A son of our century

January 20, 1996|By Antero Pietila

FEW SOVIET citizens benefited more from Mikhail S. Gorbachev's rule than Vladimir Pozner. As Americans became intrigued about perestroika and glasnost, this obscure Radio Moscow propagandist and one-time New Yorker was catapulted to fame at home and abroad. He became a sought-after ''talking head'' on ABC's ''Nightline'' and other U.S. television current-events programs.

Soviet authorities even allowed him to visit the United States for the first time in 38 years and Phil Donahue tapped him as a co-host of his television show.

Two books followed: ''Parting With Illusions,'' an autobiography, and ''Eyewitness,'' an account of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Pozner's family history was a good yarn. His father left the Soviet Union in 1922, emigrating to Berlin, then to Paris, where he joined Metro Goldwyn Meyer. In 1941, the family moved to New York, where the elder Pozner worked as an MGM executive. His son spent his school years in New York. He quickly adopted the colloquialisms of his new language, became an avid Dodgers fan and was destined for an American life when, in 1948, his father uprooted the family, moving it first to East Berlin, then to Moscow.

Mr. Pozner's autobiography, written in the waning days of Soviet power, talks about the systematic harassment of an innocent man, whose only sins were his pro-Soviet feelings and refusal to take up U.S. citizenship.

''Of course, the FBI kept its watchful eye on us, and our phone was tapped. Nothing out of the ordinary, you understand.''

If the FBI indeed watched the late Mr. Pozner, they had good reason. While working as the head of the Russian section of the U.S. War Department's film effort, he became a Soviet spy.

We know this because of the National Security Agency's Venona project, a massive effort to belatedly decrypt about 2,200 coded World War II messages to Moscow from Soviet intelligence operatives in New York. Among them is a top-secret 1943 KGB message: ''We are planning to use Vladimir Alexandrovich Pozner (henceforth 'PLATO'), a Jew, born in Leningrad. . . . Please check PLATO and sanction his use as a probationer and a source of leads.''

Platonic relationship

Subsequent decrypted cable traffic shows ''PLATO'' was activated and suggests he was used as a conduit of espionage information and recruiter for spies.

''It's definitely him. His sister's name is there, everything,'' the younger Vladimir Pozner said of the intercepts. ''I have no doubts whatsoever that he had contacts with the KGB. But he never, ever discussed anything like this.''

Mr. Pozner, who now divides his time between television shows in New York and Moscow, said his father probably became a ''willing helper'' for the KGB because ''he was a super-patriotic man.''

The Pozner revelation is just a footnote in history. But it shows how deeply the Soviet intelligence apparatus was able to penetrate the United States, a World War II ally. Venona intercepts show that information from a key strategy meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was leaked to Moscow. Similarly, the Soviets learned the identities and profiles of people being prepared for work in Eastern Europe at a Ft. Meade intelligence course.

U.S. authorities broke most Venona intercepts by 1952. They bolstered the cases against several spies, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for passing nuclear secrets to Moscow. Two batches of top-secret Venona documents, now declassified, were published in the past year; a third one will be released in a few weeks. It will provide more footnotes to history.

Editorial writer Antero Pietila was The Sun's Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988.

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