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Comment on Amy Knight’s review of Spies in the Times Literary Supplement

by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr 


[TLS ran only a small portion of our response to Knight’s review, declining to run the full text.  Below is the full text.}


            Amy Knight states in her 26 June review of our book Spies: the Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, “the main purpose of Spies, it seems is not to enlighten readers, but to silence those who still voice doubts about the guilt of people like Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, I.F. Stone and others.”  If being forced to confront overwhelming evidence that these men cooperated with Soviet intelligence is unnerving to Amy Knight, we would count our book a success.  We also note that most of the text of Spies discusses other individuals who cooperated with Soviet intelligence, particularly those in scientific and technical fields.  We devote less then ten percent of our text to what Knight claimed was our “main purpose.”

            The direct identification of Hiss by his real name as a Soviet source in these KGB documents inflamed Knight and sparked a most bizarre assertion.  The notebooks contain a December 1948 memo written by Anatoly Gorsky, head of the KGB station in the United States in 1944 and 1945 and in 1948 a senior headquarters official of the Committee of Information (the “KI” was a short-lived merger of the KGB with the GRU, Soviet military intelligence), in which he assessed the possible maximum damage done to Soviet intelligence by six defectors, listing the Soviet intelligence officers and American sources known to them and, thus, likely exposed to American security agencies.  One of the defectors was Whittaker Chambers and the list of those he was thought to have exposed or could have exposed included Alger Hiss, listed by his real name and by his cover name in 1948, “Leonard.” 

            This will not do for Knight.  First she insists that Vassiliev misdated the memo and that it is part of a 1949 report.  It isn’t.  It is a stand-alone document signed by Gorsky and dated December 1948 as any review of the notebooks shows.  There is no evidence that the dating is incorrect.  But why would Knight have preferred it if the document had been dated 1949 rather than 1948?  Because she could then put forth a fantasy to explain away the identification of Hiss.  Gorsky, she claims without a speck of evidence, was making it up, writing not on his knowledge and the records of the KI but based on “information from reports by his agents who were following closely the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the Hiss case,” from 1948 and 1949.  The notion that a senior Soviet intelligence official got his information about who was and who was not a Soviet source from American newspaper reports of the Hiss trial or HUAC hearings rather than the readily at hand records of Soviet intelligence services boggles the mind.  Moreover, why would Gorsky have written a memo exaggerating the damage done to Soviet intelligence by adding to the lists of those exposed by defectors the names of people who were not, in fact, Soviet sources?  It is difficult enough to be the bearer of truthful bad news to one’s superiors, but to make up bad news is an act of near bureaucratic suicide. 

            But there is more.  Although Knight conceals it from TLS readers, two other senior KI officers, Petr Fedotov and Konstantin Kukin, in a report (also dated December 1948) to the chairman of the KI wrote about “our former agents who were betrayed by Chambers (A. Hiss, D. Hiss, Wadleigh, Pigman, Reno).”  Does anyone really believe that three senior Soviet intelligence officers in reports to their agency’s chief identified Soviet agents from American newspaper stories rather than agency records?  Additionally another KGB memo, one from 1950, noted that the Soviet GRU agent “Leonard,” identified as a senior American State Department official, had just been convicted in an American trial.  The only senior American diplomat convicted of an espionage-related crime in 1950 was Alger Hiss. 

            The evidence from myriad sources—eyewitnesses and written documents, public testimony and private correspondence, fellow spies and Soviet intelligence officers, decrypted cables and long-closed archives—is overwhelming and conclusive. Alger Hiss worked for the GRU 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 American Communist Party underground leaders knew him as a member of the Soviet apparatus. Several of his fellow agents, including Noel Field, Hede Massing, Charles Kramer, Victor Perlo, and Harold Glasser, identified him as an agent in confidential communications that made their way back to Moscow. And the Soviet intelligence agency’s own damage assessments confirm that senior officials in Moscow knew that Alger Hiss was an agent. 

