Skip to comments.Treason Still Shadows J.R. Oppenheimer
Posted on 10/09/2002 3:25:09 PM PDT by Tailgunner Joe
Vladimir Putin's attendance at a reunion of KGB veterans at the notorious Lubyanka prison, and his embrace of Vladimir Kryuchkov ? the former KGB chief who led the August 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev ? has coincided with yet more disclosures about the successes achieved by Soviet spies during the Cold War.
Undoubtedly the Moscow spymasters had much to celebrate, even if some embarrassing defections in recent years have caused them discomfort. It was an as yet unidentified Russian intelligence officer who tipped off the FBI to the duplicity of bureau counterintelligence turncoat Robert Hanssen in return for resettlement in the United States. Similarly, the disappearance of the elderly KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin in 1992, and his subsequent emergence in London with thousands of copies of official files, gravely undermined confidence in Moscow. Even worse for the old Soviet spooks, the release of the "Venona" files in 1995 exposed dozens of espionage networks across the globe.
But one man's security lapse is another's espionage triumph. While the Venona and Mitrokhin files conclusively proved the guilt of well-known traitors such as Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, neither source shed much light on one of the last remaining mysteries of the era ? the role played by nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in providing the Soviets with details about the atom bomb. However, Mitrokhin revealed the existence of numerous other Soviet moles inside the Manhattan Project, and the Venona texts identified some of the individual code names for high-level Soviet operatives and agents among scientists in the United States, including "Erie," "Pers," "Huron" and "Quantum." But who were these remarkable traitors?
British and U.S. counterintelligence analysts have spent decades poring over the clues to put real names to the Venona cryptonyms, and for a while it looked as though loose lips in Moscow might provide some answers. In 1994 Gen. Pavel Sudoplatov collaborated with Washington-based writers Jerrold and Leona Schecter to produce a sensational book, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness ? A Soviet Spymaster, in which such scientific icons as Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard were named as having conspired with Oppenheimer to pass atomic secrets to their Soviet contacts, Vasili Zubilin and Grigori Kheiffets, both NKVD professionals working in New York City and San Francisco respectively under diplomatic cover. [The NKVD, Russian acronym for People's Commisariat of Internal Affairs, had been formed as early as 1918. Its mission included homeland security, as well as intelligence and counterintelligence abroad. Later it became KGB].
The publication of Sudoplatov's memoirs caused a sensation, partly because of the gravity of the allegations made against named physicists of international reputation, but also because of his assertion that apart from the well-known espionage cases of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and Allan Nunn May, there were numerous other undiscovered spies who had stolen atomic secrets and escaped undetected. When the Venona texts were released the following year the Harvard-educated Theodore Hall was exposed as "Mlad" (youngster), a valued source of Soviet information from Los Alamos in 1944. Shortly before his death in 1999 in Cambridge, England, where he had moved in 1964, Hall confessed and confirmed that in his youth he had shared his knowledge with the Soviets.
Hall's guilt had little direct impact on the Oppenheimer conundrum. Certainly "Oppie," as he was called, had lost his security clearance in March 1954 following a humiliating public examination of his loyalties. His wife Kitty, brother Frank and mistress Jean Tatlock had all been card-carrying members of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), as were many of his friends, and he acknowledged having joined several CPUSA front organizations and to having held party meetings in his home in Berkeley, Calif.
But did that make him a spy? He admitted having been cultivated by an academic friend, Haakon Chevalier, who was a Communist activist, and to having been invited to spy for the USSR by another acquaintance, George Eltenton, who worked for the Shell group of petrochemical companies as a research chemist after having lived in Russia.
Until Sudoplatov alleged Oppie had been an active spy who helped place others inside the U.S. secret wartime Manhattan Project that produced the atom bomb, the controversy had lapsed into speculation. But had Sudoplatov engaged in mischiefmaking, or perhaps been encouraged to embroider his recollections? As the debate continued, respected historian Allen Weinstein turned up a document in Moscow that looked like a smoking gun and included it in The Haunted Wood, his account of Soviet espionage in the United States. The memorandum, dated February 1944 and addressed to Josef Stalin's intelligence chief, Vselovod Merkulov, identified Oppenheimer by the code name "Chester" and explained that he had been a secret member of the CPUSA who had been cultivated by the Soviet military-intelligence service (GRU) since June 1942.
