Weekly Standard, December, 2004
A review of CIA Spymaster, by Clarence Ashley
Clarence Ashley’s account of the life of the CIA’s most-decorated case officer, George Kisevalter, is apt to suffuse the old cold warriors at the Agency with nostalgia. A Russian émigré, Kisevalter handled Pyotr Popov, the CIA’s first major source inside Soviet military intelligence. He was key to the most successful operation in CIA history, the penetration of the Soviet military hierarchy by GRU colonel Oleg Penkovsky, and to the extraction and interrogation of the dipsomaniac defector Yuri Nosenko, supervisor of the KGB file on Lee Harvey Oswald. Those were the glory days, when the CIA could do no wrong — or at least, could do something right.
Born in 1910 in St. Petersburg to the grandson of a Tsarist finance minister, Kisevalter departed Russia as a child when his father, a munitions expert, was dispatched to the United States in 1916 to procure weapons for the Tsar’s Army. When the Revolution came, the Kisevalter family threw its support behind the Whites. All but one member of the family in Russia were annihilated; Kisevalter’s immediate family found itself stranded New York. Growing up amid Russian refugees, Kisevalter remained fluent in his first language. After studying engineering at Dartmouth, he competently discharged his duties as an intelligence officer during the war. A brief career in alfalfa farming followed. In late 1951, he accepted a position as branch chief in the Soviet Russia division of the newly-formed CIA.
At the end of 1952, with the Cold War at its height and the Korean War at a stalemate, the United States was still significantly ignorant of even the most basic information about Soviet plans and military capacity. As Soviet threats and adventures intensified, particularly in Berlin, the need for accurate intelligence grew ever more urgent. And then a miracle occurred. In 1953, a Soviet military intelligence officer stationed in Vienna volunteered to spy for the United States. Kisevalter, with his fluency in Russian and intimate knowledge of Russian culture, was elected to handle the case. Living under an assumed name in Vienna, he took the principle of the double life to heart, maintaining an American wife in Salzburg and an Austrian mistress. Over the next five years, Popov provided Kisevalter with detailed, critical information about Soviet military capabilities and plans. Popov was arrested in 1959, the victim of an American tradecraft error: As the defector Nosenko later revealed, a diplomat in Moscow, mailing Popov a letter, had failed to spot a Soviet surveillant, and the letter was retrieved from the mailbox and decoded. Hauntingly, Popov was able to pass one last message to his handlers. The KGB, intending to use him as a double agent, had sent him to a meeting with CIA case officer Russell Langelle in Moscow. In full view of KGB surveillance, Popov shook Langelle’s hand and in the process surreptitiously slipped him a note, rolled into a cylinder the size of a cigarette, revealing that he had passed under hostile control. He was a hero to the end: The famous cylinder message provided a detailed, meaningful account of the KGB’s understanding of Popov’s cooperation with the Americans and their plans to exploit him in the future. He had painstakingly written the message while in prison, over a period of months, concealing it under a bandage he had contrived to obtain by cutting his finger until it bled profusely. Kisevalter was devastated by the note’s heartbreaking last words: “Could you not ask your kind President Eisenhower to see if he might cause restitution to be made for my family and my life?”
Shortly thereafter, Langelle was expelled from Moscow, and Popov met his doom before a Soviet firing squad.
The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. In 1961, another miracle occurred. Penkovsky, an even more senior military intelligence officer with access to the highest levels of the Soviet government, approached a group of visiting American students in Moscow and urged them to deliver a letter to the American embassy. “I offer my services to you,“ Penkovsky wrote, “and I have some most significant facts to share.” Again, Kisevalter was dispatched to handle the case, and again by all accounts discharged his duties masterfully. The information Penkovsky provided over the next year included the manuals on the SS-4, the missiles deployed by the Soviet Union in Cuba in 1962, and the revelation that the Soviet Union did not yet possess operational ICBMs. By opening a window into the Kremlin’s internal politics, Penkovsky drew the United States back from the brink of nuclear war during the Berlin and Cuban crises. “Thus,” writes former CIA officer Leonard McCoy in the book’s introduction, “it is reasonable to conclude that George played an important part in ensuring our very existence.” For this, Kisevalter became an Agency legend. Penkovsky however, who played an even more important part in ensuring our very existence, met with an evil fate. Later that year, like Popov, Penkovsky was undone by an astute KGB surveillance team. He was arrested and executed by firing squad.
