Commentary Magazine


The FBI-KGB War, by Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman

Soviet Espionage

The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story.
by Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman.
Random House. 320 pp.$18.95.

For most of Robert Lamphere’s fourteen years in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he specialized in Soviet espionage cases. He was responsible for directing the investigations that culminated in the conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and oversaw numerous other less publicized but important probes that uncovered KGB agents working in the United States. After his departure from the FBI in 1955, Lamphere served as a high-ranking official in the Veterans Administration and then as an insurance executive. He was moved to write this book by indignation. The growing campaign to demonstrate that the Rosenbergs were framed represents, in his view, “the ultimate triumph of the KGB,” the organization he battled during his years of service in the FBI.

Since Lamphere began this project in the 1970’s, the problem of Soviet espionage has returned to the front pages. Most of today’s spies, unlike the Communist ideologues Lamphere confronted in the 1940’s and 1950’s, are mercenaries. Yet however different their motivations, they too benefit from the fact that it is difficult to prove a charge of espionage unless one of the participants confesses. The Rosenbergs’ convictions were obtained thanks to the confessions of their co-conspirators, but their own refusal to talk prevented the successful prosecution of most of the members of their espionage ring—even though many were known to the FBI. Lamphere in his fascinating account not only tells the story of how the FBI was able to unravel this spy ring, but indicates the political, legal, and bureaucratic obstacles that hampered investigators. While aficionados of Soviet espionage will find only a few nuggets that have not already been mined by such previous researchers as Allen Weinstein and Ronald Radosh, Lamphere provides a riveting story of how the war against the KGB looked from inside the FBI.

His most important revelation (already aired several years ago) is that the big break came in 1948, when after a long and frustrating effort an old Soviet code was broken by American cryptanalysts. Able at last to read cables sent by the KGB from New York to Moscow in 1944-45, Lamphere was soon on the trail of several Soviet agents. The most important was the British scientist Klaus Fuchs. After his capture and confession, Fuchs led the FBI to his courier, Harry Gold, who implicated David Greenglass, who, in turn, implicated his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg. Although the evidence introduced in court against the Rosenbergs was clear and compelling, the most authoritative evidence—the deciphered cables that confirmed their role as KGB agents—could not be used because the FBI did not want to alert the Soviets that it had broken the code.

Not all the deciphered cables led to such spectacular results, and anyway by 1949 the Soviets were on to the breakthrough. Some early leads to members of the Rosenberg spy ring—Max Elitcher and Joel Barr—could not be confirmed; consequently it was two years before the case broke. Another clue, to the identity of a spy in the British embassy in Washington, was not followed up by the British; thus Donald Maclean was able to avoid capture. The British, in fact, emerge as the prime bumblers in Lamphere’s account. Besides mishandling the clues leading to Maclean, they ignored Klaus Fuchs’s open Communist past and Kim Philby’s checkered history. Philby, who worked as a liaison of British intelligence to the FBI in the early 1950’s, could have informed the Soviets about the deciphered cables, although Lamphere convincingly argues that still another leak in British intelligence had probably compromised the breakthrough two years earlier. That gave the KGB time to warn vulnerable agents and take measures to limit the damage to its spy networks.

Even when the decoded material led the FBI to an active Soviet agent, the results were not always satisfactory. Late in 1948 one KGB message provided an indication that Judith Coplon, a young woman working in the Justice Department’s Foreign Agents Registration section, was a spy. Coplon’s position gave her access to sensitive FBI material. While counterintelligence people (like Lamphere) wanted to undertake an extensive investigation of Coplon in the hope that other agents and Soviet spy techniques might be uncovered, Justice Department officials wanted quietly to remove her to limit the damage she could cause.

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The Coplon case illustrates the wrenching conflict between the FBI’s counterintelligence and prosecutorial responsibilities. Under pressure to get enough evidence to arrest Coplon quickly, Lamphere planted an FBI document in her office with false information about a supposed double agent working in Amtorg, a Soviet trading company in New York. Coplon took the bait; anxious to inform her Soviet masters that one of their employees was an FBI informant, she was arrested in New York during a meeting with Valentin Gubitchev, a Russian employed by the United Nations. In her possession, in addition to the FBI report, she had a variety of incriminating materials, including handwritten notes on possible KGB recruits in which she mentioned her own Communist sympathies and data slips summarizing other FBI reports.

