Chasing Spies

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The long history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover is studded with serious questions about the Bureau’s professionalism and accountability. Revelations in the recent cases of Wen Ho Lee, Robert Hannsen, and Timothy McVeigh illustrate these misgivings. In Chasing Spies, Athan Theoharis, historian and perhaps the foremost authority on the FBI’s record, raises urgent new uncertainties about the Bureau’s behavior—and about the prospects for giving the FBI expanded powers of surveillance during the current national emergency. Mr. Theoharis here redefines the politics of the World War II and cold war eras, moving the debate beyond the narrow perspective triggered by the release of KGB records and intercepted Soviet consular reports (the Venona messages). The intriguing issue, he argues, is not the effectiveness of Soviet espionage activities as supported by the new evidence. Nor is it the long-standing charges of “softness toward communism” in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The real issue, he says, is the failure of the FBI to apprehend and convict Soviet agents. Based on meticulous research in FBI files, Chasing Spies uncovers the FBI’s role in the most important espionage cases of the cold war years. The book shows how secrecy immunized FBI operations from critical scrutiny and enabled FBI officials to mask their counterintelligence failures while promoting a politics of McCarthyism.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Recent events -- such as the failed Wen Ho Lee espionage case, the discovery of the double agent Robert Hanssen, and the bumbling of the Timothy McVeigh prosecution evidence -- have cast doubts on the performance of the FBI. Here, noted FBI historian Athan Theoharis takes a look at the bureau's questionable conduct during the Cold War years. Why did the FBI have such little success in catching Soviet agents operating on U.S. soil? And why was J. Edgar Hoover more interested in his own personal vendettas than in protecting the country?
Ellen Schrecker
No historian knows the records as well as Athan Theoharis...a much-needed corrective to the contemporary overinflation of the significance of Soviet espionage.
Tom Wicker
An important book.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Athan Theoharis calmly explores a major paradox of the Cold War: that J. Edgar Hoover, for all his fulminations against communism, failed to apprehend and convict Soviet spies busily at work in the United States. Chasing Spies greatly illuminates this notable FBI counterintelligence failure.
Nadine Strossen
Startling.... He provides new insights into the dark history of the McCarthy era.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
...[A] valuable addition to the literature on the FBI.
Political Science Quaterly
Theoharis's descriptions and analyses of espionage cases are thorough and fair...
Publishers Weekly
Marquette University historian Theoharis (J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime), a leading scholar of the FBI, draws deeply on internal documents to argue that often-illegal FBI investigations subverted the agency's mission of combating Communist espionage while providing extensive background information for McCarthy, HUAC and others. Cold War historians have concerned themselves with the FDR and Truman administrations' putative "softness toward Communism," which, Theoharis argues, is unfortunate for two reasons. One, it's not true: the FBI budget skyrocketed from $5 million to $90 million between 1936 and 1952, and Roosevelt's Attorney General Francis Biddle approved all of Hoover's wiretap requests; Hoover himself assured Roosevelt in 1941 that the FBI had Soviet agents "under constant scrutiny." Second, the argument fails to consider the FBI's various failures in capturing and convicting Soviet spies, its use of illegal wiretaps, the transcripts of which would be inadmissible in a trial, and its role in the "creation of a culture of lawlessness." Spies were uncovered by Venona Project codebreakers and the confessions of Elizabeth Bentley, but the FBI failed to build cases even then, argues Theoharis. And when the major COMRAP investigation documented merely "that American Communists were Communists, not Soviet spies," FBI attention shifted from espionage to influence not just in government, but everywhere from Hollywood to Colorado classrooms. Though the title suggests a bracing pace and a revelation-filled read, Theoharis's book is more of a studied analysis that seeks to paint a better portrait of the FBI's crucial hidden role in generating the culture of suspicions and blacklists that dominated McCarthyism. (Apr. 5) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
We have thrilled to the revelations about Soviet espionage in the United States that have appeared in such recent books as Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood (LJ 11/15/98) and John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr's Venona (LJ 4/15/99). However, author Theoharis, who has spent the past 30 years investigating the activities of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI (see, for instance, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover), insists that we know only a part of the story. Much of the information from both Soviet and American archives has been heavily censored by their respective governments. Reflecting decades of research, Theoharis argues that Hoover's FBI was much more interested in promoting an anti-Communist agenda, which would enhance the credibility of the agency and its political influence, than in countering Soviet espionage. Theoharis presents chilling evidence of illegal FBI wiretapping and other surveillance activities none of which would have withstood legal challenges in its unending effort to identify Communist sympathizers and fellow travelers. From Hollywood actors to Martin Luther King Jr. to political opponents of Washington politicians the FBI considered them all potential enemies of the state. Theoharis's book is an outstanding contribution to the growing historical literature on the Cold War and a potent warning to anyone who thinks we have heard the last word on the Cold War we haven't. Heartily recommended for all collections. Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Basing his work on careful research of FBI files, Theoharis' (history, Marquette U.) reveals the role of the FBI in the most important espionage of the Cold War years. He raises a number of new questions about their operations in the past, and concerns for present-day policymakers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
The author of J. Edgar Hoover, Sex, and Crime (1995) turns his attention here to the FBI chief's political attitudes, making him look like Don Quixote: correct somehow, but ultimately chasing windmills. Theoharis (History/Marquette Univ.) argues that although Hoover was incompetent when it came to catching Soviet spies, his paranoia about the communist threat to America in the middle of the 20th century was valid. There were many Soviet agents operating in the US under Hoover's watch, the author suggests; Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, who initially reined him in, weren't eager to start a Red Scare, but they also underestimated the power of spies working in the federal government. Hoover managed to catch wind of espionage through a variety of means, especially the Venona Project, a code-breaking operation that gave the US access to communications between Moscow and its agents. (Theoharis relies on redacted transcripts from the project and recently released KGB records for much of his documentation.) The bureau failed to fully exploit the project's findings, however, often dithering until real breaks came along. Theoharis argues that the FBI might never have learned of many spies if crucial Soviet operatives hadn't defected and handed over intelligence information on a silver platter. Moreover, even when the FBI caught the culprits, it often failed to convict them in court because the bureau tended to uncover its information via illegal wiretaps and break-ins. The Rosenbergs were an unusual case: the bureau was able to prosecute them on espionage charges because their co-conspirators testified against them. That these co-conspirators had confessed after being presented with illegallyobtained information went conveniently unmentioned in court. Hoover demonstrated that little hard evidence was necessary in the pursuit of domestic communism. The stage was set for a senator from Wisconsin. A fine debunking of the expertise of law enforcement authorities.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781566634205
  • Publisher: Ivan R Dee
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.64 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Athan Theoharis is professor of history at Marquette University. His many books include The Boss, From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Spying on Americans, Beyond the Hiss Case, Seeds of Repression, and The Yalta Myths. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Soviet
Espionage Threat

