions and hence focus Japan's military plans towards war with the capitalists.
The second occasion involved the plans for the printing of occupation currency for Germany. White pushed strongly to give the USSR the currency plates to allow them to print occupation money, an action that cost the United States government hundreds of millions of dollars when the Soviets flooded the country with notes that were used to purchase American goods. A heretofore unknown memo from Gaik Ovakimian, head of the KGB's American desk, notes that "following our instructions," White "attained the positive decision of the Treasury Department to provide the Soviet side with the plates for engraving German occupation marks."
The third specific allegation concerns the Morgenthau Plan, a proposal to deindustrialize Germany after the war. Although they do not claim that White consulted with the Soviets about the plan, there is, they insist, evidence that White provided them with an early copy and information about the policy debate it sparked within the American government.
PROVIDED THE MATERIAL the Schecters cite is accurate, a point discussed below, this new information demonstrates that White did more than merely turn over information; he attempted to, and sometimes did, influence policy decisions on behalf of the Soviet Union. Significant as this information is, however, the Schecters provide a confusing and not entirely persuasive account of just what he was doing by overstating White's influence on diplomatic and military policy as a Soviet agent and understating his responsibility for his actions. They claim that "lack of action from the War Department and the Department of State" in 1941 meant that "much of the thinking that prepared for war with Germany or tried to avoid war with Japan fell to" the Treasury Department, a gross overstatement of fact. Whatever his personal opinions and actions, White hardly was the decisive figure in preventing an American-Japanese agreement that might have averted Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the Schecters' claim that White "might not have understood" that the Soviet suggestions "were in contradiction to the peace-loving idealism for which he was known" and that "his cooperation led to results that were the opposite of his best intentions" suggests a naivet that is belied by everything else about his career. At one point the Schecters seem to accept Pavlov's argument that White was not a controlled source and the Soviets had no need to recruit him since members of the Silvermaster ring surrounded him. Yet, they also document his direct meetings with KGB officers and his willingness to hand over documents.
THE NEW INFORMATION about Alger Hiss is less explosive. Citing confidential GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) sources, the Schecters plausibly claim that during the Yalta conference, Hiss gave daily briefings to General Mikhail Milshtein, a military adviser to Stalin and the deputy director of the GRU, revealing not only the American negotiating strategy but insights into the attitudes of the American negotiators. Milshtein's success enabled the GRU to retain Hiss as a source despite efforts by the KGB to muscle aside its junior competitor. Curiously, the Schecters never attempt to reconcile this information with Pavel Sudoplatov's denial that Hiss was an agent in 1945. Sudoplatov had admitted that Hiss had worked for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s. Why didn't he know about Hiss's role in 1945? Is the new information based on documents or the recollections of veteran Soviet agents? Is it firsthand--Milshtein's reminiscences--or "as told to"? We never learn.
The new information about Einstein is likewise interesting but hardly earth-shattering. The famed physicist's lover, Margarita Konenkova, wife of a prominent Russian sculptor, was clearly a KGB asset who reported on his friends. But her efforts did not have any discernible effect on Einstein's willingness to help the USSR. The Schecters admit that there is no evidence she learned anything significant about atomic weapons, and her one triumph, persuading Einstein to meet with the Soviet consul in New York, ended, they agree, with Einstein's refusal to follow the Soviet propaganda line.
The most startling new information deals with Robert Oppenheimer, the head of Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. To security officials, Oppenheimer was a worrisome figure from the moment he was selected to direct the building of an atomic bomb. He had been a financial supporter of Communist causes in the 1930s and had social ties not only to party members but also to senior Communist operatives on the West Coast. Several members of his family--his brother, sister-in-law, and his wife--were Communists. His wife's first husband had been a Communist organizer killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and she was close to Steve Nelson, a party official with disturbingly close ties to Soviet intelligence. A number of Oppenheimer's graduate students and several of the people he hired to work on the Manhattan Project were known party members. In 1943 Oppenheimer had reluctantly told security officials a bizarre story about being approached to spy for the Russians. Even when the United States government withdrew his security clearance in 1954, however, it didn't claim that he was a Soviet agent, only that his behavior made him a security risk. FBI wiretaps declassified a few years ago revealed that Oppenheimer was himself a secret member of the Communist party.
