Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Double Agents, Real and Imagined

BOTH these absorbing books are about moles - "a double agent in place, who betrays his country's secrets while continuing to serve it," as defined by John Le Carre.

The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War, by Jerrold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin (Charles Scribner's Sons, 489 pp., $25) is the true story of the most famous mole of them all, Oleg Penkovsky. The title, excusably hyperbolic, stems from the invaluable information Penkovsky supplied during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, confirming that Khruschev was bluffing and did not have the strength to challenge the United States by arming Cuba.

About these ads

Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors That Shattered the CIA, by David Wise, (Random House, 325 pp., $22) is the reverse side of the same coin. It tells of the US search for a possible Soviet agent within the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Since the Allies were able to "turn" and control Penkovsky, the argument went, why couldn't it also happen in the US?

Both books have excellent credentials. Schecter is a one-time Time-Life bureau chief in Moscow and national security spokesman; Deriabin is a KGB officer who defected to the US in 1954.

Wise has a good claim to be America's leading writer on espionage, backed up by such books as "The Invisible Government" and "The Spy Who Got Away," along with three spy novels.

The style of all three authors, although rooted in fact and based on careful research, shows a full awareness of the strange, gray world of the mole.

"The Spy Who Saved the World" is based on some 30 interviews with Penkovsky during secret meetings in London, Paris, and New York. The authors also used 10,000 pages of declassified data about Soviet weaponry, training, and political climate for their running narrative.

Penkovsky was the son of a White Russian officer who fought against the Communists. This ultimately counted against him. His disillusion with the Khruschev regime led to his defection.

Penkovsky's official cover was as the leader of Soviet trade missions to the West. His start came in August 1960, when he approached two American students on a bridge in Moscow with an offer to pass along secret material. The embassy then assigned various control officers.

About these ads

The US took its time about assessing Penkovsky's material. The Soviet mole maintained that his patron and confidant, Marshal Varentsov, a member of the Supreme Military Council, was his best source. In time, as the corroborative evidence piled up, this proved to be correct, and the CIA came to realize that Penkovsky's information was beyond price.

Penkovsky grew increasingly confident and careless. He talked frequently of escaping to the West but was always held back by the knowledge that he would have to leave his wife and daughter in Russia. He was arrested in mid-1962, brought to trial in 1963, and found guilty. The evidence is that he was shot shortly thereafter.

The story holds a growing suspense, with the trial a well-told climax. Penkovsky emerges as a sympathetic, three-dimensional figure, with his ambition transferred to the West and his pride in the fact that he helped blunt Soviet dreams of world conquest at a most dangerous time.

"Molehunt" begins in 1961 with the defection of a KGB officer, Anatoly Golitsin. He walked into the home of the CIA station chief in a suburb of Helsinki and said he was seeking "asool," which turned out to be "asylum."

Included in the information Golitsin offered was the conviction that a Soviet mole had been planted high in the CIA command structure. Flown to the US for debriefing, Golitsin offered "tantalizing fragments" about the mole. His name began with "K" and ended in "sky." He was of Slavic background and had been stationed in Germany. "Within three weeks of Golitsin's arrival at the safe house in northern Virginia, the mole hunt that was to corrode the CIA for almost 20 years had begun," Wise records. After si x months of intense search, the agency had a prime suspect. His name was Peter Karlow, born Klibansky. His background was Slavic. And he had done some technical work for the CIA in Germany after World War II.

James Jesus Angleton, chief of counterintelligence, took over the case - and takes over the book. Fly-fisherman, poet, orchard grower, with a languid manner that concealed a brilliant intellect, he cloaked himself in an air of mystery and intrigue. "It was Angleton's job to suspect everyone, and he did," Wise writes.

"Molehunt" tells many sad stories of intelligence officers whose careers were derailed by what became Angleton's obsession. But Karlow's is perhaps the saddest. He was given increasingly insensitive posts, until he realized that there was no future for him in the agency. He resigned in 1963. The FBI, which had been hot on his trail, later admitted that it had been hounding the wrong man, but the information was mislaid in the bureaucratic paper shuffle, and came too late to help Karlow.

Finally, in 1980, a Mole Relief Act was passed by Congress that helped some of those who had suffered, but not Karlow. In 1986, a second act, specifically on behalf of Karlow, was slipped through Congress almost unnoticed. The upshot was that he received almost $500,000 and a medal from William Webster, then director of the CIA.

Wise's claim that the agency was riven for 20 years by the mole hunt is somewhat overblown, and I verified this in a recent interview with Richard Helms, deputy director and then director of CIA from 1965 to 1973.

Ironically, after the breakup of the USSR it was discovered on the highest authority that the KGB had never been able to place a mole in the CIA high command.

Over and above the excitement these two books generate, they serve a most useful function in reminding us that vigilance in watching our potential enemies and in protecting our own flanks can never be relaxed.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.