Red Harvest: The KGB in America
D.D. Guttenplan wishes to thank Stewart Cass and Victor Navasky, who read a draft of this essay; Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya, who pointed to documents not cited in Spies; and Alexander Guttenplan, who patiently translated materials from the Russian.
The last time I saw Alexander Vassiliev he was slumped in a seat at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. A small, fair-haired man wearing a dark suit and a black shirt, Vassiliev was an ex-KGB officer who had helped Allen Weinstein, an American historian whose Perjury (1978) convinced most Americans that Alger Hiss had indeed been a Soviet spy, to write another book. The fruit of their collaboration, The Haunted Wood (1999), was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "a small arsenal of smoking guns." In The New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers declared that "anyone who wants to know what Hiss and his friends were up to can find a rich, convincing, and vivid report in The Haunted Wood." Hiss, who'd died in 1996 still protesting his innocence, was already beyond redemption. For Weinstein, the acclaim merely accelerated his rise from the comparative obscurity of the Smith College history department, via the National Endowment for Democracy, to his appointment by President George W. Bush in April 2004 as archivist of the United States. The project seemed to have brought Vassiliev only grief.
Not only did Weinstein, who couldn't even read Russian, claim top billing; he used Vassiliev's findings on Hiss in a 1997 reissue of Perjury without permission. Vassiliev was so angry that he wanted to sue, and turned for advice to The Nation's Victor Navasky, well known both as a defender of Alger Hiss and as a critic of Weinstein's scholarship and ethics. Navasky replied that he was "reluctant to collaborate in any legal actions vis-à-vis Weinstein" but was curious about Vassiliev's grievance. "In my universe," Vassiliev replied in an e-mail, "the thing he did to me is called theft, and thieves get punished. I spent 2 years in the KGB archives, doing the research for The Haunted Wood. I gave up my career as a TV presenter and newspaper columnist for it. I smuggled from Russia hundreds of top secret non-declassified KGB documents, and therefore I can't return there now." But soon enough, still living in exile in London, beached by the tides of history, Vassiliev would find a new outlet for his anger.
In the fall of 2000 John Lowenthal, a retired Rutgers law professor who had worked as a volunteer on the Hiss defense team, published a lengthy analysis of the latest evidence regarding Hiss in Intelligence and National Security, an obscure British quarterly. After Lowenthal posted on Amazon the portion of his review dealing with The Haunted Wood, Vassiliev decided to sue--not Lowenthal but the quarterly's British publisher, Frank Cass, and Amazon. British courts are notoriously friendly to libel plaintiffs; for one thing, the burden of proof is on the defendant. (In the United States, Vassiliev would have had to prove that Lowenthal's criticisms were untrue.) Vassiliev was so confident of an easy victory over Cass--followed by a lucrative settlement from Amazon--that he rejected repeated offers of four-figure sums (but no apology) from Cass's lawyers. The trial began on June 9, 2003.
When Lowenthal called me and asked if I'd be interested in reporting on the dispute, I resisted. I'd always thought there was something vaguely comical about our elders' obsession with Alger Hiss. And after many years of working on a biography of I.F. Stone, I'd learned a great deal about the ambiguous history of American Communism. My stubbornly uninformed view was that Hiss was probably at the very least a secret Communist--I'd come across enough of those myself, including Nathaniel Weyl, who claimed to have been in the same group as Hiss in the 1930s. So why was I there in court, studying Vassiliev's posture while sitting next to Victor Navasky, who'd flown to London to testify for the defense? Because there was something deeply compelling about John Lowenthal, who informed me during a series of telephone calls that he had stopped his chemotherapy for terminal throat cancer so he could concentrate on the case. I felt I owed it to John at least to witness his day in court.
After four days of arguments, testimony and cross-examination, the jury first had to decide whether Lowenthal's claim that Weinstein and Vassiliev "omit relevant facts" and "selectively replaced covernames with their own notion of the real names" was indeed defamatory. Likewise, Lowenthal's suggestion that Vassiliev, "if he's honest," would--quoting Boris Labusov, a press officer of the SVR, the successor to the KGB--have to concede that "he never met the name of Alger Hiss in the context of some cooperation with some special services of the Soviet Union." Since John freely admitted he'd intended to defame the authors of The Haunted Wood, that part was easy.
The next hurdle was the defense of fair comment. Though he didn't need to prove that everything Lowenthal had written was true (which would have meant proving Alger Hiss had been framed), Lowenthal's publisher still had to show that "an honest person could express such views in the light of the material which Mr. Lowenthal knew at the time the article was published." In other words, the jury, after being walked through the evidence, both from the recently released secret American code-breaking program known as VENONA and from the KGB archives that Vassiliev claimed to have transcribed, had to believe that a reasonable person could still consider the case against Hiss not closed. These were ordinary British men and women, not historians, and just in case the defense couldn't convince them that "KGB documents had been misconstrued" to make it appear that Hiss was a spy, Cass's lawyers also claimed that Lowenthal's review was covered by "qualified privilege"--the greater latitude allowed when responding to an attack, in this case the attack on Hiss.
Vassiliev, who acted as his own lawyer, was not an impressive witness. On the arcane but crucial question of whether, in his unfettered trawl through KGB archives, he'd ever seen a single document linking Alger Hiss with "Ales"--the code name of a Soviet agent in the 1940s who, Weinstein and Vassiliev insisted, had to be Hiss--he admitted he hadn't. He also failed to provide a satisfactory account of just how he'd managed, despite being required to leave his files and notebook in a safe at the KGB press office at the end of each day, to smuggle out the notebooks with his extensive transcriptions of documents, which, he explained, he couldn't even ask to have photocopied, because the contents were considered Russian state secrets. Even so, with the law stacked heavily in his favor, and with testimonials to the certainty of Hiss's guilt from a veritable pantheon of historians (none of whom, however, including Allen Weinstein, deigned to testify in person), Vassiliev had every reason to expect victory. Which made the jury's verdict, delivered on Friday, June 13, 2003, such a blow.
Finding that Lowenthal had indeed implied a deliberate misreading of KGB documents regarding Hiss, the jury, based on what they'd seen and heard of the evidence, agreed that this was a conclusion an honest person might reach. The trial judge, Sir David Eady, who in recent years has been widely criticized in the British press for his alleged bias in favor of libel plaintiffs, also ruled against Vassiliev, holding that Lowenthal, in defending his friend Alger Hiss against the charge that he had betrayed his country, was also covered by qualified privilege. Vassiliev absorbed this unfolding catastrophe without showing any emotion. Only when the judge pronounced "an award of costs" did his shoulders seem to collapse under the weight of what he'd brought on himself.