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The Spy Who Saved the World: How a Soviet Colonel Changed the Course of the Cold War.

KGB defector Oleg Penkovsky was dying to give America the Soviets' deepest secrets. So bow did the CIA lose him?

The Central Intelligence Agency knew little of value about the Soviet Union in the summer of 1960, when presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was terrifying voters with the fraudulent but powerful image of a missile gap. The fear of Soviet nuclear superiority was founded in ignorance. In 1960, there was no CIA station chief in Moscow and no station to speak of, no CIA officer who spoke Russian, no way to penetrate the steely Soviet shield no one, in short, to listen when Oleg Penkovsky, a deeply disgruntled colonel in Soviet military intelligence who knew the truth about Soviet missilery, tried to deliver himself unto America.

In the first of Penkovsky's four attempts, he surreptitiously handed off a package to two wary American students. They took the goods to the embassy in Moscow and received a stem lecture from a security officer. The package made its way to Washington via a diplomatic pouch. Penkovsky waited. Nothing. He approached two British businessmen who delivered Penkovsky's business card and home telephone number to M16. The British foreign intelligence service passed on the number to its American cousin. Penkovsky stared at his phone for months. Nothing. He gave a large envelope containing drawings of Soviet ballistic missiles to a Canadian diplomat and begged him to take it to the CIA. Nothing.

At CIA headquarters, the agency's best Soviet officers read through the contents of Penkovsky's first package with the ardor of Keats looking into Chapman's Homer-"like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken." It was like nothing they had ever seen: actual inside information from an active-duty Soviet intelligence officer. Unfortunately, the CIA sent an incompetent to Moscow to make contact with Penkovsky-an inexperienced, alcoholic officer code-named COMPASS. Drunk, the CIA man called the Soviet officer an hour past the appointed time and babbled senselessly to him in broken Russian.

In the meantime, Penkovsky had been assigned to the State Committee on Science and Technology, limiting his freedom to travel abroad. Eight months after he first tried to contact the CIA, he met Greville Wynne, a British businessman in Moscow who worked for M16, and turned over yet another packet of secrets. An assignation was set. On April 20, the day Fidel Castro declared victory at the Bay of Pigs, Penkovsky landed in London as the head of a trade delegation. That evening, he met with American and British intelligence officers in a smoke-filled hotel room and began his new life. An official record of the CIA written in 1976 deemed Penkovsky "the single most valuable agent in CIA history."

This book has something of the air of an official history, which should come as no surprise given that one author is a journalist and former White House spokesman and the other a KGB defector who served as a consultant to the CIA for 30 years. But the authors go beyond even the agency's glowing appraisal to anoint Penkovsky savior of the world, the spy whose intelligence kept the Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis from exploding into nuclear war.

The transcripts of Penkovsky's debriefings were generously bequeathed to the authors by the CIA under the Freedom of Information Act. (They were published in 1965, albeit in sanitized, souped-up, and somewhat fictionalized form, with the CIAs editorial assistance, as a purported spy's diary, The Penkovsky Papers. The current book's co-author, Peter Deriabin, translated the edited transcripts of the original CIA bestseller.) Lengthy excerpts of the conversations between Penkovsky and the CIA over the months in which they communed form the basic text of this book. They show-as The Penkovsky Papers did not -that this most valuable agent revealed that the Soviets were playing a game of liar's poker with their nuclear weapons.

U.S. strategic doctrine of the day called for the destruction of the Soviet Union and all its satellites with more than 5,000 nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe. Everything of strategic value from Poland to the Pacific would have been reduced, as a U.S. naval officer who saw the war plan of the late fifties observed, to "a smoking, radiating ruin" within two hours. The plan was developed after the U.S. Air Force invented the "missile gap" by creating and leaking estimates during the late fifties that the Soviets had hundreds of ICBMs and soon would have thousands.

Penkovsky divulged that the Soviets had a mere handful of ICBMs, whose electronics and fuel systems were dubious. Fans of Le Carre will see in Penkovsky the basis for Dante, the physicist in The Russia House who reveals Soviet rocketry to be as efficient as Soviet econometrics.

In their first meeting, Penkovsky told the CIA that "the Soviet Union is definitely not prepared at this time for war... Khrushchev is not going to fire any rockets." There was no Soviet ICBM force worth the name, though the Soviets were struggling furiously to catch up with the U.S.-a goal they would not achieve for nearly 20 years.