In 1962, Nosenko, a Soviet counterintelligence officer who had squandered KGB funds on a drinking spree (and a thieving hooker, although Ashley chastely refrains from mentioning this detail), volunteered his services to the CIA in Geneva. He defected to the United States in 1964. The Agency was not so sure this was a miracle. Nosenko had participated in the KGB’s internal investigation of the Kennedy assassination, and proclaimed the KGB innocent of any involvement. Fearing the defector to be a provocation, senior officials, under the direction of the paranoiac James Jesus Angleton, incarcerated him for five years under conditions so cruel that his security guard, describing the situation to Kisevalter, vomited with guilt. Kisevalter had handled Nosenko and believed him legitimate. He was distraught. But he did nothing. “He was just not the kind of guy,” writes Ashley, “who would burst into the chief’s office and say, ’You are making a terrible mistake and destroying one of the finest agents and operational sources that we have ever had,‘ although it would most assuredly have been his sentiment. George actually had a reverence for legitimate authority.” Ashley venerates Kisevalter for his character and his heroism, but this painful episode is hardly the best evidence for either. Nosenko was ultimately released, though never fully exonerated, and confusion about his case remains. He held no grudge against Kisevalter. They remained friends until Kisevalter’s death.
The author, a former CIA analyst, assessed Soviet strategic missile capabilities and evaluated the Agency’s own intelligence collection systems for seven years before leaving the Agency to pursue a career in commercial real estate in northern Virginia. Although Kisevalter and Ashley worked for the CIA at the same time, their paths never crossed. Following Kisevalter’s mandatory retirement from the Agency, however, he too enjoyed a desultory second career in real estate at Ashley’s firm, where he shambled in daily for his morning game of pinochle. There Ashley and Kisevalter became friends, and remained close for the next 24 years. Ashley’s biography draws upon newly released CIA files, as well as interviews with Kisevalter’s colleagues and KGB defectors. But the book is essentially a transcribed oral history based on Ashley’s conversations with Kisevalter shortly before the ancient spymaster’s death in 1997.
This is Ashley’s first book, and it is a great shame, given the worthiness of his subject, that he did not receive better editorial guidance. Specifically, he would have profited from the excellent editorial advice I once received: “Get rid of the boring stuff.” Nearly the entire first half of the book is devoted to Kisevalter‘s ruminations about his youth. Unfortunately, the text conveys — entirely too well — the tone of the old man’s unedited and digressive ramblings. The book begin with an endless, clumsy scene at Kisevalter’s funeral in which his family and colleagues say what everyone says at a funeral: The deceased was one terrific guy. We learn from the funeral tributes that Kisevalter was fond of bears — bears in zoos, toy bears, any bear, really. We learn that he will be missed. Ashley’s characterization of Kisevalter continues in this vein throughout: Kisevalter was “a fascinating individual,” “quite an individual,” “a unique individual.” The author’s affection for Kisevalter is abundantly evident and touching. But that affection has hampered his literary judgment; he is unable to discern that many of the details of Kisevalter’s life, as well as many of his opinions, are simply not that interesting.
How on earth, for example, did the long discussion of Kisevalter’s former career in alfalfa farming slip by a professional editor and into a book about the great dramas and harrowing dangers of Cold War espionage? “Alfalfa was needed for all animal feed,” Ashley writes. “Five percent of all cow fodder, chicken feed and other feed stock in the United States was alfalfa. This was done to ensure that the animal’s food contained sufficient vitamin A. Also, at the same time, children were routinely dosed with cod liver oil, for the same reason. Eventually, vitamin A from alfalfa could be added to their bread. So alfalfa was a necessary supplement to all feed stock and it had a great potential for the human diet.”
We continue in this vein, unfortunately, for quite some time, learning how alfalfa is harvested, dehydrated, and cooled until ready for mixture into the animal feed. Quite the process, evidently: “The alfalfa is placed in huge conveyor troughs that slowly feed the leaves into an enormous rotating stainless-steel battle, say about thirty feet long and ten feet in diameter. A gas generator creates 1,800-degree-Fahrenheit air that immediately dehydrates the alfalfa. At the end of each cycle, steam exits one opening of the machine and a dry mass of alfalfa exits another. Paddles then move this mass onto a conveyor that takes it on to another building. There it is directed through a hammer mill that renders it alternately into a green powder or green, granulated pellets. It is now necessary to keep the finished product as cool as it is practical in order to preserve its vitamin A within the carotene.”
For those whose curiosity about alfalfa remains unsated, there is much to ponder in the footnotes, where no detail of the process by which the animal liver converts the carotene hydrocarbon to vitamin A remains unexplored.
One senses that in many places — most, in fact — Ashley has simply transcribed directly from his interview notes with Kisevalter or from the declassified case files. The standard of prose in CIA case files is nothing to which any writer should aspire, particularly since case officers are urged to include as much information about their meetings and their subjects, seemingly relevant or irrelevant, in their reports as possible, this on the grounds that an apparently insignificant detail may have some meaning to an analyst, psychologist or counter-intelligence officer back at Headquarters, or may later prove relevant to another case. Perfectly reasonable, but not the makings of gripping prose.
