Observers who are feeling uneasy about Vladimir Putin’s rule of Russia — include me among them — will find grounds for increased worry in an unsettling book by the veteran Washington writer Pete Earley, Comrade J: The Untold Secrets of Russia’s Master Spy in America After the End of the Cold War(G. P. Putnam’s, $24.95, 340 pages. A strong theme of Mr. Earley’s splendid book is how corruption pervades post-Soviet Russia, with the explicit blessing of Mr. Putin himself.
Mr. Earley tells the story of Sergei Tretyakov, who achieved high rank first in the KGB, and then in the SVR (Sluzhba Vnezhney Razvedki), the foreign intelligence service that replaced the KGB’s overseas arm when the USSR collapsed. (The title stems from Tretyakov’s KGB code name, “Comrade Jean.”)
From 1995 to 2000, Col. Tretyakov was the ranking SVR agent in the United States, working from the New York rezidentura and directing some 60 agents against the United States and its allies in the United Nations. Although his KGB roots spanned three generations, he became disillusioned with the Soviet system and its successor, and in 2000 he defected.
What Mr. Earley reveals is that for an undisclosed number of years before defecting, Tretyakov worked secretly for the FBI, risking his life on a near-daily basis.
Not wishing to let theSVR know exactly what secrets Tretyakov revealed, intelligence officers interviewed by Mr. Earley were economical in relating details of what he did as a defecting-in-place. They would not even reveal when he began working for the United States. But one “high-ranking intelligence official” involved in the defection said that Comrade J delivered more than 5,000 top secret SVR cables to the FBI, and more than 100 classified SVR intelligence reports. His material was used to prepare some 400 intelligence reports that circulated as high as the White House level. He named names of persons — diplomats, academics, government officials and others — who spied for the Soviets in Manhattan, at the UN and in Canada, his previous post. He provided insight into President Boris Yeltsin’s thinking during debates over NATO expansion, the military campaigns in Kosovo, and elsewhere. He laid bare SVR secrets of Soviet tradecraft that were invaluable to U.S. counterintelligence.
One assertion sure to stir controversy is Tretyakov’s assertion that the SVR considered Strobe Talbott, U.S. deputy secretary of state during the Clinton Administration, to be a “SPECIAL UNOFFICIAL CONTACT,” the term the SVR used to “identify a top-level intelligence source who had high social and/or political status and whose identity needed to be carefully guarded.” (Another person so designated was Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.) Tretyakov emphasized that Talbott was “not a Russian spy,” but a self-styled expert who could be “massaged” to do the Soviets’ bidding. He states, “Mr Talbott saw himself as an expert on Russia and he thought he knew what was best for the country and its people. The SVR had seen this arrogant attitude before in Western leaders.” Unbeknownst to Mr. Talbott, a Russian diplomat with whom he was close chums followed an SVR script in their conversations to elicit what was being discussed in the highest levels of the Clinton Administration. (Mr. Talbott was an Oxford classmate of the president.) For the record, Mr. Talbott told Mr. Earley that Tretyakov’s charges were “erroneous and/or misleading.”
Tretyakov puts Russian fingerprints on some previously disclosed perfidies at the UN and elsewhere. He confirms that Mr. Putin had direct knowledge of how Russian officials used the so-called “Oil for Food” program ran before the toppling of Saddam Hussein to put scores of millions of dollars into their own pockets and those of Kremlin superiors, as long suspected by investigators. He offers direct evidence that the “Nuclear Winter” scenario pushed by the late scientist — and anti-nuclear activist — Carl Sagan in the 1970s was part of a KGB-directed disinformation campaign to halt deployment of Pershing II missiles in Europe by NATO.
That Tretyakov was considered a gold-plated defector is borne out by the fact that he “was given a financial package significantly higher than what any other previous Soviet spy ever received,” in the words of an FBI official. He and wife Helen own a $600,000 house and live off investments. Daughter Ksenia received a master’s degree from an Ivy League university. (Tretyakov asserts that he asked for nothing when he defected, that the United States volunteered any benefits he received.)
Mr. Earley did earlier acclaimed books on the John Walker spy ring and Aldrich Ames. Although CIA and FBI officers arranged his initial contact with Tretyakov, they then stepped aside and let the defector tell his story in 126 hours of taped interviews, with no official input form the intelligence community. Spy buffs will love Tretyakov’s gossipy accounts of National Enquirer-style sexual and alcohol misbehavior in KGB and SVR offices. A five-cloak read from a writer who knows the business.
Much less sophistication is displayed by the British academician Hugh Wilford in The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Harvard University Press, $27.95, 342 pages.) Although he presents a massive amount of material, Mr. Wilford shares the prevalent mindset of liberal “scholars” that any operation carrying the CIA imprimatur was ipso bad and misguided. (He now teaches at California State University/Long Beach.)
Persons who endured life in Soviet Bloc countries during the Cold War would disagree, to be sure. Post-collapse public opinion surveys showed how much these people relied on broadcasts from Radio Free Europe and other electronic media to break their sense of isolation from the Free World.
Mr. Wilford vents much spleen on CIA programs to finance intellectual, labor and student groups who contested Soviet-supported fronts worldwide. He does concede that the “CIA’s state-private network was built on a large extent on shared values and involved a surprising amount of self-assertion on the part of the private citizens who belonged to it.” Then he returns to his own sense of moral superiority: “Nevertheless, no matter how much one dwells on the consensual voluntarist aspects of the relationship, the fact remains that the front tactic was based on secrecy and deception, making it all the more problematic when undertaken in a nation avowedly dedicated to the principles of freedom and openness.”
Thanks be thathis roll-over-and-play-dead thinking did not prevail in the Cold War.
Everyone in the book-writing trade has a horror story about miscreant publishers: botched editing, poor promotion, missed deadlines. The plight of one such victim truly pains me. John P C. Matthews was a writer for Radio Free Europe during the anti-communist uprising in the fall of 1956. Mr. Matthews carefully kept notes on what he saw and read, and he spent years writing Explosion: The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (Hippocrene Books, $34.95, 691 pages). He hoped for publication to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the uprising.
Alas, such as not to be. For whatever reason, Hippocrene tarried, so Mr. Matthews’ book did not reach reviewers until long after a veritable torrent of other works. The pity is that, in my view, Mr. Matthews’ book is the best of the large crop, with heartbreaking interviews with Hungarians who suffered during the Soviet crackdown, and excerpts from what Radio Free Europe broadcast during the period.
So, belated kudos for work well done. And no, I do not know Mr. Matthews other than through his work. The fellow deserved better.
Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.