The Venona Project messages provide invaluable insights into Soviet intelligence activities in the United States and the covert relationship between KGB agents and American Communists. They provide conclusive evidence of Soviet espionage operations and the willingness of American Communists to spy on behalf of the Soviet Union or to persuade sensitively positioned federal employees to steal classified documents or provide information about U.S. government decisions. These espionage activities gave Soviet officials invaluable intelligence about the wartime Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project and other technological breakthroughs; about U.S. and British negotiating strategies and plans for postwar Europe, including the texts of President Roosevelt's communications with British Prime Minister Churchill; about those Office of Strategic Services (OSS) employees who were suspected Soviet agents or sympathizers; and, as early as 1948, about Washington's successful breaking of Soviet coded consular messages under the Venona Project.

    The deciphered Soviet consular messages also provide fascinating insights into the parochialism and paranoia that shaped Moscow's intelligence activities. The KGB's obsessive secrecy and monolithic intolerance led it to monitor the activities of American Trotskyites, emigré Russian monarchists and Social Democrats, and ethnic Americans who sharply criticized Soviet leaders and their domestic and foreign policies. These reports about the Soviet Union's ideological enemies had little effect on American security interests. AmericanTrotskyites and Russian monarchists enjoyed minuscule followings within the United States. Their lack of influence on U.S. policy or on developments within the Soviet Union make the KGB's spying on these individuals' activities at best silly. KGB agents' reports on the plans and objectives of the Democratic National Committee, or of Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey, or of American congressional committees, or of the commentary of syndicated columnist Walter Lippmann only serve to document the mind-set of individuals operating in a closed society. Much of what the KGB reported to Moscow as sensitive information was available to any astute reader of the American press.