Nonetheless, for the determined reader, there are interesting stories sandwiched, so to speak, between the alfalfa, and there is even a charming line or two — in describing Kisevalter’s inattention to his grooming, he remarks that the man “looked as if he never bothered to prepare himself to leave the house: Come on clothes, I’m going downtown; if you want to go, hang on.” We learn that the KGB conducted surveillance of American embassy personnel in Moscow by dusting the soles of their targets’ shoes with the ultra-secret Neptune 80, an elixir extracted from female dogs in heat, then tracking the diplomats at a distance with the dogs’ lovelorn mates. Kisevalter’s recollection of the shameful, bungled handling of the Alexander Chereponov case is particularly noteworthy: Chereponov, a KGB counterintelligence officer, attempted to offer his services to the CIA by thrusting a package of documents upon a pair of unsuspecting American tourists, pleading with them to take the parcel to the US Embassy. They did so, but having received the documents, the chargé d’affaires, fearing a flap, insisted — over the CIA station chief’s literally violent objections — upon returning the documents to the Soviets, thus fingering Chereponov. He tried to escape. The KGB hunted him down and executed him.
Yet Ashley’s book is much more notable for what it doesn’t observe than what it does. There are a number of important lessons in these stories that Ashley fails explicitly to draw. Foremost among them is that Popov, Penkovsky, Nosenko and the tragic Chereponov volunteered to spy for America. They were not recruited. Indeed, they volunteered with such eagerness that Penkovsky appeared to be prepared to work for any Westerner, including the Canadian embassy‘s commercial counselor. As it happens, these men were obliged practically to vault themselves over the American embassy walls to offer their services, and all were nearly rejected as provocations. The lesson to be drawn from this is that the CIA’s recruitment-driven model of espionage is fundamentally flawed. Yet this is the model that continues to drive its system of internal promotions, with terribly destructive consequences for the war on Islamic radicalism. It is still through recruitment, and nothing else, that one advances through the Agency ranks. Thousands of useless, unmotivated agents are recruited abroad simply to add numbers to case officers’ annual performance reports, but officers are given no incentive to cultivate the far more useful skills that would enable them to handle volunteers in the deft manner of a Kisevalter.
Kisevalter’s success was in large measure due to his native fluency in Russian and his profound knowledge of Russian culture and history. These were the skills that enabled him to gain his agents’ trust and evaluate their sincerity. How perverse, then, that he should have been the only case officer in the CIA’s ranks to possess these skills. In its concern to defend itself against foreign penetration, the Agency has long been loathe to hire operatives with connections to foreign countries. The modern equivalent of a Kisevalter — a man born in Afghanistan or Iraq, a native speaker of Pashto or Arabic with deep emotional ties to his country of birth — would in all likelihood not be given a security clearance. Accordingly, the Agency has very few operatives from Middle Eastern backgrounds and almost no speakers of the languages necessary for the conduct of modern intelligence. If the present-day equivalent of a Penkovsky were to walk in to the US Embassy in Pakistan, it is all too likely that no one there would be able to understand a word he was saying.
On the other hand, the CIA remains obstinately enamored of the Cold War intelligence games that resulted in Kisevalter’s triumphs, placing case officers under official cover, rather than attempting, at far greater risk, directly to penetrate organizations like al Qaeda. Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer and contributor to the Weekly Standard, has remarked that in his many years in the CIA, he never once heard case officers discuss an operation that would take them far from the diplomatic circuit. No surprise, then, that we had little understanding of al Qaeda’s intentions prior to September 11.
CIA Spymaster offers another inadvertent insight into the Agency’s recent intelligence failures in its description of the long tradition of bureaucratic torpor within the CIA. When Penkovsky volunteered, he proposed to check a signal site, three days later, for an American counter-sign. “Of course,” writes Ashley, “he did not know how the Agency bureaucracy worked. The people there just could not respond in three days. One could not even be expected to do traces in three days. One doesn’t do anything in three days in a bureaucracy.” This remains true. Clearly, however, it is possible, in principle, to do name traces within three days — Penkovsky’s expectation of a response suggests that even the Soviets could do it. It is only our own sclerotic intelligence apparatus that can’t. During the Cold War, this was a tolerable weakness. In an era where rapid and accurate name traces mean the difference between granting and denying entry visas to terrorists, this kind of inept sluggishness is a catastrophic liability.
The President may appoint as many intelligence czars as he pleases, and enlarge the intelligence bureaucracy as widely as he likes, but until the intelligence community both learns the lessons of the cases Kisevalter handled and breaks the shackles of the espionage traditions of his era, there will be no successes comparable to the Popov and Penkovsky cases — and there will be many more failures.