The memo says of Oppenheimer: "In case [he] is recruited by them [GRU], it is necessary to have him passed to us [NKVD]. If the recruitment is not realized, we must get from [GRU] all materials on [him] and begin his active cultivation through the channels we have."
The date of the message is crucial, for three months earlier the NKVD had been authorized to take over all the atomic-espionage assets of the GRU and run a joint operation code-named, appropriately, ENORMOZ. This internal communication evidently is a report explaining Oppenheimer's then-current status. Clearly, he was not at that stage active on behalf of the NKVD, which was anxious either to take him over from the GRU or to initiate contact itself. Thus the Merkulov memo serves as a useful snapshot, confirming that in February 1944, before there was yet an atom bomb to steal, Oppie probably was not in direct touch with the NKVD (insofar as the senior management was aware), although he was a secret Communist and the rival GRU had been working on him for the last year or two.
The proposition that the GRU had links to Oppenheimer was of no particular surprise. His circle at Berkeley consisted of many leftists, among them Steve Nelson, a Communist Party official once close to Kitty's first husband, who had been killed fighting on the Communist side in the Spanish Civil War, and Louise Bransten, a San Francisco socialite who was living with Grigori Kheiffets, the local NKVD rezident. In addition, Elizabeta Zarubina, the wife of the New York rezident, was friendly with Kitty, and there were several others who could have provided a conduit to the physicist. What made the Merkulov document important was the confirmation that Oppie had been a member of an underground CPUSA cell, an allegation he always denied.
Secret membership in the CPUSA often was an essential precursor to espionage. Sometimes an overt member was instructed to stop attending party meetings, going covert so as to avoid compromising his or her access to a government post and confidential information. Details of the clandestine membership would be reported to Moscow, but known to only a very few within the local structure, perhaps only to the CPUSA leader, Earl Browder, and his subordinate responsible for liaison with the NKVD.
Although he attempted to distance himself from the Soviet apparat, so as to preserve the fiction that the CPUSA was independent of the Kremlin, Browder was heavily compromised. His common-law wife, Kitty Harris, was a veteran NKVD "illegal" who had undertaken covert missions in Europe and China, as was his sister Marguerite. The Central Committee archives in Moscow are bursting with pleas from Browder to avoid jeopardizing his position.
While many of Oppehneimer's critics believed he always had been a Communist, for there was plenty of incriminating circumstantial evidence, the Merkulov memo amounted to the first solid proof. The problem, however, was that it did not prove espionage but rather the NKVD's enthusiasm to recruit him in February 1944. That in itself was of some interest because it implied that, whatever had happened between Chevalier, Eltenton and Oppenheimer in 1943, it had not been undertaken on behalf of the NKVD but the GRU.
This bizarre episode, more than anything else, had served to ruin Oppie's reputation. The background was relatively simple: In August Oppie reported to the security authorities that he had been approached by an unnamed friend to pass on information about the atom-weapons research program to a representative of the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. The pitch had been made the previous March at a private moment during a dinner party, but initially Oppenheimer had been reluctant to identify the people involved. Under duress he named Chevalier, who had been approached by Eltenton, who in turn had been acting on behalf of a Soviet diplomat, Piotr Ivanov.
Why had Oppie waited five months to report the incident, and why had he attempted to conceal the identities of Chevalier and Eltenton? His explanations were unconvincing and served to compromise the careers of Chevalier, who later left Berkeley and moved to Paris, and Eltenton, who was interviewed by both the FBI and the British MI5. Eltenton confided in no one about his role, but Chevalier protested his innocence claiming that he had denounced Eltenton's request as "treason." Oppie's behavior had convinced Boris Pash and Peer de Silva, the two senior U.S. military counterintelligence officials attached to the Manhattan Project, that Oppenheimer was a major security risk. Nevertheless, his stature as a physicist was such that in July 1942 Army Gen. Leslie Groves, in overall command of the project, decided Oppie's contribution was vital and he should be retained.
If Chevalier's "pitch" really was a ham-fisted attempt to recruit Oppenheimer, it raises all sorts of questions about the extent to which the Moscow headquarters of either the NKVD or the GRU knew what its personnel were up to in California. As we have seen, the NKVD appears to have known nothing of the 1943 fiasco, which suggests that Ivanov, Eltenton and Chevalier may have been acting for the GRU. When interviewed by a senior MI5 officer after his return from the United States, Eltenton insisted he merely had relayed a misconceived request for scientific cooperation between allies.
