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The Spies Who Loved Us? | The Nation

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The Spies Who Loved Us?

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It is unclear whether all these people considered themselves spies. In their cables to Moscow, the Russians may well have been hyping their own work, portraying as "agents" unwitting sources who just thought they were discussing policy or trading information with friendly diplomats and political allies. The party's top US spymaster, Jacob Golos, and his courier-girlfriend, Elizabeth Bentley, tried to keep their Washington informants in the dark. They feared that these people might stop supplying information if they found out it was destined for the KGB instead of the party or the Comintern. Understandably, the Russians scoffed at such misgivings. They claimed that many of their US sources knew exactly whom they were working for and were, one Soviet operative boasted, "very proud of this fact."

About the Author

Ellen Schrecker
Ellen Schrecker is the author, most recently, of Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (Little, Brown).

The information these people supplied usually fell within one of two areas: technical and scientific, or political. A separate corps of specially trained Soviet operatives handled the scientists and technicians. Although the penetration of the atomic bomb project was the greatest achievement of Soviet espionage, the Russians did little to produce it. In fact, until Klaus Fuchs and other informants essentially showed up on its doorstep, the KGB had been so unsuccessful in contacting Manhattan Project scientists that the head of its San Francisco station in charge of the recruiting operation was called home in disgrace.

In the political area, the KGB's representatives were under similar pressure for results. Moscow was particularly insistent on having sources within the top circles of the US government. Accordingly, the KGB cultivated well-connected people like Martha Dodd in the hopes that, despite their disappointing record as informants, their ties to the Roosevelts and other prominent officials might eventually pay off. The Russians' eagerness for high-level contacts made them fair game for con men. Not only did the KGB pay New York Congressman Samuel Dickstein thousands of dollars for inside information he never delivered, but for nearly twenty years it backed the projects of a minor Hollywood producer named Boris Morros, who promised access to prominent politicians and celebrities while secretly communicating with the FBI.

Nonetheless, the KGB did get a lot of political and economic information. Throughout the early forties, its more mundane sources were providing thousands of pages of material about such matters as US military production, postwar economic planning and the state of official thinking about the USSR. Still, Moscow remained unsatisfied. Time and again, KGB headquarters pressed its Washington bureau to dig for gossip, to unearth the "machinations, backstage negotiations, intrigues, all that is done before this or that decision of the government becomes known to everybody," and to recruit people who could influence policy as well as explain it.

It never did. Despite its formidable reputation, the KGB was, in Weinstein's words, "far more contentious, chaotic, and confused than previous accounts by both Russian and Western writers would suggest." Stalin's purges wiped out many of its best operatives, including both Dodd's lover and the first head of the New York station. By 1940 so many people had been called back to Moscow that the KGB's American apparatus was essentially out of service. Even when a new crop of Russian agents arrived on the scene during World War II, they got little help from home. The authors evince considerable sympathy for the harried Soviet operatives who, caught between Moscow's incessant demands for quality "deliverables" and their own and their agents' justifiable fears of exposure, were just trying to do their job.

Their American contacts did not make that job easy to do. Relations between the KGB's professionals and the idealistic amateurs they worked with were often strained. The Russians fretted constantly about the sloppy "tradecraft" of their American sources--and with good reason. The information they got was often vague or out of date; half the documents that one of Bentley's people photographed were completely unintelligible. Worse yet, some Americans did not conceal their politics. They risked exposure by combining their undercover work with open participation in left-wing activities. Even under the relatively tolerant regime that prevailed in Washington during World War II, being identified as a Communist could cost someone a job, as two of the KBG's most dedicated and energetic agents, Julius Rosenberg and Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, discovered to their handlers' alarm.

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