Nov 14, 2007

Case Closed for Atomic Spies?

By Noah Shachtman, Danger Room
November 14, 2007 | 2:53:00 PM

Tom Shachtman has written thirty books, won six New York-area Emmys for his documentaries, and produced two sons. The uglier one does some work for WIRED, I'm told. This is Tom Shachtman's first post for DANGER ROOM, adapted from his column for the Lakeville Journal.

Alexander Feklisov died recently at 93, claiming to have been the KGB agent who had run the world's notorious spies -- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in New York and Klaus Fuchs in Great Britain -- and, in his spare time, mediated the Cuban missile crisis. Some obits even dared to hope that this would be the last shoe to drop in the infamous Rosenberg case.

The Reuters obituary parroting Feklisov’s claims was dutifully reprinted all over the place, or sliced and diced and extra filler added, without any of the reprinters or rewriters making the least attempt to ascertain the veracity of Feklisov’s claims.

Bob Lamphere’s autobiography, “The FBI-KGB War,” which I co-wrote, has a scene in a Russian-language movie theater in New York in late 1946. Bob, an agent for the FBI, trails the top KGB controller into the theater and watches him move from seat to seat and row to row, and then leave the theater. In 1946, Bob didn’t know what that controller was doing, but in 1950, when David Greenglass was interrogated, and said that his brother-in-law Julius Rosenberg had told him that he often went to the Russian-language movie theater to cache stolen material under a particular seat, Bob realized that what he’d seen in 1946 was the controller emptying a dead-drop.

His enemy’s name, or so Bob thought for decades, was Anatoli Yakolev.

Bob was a bear of a man, the son of an Idaho miner whose forefathers populate a cemetery in Rhode Island. He was FBI to his core -- even after he left the Bureau and ascended to acting chief of the Veterans Administration, and still later, after he’d spent years as a vice-president at John Hancock and retired for the third time. His continuing passionate interest in the espionage cases of his FBI era took him to Moscow in 1993. He was three days too late; the man he knew as Yakolev, whose real name was Yatskov, had just died; Bob settled for talking with Yuri Sokolov. Yatskov, not Feklisov, had handled the Rosenbergs in New York until 1946, when Sokolov had taken over. Yatskov and Sokolov had also handled the atomic-scientist-turned spy Klaus Fuchs, through the courier Harry Gold, in the U.S., where he had done most of his damage. If Feklisov had anything to do with Fuchs, it was solely in London, later.

Why, then, had Feklisov made such a boast about the Rosenbergs?

The answer, I think, is that if he’d laid claim only to having run Fuchs, no one would have cared – and no obituaries would have been written -- though Klaus Fuchs was a more important spy for the Soviets than the Rosenbergs. Julius and Ethel’s names still reverberate, more than fifty years after their execution.

The reason is that so many people grew up believing the only two American civilians executed for espionage were innocent. Let me tell you, having personally mucked around in the FBI files in Washington for many months, tracing how the Bureau got to the Rosenbergs in the first place, I can attest that they were not the immediate targets of the hunt that devolved when three major pieces of evidence were first put together. The clues came from 1) a Soviet codebook that had been found on the Finnish battlefield, 2) copies of telegrams sent from the Soviet offices in New York to Moscow – in code -- during World War II, and 3) some mistakes on one-time cipher pads used by the Soviets in 1948. These were the subject of terrific cryptographic work by Meredith Gardner, then at the agency that would become the NSA. Gardner kept feeding Lamphere bits of solutions from the telegrams, and Bob kept checking out leads and adding to the information base, and eventually they found this close-knit ring of Jewish engineers who’d been at City College in the 1930s and had all been enticed into the Soviet fold by Yakolev and his predecessor – and mentioned in the telegrams to Moscow by transparent code names.

The amount of false leads that the Bureau chased down, and dead ends, and wrong turns – many of which I followed in the paperwork, in the early 1980s – was stunning. As Bob told me, “If the Rosenbergs had been framed, I would have had to be at the center of those who framed them – and I wasn’t.” The facts showed this to be true. If you have the time and inclination, go to FBI headquarters and read these documents. They’re available in the Bureau's Reading Room.

The Rosenbergs were couriers, small fry, who used Ethel’s younger brother David to obtain information from the Los Alamos lab, where he worked, and send it to Julius in New York, for conveying to Yatskov. Their information was checked, in Moscow, with other information being fed to the Soviets by other spies, not just Fuchs – men such as chemical engineer George Koval, who fed information from the Oak Ridge laboratory, and whose name did not become known to the American public until fifty years later.Soviet scientists took all of their information and were able to use it to make advances in the construction of nuclear explosive devices that they had been unable to do by themselves.

When the Rosenbergs were arrested and tried and sentenced to death for espionage, Soviet propagandists saw a terrific opportunity to build world-wide sympathy for the Communist cause. On the one hand, they were martyrs, willing to die for what they believed; on the other, they were touted as innocent of the charges. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?Huge crowds were energized, ink spilled, opinions broadcast; the more public the trial and the appeal and the death-watch, the better the Soviets liked it.

Bob Lamphere, who had done more than anyone to break the case, argued in writing at that time against seeking the death penalty for Ethel and, later, against imposing it for both Julius and Ethel. Far better, he argued, to bargain with them to give up their accomplices, such people as Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, who fled to the USSR rather than stand trial, and perhaps a dozen others in the ring. And far better to deny the USSR the martyrs that the Rosenbergs would become if executed. He lost that battle – and perhaps because the battle was lost, it never became possible to turn around public opinion, at least on the left, that retained the axiomatic belief that the Rosenbergs had been innocent, framed, railroaded, all but crucified.

The Rosenbergs’ death helped stir an virulent anti-Americanism that spread throughout the world in the 1950s -- and continues, in much-mutated form, today. No wonder an old Cold Warrior like Feklisov wanted to take credit.

-- Tom Shachtman

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