Reds under the bed

April 19, 1994|By William Safire

IN THE WAKE of charges that a high CIA official was a Russian "mole," an old question is being newly raised: How deeply did the Soviet Union penetrate the American government?

Through two generations, that issue poisoned relations between liberals and conservatives. The liberals' villains were Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn, and to a lesser extent, Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon. Among the conservatives' villains were the diplomat Alger Hiss, the nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Lillian Hellmans who defended them.

Judging by a damning book out yesterday by Stalin's favorite hit man, it's going to be a tough year for "anti-anti-communists."

Pavel Sudoplatov, author with his son of "Special Tasks," is a loathsome killer. On Stalin's orders, he arranged for the assassination of Leon Trotsky; he hails Beria and derides Khrushchev. Self-serving and untrustworthy he may be, but the 87-year-old spy is, as the editors Jerrold and Leona Schecter write, "the surviving institutional memory of the Russian intelligence service's covert operations from the 1920s to 1953."

The news lead in the book, as excerpted in this week's Time magazine, is his detailed account of the way Oppenheimer, as well as Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, were enlisted as Soviet sources of information in the race to build the atomic bomb.

Though not Soviet contract agents, these great scientists were knowing sources for his KGB operatives, reports Mr. Sudoplatov. Their motive in revealing secrets to Moscow -- beginning with Oppenheimer's leak to the Soviets of Einstein's original letter to FDR -- was not to betray the U.S., but to share information with Russian scientists to defeat the Nazis.

Not all our top scientists arrogated to themselves that momentous national security decision; the KGB tried and failed to attract George Kistiakowsky and Edward Teller.

Like Oppenheimer, Alger Hiss was not a paid or controlled agent, according to Mr. Sudoplatov; Hiss, KGB code name "Mars," was merely "very close to our sources . . . highly sympathetic . . . a source of agent information for the Silvermaster spy cell . . . his behavior followed instructions he may have learned in the 1930s: never admit anything."

To those interested in the Ames case, the most intriguing sentences in the book attribute an allegation to an 81-year-old friend of Mr. Sudoplatov's in military intelligence, unnamed because a son serves in government. "The retired GRU officer remembers that there was a controlled agent source of information in Roosevelt's office. He was Roosevelt's assistant on intelligence affairs, and he was on bad terms with William Donovan and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the OSS and the FBI, respectively."

Was there a Soviet mole in the Oval Office during World War II?

The confessed communist courier Elizabeth Bentley identified Lauchlin Currie, an economist, and Harry Dexter White, a Treasury assistant secretary, as witting sources, and fingered Duncan Chaplin Lee, a law partner and later assistant to the OSS's General Donovan, as an NKVD agent. (Lee, a descendant xTC Robert E. Lee, denied this under oath.) But nobody has suggested a confidant of FDR's was a "controlled agent."

Assuming Mr. Sudoplatov's secondhand, unsupported recollection is true, who could that early mole be?

Two CIA historians I checked say the description (FDR assistant on intelligence, disliked by Donovan and Hoover) could apply to John Franklin Carter, a newspaper columnist and novelist (always a nefarious combination) who used the pen name Jay Franklin. He and a staff of six, on State Department payroll, supplied FDR with reports on Nazi leaders -- and, at one time, an analysis of Soviet intelligence. He died in 1967, an ardent anti-communist.

This fellow might have been a "controlled agent" or a patriot. As more documents and memoirs come out of the KGB woodwork, we will learn more -- not just about FDR's day, but about more recent penetration agents in our intelligence agencies.

Spooks call the resultant reassessment "walking back the cat." Historians and biographers will have to reshuffle shibboleths about familiar villains and heroes. And among present and retired intelligence officers, "the Second Man" is getting worried.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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