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BOOK REVIEW: ‘American Spies’

- - Tuesday, November 26, 2013

AMERICAN SPIES: ESPIONAGE AGAINST THE UNITED STATES FROM THE COLD WAR TO THE PRESENT

By Michael J. Sulick

Georgetown University Press, $26.95, 384 pages

As a bibliophile who devours several lineal feet of books on espionage and intelligence each month, both for review and for pleasure, I find it delightful to encounter a volume written by a professional who has walked the ground about which he writes. Michael J. Sulick spent 28 years with the CIA, including stints as chief of counterintelligence and then head of covert operations of the clandestine service.

His book deals with Americans who spied for our adversaries since the end of the Cold War. Albeit scholarly, it brims with details of spying that make for enjoyable reading. In a series of case studies, he focuses on the fundamental elements of espionage: the motivations that drove Americans to spying; their access and the secret they betrayed; the tradecraft of the foreign services that controlled them; the punishment meted out when they were caught; and the damage inflicted on our national security.

Mr. Sulick drives home, again and again, an important point: The demise of the old Soviet Union did not mark the end of spying against the United States (even by the old USSR, for that matter: one of Vladimir Putin's first statements upon becoming president of Russia was that "the potential of the special services will not just be maintained, but increased.") Thus, we suffered the treason of superspies Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI. The Russians were not alone, though. In 2007, John Brenner, then the head of the National Counterintelligence Executive estimated that about 140 foreign intelligence services sought to penetrate the United States or U.S. organizations abroad. By 2010, Mr. Brenner wrote, "Chinese espionage had eclipsed Russian spying in the United States."

Fortunately, a congressional mandate in 1995 forced the CIA and the FBI to end their longtime hostility and work together on counterespionage. As Mr. Sulick illustrates, their cooperation was essential to unraveling many major cases.

Of the rogues he discusses, two of the more striking, and disgusting, were Kendall and Gwendolyn Myers, who on the surface were unlikely spies. Their case illustrates how political naifs (perhaps "idiots" is the better term) can be manipulated by a clever agent handler.

Kendall Myers boasted blue-blood lineage. His father, a cardiac surgeon, was a relative of President William Howard Taft. His mother was the daughter of Gilbert Grosvenor, longtime director of the National Geographic Society.

Myers' career blended academia and public service. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University's prestigious School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), then taught there and worked (with a top-secret clearance) in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

After a failed marriage, Myers befriended a twice-divorced woman named Gwendolyn Steingraber, with whom he shared a zest for leftist politics. The couple happily marched for a multitude of causes popular with their comrades. A police raid that seized marijuana plants growing in their basement did not affect Myers' security clearance.

Myers' strident radicalism at SAIS made him a fat target for a trawling Cuban agent. In 1978, he treated the couple to a two-week visit to the island, and they came away smitten with communism. Their formal recruitment as espionage agents followed. The motivation: adulation of Fidel Castro, who Myers described in his diary as "one of the greatest leaders of our time."

The couple met Cuban handlers in Europe and South America, and relied on such tradecraft as "brush passes" to exchange materials while in Washington. "Gwendolyn later admitted that her favorite brush pass was the quick transfer of shopping carts in a grocery store," Mr. Sulick writes. But the loud-mouthed Myers and his far-left views attracted the attention of State Department colleagues.

Then the FBI intercepted radio communications suggesting that Cuba had a high-level spy in the U. S. government. No names were used, of course, but one message expressed concern about a tumor in the shoulder of "Agent E-634." Nine days later, Gwendolyn had surgery to remove a shoulder tumor.

Coincidence? Another Havana message told the handler to reconnoiter the area around an intended new residence for a spy. A month later, the Myerses moved to a new residence. For some reason, the Cubans broke contact with the couple for some three years.

More radio chatter — and gullibility — proved their downfall. Myers spoke of quitting his job and making an around-the-world cruise, with the goal of settling in Cuba. An FBI agent approached Myers outside SAIS and identified himself as working for Cuba. Thrilled, the Myerses met the imposter three times in hotel rooms and babbled at length about their activities, including their meeting with Castro. (The same sort of ruse in other cases coaxed damning admissions from a serviceman who had spied while working for the National Security Agency and a retired army colonel.)

Facing insurmountable evidence in their own words, the couple pleaded guilty in return for a life term for Kendall, 81 months for his wife.

Mr. Sulick notes that few of the new generation of spies did so for money. A major trend noted by counterintelligence officers is the waning of traditional concepts of loyalty to one nation. Globalization and the socioeconomic and cultural interdependence of peoples and corporations are a new driving force. Hence, the rise of economic espionage, at a cost to U.S. business of up to $250 million a year.

Mr. Sulick stresses that counterintelligence professionals can do their job of ensuring national security without offending civil liberties. Alas, the furor over National Security Agency snooping emerged after his book was written. Nonetheless, five cloaks, five daggers. A must-read.

Veteran Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.