- - Tuesday, October 2, 2018


By Steven T. Usdin

Prometheus Books, $26, 360 pages

Having spent a lifetime in and around journalism, I can attest to the profession’s overlap with espionage. Practitioners in both fields are devoted to acquiring information, by one means or another.

The major difference is that we ink-stained wretches share what we find with the public, while spies work for other masters, often adversaries of the United States.

But the crafts frequently come into proximity, wittingly or not. Steven Usdin provides a readable accounting of a relationship centered around the former citadel of Washington journalism, the National Press Building.

As he documents, for years the building abounded with intelligence agents, both open and disguised. The reasons are obvious. Undeclared spies can cadge information from reporters who are unaware of the affiliation of persons with whom they chat, be it in the elevator or at the press club bar.

Even more important, from the espionage point of view, is the opportunity to use a trusting press as a means of “planting rumors and lies,” as Mr. Usdin writes.

The 14-story National Press Building was hailed as the most modern private office building in Washington when it opened in 1927, under auspices of the National Press Club. Located on 14th Street NW, a few strides off Pennsylvania Avenue, it is an easy walk to the White House.

Over the decades spies and snoops of many loyalties flocked to the building. Mr. Usdin ticks them off: Soviets. Nazis (both foreign and domestic). British. Japanese. Even the White House and CIA.

Some were unlikely. My next-office neighbor when I ran the Philadelphia Inquirer’s bureau (1967-‘69) was Robert S. Allen, a partner of columnist Drew Pearson before he went to war as an officer under his idol, Gen. George Patton. Allen lost his right arm in combat.

Mr. Allen broke with Mr. Pearson after the war and launched his own column — one that teemed with hatred of the USSR. But buried under his anti-Communist writing was a deep secret: During the 1930s, Allen was an asset of the OPGU, predecessor of the KGB.

According to documents that emerged after the USSR collapsed, Mr. Allen had the code designation Sh/147. He provided intimate profiles of Washington political dignitaries similar to a 1930s book he wrote with Mr. Pearson, “Washington Merry-Go-Round.”

One document noted Mr. Allen’s friendship with key New Deal figures and called him “a valuable contact, especially bearing in mind Roosevelt’s future administration.”

Mr. Usdin terms Mr. Allen the Soviets’ “first known operative” in the press building. Did another Soviet operative lay false claim to control of an unwitting Mr. Allen? Perhaps, but the documents satisfied U.S. intelligence.

A more personable KGB operative was Oleg Kalugin, whose background included a stint at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on an exchange program.

His cover in Washington was as bureau chief for TASS, the Soviet news agency. Mr. Kalugin apparently performed well, rising to the rank of general in the KGB. He defected to the United States in the 1990s and is under an in absentia death sentence in Moscow. (He lives very quietly at an undisclosed location.)

An even more valuable Soviet was Laurence Todd, TASS bureau chief during the 1940s. Mr. Usdin writes, “His circle of close friends encompassed more than a dozen Americans who spied for Stalin, including some who were alarmingly indiscreet.”

According to a Soviet defector’s testimony cited by Mr. Usdin, “In 1941, twenty-two of the NKVD’s [another predecessor of the KGB] American agents were journalists.”

But other newsmen used Soviet contacts to benefit the United States. Prominent was Frank Holeman of the Daily News of New York. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Holeman was an intermediary between the Kennedy administration and the Soviet embassy.

Indeed Mr. Usdin credits him with a role far more important than that of ABC newsman John Scali, credited by most historians as the key media figure. (A story too intricate for this space; a recommended read.)

President Roosevelt famously eschewed formal intelligence. When war loomed, he relied on a network run by columnist John Franklin Carter. For three war-time years, Mr. Carter provided “intelligence” of dubious authenticity — for instance, a plot by labor leader John L. Lewis and the French to depose FDR. Mercifully, the Office of Strategic Services was far more reliable.

Another spy operation based in the building was run by Watergate figure (and CIA veteran) E. Howard Hunt. By Mr. Hunt’s testimony, President Johnson ordered the CIA to spy on his 1964 rival Sen. Barry Goldwater by stealing advance copies of Mr. Goldwater’s speeches.

And, finally, the British, with their grandiose wartime operation British Security Coordination, which had an influential (and mostly invisible) on American policy and public opinion. Mr. Usdin writes that “its scale and audacity” were unique in relations between friendly nations.

Do spies still infest the press building? Does the sun still rise in the East?

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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