    But the Venona messages do tell us much about the motivation of American Communists and about other sources whom KGB agents recruited, whether or not they were employed in sensitive federal agencies. For example, much of the statistical information about wartime U.S. industrial production and troop levels reported by the so-called Silvermaster spy ring—federal employees recruited by Nathan Gregory Silvermaster to pilfer classified documents and information—did not seriously damage U.S. security interests or necessarily advance Soviet interests at U.S. expense. The essence of this information was officially conveyed to the Soviet Union under the wartime lend-lease assistance program, or in response to specific requests of the Soviet Government Purchasing Commission, the liaison Soviet agency stationed in the United States to promote delivery of military-related materials under lend-lease. Since the United States and the Soviet Union were wartime allies, the reported information confirmed U.S. capabilities to wage war effectively against the Axis powers. In contrast to the advance intelligence that the British Communist Donald Maclean reported about the policy priorities of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at wartime summit conferences, or the scientific data about the Manhattan Project provided by the British Communist Klaus Fuchs, the information about U.S. industrial productivity and military strength provided by the Silvermaster group—the numbers being overwhelming—might have deterred Soviet officials from pursuing an aggressive negotiating strategy. American spies may have aimed to further Soviet interests and betray their own nation, but the effect of their actions compromised neither long-term nor immediate U.S. security interests—only the secrecy that American intelligence officials and the White House valued in formulating national security policy.

    The deciphered Soviet consular messages also proved to be crucial for U.S. counterintelligence operations. When individuals with code names were identified, in some cases as early as 1948-1949, the FBI (and the NSA) was able to determine that Donald Maclean, Morris Cohen, Klans Fuchs, Harry Gold, Julius Rosenberg, David Greenglass, Theodore Hall, Judith Coplon, Joseph York, and William Weisband were KGB recruits. Yet this intelligence breakthrough, which compromised a series of Soviet espionage operations, did not necessarily produce convictions. Hall was never indicted, and Maclean and Cohen escaped arrest and conviction, having been forewarned by another KGB agent, Harold "Kim" Philby, that they were the subjects of an inquiry. The FBI did arrest Gold, Rosenberg, Greenglass, and Coplon—aborting Coplon's ongoing espionage activities and ensuring the conviction of Gold, Rosenberg, and Greenglass for their wartime atomic espionage activities. The identification of York enabled FBI officials to pressure him, first, into admitting espionage, and then to identifying Weisband as a co-participant. U.S. intelligence officials exploited this information to suspend Weisband from his position in the Armed Forces Security Agency, where he was reporting to the Soviets on the progress of the Venona Project. But Weisband denied having committed espionage and was indicted and convicted in 1950 only for contempt (refusing to testify before a federal grand jury) and not for espionage.

    As useful as they are, the deciphered Venona messages constitute an incomplete record of Soviet espionage operations in the United States. NSA analysts successfully deciphered only a "tiny fraction" of the intercepted messages. And not all reports of Soviet agents were relayed by cable through the Soviet consulates. Other reports were conveyed by couriers, through diplomatic mail, through the regular mail disguised in microdots, or by Soviet officials traveling to the Soviet Union. Furthermore, some of the code names of sources and supervisors cannot be conclusively identified, or the NSA identifications are not reliable.

    Allen Weinstein, Alexander Vassiliev, John Haynes, and Harvey Klehr claim to have uncovered additional evidence of Soviet espionage activities dating from the 1930s and extending through the early cold war years—Weinstein and Vassiliev through their privileged access to the closed KGB records deposited in Moscow, Haynes and Klehr through their research into congressional, presidential, and FBI records which they claim enable them to flush out the tantalizing disclosures of the deciphered Venona messages.

