Russian Spies with Long-Term, Criminal Intent
But what provided the first clue to American counter-intelligence?
Historically, the FBI learned of Soviet spy rings by one of four techniques. First, someone defected and exposed an espionage network. Whittaker Chambers outed Alger Hiss, albeit years after Chambers defected. In the classic case, the most devastating blow to Soviet intelligence in the United States came when Elizabeth Bentley, a courier for a Soviet spy ring, embittered by KGB efforts to reduce her role, went to the FBI in 1945 and named dozens of government officials as sources. She also identified several KGB officers with whom she had contact. Dubbed the blond spy queen by the media, the decidedly unglamorous (and brown-haired) Bentley had no documentary evidence that could be used in court. Aware that her unsupported testimony (that she was alcoholic, neurotic, and promiscuous didn't help) arrayed against the denials of respectable government officials would be a hard sell in court, the government declined to indict anyone on her evidence alone. But from a counter-intelligence perspective that didn't matter. Her evidence allowed the FBI to identify those government officials who were spying for the Soviets, and to swiftly force them from government service and end their careers as spies.
The second technique used to expose spy was signals intelligence. Beginning in 1945, American cryptanalysts began to read KGB communications sent between Moscow and its stations in America. Released to the public in 1995, the Venona decryptions reassured the FBI that Bentley had been accurate and also uncovered hundreds of other Soviet spies. This evidence, however, was deemed too sensitive to be used in an open court, since it would reveal to the Soviets that their codes had been broken. But, again, it allowed the FBI to identify who had been assisting the Soviets and to put an end to their access to sensitive information. The FBI also approached some of those named in Venona and, in return for immunity, got them to cooperate.
The third way that spies were exposed came from disgruntled Soviet KGB officers. In 1943, J. Edgar Hoover received an anonymous letter in Russian from someone purporting to be a Soviet intelligence officer, naming a number of employees of the Soviet embassy and consulates as agent handlers. Initially suspicious, the FBI eventually concluded by surveillance that the letter was accurate; American intelligence later learned that a mentally unstable and bitter KGB officer at the Washington embassy had sent it. The FBI tracked several of those named as they met sources, and so ratcheted up its surveillance that one of them, Semen Semenov, found it impossible to meet his agents, necessitating his recall to Moscow. The one American named in the anonymous letter, Boris Morros, was recruited by the FBI as a double agent. After observing another KGB officer named in the letter attempting to recruit sources in the American aircraft industry, the FBI approached those Americans and turned them into double agents who fed the Soviets aviation intelligence that had been sanitized by the FBI.
The fourth way to expose a spy ring is to reap the benefits of poor tradecraft by either Russian officers or American agents. The FBI identified several Soviet diplomats at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco as likely Soviet intelligence officers in 1943 and put them under surveillance. The Soviet officers failed to realize they were under scrutiny, and the FBI eventually identified several physicists at the University of California Berkeley as being in contact with Soviet intelligence. One immediately lost his job with the Manhattan atomic bomb project and another was prevented from joining. In 1953, a New York newspaper boy noticed that a nickel in the change he had been collecting for a copy of the Brooklyn Eagle felt light. He dropped it, it split open, and inside was a small microfilm. He mentioned this to the daughter of a New York policeman, who told her father, and eventually the FBI got the film. It contained numbers typical of the "one-time pad" cipher system used by Soviet intelligence. The FBI concluded that a very careless Soviet illegal had mistakenly paid for his newspaper with the wrong nickel. The Bureau was not able to pin down who had done so at the time but after the Soviet illegal Reino Hayhanen defected in 1957, his information allowed the FBI to identify the message as directed to Hayhanen himself and conclude that either he or his superior, the Soviet illegal Rudolf Abel, had lost the hollow nickel. Not long after Abel was arrested.