Tribe of spies

Published : Aug 28, 2009 00:00 IST

AFTER 9/11, the second oldest profession has had a rebirth. No invention of man can be a substitute for the spy in the field.

Varied are the motives that drive a person to espionage and treason. One is ideological an alienation from the state and society so deep that the spy readily undertakes the risks to spy for another country. The Cambridge Apostles, of which Ant hony Blunt was a leading figure, is an outstanding example. Heretics became traitors. There is the mercenary spy who is liable to become a double agent. Personal reasons also drive persons to seek refuge in espionage. Some operate as mere couriers.

These two books are written by scholars, not propagandists, who draw on the archives of the Soviet Union. The scholar-journalist Susan Jacobys book is a work of reflection on the impact of smear campaigns and spy scares and the fragility of safeguards in such times when, as has happened recently in India, judges become super patriots and violate their oath of office.

John Earl Haynes, a historian in the Library of Congress and Professor Andrew Mellon of Emory University co-authored Venona. Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB officer, joins Haynes and Harvey Klehr to produce a tome on the KGBs work in the United States.

In 1993, Vassiliev was permitted unique access to Stalin-era records of Soviet intelligence operations against the U.S. Years later, living in Britain, he retrieved his extensive notebooks, of more than 1,115 pages of transcribed documents, from Moscow.

In the early years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, American and Russian scholars were allowed glimpses into formerly closed files of Soviet and American intelligence agencies. The most important of these were documents from the Comintern from the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), housed in a Russian archive called the Russian Centre for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Recent History. The second important set of documents, known as the Venona files, came from the U.S. National Security Agency. They include intercepted cables from Soviet intelligence agents to Moscow from, roughly, 1942 to 1946 a period when the Soviets were unaware that American intelligence agencies had broken their code. Scholarly analyses of both sets of files were published by the Yale University Press.

Alger Hiss is at the centre of Susan Jacobys book, while his story leads the book on the KGB in the U.S. Its authors are scrupulously fair. They exonerate J. Robert Oppenheimer and denounce McCarthyism.

They also provide startling new evidence that Hiss did cooperate with Soviet intelligence over a long period of time; that journalist I.F. Stone was recruited by the KGB and worked for it in the 1930s ( numerous other journalists are identified as KGB sources); and that Ernest Hemingway had meetings with KGB agents. He was an amateur.

On Hiss they write: Alger Hiss worked for the GRU [Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff] in the 1930s and 1940s. The KGB hoped to use him in mid-1945. He was identified in Soviet intelligence documents by his real name and three different cover names, each of which is, clearly and demonstrably, linked to him. KGB officers and CPUSA underground leaders knew him as a member of the Soviet apparatus.

The chapter on The Journalist Spies has a painful section on Stone (pages 146-152), whom one respected. Analysing the documents, the authors conclude: It is clear that Stone consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938 that is to say, he was a Soviet spy but it is unclear if he re-established that relationship in1944-45. That Stone chose never to reveal this part of his life strongly suggests that he knew just how incompatible it would be with his public image as a courageous and independent journalist.

Of journalist spies they remark: They used their access to information to deceive their employers, their colleagues, and their publics about their loyalties and veracity. They betrayed confidences and pursued political agendas while pretending to be professional journalists.

They point out, however, that Senator McCarthys charges were also wildly off the mark. Very few of the people he accused appeared in KGB documents (or the Venona decryptions), and by the time he made his charges, almost all Soviet agents had been forced out of the government and Soviet intelligence networks were largely defunct.

Susan Jacoby takes the reader through every significant work on the Alger Hiss trial and describes the deep divide on his guilt. Although I certainly agree that Hiss was guilty, I also think that undermining the legacy of the New Deal was a major goal of the anticommunist crusaders after the Second World War as it remains a persistent goal of the political right today.

The Hiss case has an abiding relevance because it raises vital issues of civil liberties, as Susan Jacoby points out: The real significance of his fate revolves around the question of whether the normal, self-correcting, legally sanctioned mechanisms of a democratic society can be trusted, in times of fear and genuine danger, to preserve national security without violating individual rights and constitutional traditions. I would argue that the Hiss case, including the historical aftermath as well as the original prosecution, offers a powerful argument in favour of maximum, not minimum, civil libertarian safeguards in times of real as well as perceived danger.

The problem of protecting innocent citizens from being caught between real threats and the fear of threats is as urgent today as it was then. What truly denigrates a country is the argument that fear and danger are legitimate excuses for riding roughshod over the citizens rights in pursuit of the chimera of a security based on a contempt for liberty.

One of the saddest aspects of the Hiss case is that the man was unworthy of the belief he inspired in so many honourable Americans. The other sorrowful coda is that the misplaced faith inspired by Hiss is still being used to impugn the patriotism of those who believe that it is more, not less, important for this nation to live up to its highest ideals and legal traditions in times of danger than in times of complacent security.

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