            Knight’s mistakes and misstatements do not end with her outlandish treatment of the Hiss case.  She claims that Soviet espionage “in terms of the actual secrets Moscow reaped, was often unremarkable.” This assertion is flatly wrong.  For example, Soviet atomic espionage was very successful, providing the Soviets with highly detailed information on the construction of the pure uranium bomb and, more importantly, the secret of the implosion trigger that allowed the building of a plutonium bomb.  The information from Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, Alan Nunn May, Engelbert Broda, Russell McNutt and David Greenglass allowed the Soviets to construct a bomb much sooner and at only a fraction of the investment in industrial resources than would otherwise have been necessary.

            Another Soviet spy, William Weisband, disclosed to the USSR that the ultra-secret National Security Agency was deciphering Soviet military logistics radio traffic and was tracking the movement of Soviet military supplies in real time.  The Soviets promptly adopted more sophisticated codes, and the United States lost this access and, consequently, missed entirely the huge military supply effort in early 1950 that supplied North Korea with the military means of invading the South.   

            The harvest of high tech military information by the espionage apparatus supervised by Julius Rosenberg was also remarkable.  Steve Usdin in an article in the Summer 2009 issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies has identified the stolen military secrets to include the AN/CPQ proximity fuse (one of America’s greatest military advantages), the SCR-384 radar for locating aircraft, the AN/APS-2 radar for locating surface ships, the AN/APS-12 fire-control radar, the AN-CRT-4 sonobuoy, the Westinghouse 19A jet engine (America’s first jet engine) and the plans for the P80 Shooting Start, the first American combat jet.  One could go on, but suffice to say that Knight’s assessment of the information as “unremarkable” is preposterous.

            Knight strangely attempts to separate the KGB from its Stalin-era past, referring to the “agencies” that preceded the KGB.  But the foreign intelligence agency that was under the successive jurisdiction of the Cheka, GPU, OGPU, GUGB, NKVD, NKGB, MGB, MVD, and KI — and that became the First Main Directorate of the KGB — was really the same agency under different names..  Knight scathingly denounces us for even referring to the KGB.  As we noted in the introduction to the book (Knight appears to have missed this), we stated that we would uniformly use the familiar “KGB” rather than confuse readers by using these multiple acronyms to refer to different incarnations of the same agency.  Knight also declares that these Stalin-era agencies were crippled at times by Stalin’s purge of his security services and notes that most station chief in the late 30s were recalled and shot.  But what Knight does not tell TLS readers is that Spies discusses in detail the recall and execution of the chiefs of the American stations and many of their senior officers and the subsequent crippling of Soviet intelligence in the United States from late 1938 to mid-1941.  Readers can judge for themselves the ethics of appropriating information in a book under review, presenting it as one’s own, and not telling readers that the book in question covers the point in detail. 

            Knight opens her review by likening Soviet espionage operations to a Coen brothers spy comedy “Burn After Reading.”  This serves her immediate purpose of denigrating information in Spies that she wishes not to hear, but TLS readers should realize that the KGB was not a comic organization, its practitioners were deadly serious, and while it had its share of failures, it also had signal successes. A historian whose notion of how espionage works in the real world is drawn from comic movies is hardly a reliable guide to its practitioners.

            Knight denounces Spies for citing Soviet “spy-masters,” who claimed to produce actual intelligence.  First, the expression “spy-masters,” despite Knight’s quotation marks, never occurs in our book.  It is Knight’s invention, to buttress her conceit that the KGB’s officers never recruited real spies, but only “chased after left-wingers and Communist sympathizers who had little useful information to offer and often did not even realize that they were the targets of Soviet intelligence.”  Her charge is silly and betrays ignorance of how the KGB handled recruitment and the elaborate procedures designed to insure that officers did not invent sources or exaggerate their information. 

            Knight states that we “were apparently so eager to make use of the [Vassiliev’s] notebooks that they neglected to ask Vassiliev some important questions.”  Not only did we question Vassiliev closely about the provenance of the notebooks, but we also convened a private conference in Washington in 2006 during which experienced historians, archivists, and intelligence professionals examined the notebooks and questioned Vassiliev directly about how they were prepared.  These experts unanimously agreed with our assessment that the material was genuine.  Further, in 2008 we distributed copies of the notebooks to five espionage history specialists who used them to prepare articles published in the Summer 2009 issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies.  As experienced researchers with extensive knowledge of the topics on which they wrote, these specialists (Max Holland, Eduard Mark, John Fox, Gregg Herken, and Steve Usdin) would easily have spotted evidence of forgery, or some evidence of inconsistencies that would have raised questions about the notebooks’ provenance.  But they did not, and they, too, have linked their professional standing to a judgment that the notebooks are authentic.  So too has the Journal of Cold War Studies and its chief editor, Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard Project for Cold War Studies.  Kramer, easily the leading authority in the scholarly world on the Soviet-era archives, provides an editorial note in the June issue discussing his interrogation of Vassiliev in 2006 over the provenance of the notebooks and the reasons for his positive assessment of their authenticity.  All of this Knight hides from TLS readers.