It is in this atmosphere of denunciation and counteraccusation that the Schecters have turned up another smoking gun, and reproduced it in Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History. This time it is a five-paragraph memo from Merkulov to Lavrenti Beria, dated Oct. 2, 1944, on "the state of work on the problem of uranium and its development abroad using the contacts of Comrade Zarubin and Kheiffets." It confirmed that in 1942 Oppenheimer, as an unlisted member of the Communist Party, "informed us about the beginning of work" on a U.S. atomic bomb and then "he provided cooperation in access to research for several of our tested sources, including a relative of Comrade Browder."
The memo concluded with the advice that "it is expedient to immediately sever contacts of leaders and activists of the American Communist Party with scientists and specialists engaged in work on uranium," giving three reasons: the dissolution of the Comintern, operational difficulties in the United States and the "explanations of Comrade Zarubin and Kheiffets on the Vasili Mironov affair."
Clearly this memo is important in that it serves to confirm Oppenheimer's covert membership in the CPUSA, although by 1954 the FBI had accumulated a mass of evidence from informants, listening devices and wiretaps to prove that at the very least several senior CPUSA officials in California had regarded the physicist as a covert member. But what about the other assertions, that Oppie had alerted the Soviets to the existence of the Manhattan Project and that he had enabled other Communists to penetrate it? The first claim coincides with the original Merkulov memo, but the second is a serious allegation of espionage and a repetition of what Sudoplatov had said, that "Oppenheimer, together with Fermi and Szilard, helped us place moles in Tennessee, Los Alamos and Chicago as assistants in those three labs." And he had been instrumental in ensuring that the subsequently convicted atom spy "Fuchs be included in the Los Alamos British team." Indeed, under Oppenheimer's initiative, Fuchs was given access to material to which he had no right to look.
The reference in the October memo that one of the moles was related to Browder resembled a reference found by Allen Weinstein in the file of a spy code named "Vogel" who was described as a young engineer whose father was one of Browder's close friends.
A couple of other queries in the memo concern the reasons given by Merkulov for terminating the link between the CPUSA apparat and the Manhattan Project scientists.
On the issue of the Comintern, Stalin announced the conclusion of his ambitions for global domination in spring 1943 when, ostensibly, the organization was dissolved in favor of allied unity. This, of course, was a purely tactical and cosmetic expedient and is quite unlikely to have had any impact on the management of the networks 16 months later in the United States where ENORMOZ was well-established as a priority. Vasili Mironov, on the other hand, was Zarubin's disaffected subordinate who in a fit of paranoia and jealousy earlier in 1944 had denounced the Washington rezident to Stalin as a Japanese spy. Zarubin and Kheiffets were recalled to Moscow in May for an investigation, which ended with Mironov being consigned to a mental asylum.
But by October 1944 the matter had been resolved, with Mironov declared insane, so why should Merkulov have been preoccupied by the episode?
The suspicion must be that this second memo is not all that it purports to be, and even may be part of a wider attempt by the current Russian Foreign Intelligence Service to rehabilitate its predecessor's reputation. It was not until 1995 that the FBI acknowledged that it had received an anonymous letter in August 1943 listing a dozen Soviet spies, and that the likely author had been Mironov.
Having authorized one of the Rosenbergs' handlers, Alexander Feklisov, to reveal last year that there are plenty of atomic spies yet to be exposed, and then having encouraged the release in Moscow of yet another insider book, They Stole the Bomb for the Soviets by Nikolai Dolgoponov and Yuri Sokolov, it could be that the Russians are launching, if not actually winning, a war of words involving disinformation, that most Soviet of strategies. In the ambiguous mists of the spymasters' world, the old-line Communists are still protecting Julius Robert Oppenheimer.
While we are at it I campained for Nixon and even then I thought he had his head up his butt, see EPA.
Weikel, read more.
The FBI wire tapped these people.
Ping to GrampaDave, kid needs a fifties pespective.
Clever... very clever... Exactly how a highly visible, highly placed mole would operate in order to avoid jeopardizing his own position.
I've always wondered how Fuchs got access to the material he gave the Soviets, since he wasn't working on some of the specifics he gave them.
At any rate, I suppose this all conclusively proves that my hopes, during the Cold War, that the Soviets could somehow be convinced to vaporize Berkeley (and maybe Cambridge), were truly without merit...
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.