    The promise of Weinstein and Vassiliev's research derives from their access to KGB records relating to some of the most hotly contested cold war internal security cases. Much of their documentation, however, does not record Soviet espionage activities directed at the U.S. government. Many of their research discoveries also border on the banal—recounting Martha Dodd's actions as a courtesan, Boris Morros's successful scamming of the wealthy American Communist Alfred Stern to invest $130,000 in a money-losing music production business, and Congressman Samuel Dickstein's offer to Soviet agents to provide sensitive information in return for a monthly stipend of $2,500 (the Soviets agreed to pay $1,250 and never received the promised information). With two exceptions, Weinstein and Vassiliev's documentation of Soviet espionage activities merely supplements the Venona revelations, adding detail but no new examples of Soviet espionage operations and recruited sources. The two exceptions involve evidence about Alger Hiss's recruitment as a Soviet agent in the 1930s, and about a Soviet espionage operation aimed at the State Department in the mid-1930s.

    To recapitulate the story briefly: In December 1948, ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers abruptly changed his public testimony of August that year to charge that Alger Hiss had during the 1930s provided him with classified State Department documents. This espionage relationship, Chambers said, continued at least until April 1938, when Chambers defected from the Communist party. Because Chambers had earlier accused Hiss only of being a member of a Communist cell whose purpose was to promote Communist infiltration of the New Deal, not espionage, and because Chambers had dated his own break from the Communist party to 1937, his changed testimony raised questions about the reliability of his account. In grand jury testimony, and during his two trials in 1949 and thereafter, Hiss affirmed his own innocence, but he was indicted for and convicted of perjury. In their book, supposedly based on new evidence from KGB files, Weinstein and Vassiliev reconstruct the history of the Hiss-Chambers case, confirming Hiss's guilt and the veracity of Chambers's account of his espionage relationship with Hiss during the 1930s. But the authors' sole source for their treatment of the Hiss-Chambers case is not the KGB records but Weinstein's 1978 book Perjury. In a footnote, Weinstein and Vassiliev briefly note their failure to uncover any KGB records documenting their long narrative on the Hiss-Chambers case: "Since [Soviet] military intelligence (GRU) archives were not available for this or any other book, we have been able to further clarify Alger Hiss's role as a Soviet agent only through his occasional appearances in NKVD/NKGB archives cited in [their book's] Chapters 1, 4, and 12."

    Will closed GRU records confirm the Hiss-Chambers espionage relationship and the contention that Chambers was a recruited GRU agent? Will these records confirm that Chambers recruited Hiss as a GRU source during the 1930s, receiving from him classified State Department documents? Will they further confirm that Chambers defected in April 1938? In fact, we do not know—nor do Weinstein and Vassiliev—what the closed GRU records may or may not confirm. It is dishonest for Weinstein and Vassiliev to imply, first, that their reconstruction of the Hiss-Chambers case is based on new evidence from KGB files, and, second, that when accessible, GRU records will confirm this as fact.

    While the accessible KGB records do not confirm Hiss's espionage activities, they do record a previously unsuspected and potentially significant Soviet espionage operation. In 1934 the KGB successfully recruited a sensitive State Department source, code named Willie/Daniel/Albert. This source provided the KGB with seemingly invaluable intelligence that included "numerous ambassadorial, consular, and military attaché reports from Europe and the Far East" and, more important, "transcripts of recorded conversations Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his assistants had with foreign ambassadors."

    Weinstein and Vassiliev, however, do not even summarily describe the contents of these various transmissions, and thus we are left in the dark as to whether U.S. foreign policy interests and the conduct of difficult negotiations with the Soviet Union were thereby compromised. Just as surprisingly, the authors seem indifferent either to the length of Willie/Daniel/Albert's service as a KGB source in the State Department or how Willie/Daniel/ Albert could deliver to his KGB handler "transcripts of recorded conversations." Had he bugged the office of the secretary of state? Or listened in on and transcribed the secretary's and assistant secretaries' conversations with foreign ambassadors from an adjoining office? How long did he serve as a KGB source, and were his espionage activities coordinated with other KGB sources recruited later in the 1930s?

