The Russians Make Mistakes, Too (Esquire, Nov. 1960)
Some Russian Intelligence boners that make the U-2 fiasco seem trivial
By Ian Fleming
Soviet Russia has the greatest espionage machine in all history. U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter said recently that the Communist countries had 300,000 agents operating throughout the world. I assume he was referring to centrally organized agents, each with a code number, a specific task and some kind of pay roll. But a powerful ideology such as communism has a vast unseen army of sympathizers. These may be more or less secretly convinced Communists who are “agin” their national government of the day, or they may be those hosts of faceless ones with a grudge. The small, mean man seeking revenge can strike his little blow by looking up the address of the nearest Soviet consul or ambassador in the telephone book and writing him a letter like this:
“Dear Sir: You may be interested to know that in Workshop No. 25, Department of Hydraulics, Aeronautics Division, of the Magnum Combine factory at Blankville, we are working on a lightweight fuel pump with the following specifications…
“Since my pals tell me this is probably designed as part of the fuel system of an Intercontinental missile I think you should know about it. A Well Wisher.”
This kind of letter in the hands of the central evaluating machine in Moscow or Leningrad can be worth diamonds, and it costs not a dime. And the interesting point about free-lance espionage is that it is chiefly one way from the Western bloc to the Eastern bloc.
The sort of Liberal Socialist society in which we in the West live seldom attracts the man who has a grudge he wants to work off by way of revenge. But communism is militant; the man with a grudge thinks “they” will know what to do with a letter like this. “They” will put it to good use and hit back with it, hurting my country, hurting my factory, hurting my foreman, who said yesterday that I was a useless incompetent.
This is only a tiny side issue in the great espionage battle between the East and the West—a small bonus the revolutionary always picks up from the camp of order and establishment. Russia has other advantages. She has almost complete control of her frontiers and of her communications and postal systems. She herself has one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn, while the cultivated Russian is probably the best linguist in the world. Apart from the Communist parties and organizations which democracy allows to flourish in her midst, Russia can call upon several nationalities—Poles, Czechs, Balts, Hungarians, for instance—who can disappear quite easily into the communities of these nations in the West, whereas to send a White Russian into such a highly stereotyped country as Russia is tantamount to murder.
Having all these cards in her hand, the weaknesses in the Russian espionage system are few, but often fatal. Probably the greatest is that the Russians, like the German Secret Service in the last war, are biased evaluators of Intelligence.
Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would attack him, despite documented warnings supplied him by the West. Excessive Nazi ravage of European Russia, with millions of unnecessary casualties, was the result.
Stalin refused to believe that the West would resist in Greece, Turkey and Berlin. Major defeats of Soviet purpose followed.
Stalin grievously misread the evidence of U.S. readiness to reply in Korea, despite the historical proof of the American “Pearl Harbor complex,” i.e. the sharp reaction to plain provocation.
The Soviets, whether under Stalin or Khrushchev, guessed wrong even in Communist countries—Yugoslavia, Poland and Hungary, to name only their most drastic errors.
Preferring the “pretty picture,” the Russians too often will be given too pretty a picture by overzealous agents. (One of the chief dangers for Russia today is in allowing herself to underestimate the West by incorrect evaluation inspired, for instance, by the much publicized Nuclear Disarmers in England or by the equally publicized failure of individual American missiles, and, above all, by the constant breast-beating in the West.)
The other source of weakness for Russia is the intoxicating effect that contact with Western freedoms may have on even the most highly trained Soviet agent who was one hundred per cent Communist when he was posted as assistant military attaché to Ottawa, Washington. London, or Paris, but whose loyalty to the system gradually disintegrates. It is in this latter realm that the West has had some of its greatest victories in the espionage war.
The blackest day for the immense Russian spy organization was probably September 5, 1945, when a humble cipher clerk in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa walked out with more than a hundred top Secret papers revealing the Soviet network in Canada.
Igor Gouzenko’s defection came like a thunderclap. At first Canadian officials would not take him seriously. But the Royal Commission which was eventually set up to investigate his revelations led to the conviction of six Canadian traitors, including a Communist M.P., Fred Rose, who was one of Russia’s key men in Canada.
But more than that—the Gouzenko defection not only alerted the U.S.A., Britain and Canada to the existence of a hitherto largely unsuspected Russian spy organization, it resulted in a remarkable chain reaction which in the end led to the discovery of more vital spy-traitors. Among those to whom Gouzenko eventually brought disaster were Dr. Klaus Fuchs, Dr. Allan Nunn May, Harry Gold, David Greenglass and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
Today, Gouzenko is a Canadian. No picture or official description of him has ever been circulated. He lives with his wife and two children somewhere in one of Canada’s vast farmlands. Always within reach are the Canadian Mounted Police. He has a job and a life income of $100 monthly from a trust fund set up by a grateful Canadian millionaire. His autobiography, a best-seller which was made into a film, brought him well over $100,000.