In the book the Schecters wrote with Pavel Sudoplatov, the former Soviet spymaster claimed that Gregory Kheifitz, the KGB's resident in San Francisco, had met with Oppenheimer in December 1941, at which time the physicist had worried that the Nazis might build an atomic bomb before the Americans. Kheifitz allegedly introduced Elizabeth Zarubina, a KGB officer, to Oppenheimer's wife, through whom the Los Alamos director could stay in touch with the Russians; through this contact, Sudoplatov claimed, Oppenheimer facilitated Klaus Fuchs's arrival at Los Alamos. Sudoplatov also mentioned another point of entry Soviet intelligence used to get access to Oppenheimer: a Soviet mole, a Polish-born Jewish dentist, planted in California in the 1930s but long since out of touch and reactivated by Zarubina because of his close ties to Oppenheimer.
Several years ago, a book published in Russia revealed that it was another KGB operative living underground in the United States, Kitty Harris, who was actually sent to reactivate the Jewish dentist. In "Sacred Secrets" the Schecters use both stories, apparently not recognizing that they are contradictory. On page 51 they explain, "Kheifitz introduced [Zarubina] to the Oppenheimer family." On page 62 they note that the dentist and his wife "were friends of the Oppenheimers and introduced Elizabeth to them." The Schecters make no effort to reconcile these stories. Why would the Soviets have to work so hard to establish ties with Oppenheimer if Kheifitz had recruited him as a source in 1941? If the Russians were in contact with Kitty Oppenheimer, why would they have to search high and low to locate an old source, a dentist, with whom they had lost touch?
OBSCURED by their confusing account of the Oppenheimer story is a significant document the Schecters claim to have received from a confidential source. If not a smoking gun about the Oppenheimer case, it is at the least a very strong piece of evidence that Robert Oppenheimer betrayed secrets of the atomic bomb to Soviet intelligence. The Schecters reprint a 1944 memo from Vsevelod Merkulov to Lavrenty Beria. It notes that Soviet agents obtained important atomic information through Comintern contacts in the United States with Kheifitz and Zarubina. The memo goes on: "In 1942 one of the leaders of scientific work on uranium in the USA, Professor R. Oppenheimer, while being an unlisted member of the apparatus of Comrade Browder, informed us about the beginning of work. On the request of Comrade Kheifitz, confirmed by Comrade Browder, he provided cooperation in access to research for several of our tested sources including a relative of Comrade Browder."
While it would be better to have Kheifitz's original report of his contacts with Oppenheimer, this document is telling. It strongly supports the argument that Oppenheimer facilitated Soviet penetration of Los Alamos. He may well have known or suspected that espionage was taking place without having to dirty his own hands. And the memo suggests a tantalizing clue to another, heretofore-unknown source, that relative of Earl Browder (although one possibility is that it is a reference to Helen Lowry, Browder's niece, who was married to Iskhak Akhmerov, the KGB's chief underground officer in the United States).
While this document is most likely genuine, the frequent use of confidential sources and confidential documents is a serious problem the authors do not surmount. When using documents they somehow obtained from Russian intelligence files, the Schecters do not cite specific collections, much less identification numbers. They say that all the documents they obtained have been deposited in the Hoover Library and will be available to researchers in ten years. Even if the documents are currently unavailable, some indication of where they come from would have enhanced confidence in their authenticity.
THE USE OF CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES is more of a problem. The Schecters note: "The names of confidential sources listed in the footnotes have been withheld at the request of the sources." Given the legal dangers to those who provided them with source material or classified information, the Schecters' reticence is understandable, but it nevertheless undercuts the arguments they make. Sudoplatov made a number of false assertions, including misidentifying the Soviet atomic source MLAD as Bruno Pontecorvo instead of Theodore Hall. Did he want to prevent identification of Hall, at that time still unknown in the West? Was his memory faulty? Similar questions can be asked of the Schecters' sources. Are their assertions based on memory? A review of documents? Stories told by retired KGB agents? What axes do they have to grind?
