I.F. Stone, Secret Agent? Spy? Mole?

Silver Spring, Md.

In an October 3, 2006, piece on The American Prospect‘s website, Eric Alterman denounced as “almost entirely bogus” the controversy over “whether [I. F.] Stone ever willingly…cooperated with the KGB in any way. He did not.”

In May 2009, Alexander Vassiliev’s notes from KGB archives became public. They show that from 1936 until the end of 1938, Stone secretly carried out specific tasks for the KGB. That is the definition of an intelligence agent, although Stone appears not to have been a particularly important one.

Vassiliev’s notes also corroborate that Stone was code-named “BLIN” and thus was the journalist whom the KGB attempted to re-recruit in late 1944, as first revealed by Venona intercepts released in 1996. Moreover, former KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, whose 1992 allegations instigated the controversy, stated three years ago that Stone began cooperating with Soviet intelligence in 1936. Kalugin has rightly been criticized for changing his story, but that statement has to count for something, unless one thinks it was a lucky guess.

Rather than retract his ill-advised assertion when faced with new evidence, Alterman has aggressively attacked–obfuscating the facts, denouncing the messengers and lumping together everybody who doesn’t march in lockstep with his inner convictions [“The Liberal Media,” June 22].

Because of the new evidence, I agreed to sift through all the allegations and counterclaims in an essay for the Journal of Cold War Studies, which appears in the Summer 2009 edition (mitpressjournals.org/toc/jcws/11/3). Readers can judge for themselves whether I treated Stone fairly and put his activities in context.

Alterman’s behavior is disappointing for a CUNY journalism professor who never fails to present himself as a disciple of I.F. Stone, one of the premier investigative journalists of his generation.


Alterman Replies

New York City

Neither space nor sanity allows me to regurgitate, yet again, all the holes in the arguments for I.F. Stone’s alleged espionage career made by the likes of Max Holland, or those of Ann Coulter and Messrs. Haynes, Klehr, Radosh, Horowitz, Novak, etc. They reveal far more about Stone’s accusers than about the man himself. Holland knows that the notes of Vassiliev–ex-KGB man desperate to sell his wares in the West–have never been verified and are hardly the kind of source upon which any careful historian would build a case for espionage. He also knows that the myriad self-contradictory musings of Kalugin–another ex-KGB man desperate to sell his wares in the West–have not only been successfully challenged but have changed over time, depending on who was buying. (Kalugin denied them to me personally.) He knows, further, that by the standards of Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev, Walter Lippmann was a “Soviet spy,” as were countless other Western journalists of the period.

But more troubling than what Holland knows and does not admit is what he “knows” that ain’t so. I referred to Holland in my column exclusively because of his baseless speculation that the KGB funded publication of I.F. Stone’s Weekly and Stone’s Hidden History of the Cold War. He has produced no evidence for this slanderous flight of fancy and offers none here. Finally (and least consequentially), his crack about my self-presentation is also false. I have never presented myself as a “disciple” of Stone or even as an “investigative journalist.” I was Izzy’s friend, period.


‘A Touching Faith’ in Spookdom

New York City

It is not my custom to respond to reviews of my books (you can’t win, after all), but I am making an exception for D.D. Guttenplan’s comments on Alger Hiss and the Battle for History at the end of a long review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev [“Red Harvest,” May 25]. Guttenplan states that my “willingness to write an entire book on the case without ever examining the evidence–strongly suggests that we are still far from living in a sane world. At least as far as Alger Hiss is concerned.” A reader who believes in guilt by association might well infer from Guttenplan’s comment that I share the views of Haynes et al. about the threat to US interests posed by Soviet operatives (or fellow travelers) in the 1930s and throughout the cold war. I do not.

One of my major points–which Guttenplan did not mention–was that the right and the left share a touching faith in the reliability of classified documents from intelligence agencies. I wouldn’t judge anyone or anything on the basis of any reports in CIA or KGB files, and that goes for the current controversy over what the CIA did or did not tell Congress about waterboarding in 2002.

What remains compelling and interests me about the Hiss case, as I stated clearly in my introduction, is its status as a litmus test of political loyalties, over five decades, for both the right and the left. My focus was on the controversy as it played out in the media and academia. As for re-evaluating the so-called facts of the case, I shall leave it to those who believe that intelligence files are a faithful record of reality–as long as the reality happens to coincide with their own political views. Seek and ye shall find.


Cambridge, Mass.

Nearing the end of my ninety-ninth year, I wonder if my memory is reliable. It tells me I.F. Stone in his late years moved to Athens and learned Greek so he could read about Socrates in the original. He published a small book about this, which I owned once upon a time. Guttenplan doesn’t mention this in his interesting account, so I have to ask, Is my memory wrong?


Guttenplan Replies


I’m glad Susan Jacoby shares my skepticism about the reliability of classified documents. Certainly I.F. Stone’s FBI file was filled with self-serving (and untrue) assertions by various agents and informants. But given her views, I’m surprised by her reluctance to assess the remaining evidence of Hiss’s guilt. I’m not a defender of Hiss–or an admirer of Haynes and Klehr. But at least they understand that for partisans on either side, the evidence is central.

James Tipton is mostly right. Stone didn’t move to Athens, but he did teach himself ancient Greek and publish The Trial of Socrates, a surprise bestseller, at age 80. I don’t recall it being a small volume, but then I can’t seem to remember who borrowed my copy…


How Many Critiques on the Head of a Pin?


When you published William Deresiewicz’s reply to Vivian Gornick’s response to Deresiewicz’s misgivings about James Wood’s literary interpretations [“Exchange,” June 8], you were printing a critique of a critique of a critique of a critique, if I count correctly. Do we dare break the chain? Can you be dragged back to earth, or are you lost beyond rescue in the realms of academic argle-bargle?