Russian spy's atomic-bomb book implodes

June 20, 1994|By Roger Tatarian

PATRICK Buchanan, the columnist and sometimes candidate for president, is all agog over Pavel Sudoplatov, a former KGB agent who claims firsthand knowledge of Soviet espionage into U.S. atomic secrets.

Mr. Sudoplatov is the principal author of a recently published book titled "Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Soviet Spymaster." The book alleges that key scientists in making the U.S. atom bomb -- J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Neils Bohr -- had passed crucial information on to the Soviet Union during World War II.

The Sudoplatov book has raised a lot of eyebrows, but not Pat Buchanan's. On the contrary, he concludes in a recent column that the Sudoplatov memoirs vindicate the men who raised charges of communist subversion during the McCarthy era.

"Men like Richard Nixon, William Jenner and Karl Mundt, who warned of the penetration of the government by Moscow's dupes and Stalin's spies, were right, and those who countered every charge with cries of "witch hunt" and "red-baiting" ill-served the republic," Mr. Buchanan writes.

Skilled advocate that he is, Pat Buchanan seeks to head off fault-finding with the Sudoplatov book by acknowledging up front that the author may not be correct in every detail. Still, he concludes that the book's thrust "supports the basic charges of anti-communism of the '40s and early '50s."

Anyone tempted to regard that as the final word on the merits of the book should first read an article in the current New York Review of Books. Written by Thomas Powers, an authority on the history of the atomic program and the work of the intelligence agencies, the article identifies enough misinformation and errors in the book to make the whole thing suspect for anyone free of preconceived ideas.

Thomas Powers deals with many aspects of the Sudoplatov memoirs, but his principal preoccupation is with the charge that the four great atomic physicists acted as Soviet spies.

There is, first of all, the claim that Pavel Sudoplatov was familiar with the Soviet atomic spying program as far back as 1941 and that he headed the Moscow campaign to steal U.S. atomic secrets from 1944 to 1946. To this, the Powers article cites a May 5 statement by Russia's present-day intelligence agency that Mr. Sudoplatov had access to Soviet atomic information for only the period from September 1945 to October 1946.

The Powers indictment cites these other instances of error:

Mr. Sudoplatov: Oppenheimer deliberately recruited Klaus Fuchs, the German-born Soviet spy in Britain, to work at the secret U.S. atomic center at Los Alamos, N.M.

Mr. Powers: "The huge available record establishes beyond doubt that Oppenheimer had nothing to do with bringing Fuchs either to America or Los Alamos."

Mr. Sudoplatov: Leo Szilard worked at Los Alamos at times and had a secretary who was a Soviet spy.

Mr. Powers: Szilard was never at Los Alamos during the war; he was at Chicago's Met Lab. He had no secretary. He used the stenographic pool when he needed one.

Mr. Sudoplatov: A Soviet source reported in December 1941 that Oppenheimer told him he and his colleagues were going to move from Berkeley to a new site to conduct research on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Powers: The first proposal to send scientists to a remote laboratory came nearly a year later, and the move to Los Alamos did not take place until spring 1943.

Mr. Sudoplatov: One of the documents obtained by Soviet agents in the United States was a 33-page design of the atom bomb that had been dropped from the official history of the bomb project written by Henry DeWolf Smythe.

Mr. Powers: William Shurcliff, who personally edited the Smythe report, says only a few sentences were added or deleted in the editing process and that nothing was dropped.

Mr. Sudoplatov: In 1945, Neils Bohr met a Soviet physicist named Y.P. Terletsky and was shown plans for a Soviet reactor that had failed to work. Bohr told Terletsky where the trouble was.

Mr. Powers: Bohr's son was present at the meeting; when Terletsky raised technical questions, his father simply referred him to the already-published Smythe report. Terletsky dictated his own account of the meeting before his death; he made no reference to getting such assistance from Bohr.

After detailing these and other discrepancies, Thomas Powers concludes:

"The account of atomic espionage printed in 'Special Tasks' is an unrelieved mess -- contradictory, often incoherent, riddled with error and unsupported in its major claims that the leading scientists who are named committed espionage."

In other words, it is interesting hot-weather reading, but should not be inhaled, Pat Buchanan's endorsement notwithstanding.

Roger Tatarian is professor emeritus of journalism at California State University, Fresno.

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