It was the young Briton, Dr. Allan Nunn May, who was the first victim of Gouzenko’s revelations. Born on May 2nd, 1911, at Kings Norton, near Birmingham, England, May had a brilliant record at Cambridge. In 1942 he joined the Cavendish Laboratory there, where many early atomic discoveries were made. In 1943 he was moved to Canada and in due course saw much top-secret atomic experimental work in Chicago and various vital U.S. installations.
Colonel Zabotin, official the Russian military attaché in Ottawa, actually their chief spy in Canada, was instructed by Moscow to contact May, who had never made any secret of his left-wing sympathies. Zabotin used a subordinate, Lieutenant Pavel Angelov, to make the contact.
From then on May gave the Russians all the information on atomic research in the U.S.A. and Canada that he could find.
Then May was told he was to return to London, where elaborate arrangements were made by the Russians for renewed contact with him. He got back to London just after Gouzenko defected, but he never kept the appointments made for him. Did he fear that the net was closing? We shall never know. Five months after his return he was arrested. At the Old Bailey on May 1, 1946, he pleaded guilty to giving away secrets to “a foreign power.” He was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. The information he gave the Russians has been valued at a million pounds in terms of research costs. In return he received $700 and two bottles of Scotch.
May’s conviction was a blow to the Russians, but they also achieved some kind of gain. The U.S. clamped down for the time being on giving further secrets to their allies.
Klaus Fuchs has been described as the most deadly and baffling spy in all history; his capture came four wars after May’s.
Fuchs was born in 1911 near Frankfurt, Germany.
As a youth he joined the Young Communist League. After Hitler came to power and the Communists went underground, he came to Britain, where he was befriended, and studied at Bristol and Edinburgh universities. As an alien he was interned when war broke out, first in the Isle of Mann, then in Canada. He was later released and was brought back to England for scientific research. Shortly thereafter he made contact with Russian agents, and handed over information. In December, 1943, he went to America, and before long had a comprehensive picture of U.S. atomic projects.
This was a wonderful scoop for the Russians. They contacted him in New York through Harry Gold, whom Fuchs knew only as “Raymond.” Fuchs gave Gold a flow of major intelligence hidden in newspaper wrappings. Gold passed them on to Yokovlev, Russian
vice-consul in New York and top spy. Soon Fuchs was at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He told Gold, and thus Moscow, when the first trial of the atomic bomb was about to be held.
In 1946 Fuchs returned to Britain. He made no attempt to contact the Russians until early 1947 and then had eight meetings with their agents in two years, His illness in 1948 probably prevented him from having more.
By this time the F.B.I. was hot on the trail of the leakages which were now so apparent. All clues pointed to Fuchs. The British were told of America’s suspicions in 1949. But there was no evidence for action. There followed two strange interviews with the top British security officer, William Skardon. The first got nowhere. The second, a few months later in January, 1950, was at Fuchs’ own request. He talked. He was arrested. The Lord Chief Justice sentenced him to fourteen years, the maximum sentence possible.
Harry Gold was next to come under suspicion. He had joined the Russian network in the days of the great Depression, long before Stalin and the atom bomb. He was an old hand by 1943 and was regarded as a first-class operative. That was why he was chosen to contact Fuchs when the latter arrived in the United States.
He did his job with his usual cunning and resourcefulness. When Fuchs was sentenced he may have had some uneasy moments. But he had gotten away with it for twenty years: why not this time?
But Fuchs, in his prison cell, was still willing to talk. For hours F.B.I. men grilled him. Literally hundreds of pictures of suspects were shown to him in an effort to get him to identify his contact man. A picture of Gold, now under suspicion as a result of information from a woman, Elizabeth Bentley, who had become disillusioned with the Communist cause, was shown to Fuchs. He failed to recognize him. The F.B.I. then took moving pictures of Gold, and Fuchs recognized him from his walk and mannerisms of posture. Gold was sentenced to thirty years’ imprisonment.
Among Gold’s contacts had been a David Greenglass. He was a sergeant in the U.S. Army—a machinist technician. His sister, Ethel, had married Julius Rosenberg, a Communist. In 1944 Greenglass was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on secret atomic work. The red network went into action. The Rosenbergs were asked to persuade Greenglass to “co-operate.” Although in a subordinate position, Greenglass was smart enough to glean many of the most vital details of the atom bomb.
When the war ended, Greenglass started an engineering concern with his brother and Rosenberg. He must have forgotten most of his spy work—until he read in the papers of Fuchs’ arrest. Rosenberg realized the danger: Gold would come under suspicion, then Greenglass. He gave the latter money to decamp to Mexico, but Greenglass preferred to stay in the U.S. In time he was arrested, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to fifteen years. Above all he talked, and that meant the end for the Rosenbergs.
Unlike Greenglass, the Rosenbergs fought to the end, but were sentenced to death on April 5, 1951, the first American citizens ever to receive the death sentence in peacetime for spying. Through legal delaying devices and appeals they avoided their fate for another two years. They died in June, 1953.
It was the end of the Fuchs spy ring. Who knows when it might have been discovered—if at all—but for Igor Gouzenko?
