The Magazine

Traveling Fellow

If I.F. Stone wasn't a spy, he was the next best thing.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Much mention is made by MacPherson of the Venona Files, decoded cables sent decades ago by Soviet spies to Moscow. In these files there are references to Stone (or, rather, "BLIN"), but every citation is used by her to refute any possible suspicion, however plausible, that might arise. In the first place, she argues, "critics automatically assume that the FBI identification of Stone as BLIN is accurate. But even this identification of Stone as BLIN is iffy." In the second, Stone didn't need money from the Soviets, thank you very much, as I.F. Stone's Weekly "was very profitable."

And finally, when in the 1940s a KGB agent reports back to Moscow that Stone "earns as much as $1,500 a month but it seems he would not be averse to having a supplemental income," the biographer concludes, astonishingly, that this proves "nothing more than that BLIN/PANCAKE was brushing off" the agent.

Most interesting to me, however, were the author's talks with Kalugin. These were less than fruitful, to judge by the results. "A useful contact," is how the former KGB general characterizes Stone. Kalugin "had absolutely no idea if Stone had ever been paid anything." Moreover, there seems to be some subliminal urging on the part of the author to leave Izzy's character intact: "The term AGENT OF INFLUENCE, Kalugin admitted, could fit any journalist who disseminated anything of consequence." Therefore, MacPherson concludes, "today's attempts to link Stone with spying are as tawdry as they are untruthful."

You seem to have held back big time with MacPherson, I tell Kalugin during our second conversation.

"Yes," he concedes. "Let's put it this way: There's a difference when I speak to some writer I don't know." On an earlier occasion, Kalugin had told me that in his conversation with yet another journalist--Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post--he also refrained from describing Stone as an agent; deploying instead the term "fellow traveler," which his listener found outrageous enough.

Kalugin was amazed and distressed at the reaction. "That was diplomatic talk," he protested at our meeting. "I could not say Stone was an agent to him." Agents were, after all, once the spy's friends, valuable and daring sources. More than a decade ago, Kalugin was called upon to testify in the espionage trial of a U.S. Army reserve colonel, and he loathed the experience. Even so, he insisted he had done nothing more than confirm what was already known. "I am morally against all these revelations of names," said Kalugin.

And besides, he added, even the little he has uttered publicly about Stone was treated with dismay and disbelief, in part because of the former KGB officer's reluctance to reveal all he knows. At our meeting, Kalugin smiled--ruefully, I thought. "I've had a lot of trouble with I.F. Stone. Yes, the icon of liberal independent thought."

I am not smiling, however. I was among those who considered Izzy just such an icon. It is for this reason that I accepted a friend's suggestion that I speak to Kalugin. I wanted to conclude that the old KGB general was a liar, although in this area I was far less successful than MacPherson ("All spies lie," she observes with asperity, although it's worth noting that she treasures every syllable from Kalugin's lips that might, at a stretch, exonerate her hero). In my college years and subsequently, Stone was considered practically the only journalist around who owed nobody anything. And maybe that's who he wanted to be. Maybe that's even who he thought he was, on occasion.

Kalugin says that, in 1968, when the Soviets invaded Prague, the two men had their last lunch. Stone, he recalls, began it inauspiciously: "We will never meet again. Never," he told the spy. "When I agreed to resume the relationship with you, I thought the past was over, that you had changed. But your rape of Czechoslovakia is just proof once again you haven't changed. No, I will not listen to a thing you say!"

Kalugin tried to pay for lunch, as he always did, but in this, too, he was rebuffed. "No more," said Stone. "I will never take money from your bloody government again."

"Tell me," says Kalugin these days, "if our relationship had been one of just a regular journalist meeting a press officer from the Soviet embassy--and I did, in fact, meet with so many ordinary journalists simply as a press officer. Well, the correspondent might be critical of what we did in Czechoslovakia and denounce it, yes. But would he cut off relations with me? No. Would he have gotten so emotional?

"It was because Stone was so personally involved with our government, a government that violated international law, that he got so upset, and cut off all contact with us."

He was betrayed, I say.

"Yes," says Kalugin. "He found it shocking. He was betrayed."

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.