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Special Tasks.

No personal memoir from the fallen Soviet Union has generated such outrage among historians and academics in the West as former KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov's new Special Tasks. The focus of this outpouring is a single chapter, a mere 48 pages out of 509, which contains sensational charges of espionage against some of the century's greatest nuclear physicists, especially J. Robert Oppenheimer. Time magazine bought a huge extract of the book and ran it in April under the provocative title, "The Oppenheimer Files." Then, the backlash set in: "Book Saying U.S. Scientists Aided Soviet Atom Bomb Is Faulted," declared The Washington Post; even the Russian Intelligence Service, which replaced the KGB, moved quickly to denounce this revision of history by Sudoplatov, an old Stalinist hatchet man.

Without a stitch of official documentation, Sudoplatov boldly states that Oppenheimer, who built the American A-bomb, and his colleagues Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard knowingly allowed nuclear secrets to pass from their highly sensitive U.S. laboratories to Moscow.

Within days of the book's publication this spring, historians and physicists hacked away at Sudoplatov's evidence until his case against the physicists is as bare as a Stalinist prosecutor's charge against a kulak. His accusations rest, it soon became clear, only on his say-so and on recollections of his short time spent in charge of the KGB's atomic research at the end of World War II.

Oral history is of course important, and especially so in the former Soviet Union, where so many documents were deliberately destroyed, falsified, or lost during the upheavals of the second Russian revolution. Any high-ranking official who comes forward to talk about a closed period like this one is a find for historians. Sudoplatov gives us his serial killer's perspective on Trotsky's assassination, on Raoul Wallenberg's death, and on the 1934 murder of Leningrad party leader Sergei Kirov. He also makes his own personal case for the rehabilitation of Lavrenti Beria by suggesting that Beria, Stalin's KGB chief, was not as evil as others have portrayed him.

But if the oral historians want to rewrite hostory and accuse famous dead scientists of treason, as is the case here, the charges must stand up to scrutiny. Otherwise, people will conclude the book is simply self-serving, either written to enhance the reputation of the author, or to make it more marketable, or both. In the case of Special Tasks, the offending chapter is a nasty smear that causes the entire book to fail even as oral history because Sudoplatov's voice is discredited. As such the book is a cautionary tale for publishers contemplating new Soviet memoirs--if they care to heed it.

Now 87, Sudoplatov is an assassin who joined the KGB at the age of 14 and eventually rose to be deputy chief of foreign intelligence. Along the way, he became a specialist in "wet affairs"-- murder, terrorism, and sabotage. He personally eliminated or arranged to dispose of as many members of the anti-Soviet opposition as Stalin decided were a hindrance to his dictatorship, including Trotsky. He remains a believer in the dream of communism and attributes its demise to what he regards as the lesser men who followed Stalin.

And yet the reader is invited to take seriously, and on trust, everything he says about the KGB having many more moles inside the Manhattan Project than anyone ever imagined. Here is a sample of the oddities, absurdities, and inconsistencies associated with those charges.

* Fermi was an Italian physicist, a refugee from Mussolini's fascism, who demonstrated the world's first nuclear chain reaction in a squash court underneath the University of Chicago's football stadium on December 2, 1942. In a well-known coded message, Fermi's boss, Arthur Compton, immediately rang James Conant, the president of Harvard and then head of the U.S. atomic project, to relay the stunning news: "The Italian navigator has just landed in the New World. He arrived sooner than he expected."

In Sudoplatov's book there is an almost identical message, but the person who sends it is the atomic spy Bruno Pontecorvo (who defected to the Soviet Union in 1950), and the message goes to Moscow, not to Harvard. Could this be the real scoop? No. In fact, Pontecorvo wasn't even near Chicago at the time. He was then working for an oil-prospecting firm in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and began his atomic energy research only in 1943.

* As for the poor Leo Szilard, the bumptious Hungarian refugee physicist, he is accused by Sudoplatov of supplying the Soviets "vital information" from the Manhattan Project laboratories in Los Alamos. But Szilard never worked in Los Alamos. He worked for Fermi in Chicago.

* Because Oppenheimer was the director of Los Alamos--and because he was a well-known Communist sympathizer before the war--the charge against him is the most serious of Sudoplatov's and is to many the most credible. (Hence Time's melodramatic headline.) Certainly, Oppenheimer had embraced left-wing causes on California campuses before the war and had married the window of a member of the International Brigade, a man who had been killed in action in Spain in 1937. Moreover, Oppenheimer's security clearance was rescinded during the McCarthyite witch-hunts because of his past associations.

But the leap from such activities to spying, which Sudoplatov alleges, is unfair. No secret information coming out of Los Alamos had Oppenheimer's name on it, but Sudoplatov reveals with a nudge and a wink that the KGB gave Oppenheimer a codename: Star. A codename as evidence that Oppenheimer was a spy? In all secret services, principals have codenames, including the president of the United States.