Not only was Khrushchev lying when he claimed Moscow was squeezing out intercontinental ballistic missiles "like sausages," but the Soviet Union's sausages were horsemeat. The economy was crumbling because "everything is subordinated to the armaments race." Penkovsky continued:

[In a land war in Europe] countless numbers of

officers and soldiers would simply desert to the

other side. This is because all of these ideals for

which many of our fathers, brothers, and relatives

died have turned out to be nothing but a

bluff and a deceit. There is always the promise

that things will be better, but actually nothing is

better and things are only getting worse. I swear

to you that only in Moscow and Leningrad can

one even purchase decent food.... [Outside the

cities] it is difficult to get bread. There are no

roads, which results in unbelievable transportation

delays and breakdowns; grain is rotting

since it cannot be delivered.

The enemy was really nothing more than Upper Volta with rockets-and not many rockets at that.

In some 50 hours of meetings with CIA officers in London and Paris during the next three months, rent of data: the command structure of the KGB, Soviet military intelligence, and the Communist Party central committee; the names of more than 300 Soviet spooks; KGB tradecraft; Red Army doctrine; barstool gossip; and minutiae about life inside the Soviet state. He also delivered more than 10,000 pages of military manuals and documents. Penkovsky unnerved his auditors by offering to plant dozens of small nuclear mines at strategic sites throughout Moscow, and by urging a preemptive war against Moscow. The CIA had never had a source quite like him.

The authors credit Penkovsky with providing the first reliable human intelligence of Soviet nuclear strength and, in so doing, giving the White House the backbone to stand up to the Soviets in the confrontations over Berlin and Cuba. That may be oversimplifying a bit. In February 1961, two months before Penkovsky's first debriefing, the newly appointed secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, reviewed the first set of spy-satellite photographs ever taken of the Soviet Union and told the press that the missile gap did not exist-and if there was one, it was in Washington's favor. Penkovsky's revelations simply would not have been decisive without overhead reconnaissance, and without McNamara's reevaluation of the wisdom of a massive, spasmodic nuclear strike against the Soviets. While the take from Penkovsky was invaluable in the case of Cuba-his data on Soviet missiles gave the White House time to think-other factors were at least as important in helping Kennedy reach his decision. The U.S. knew it was far more powerful than the Soviets. The Soviets knew we knew. In crisis, both sides acted accordingly.


At about the time Kennedy confronted the Soviets in Cuba, Penkovsky was arrested by the KGB. He had been under surveillance for months, burned by the CIAs inability to provide experienced contacts or safe sites where he could deposit information in Moscow. He continued to spy regardless, driven by his own desires and the demands of his handlers. He begged the CIA to exfiltrate him; the agency could not. He was tried as a turncoat and shot.

The official recognition of Penkovsky as the most valuable agent ever to come to the CIA from inside Russia should be evaluated in light of the CIA's treatment of others. As is now well known, the CIAs ability to deal properly with Soviet defectors had been, by the time of Penkovsky's trial, poisoned by the byzantine conspiracy theories of the agency's half-mad counterintelligence chief, James J. Angleton. A KGB officer who defected in December 1961, Anatoly Golitsin, quickly convinced Angleton that any Soviet who followed him would be a plant, and that there was a Soviet mole somewhere in the CIA's chain of command. Angleton tore the agency apart looking for the mole, ruining the careers of scores of CIA officers. He vigorously attempted to debunk Penkovsky; imprisoned an important defector, Yuri Nosenko, who came over in June 1962; and in time paralyzed the Soviet division. As David Wise demonstrates in his book, Molehunt, Penkovsky's capture may have been facilitated by the fact that the first CIA station chief in Moscow, Paul Garbler, who took his post in December 1961, knew almost nothing of the Penkovsky operation. He was not told that a "dead drop" (a secret location for passing materials to and from Penkovsky) was under KGB surveillance, though CIA headquarters had been told of that fact. Why was Garbler cut out of the loop? He had fallen victim to Angleton's paranoia and was tagged as a "potential Soviet agent." Penkovsky's place as an unparalleled Soviet spy was ensured by Angleton's attempts to discredit all defectors who came after him.

The Spy Who Saved The World is an important antidote to previous histories of the CIA that have accepted uncritically the reams of nonsense published in the United States and Great Britain about the Penkovsky case. It both benefits and suffers from its extensive use of transcripts from the CIA's Penkovsky files. Like most transcriptions, it is full of facts and devoid of deep thought. But it convincingly demonstrates that 30 years ago the CIA possessed inside information from a unique source that strongly suggested that the Soviet state was foredoomed. Had the CIA not gone down a thousand blind alleys searching for moles, it could have developed a clearer understanding of the enemy long before Soviet policy defeated itself. And had presidents and policy-makers achieved that understanding, some of the treasure the United States devoted to our costly standoff with that doomed state might have been saved, and our present fortunes vastly improved.
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Author:Weiner, Tim
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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