'Spies' documentary sheds light on shadowy subject of espionage

September 16, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

If you want to know how spying has really been conducted i the 20th century, "Spies" is a good video primer on this fascinating subject.

"Spies," a 15-part weekly documentary series, premieres at 9:30 p.m. tonight on the A&E cable channel. Most of the half-hour episodes describe espionage cases from World War II and the Cold War.

Because the United States and the Soviet Union maintained the largest and most active intelligence operations during most of this period, it is fitting that the first two episodes of "Spies" deal with cases involving those countries.

The premiere, subtitled "License to Kill," examines assassinations by the Soviet secret police, called the Cheka when it was founded in 1917, and known since 1953 as the KGB. Next week's episode, "Family of Spies," chronicles the case of John Walker, a U.S. Navy warrant officer who spied for the Soviets and recruited his son, brother and best friend to join him in treason.

"Spies" begins with a lucid summary of the most famous assassination ever carried out by the Cheka/KGB: the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Trotsky, a hero of the Russian Revolution who was banished from the Soviet Union in 1929, was the rival for political power that Joseph Stalin hated the most.

How to get to Trotsky, who was holed up in a heavily fortified

villa in a Mexico City suburb? The first step, says narrator Michael Carroll, involved sex.

The instrument of destruction was Ramon Mercader, a Spaniard recruited into the Soviet secret police -- then called the NKVD -- during the Spanish Civil War. The NKVD sent Mercader to Paris in 1938 to seduce a Communist woman from Brooklyn who had family ties to Trotsky. She became Mercader's lover and he, traveling on a false Canadian passport that identified him as Frank Jackson, persuaded her to accompany him to Mexico.

The woman often provided translations for Trotsky, a prodigious writer. Mercader often drove her to work at the Trotsky villa, where he became trusted by the bodyguards. Eventually he persuaded Trotsky to critique an article he had written.

Alone with Mercader in his study, Trotsky was reading that article when Mercader hit him in the head with a mountaineer's pickax. Trotsky died the next day. Mercader was convicted and imprisoned.

In the slang of the Cheka/NKVD/KGB, says Mr. Carroll, assassinations were called "wet affairs." Other wet affairs recalled in the premiere concerned two Ukrainians murdered in Munich in the 1950s with a spray gun that fired cyanide gas, and a Bulgarian murdered in London in 1978 with an umbrella that injected a poison pellet into his leg.

John Walker was 30 years old when he walked into the Soviet Embassy in Washington on Christmas day of 1967 and offered to sell military secrets. After he showed the Soviets codes used by U.S. submarines, they agreed to pay him $4,000 a month for more. From then until the FBI arrested him in 1985, says Carroll, Walker supplied the Soviets with "more than one million secret messages."

To help him, Walker recruited first his best friend, Jerry Whitworth; then his brother, Arthur Walker, and finally his son, Michael Walker. If his ex-wife, Barbara Walker, had not reported him to the FBI, it is easy to imagine his ring safely surviving the Cold War.

In his final act of betrayal, Walker agreed to testify against his brother and his friend in exchange for comparatively light sentences for himself and his son. He will be eligible for parole in 1994. Prospects are considerably less promising for Arthur Walker, sentenced to three life terms plus 40 years, and Whitworth, sentenced to 365 years.

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