The bitter spy war went on. The F.B.I. picked up many useful small fry, but its next big catch, in August, 1957, was Colonel Rudolf Ivanovich Abel of the Russian Counterintelligence Service. The F.B.I. triumphantly described him as “the highest-ranking Soviet national ever arrested in the United States as a spy.”
Abel had slipped into the United States illegally from Canada in 1948 and had used short-wave radio for direct communication with Moscow. It wasn’t until nine years later that he was given away by a self-confessed Russian spy who fed him information—Lieut. Colonel Reine Hayhanan. Abel was tried, found guilty and received concurrent sentences of thirty, ten and five years, and fines totaling $3,000. This was a nasty setback for the Russians.
In 1954 the Russians had another serious setback—this time in Europe. A Russian secret police agent and two East German secret police surrendered to the Americans. The Russian was Captain Nikolai Khokhlov of the M.V.D. He said he had been sent from Moscow to Frankfurt in West Germany to murder an anti-Communist Russian named Georgi Okolovich.
The three men carried guns disguised as cigarette cases. These guns had special silencers, were electrically fired, and for good measure their lead bullets held a deadly poison. The plan was named Operation Rhine.
Not only did Khokhlov give a full account of his mission, he gave much useful over-all information on the workings of the M.V.D. and details of the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico. He said he surrendered to the West because his wife, whom he had left behind in Russia, told him she would have nothing to do with an assassin.
The same year, far away in Australia, the Russians had perhaps the worst setback of all. Vladimir Mikhailovich Petrov, the forty-five-year-old third secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, asked for political asylum. It was the biggest break since the Gouzenko case, for Petrov was head of the Soviet Secret Police in Australia. Australia might seem unpromising ground for spying, but it held vital secrets in the 1,500-mile desert rocket-testing range at Woomera, the desert atom-testing ground at Emu field, the missile and rocket development establishment at Salisbury near Adelaide, and the great uranium mines at Rum Jungle and Radium Hill.
Following the Gouzenko precedent, Mr. Menzies, the Australian Premier, commissioned an investigation of Petrov’s revelations.
This time the Russians seemed really worried. As with Gouzenko they claimed that Petrov had embezzled money and should be handed over to them as a “criminal.” They charged the use of “brutal violations of the generally accepted norms of international law.” And they broke off diplomatic relations with Australia, hastily recalling their entire Canberra staff.
One of the first results of Petrov’s disclosures was the arrest in New Caledonia, France’s most distant colony, of a French woman diplomat, Madame Rose-Marie Ollier, who was named as having told Russia about arms shipments to Indo-China.
While Petrov’s disclosures showed that his spy ring had failed to secure any military or strategic information of vital importance, the great value of his evidence was its detailed description of the complicated setup of the Soviet spy organization, its efforts to secure informants, and its methods of keeping contact with Australians who had visited the Soviet Union. It resulted in a useful tightening up of Australian security methods.
Today the Petrovs are Australian citizens. Like the Gouzenkos in Canada, they are living quietly, having assumed another name.
It was five years before Moscow recovered from this rebuff and resumed diplomatic relations with Australia.
One man who duped the Russians successfully is Russian-born film producer Boris Morros. For twelve years he posed as a Soviet spy, and was a most successful American secret agent. He made some of the Laurel and Hardy films and won fame with his Carnegie Hall. He was born in St. Petersburg and came to the U.S. in 1922 as producer of Chauve-Souris, a musical comedy. He has said that in his counter-spying activities he made sixty-eight trips to Europe, including visits to Moscow and Berlin.
He was closely connected with the arrest in New York in 1957 of Jack Soble, his wife, Myra Penskaya Soble, and Jacob Albam on charges of handing over information to the Russians.
In 1957, Morros also named Mrs. Alfred Stern, formerlv Miss Martha Dodd, daughter of Professor William E. Dodd, a pre-war U.S. ambassador to Germany, as a Soviet spy. Before the Sterns could be arrested they escaped to Mexico, from where they are believed to have made their way to Russia.
Morros has stated that the Russians told him they had fifty-five business firms in the U.S. as spy covers. They wanted him to expand his Boris Morros Music Company in Los Angeles into another cover.
Morros first became entangled with the Soviet spy web in 1945, a few years after he accepted an offer made by a Russian to bring his father from the Soviet Union to join him in America. But he lost no time in informing the F.B.I. of his entanglement, and from then on played his perilous double game.
But what does all this amount to? Mr. Herter has proudly announced that in recent years some three hundred sixty persons in eleven free countries have been convicted of espionage for the Soviet Union. Two hundred forty-one were in West Germany, sixty-five in Finland, fifteen in Norway, thirteen in the United States, eleven in Sweden, seven in Denmark, six in Britain, two each in Turkey and Holland, one each in France and Japan.
Numerically, it should be noted, this haul, mostly from West Germany, amounts to only about one per cent of the Soviet espionage army at home and abroad. But statistics are meaningless in the matter of numbers, for Gouzenko, although only a cipher clerk, was worth a whole division of miscellaneous spies.