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The Perseus Disinformation Operation

Posted by Gary Kern on December 07, 1997 at 21:24:34:

Chapter 20 of BOMBSHELL, entitled "The Perseus Myth," tells how the KGB created a mythical American agent for the purposes of self-justification, self-promotion and steady state funding. As in the rest of the book, the authors do a beautiful job of unearthing hidden information, piecing it together and making a convincing interpretation. But the chapter is short, the subject complex, and I feel that there is more to explore.

As I see it, the creation of PERSEUS was not so much mythmaking as a daring and highly risky disinformation operation. There is a slight, but significant difference. Mythmaking is basically the wholesale invention of a story. Disinformation, on the other hand, makes use of real facts to compel belief; it alters them slightly, puts them in wrong contexts, combines them with falsehood, slants them in order to achieve its aims. Indeed, the authors of BOMBSHELL show how this was done in some instances. But the creation of PERSEUS was not a product of the imagination; it was based on real facts.

The aims of the operation were manifold: to demonstrate that the KGB was vital to Soviet (and after 1991-to Russian) state interests, because with its successes in atomic espionage it had safeguarded the nation against nuclear attack; to prove that the KGB was more expert than American and British intelligence agencies, which had never caught its atomic spies; to wrest some of the prestige away from Soviet atomic scientists and win the benefits of prestige for KGB veterans; to make propaganda usage of foreign spies residing in Russia, especially Morris and Leontina Cohen, who were old, malleable and under complete KGB control; to make money selling the story.

To achieve these aims, the masterminds resolved to rely on real facts, archival documents and, in the case of veterans, personal recollections, so as to guarantee national and international acceptance in a new and extremely critical environment. At the same time they could not give everything away. It is a hard and fast rule of all intelligence agencies that when you recruit a foreign agent you must ensure him eternal confidentiality-and if not eternal, then at least lifelong. You should never expose him for any temporary gain, or you will lose recruits in the future. The astonishing risk of the PERSEUS operation was that it sought to capitalize on a still living spy, perhaps on more than one.

The thinking, I believe, was this: We must provide real facts that foreign intelligence agencies (and spy buffs) can check and confirm, but we can spin these facts in such a way that they'll go running in circles. We have a large number of unidentified foreign agents to play with, so why don't we mix their personal and professional data? We can speak of a major atomic spy who has never been caught and is still alive, a spy scientist so famous that his name is known to the whole world, a Morris Cohen recruit who was involved in the Spanish Civil War, a native of New York, a scientist at the Metlab before the war, an atomic spy involved in the anti-nuclear movement after the war, and so on and so forth-all real people, just not one man. Alter dates here and there, toss in a bit of spice like a fish head sticking out of a bag, and don't forget the Kleenex-box story, mix well- and nobody will ever unmix this salad.

The chefs in this case were Vladimir Chikov, Anatoly Yatskov and Igor Prelin, all well identified in BOMBSHELL. As the book shows, the first publicized the story in newspaper and magazine articles, the second in interviews and with hard-copy archival documents, the third in films. Maitre d' was KGB General Yury Drozdov, who insisted that true dates be changed, the chief one referring to Lona Cohen's meeting the young American spy in Albuquerque, which he moved from 1945 to 1943, thereby screwing up all the historical data for this period in Chikov's writings. The Cohens, of course, were brought into the operation and filmed in well-controlled interviews. And though the operation hit some rough spots and revealed internal inconsistencies, the Lubyanka stood firmly behind it. When the old Stalininst veteran Pavel Sudoplatov acted like a rogue and published a book of sensational memoirs in the West without prior KGB approval, the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service, as this branch of the former KGB was now called) officially denounced him and vouched for the PERSEUS story.

That denunciation appeared in Izvestiya under the ironic title, "Robert Oppenheimer could have been a Soviet agent, but only if a spy ring existed that was known to no one." Wrote Sergei Leskov, the newspaper's expert on atomic affairs:

"At the Foreign Intelligence Service I was told: 'We had other sources of information. And those sources indicated by Sudoplatov were not sources.' Even in the closest proximity with the directors of the 'Manhattan Project' there worked Soviet agents whose names have not been revealed to the present day. The SVR acknowledged that in addition to Klaus Fuchs, sentenced in England to 14 years for espionage, and 'Perseus,' who has been mentioned in the press, the USSR had a total of ten [atomic] agents of equal rank. Six of them worked in the USA, four in England. These were truly major figures of great importance to the intelligence service who have to this day remained unknown to the American FBI." (Izvestiya, 4/30/94,page 7).

