The Magazine

Little Old Traitor

Another spy goes unpunished.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Even a series of revelations about Soviet espionage beginning in 1945 failed to excite suspicion. The arrest of Alan Nunn May in 1945 brought Edith Tudor Hart under investigation. In 1946, Venona decryptions indicating that a spy code-named "Tina" (later identified as Norwood) had passed along atomic secrets did not yield her name. Ursula Kuczynski was questioned in 1947 about her espionage activities abroad, but no effort was made to check on her contacts in
Britain. Late in 1946, prior to his return to Germany, her brother Jurgen visited Melita's mother, who entrusted him with her late husband's papers.

Melita Norwood continued to spy for the Russians even after the Non-Ferrous Metals Association lost its government contracts. She was supervised in the late 1950s by another Soviet illegal, Gordon Lonsdale, who was arrested in 1961 and convicted, along with two other members of his ring, Morris and Lona Cohen, Americans who had been involved in industrial and atomic espionage in the United States before disappearing. (Oddly, Burke never mentions their names.) But still, she avoided detection.

Not until 1965 did MI5 launch a major investigation of Melita Norwood, concluding that she had been a spy in the 1940s but that it lacked any usable legal evidence against her. It also worried that her exposure might further damage intelligence cooperation with the United States, already threatened by a series of revelations of lax British security, culminating in the defection to Moscow of Kim Philby in 1963. It decided not even to interview her. Incredibly, she continued her work for the Soviets, recruiting a civil servant code-named "Hunt" who proved to be a valuable source. After retiring as a spy in 1972 she made her first visit to the Soviet Union in 1979, received the Order of the Red Banner, and began receiving a regular stipend.

Her luck continued even after she was identified in Mitrokhin's material. MI5 decided to ignore her in 1992 because of her age, and in the burst of publicity that attended her "outing" in 1999, she was more an object of bemusement--the "granny" spy--than seen as a danger. She died in 2005 at the age of 93.

Burke's account of her role is decidedly sober and nonsensational, but it sometimes suffers from glossing over gaps in the evidence. For example, it remains a mystery why Ursula
Kuczynski, who worked for Soviet military intelligence, would have supervised Norwood, who worked for the NKVD. Burke is not always entirely clear about when Norwood did come under serious MI5 scrutiny. While Soviet spies with connections to Communist parties stole government and scientific secrets in both the United Kingdom and the United States during World War II, a vigorous loyalty/security program in America rooted most communist sympathizers out of sensitive positions. Often criticized for its supposed violations of civil liberties, the American effort disrupted and fatally weakened Soviet spy rings, even as Melita Norwood and several of her comrades continued their activities.

Perhaps most disturbing, while Burke forthrightly condemns her slavish Stalinism, he concludes that by helping the Soviet Union, Melita Norwood helped usher in détente and prevented the deaths of millions of Russians, presumably ending America's nuclear monopoly. It would be more accurate to say that by enabling the Soviet Union to obtain nuclear weapons years earlier than it otherwise would have, Melita Norwood, along with other atomic spies, helped precipitate the Korean war, which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 Americans and millions of Koreans and Chinese.

Like such American spies as
Theodore Hall, Harry Dexter White, and Judith Coplon, Melita Norwood betrayed her country, endangering her fellow citizens. And she got away with it.

Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory, is the coauthor (with John Haynes and Alexander Vassiliev) of the forthcoming Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.