            At first Knight insinuates that Vassiliev’s notebooks are fakes, doubting that he could have shipped them from Russia.  As usual, she has no evidence.  She also finds that his production of 1,115 pages of transcriptions and summary chapters over a two-year period "strains credulity."  Perhaps Ms. Knight writes very slowly but if Vassiliev worked on the project for as few as four days a week for forty weeks, he would have to take only about four pages of notes a day to fill up his notebooks.  Hardly Stakhanovinite labor!  Yet, after making these insinuations, Knight then agrees “that the notes were taken from authentic SVR archival files.” (SVR being the Russian successor to the First Main Directorate of the KGB.)  She goes on to assert, without presenting any evidence, that Vassiliev’s summaries have “lots of omissions.”  Since summaries, by definition, leave out some details, and since Knight has no idea of what was omitted, she might have the decency to acknowledge that comparing Vassiliev’s summaries to the complete copies of some documents that have been released by the SVR indicates that he made very careful and pertinent summaries.

            But Knight is apparently incapable of reading English very carefully.  She claims, “the entire documentation for Spies comes from Vassiliev.”  His notebooks are certainly our chief source, but we go to great lengths to integrate information from the several thousand deciphered KGB cables of the NSA’s Venona project, scores of FBI investigatory files, the detailed information  provided by the American diplomat and KGB agent Noel Field to Hungarian Communist security officers in the 1950s regarding his work with his fellow spy Alger Hiss in the mid-1930s, court and congressional hearing testimony by former Soviet spies such as Whittaker Chambers, as well as British MI5 reports on suspected Soviet spies in the British atomic program  and British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) decoding of Communist International messages. 

            The deciphered Venona messages released in the mid-1990s referred to a Soviet source on the atomic facilities at Oak Ridge, code name “Persian,” but the messages did not indicate the real name behind the cover name.  Spies provides the real name, Russell McNutt.  Knight airily dismisses this information: “Why does it matter?”  Most historians (Knight excepted) care about historical details.  She also neglects to tell TLS readers that it was Julius Rosenberg who recruited McNutt, a datum of more than passing interest to anyone who knows anything about the controversy over his activities on behalf of the KGB.

            On two personal notes, Knight belittles our knowledge of archival matters.  One of us is employed full time as a historian/archivist acquiring new documentary collections for the Library of Congress.  We were the first American historians to have access to the records of the Communist International and the American Communist Party after the collapse of the USSR and authored two volumes of Yale University Press’s documentary series, the Annals of Communism.  One of us, John Haynes, initiated the successful project to microfilm the American Communist Party’s records, long hidden in a Moscow archive, and make its 435,000 pages of invaluable historical record available without restriction at a half-dozen American research institutions. Haynes was also the American historical advisor to the International Committee to Computerize the Comintern Archive, a project that resulted in the digitization of over one-million pages of Communist International records that are now available at European and American research institutions.  In contrast, Amy Knight has never edited a published collection of archival documents.

            Knight also implies that Vassiliev was motivated by greed for money.  If that were his chief motive, then his decision to associate with us makes no sense at all.  Our books (fifteen in total) are largely published by university presses that require peer review of manuscripts and they are notoriously cheap with advances and royalties.  Further, Vassiliev gave, not sold, his notebooks to the Library of Congress and agreed to make the scans, transcriptions, and translations freely available to anyone without charge.  Interested readers can consult and download the material on which our book is based on line at   Historians and researchers all over the world have already downloaded hundreds of copies of the notebooks.  We are entirely confident that they will find them, as we have, a rich and invaluable resource for understanding Soviet intelligence in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. 

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