    Despite having discovered the Willie/Daniel/Albert espionage operation through their research in KGB records, Weinstein and Vassiliev show little interest in its scope and its relationship to other Soviet intelligence operations aimed at the State Department. This is puzzling, particularly since the authors quote a KGB report characterizing as "precious" the information that Willie/ Daniel/Albert provided. Owing to the quality of his information, the KGB station chief concluded "we consider inexpedient any further penetration into the State Department either by legal or illegal operations. The task is to develop the agents we already have." Willie's annual retainer of $15,000 (approximately $190,000 in 2000 dollars) offers further evidence of how much the KGB valued his importance, as do the KGB's monthly stipends to "two other" recruited State Department sources working with Willie: $500 to Daniel and $400 to Albert. (Combining the two monthly stipends and annualizing them would be approximately $14,000 in 2000 dollars.) KGB officials, however, later discovered that their contact with Willie/Daniel/Albert, a "free lance journalist" code-named Leo, had falsely claimed to have received information from Daniel and Albert, then pocketed the monthly stipends. Leo's sole source, KGB agents established, was actually Willie. Nonetheless, even after discovering Leo's scam, KGB officials simply discontinued the monthly stipends and continued to "rely on 'Leo' for several more years as a paid agent handling the genuine 'Willie,' though it did not inform him about others at State subsequently recruited."

    Another KGB report confirms Willie's importance. In this report Willie advised his KGB handlers that U.S. ambassador to Moscow William Bullitt had complained that "the contents of his reports" to Washington were known to Moscow officials. In response, an assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull questioned Willie "about the possible leak of these reports," then charged Willie "with checking the employees and investigating the department"—seemingly confirming Willie's high-level position in the State Department at the time. Surprisingly, Weinstein and Vassiliev do not pursue this matter. Consistent with their downplaying of the Willie espionage operation, they do not even list Willie and Leo in their "Cast of Characters" recruited by the KGB as "American Agents and Sources."

    Yet the Willie-Leo operation (as sketchily described by Weinstein and Vassiliev) offers invaluable insights into Soviet espionage operations. On the one hand, Willie's annual stipend and Leo's dishonesty in pocketing the monthly stipends to Daniel and Albert confirm that Soviet espionage operations depended on mercenaries—contradicting Weinstein and Vassiliev's unqualified assertion that Soviet agents "normally paid" individuals employed in defense industries for information, but that this was "not a practice followed with Moscow's more ideologically driven Washington sources of political or governmental data." Continuing, Weinstein and Vassiliev contend that "Paid [Soviet] informants worked mainly for U.S. defense-related industries, while many of the [ideologically motivated] 'believers' rose steadily through the ranks of the Roosevelt administration's bureaucracy. Ideological reliability and access to top-secret scientific information, however, converged at times, most notably during the Second World War." The Willie and Leo cases, like those of Boris Morros, Congressman Dickstein, and even Nathan Silvermaster, challenge this distinction between mercenaries and "believers."

    Because other scholars cannot research the KGB records made accessible to Weinstein and Vassiliev, the significance of the Willie-Leo operation cannot be fully understood. Nor do John Haynes and Harvey Klehr extend our understanding of Soviet espionage activities. Their research into congressional, presidential, and FBI records does not add substantially to what can be learned from simply reading the deciphered Venona messages, reprinted in Robert Benson and Michael Warner's Venona or accessible on the Internet. As in the case of Weinstein and Vassiliev, Haynes and Klehr's "new" information often turns out to be nothing more than a priori speculations about the contents of deciphered and undeciphered Venona messages.

    For example, they report Elizabeth Bentley's statements to the FBI—in the month following her November 1945 defection—that in 1944, Roosevelt White House aide Lauchlin Currie had warned Soviet intelligence agents that the United States was on the verge of breaking the Soviet code. Haynes and Klehr speculate that Currie "may well have heard an overly optimistic report sent to the White House about the early Venona effort." The Soviets, Haynes and Klehr continue, "appear to have learned of the existence of the Venona Project within a year and a half of its origin."


Excerpted from Chasing Spies by Athan Theoharis. Copyright © 2002 by Athan Theoharis. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Part 1 Acknowledgments vii Part 2 Preface: The Hazards of Research into Soviet and American Secrets 3 Part 3 The Soviet Espionage Threat 15 Part 4 The Failure of U.S. Counterintelligence 34 Part 5 The Comintern Apparatus Investigation 62 Part 6 Politicizing Justice: The Hiss and Remington Indictments 110 Part 7 The Politics of Counterintelligence 139 Part 8 The Politics of Morality 170 Part 9 The Perils of Partisanship 198 Part 10 The Lessons of History 235 Part 11 Notes 251 Part 12 Index 295
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