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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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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."