In addition to writing articles on PERSEUS, Vladimir Chikov authored a large manuscript on the Cohens entitled NELEGALY ("The Illegals"). Approved by the KGB/SVR in 1992, it was sold to the French publisher Robert Laffont the following year. As a translator and writer on Soviet subjects, I was hired to collaborate with Chikov and turn the manuscript into a book suitable for publication in the West. The result was COMMENT STALINE A VOLE LA BOMBE ATOMIQUE AUX AMERICAINS: DOSSIER KGB NO. 13676 ("How Stalin Stole the Bomb from the Americans: KGB File 13676"), which came out in 1996. There was also a German edition entitled PERSEUS: SPIONAGE IN LOS ALAMOS. We didn't get an English edition, because events ran ahead of us.

Chikov was quite open about the need to mix names and dates, stating that if he did not do so living spies could be identified. His reasoning was that if the documents he presented were word-for-word and date-for-date, they would help American code breakers decipher intercepted Soviet messages beyond those presented. The publisher accepted this condition, assuming that the changes would be minor. So this was the trade-off: a great story, but with altered details. Work on the manuscript was a nightmare. Despite my best efforts to correct errors and banish disinformation, the book appeared with mistakes, including the one mentioned above-1943 instead of 1945. Chikov has since gone ahead and published NELEGALY in Russia, virtually in its original form. He added some new information that I found or has otherwise come to light, chiefly by footnotes, but without much rewriting, so that the new info actually clashes with his basic account. Thus a reader of Russian can consult this two-volume book, published this year in Moscow by "Olimp," and see the fullbodied figure of PERSEUS.

Now along with "alterations," Chikov gave me a remarkable number of code names, dates and details of operations that later proved to be true. In addition, I developed a few other sources of inside information who must remain confidential. Thus I was in a lucky position when the unexpected happened in the middle of 1995: the US National Security Agency released to the public its holdings of intercepted Soviet telegrams relating to atomic espionage. This was the first part of the six-part VENONA files.

Here was something that the cooks of PERSEUS had not anticipated. The VENONA files, though fragmentary, provided a means to check the veracity of the information they had put out about ENORMOZ, the Soviet atomic espionage effort. As I said, much of what Chikov wrote or told me turned out to be true. Much did not match. We had to go to press before the whole thing could be resolved, but one figure popped up to the surface right at the start: the spy who was code-named MLAD, the subject of Joe Albright and Marcia Kunstler's book, BOMBSHELL.

My sources had identified MLAD as the true code name of PERSEUS after the publication of Sudoplatov, but before the release of VENONA. (Sudoplatov wrongly identified MLAD as Bruno Pontecorvo.) PERSEUS was now known to be an invention of circa 1991 vintage. The VENONA release, while capturing the attention of the media by proving the guilt of the Rosenbergs, also laid down the clues for determining the identity of MLAD. BOMBSHELL describes the deciphering process in chapters 22 & 23. In the crucial document of 11/12/44 (reproduced in the book) the NSA redactors neglected to black out the name, though they did so in the glossary entries. Thus Joseph Albright and a few other analysts were able to determine that MLAD was Theodore Hall, and this identification, made in the WASHINGTON POST, was confirmed by the Agency in March 1996. It is my view that the NSA always wanted him identified, but that is by the bye.

The PERSEUS operation did nothing really to expose Hall, whose identity was known to the FBI and NSA for decades, but once he was identified and his biography established, other agents were perhaps put at risk. For now a biographical unit was formed, a ball of data, that could be subtracted from the PERSEUS composite. As I see it, that composite, minus various details, consists of three parts: 1) a young scientist at Los Alamos who turned over details of the atomic bomb to Lona Cohen in Albuquerque, 2) a Spanish Civil War buddy recruited by Morris Cohen in the spring of 1942, 3) a scientist of worldwide fame. Chikov emphasized the latter point when I met him in October 1993: "When PERSEUS dies, his obituary will appear in newspapers all over the world." This claim may have been bogus, a mere selling point for Robert Laffont, but I am inclined to believe that Chikov believed it. It is also possible that the composite of PERSEUS contained data taken from a deceased spy, but the famous spy was still alive at the end of 1993. He was a native American.

Thus we arrive at a fascinating puzzle that has kept me and other spy buffs running around in circles, but perhaps ever closer to the center. The first part of the PERSEUS composite can be removed: it is Hall, not recruited by Cohen and without a Spanish Civil War connection, not famous outside of a very specialized field before the WASHINGTON POST story of 1995. The second component, according to a confidential source, was the spy with the code name of SERB ("the Serbian"). That spy has the most spectacular identifying feature of all those mentioned in VENONA: a wooden leg. I intend to write about him later. Whether he was famous or not, I do not know. But if not, then we have a third unidentified spy. Many commentators, including the authors of BOMBSHELL, have suggested that PERS ("the Persian") may be a part, due to the name's similarity with PERSEI ("PERSEUS"). However, there is another interesting spy named KVANT ("Quantum") who may fit into the picture.

So many spies to identify, so little time! We spychasers could use a little help. I hope that this long posting will generate responses and possibly lead to solutions.