While Coplon was found guilty in two separate trials—one for stealing documents, the other for conspiracy—the FBI was badly embarrassed by the need to introduce into evidence the complete files from which Coplon had excerpted material. Critics complained that the files contained rumors and unsubstantiated charges. More seriously, several government informers, including one in the Soviet embassy in Washington, were compromised by the revelations.

Moreover, the FBI had wire-tapped Coplon on the basis of a 1940 letter from President Roosevelt to the Attorney General authorizing such taps in national-security cases. The Supreme Court, however, had earlier ruled that information from such devices was “the fruit of a poisonous tree” and could not be used as evidence in court. In order to justify its original interest in Coplon, the Bureau would have had to reveal its source for her espionage, namely, a deciphered KGB cable. Unable to do so for counterintelligence reasons, it claimed vaguely that its source was “a confidential informant of known reliability,” thus feeding the suspicion of the Appeals Court that an illegal wiretap had been responsible.

But the most devastating blow to Coplon’s prosecution was the law of search and seizure. Advised by a Justice Department official that it did not have enough evidence to obtain a warrant for Coplon’s arrest, the FBI took her and Gubitchev into custody because agents had probable cause to believe a felony was occurring. An Appeals Court invalidated Coplon’s lower-court convictions on the grounds that her arrest was improper, and thus prevented the introduction into evidence of any of the documents found on her. Although Congress soon changed the law to authorize arrests without a warrant in espionage cases, an obviously guilty Soviet spy went free. Today Coplon, who married one of her lawyers, owns a trendy restaurant in New York.

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The lack of usable legal evidence was frustrating enough when the FBI knew from wiretaps and deciphered cables that individuals were working for the Soviets. (One of those Lamphere so identifies is Steve Nelson, a high-ranking Communist-party functionary who was accused by congressional investigators of attempting to gain atom-bomb information from scientists at California’s Livermore Laboratories during World War II. According to Lamphere, the FBI “overheard conversations” in which Nelson offered his Comintern apparatus to the KGB in 1943.) But frustration was compounded by diplomatic concerns. The State Department often preferred to ship home Soviet nationals caught spying than to prosecute them, in the hopes it might thereby obtain the release of Americans in Soviet jails or avoid diplomatic incidents.

Finally, Lamphere makes it clear that the internal politics of the FBI itself sometimes hampered investigations. He places part of the responsibility directly on J. Edgar Hoover, who was suspicious of the CIA, encouraged subordinates to regard it as a rival, and tried not to cooperate with it. In 1953 Lamphere worked with James Angle-ton, the CIA’s vaunted director of counterintelligence, to lure a one-time KGB agent, Joseph Katz, out of Israel and arrest him. Although Katz had apparently broken with the Soviets, he had never talked about his long career as a spy-master, during which he had supervised Harry Gold among others. Just before the operation began, Hoover, irked at the CIA, killed it.

Although Lamphere clearly admires Hoover, and praises his political acumen, it is evident that Hoover’s fondness for draconian punishments of underlings, his encouragement of excessive flattery, and his often petty demands sometimes prevented the FBI from making full use of its resources. Lamphere, for example, was once given a letter of censure when he submitted a partly illegible carbon copy of a document Hoover himself had misplaced. Noting frankly that “some of the FBI discipline verged on thought control,” Lamphere also shows how agents and supervisors maneuvered around it. Nevertheless, by the mid-1950’s his own tolerance for FBI pettiness had come to an end, and he resigned.

Lamphere’s pride in the FBI’s accomplishments in counterintelligence during his tenure is offset by criticism of others, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used the Communist issue in that period for political ends. He writes that McCarthy deflected public attention from real spies, and that his “approach and tactics hurt the anti-Communist cause” by helping to convince many liberals that charges of Soviet espionage were politically inspired.

But whatever one’s final assessment of the harm done by McCarthy, what this book makes abundantly clear is that there was a vast disparity between the number of Americans who worked for the KGB and those who could be tried for doing so. Many Americans who betrayed their country to Joseph Stalin were never legally punished for their acts. That may be the price that a democracy, with its commitment to due process and the rule of law, has to pay. Still, books like Lamphere’s are useful reminders of just how real a danger Soviet espionage has posed to the security of the United States.

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About the Author

Harvey Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.




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