If there are problems with the Schecters' hidden sources, there is at least as significant a problem with one of their cited sources. Everyone who has written on Venona has argued that President Truman was never told of the project and so couldn't have known that proof of Harry White's espionage was derived from it. Since he was suspicious of J. Edgar Hoover, Truman was never fully convinced that people like White and Hiss were agents. His long hesitation in tackling internal security, it has been argued, gave fuel to demagogues like Joe McCarthy. The Schecters, however, argue that Harry Truman was told at a June 1945 meeting "that U.S. Army code breakers were reading secret Soviet messages." Their source is former NSA analyst Oliver Kirby, who recalled Carter Clarke, head of Army Intelligence, telling him the story.
FROM KIRBY'S RECOLLECTION many decades afterwards, the Schecters spin an intricate web to account for Truman's behavior. He still needed the USSR to help defeat Japan, they speculate, and hence was reluctant to weaken the wartime alliance "with embarrassing revelations; that the U.S. was intercepting and reading the internal messages of an ally, or that the Soviets had made the U.S. a prime target for their espionage activities." But, in June 1945, when Clarke allegedly told the president, the Army's cryptanalysts had not yet begun to read Soviet messages and had no inkling they concerned espionage.
By the Schecters' account, Truman's unerring political instincts "told him that knowing about Soviet espionage on American soil, especially with the cooperation of American agents, would be a huge liability for the Democrats in the coming year's congressional elections." But this assumes that Truman or American intelligence planned to make Venona public in 1945 or 1946, long before any significant Soviet traffic had been broken. Even if Truman knew about Venona in 1945, he would not have known anything about what it said of Soviet espionage, so that cannot explain Truman's actions.
Explaining Truman's decision to nominate White for the Board of the International Monetary Fund despite an FBI warning that he was a spy suspect, the Schecters suggest that withdrawing his name would have cost the Democrats votes in New York in the 1946 congressional elections. Apart from the fact that White was hardly a household name and had no political clout in New York--he was from Boston--the issue of Soviet espionage would only have become an issue if Truman had made Venona public. But there is no evidence that anyone in the intelligence community was prepared to go public in 1946. The only claims of Soviet espionage that the FBI was then pursuing involved Elizabeth Bentley, and there was no hard evidence to justify an indictment, much less a conviction of any of the Soviet spies Bentley named. Truman clearly did not take Soviet espionage seriously enough, but despite Kirby's claim, there is no indication that he knew about Venona and what it demonstrated about Soviet espionage.
Unfortunately, "Sacred Secrets" is marred by a number of errors and contradictory stories. Trivial as some are, they dilute one's confidence in the authors' command of their material. Thus, the FBI was not listening in on a call between KGB resident Vasily Zarubin and CPUSA organizer Steve Nelson but had bugged Nelson's apartment and overheard the two meeting together. (The incorrect story is told on one page and the correct one elsewhere. Moreover, Nelson was not running a Communist party espionage ring but a Comintern operation.) During World War II Arlington Hall cryptanalysts did not help "expose the hidden relationship between Soviet intelligence and American bureaucrats at the highest levels of the government" because they did not begin to break into the Soviet traffic until 1946. Moreover, it was not true that "in 1945 four major counterintelligence breakthroughs helped the FBI make sense of the fragments" of messages. The FBI was not brought into Venona until 1946 and did not begin formal cooperation until 1947. The Venona material corroborated Elizabeth Bentley's revelations, not the other way around. Whittaker Chambers could not have "described White's participation in the Silvermaster cell" because that ring did not exist when Chambers defected (it was the Ware cell). And Chambers was not a "converted Catholic" and hence a "hero to Irish Catholic longshoremen."
SCHOLARSHIP on espionage can be frustrating because it often must rely on leaks and may not have access to full case files or complete documentation. Sometimes key sources cannot be identified because of legal or personal consequences. Some of the secret material in "Sacred Secrets" sounds plausible and appears to fit with what we already know about Soviet espionage. But, since no sources and no archives are identified, and there are so many small errors, even those of us disposed to believe many of the Schecters' claims will remain unsatisfied.
Harvey Klehr is Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.