Further on, Sudoplatov "reveals" that Oppenheimer was a soft touch for Moscow because as a concerned scientist he thought that a nuclear arms race could be prevented by spreading atomic secrets. According to this view, every country could have a bomb if they wanted one, and the result would be military stalemate.

Oppenheimer and others did promote international sharing of atomic information--but only after they had built the bomb. During the war, Oppenheimer resisted approaches from Communist sympathizers to improve scientific cooperation between Russia and America and in fact reported those contacts to U.S. authorities.

Sudoplatov accuses Oppenheimer of allowing Soviet moles to sift through his and everyone else's secret files, and it is true that Oppenheimer successfully resisted work at Los Alamos being "compartmentalized." But Oppenheimer's argument, which worked for the U.S. project, was that everyone needed to know what the others were doing if the bomb was going to be built before Germany's. Such an argument does not make Oppenheimer a spy--if anything, it affirms his management wisdom.

In one instance of Oppenheimer's alleged espionage activities, Sudoplatov writes that before the Manhattan project began, at lunch in San Francisco with a Soviet agent, Oppenheimer revealed the existence of Einstein's famous 1939 letter to President Roosevelt warning of the military aspects of atomic fission and of the possibility of Germany making a bomb first.

The charge is that Oppenheimer was passing a great state secret in order to persuade the Kremlin to take the atomic bomb seriously and build one. Phooey. Here's what happened: The Americans had finally embarked on atomic work after a second letter to Roosevelt from Einstein in March 1940, and Roosevelt ordered the immediate classification of all research material on atomic matters. The Soviets soon began to notice the absence of Western research in the standard journals, and they deduced for themselves that censorship had been imposed because of the military implications of the work. Moscow did not need Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard, or anyone else to figure that one out.

But what is most disturbing about this book is the way the project was born. Because of his close association with Beria of the KGB, Sudoplatov was arrested and jailed for 15 years immediately after Beria's fall in 1953. In 1982, out of prison and seeking rehabilitation, Sudoplatov appealed to Yuri Andropov, detailing his work on atomic espionage and requesting that he be properly recognized and rewarded.

At the same time Sudoplatov was working on his memoirs, and by 1992 he was ready to publish. His son, Anatoli, gave an outline to Jerrold Schecter, who had been Moscow bureau chief for Time and was instrumental in the acquisition of Khruschev's memoirs. Schecter and his wife Leona, a literary agent, were to become special editorial aides to Sudoplatov.

"When we explained that most of the names in the outline were unfamiliar to Western readers," the Schecters write in their introduction to Special Tasks, "Anatoli responded by showing us his father's original appeal for rehabilitation, which contained the names of Trotsky, Oppenheimer, Fermi, Fuchs, and Bohr...others poured out...the dam burst on long-held intelligence secrets."

What the Schecters seem to have done, without any further documentation and relying on Sudoplatov's say-so, was to assist in the publication of the now notorious Chapter Seven, uncompromisingly entitled "Atomic Spies."

The Schecters are defiant. They point out that spies don't file documents for the benefit of historians. And, in a Washington Post op-ed, they add that "the more successful and sensitive an operation, the fewer the records." All of this is undoubtedly true, but at the same time, they promise, "Documents proving Sudoplatov's oral history are in the Moscow archives and eventually will emerge."

How can they be so sure? The Russian Intelligence Service seems to have gotten to the archives before them and has called the book "a mosaic of truthful events, semi-truths, and open inventions." In a May statement the agency said, "Allegations that Soviet intelligence received information on the atomic bomb directly from such noted scientists as Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer, and others do not correspond to reality."

Sudoplatov and the Schecters will surely pick up on the word "directly" and point out that they never said that, which is correct. But the Schecters can't have it both ways. Under attack for the charges against Oppenheimer, their standard defense is to quote Sudoplatov's appeal to Andropov, including the scientists' names. They even reproduce the appeal as an important document in the appendix of the book.

But what exactly did Sudoplatov say on his own behalf? He said, "Department S (Sudoplatov's special tasks group) rendered considerable help to our scientists by giving them the latest materials on atom bomb research, obtained from such sources [my italics] as the famous nuclear scientists R. Oppenheimer, E. Fermi, K. Fuchs, and others."

Sources? What kind of sources? Were their names at the top of a research paper someone stole? Or headed notepaper, perhaps? From this vague guilt by association Oppenheimer and others are to become known as spies. The Schecters claim "the book was done according to journalistic and historical standards," but in the face of new evidence they, and Sudoplatov, are as unrepentant and wedded to their original text, deficient though it is, as an old Communist is to the worn pages of Das Kapital.

To borrow a phrase from the Cold War, there is a clear and present danger to the revisions of Soviet history by Westerners who wander the streets of Moscow picking up butt-ends from old KGB agents.
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Author:Pringle, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:1852
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