The Magazine

Spy vs. Spy

There's a lesson to be learned, still, from the great Cold War spy George Kisevalter.

Dec 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 15 • By CLAIRE BERLINSKI
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CIA SpyMaster

Kisevalter, the Agency's Top Case Officer, Who Handled Penkovsky and Popov

by Clarence Ashley

Pelican, 288 pp., $24.95

CIA SpyMaster, Clarence Ashley's biography of George Kisevalter, the CIA's most decorated case officer, is apt to suffuse the old Cold Warriors at the Agency with the nostalgia for the glory days, when the CIAcould do no wrong--or at least could do something right.

Born in 1910 in St. Petersburg to the grandson of a Russian finance minister, Kisevalter departed Russia as a child when his father, a munitions expert, was dispatched to the United States in 1916 to procure weapons for the tsar's army. When the revolution came, the Kisevalter family threw its support behind the Whites. All but one member of the family in Russia were annihilated. Kisevalter's immediate family found itself stranded in New York. Growing up amid Russian refugees, Kisevalter remained fluent in his first language. After studying engineering at Dartmouth, he competently discharged his duties as an intelligence officer during the war. A brief career in alfalfa farming followed, after which he accepted, in late 1951, a position as branch chief in the Soviet Russia division of the newly formed CIA.

At the end of 1952, with the Cold War at its height, the United States was still ignorant of even the most basic information about Soviet plans and military capacity.

And then a miracle occurred. In 1953, a Soviet military intelligence officer stationed in Vienna named Pyotr Popov volunteered to spy for the United States. Kisevalter was elected to handle the case. (Living under an assumed name in Vienna, he took the principle of the double life to heart, maintaining an American wife in Salzburg and an Austrian mistress.)

Over the next five years, the spy provided Kisevalter with detailed information about Soviet military capabilities and plans. Popov was arrested in 1959, the victim of an American tradecraft error: As the defector Nosenko later revealed, a diplomat in Moscow, mailing Popov a letter, had failed to spot a Soviet surveillant, and the letter was retrieved from the mailbox and decoded. Hauntingly, Popov was able to pass one last message to his handlers. The KGB, intending to use him as a double agent, had sent him to a meeting with CIA case officer Russell Langelle in Moscow. In full view of KGB surveillance, Popov shook Langelle's hand and in the process surreptitiously slipped him a note, rolled into a cylinder the size of a cigarette, revealing that he had passed under hostile control.

HE WAS A HERO to the end: The famous cylinder message provided a detailed account of the KGB's understanding of Popov's cooperation with the Americans and their plans to exploit him in the future. He had painstakingly written the message while in prison, over a period of months, concealing it under a bandage he had contrived to obtain by cutting his finger. Kisevalter was devastated by the note's heartbreaking last words: "Could you not ask your kind President Eisenhower to see if he might cause restitution to be made for my family and my life?" Shortly after, Langelle was expelled from Russia and Popov sent to a Soviet firing squad.

In 1961, another miracle occurred. A GRU colonel named Oleg Penkovsky, an even more senior military intelligence officer, approached a group of visiting American students in Moscow and urged them to deliver a letter to the American embassy. "I offer my services to you," Penkovsky wrote, "and I have some most significant facts to share." Again, Kisevalter was dispatched to handle the case. The information Penkovsky provided over the next year included the manuals on the SS-4, the missiles deployed by the Soviet Union in Cuba in 1962, and the revelation that the Soviet Union did not yet possess operational ICBMs. By opening a window into the Kremlin's internal politics, Penkovsky drew the United States back from the brink of nuclear war during the Berlin and Cuban crises. For this, Kisevalter became a CIA legend. Penkovsky, however, was undone by an astute KGB surveillance team and executed by firing squad.

IN 1962, YURI NOSENKO, a Soviet counterintelligence officer who had squandered KGB funds on a drinking spree (and a thieving hooker, although Ashley chastely refrains from mentioning this detail), volunteered his services to the CIA in Geneva. He defected to the United States in 1964. The Agency was not so sure this was a miracle. Nosenko had participated in the KGB's internal investigation of the Kennedy assassination, which proclaimed the KGB innocent of any involvement. Fearing the defector to be a provocation, senior officials, under the direction of the paranoid James Jesus Angleton, incarcerated him for five years under conditions so cruel that his security guard, describing the situation to Kisevalter, vomited with guilt.