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Igor Sutyagin and I.F. Stone: Spies?

by Walter C. Uhler / June 16th, 2009
A Review of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev
My first and only meeting with Igor Sutyagin occurred on 7 September 1998, in what was then the Taiga Café of Moscow’s Aerostar Hotel. A senior scholar in the Department for Military-Political Studies at the Institute for the USA and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Sutyagin was given the task of dining with an American “People to People” delegation — of which I was a member — and briefing its members on the economic crisis ravaging Russia since its catastrophic default just three weeks earlier.
Although we peppered Igor with questions about Russia’s economic collapse, his answers clearly demonstrated — to me, at least — that the Russian economy was not his area of expertise. Which is why, near the end of our dinner, I changed the subject by asking him a series of questions about the Russian military, my specialty. “What was Russia doing to capture the so-called “revolution in military affairs?” Was he familiar with the massive American study, Atomic Audit (which I reviewed in the July 13, 1998 edition of The Nation) especially its startling revelations about the high risk of accidental nuclear war that was hanging over our unwitting heads during the Cold War? What is Russia doing today to assure control over its nuclear arsenal?
After Igor gave lengthy answers to each question, I asked him what he thought of President Clinton’s recent decision to permit the expansion of NATO. Much to my surprise, Igor’s face turned crimson as he reached into his wallet to withdraw a folded newspaper article that described a deal struck between former Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
According to the article, Baker assured Gorbachev that, in return for the Soviet leader’s assistance in accomplishing the peaceful unification of Germany, the United States would not pursue any further expansion of NATO. (Gorbachev reiterated Baker’s promise as recently as March 2009) Having read Baker’s promise, Igor characterized Clinton’s decision to expand NATO as a “stab in the back.” He quickly added: “Why should Russians trust the United States to honor any of its agreements?”
After dinner, I invited Igor to my room, where we spent two hours discussing the collapse of the Russian military, the consolidations currently occurring in defense industries of both countries, FIGS (financial industrial groups) and Gorbachev’s role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like most Russians I’ve met, Igor didn’t share my high esteem for Gorbachev.
But, he seemed quite interested in my soon-to-be-published review of Gary Hart’s book, The Minuteman: Restoring and Army of the People, which called for a sharp reduction in active-duty forces and increased reliance on arguably less competent reserves, because “a permanent standing military seeks causes for its continued existence and resources to maintain itself.”
In fact, the smiling Sutyagin suggested the world would be better off, were the American military compelled to rely more on arguably less competent reserves. There would be much less “adventurism” around the world, he said.
After giving him a few of my recent articles, including my review of Atomic Audit, we ended our conversation by agreeing to remain in touch. Most importantly, Igor agreed to serve as my point of contact in Moscow (to coordinate visits and meetings) for the People to People delegation of defense experts I planned to bring to Russia in 1999.
In fact, People to People approved and advertised my proposed delegation for 1999, but it never got off the ground. It became a casualty of the widespread and widely broadcast protests by angry Russians against NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia that year. (One of the few individuals who expressed interest in the delegation was a man who claimed to be with the CIA. He called me to ask whether CIA analysts could participate. Although I doubted the caller’s motives and bona fides, I told him that transparency and information in the public domain would be the rules for our delegation. Under those conditions, if People to People and the Russians didn’t mind CIA participation, neither did I.)
Igor, himself, sent me a blistering email about the U.S./NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. After listing the international laws violated by NATO’s unprovoked attack, he once again asked why Russia should trust the U.S. to honor its international obligations. Notwithstanding this outburst, we continued to exchange emails (and I mailed a few books to him, including one containing Vasili Mitrokhin’s archival revelations about the KGB) up until his arrest.
His arrest? Yes, you might imagine my surprise and dismay when I learned that Igor Sutyagin had been arrested in late October 1999 and, in November, charged with high treason under Article 275 of the Criminal Code. The charge? Passing Russia’s nuclear secrets to the West.
Having personally witnessed examples attesting to Igor’s unwavering Russian patriotism, I concluded that he had been set up — especially after I learned that Igor’s boss, the Director the Institute for the USA and Canada Studies, asserted that Igor did not have access to classified information. In fact, the Director asserted that none of his employees has access to secret documents.
As part of Igor’s persecution, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) staged a bogus TV news story on December 26, 2000, in which Igor supposedly confessed to his crime. (Yet, years later, when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution urging Russia to release Sutyagin, Russia’s Presidential Pardon Commission declined to pardon Sutyagin because he had not admitted guilt.)
In 2004 Igor was sentenced to 15 years for his “crime,” notwithstanding the fact that the prosecutors never established that Igor ever possessed classified information. Prior to his conviction, the charade got so bad that the Federal Security Service even attempted to persuade the Director of the Institute for the USA and Canada Studies that “the Criminal Code says that if you pass information to foreigners and get paid for it, then it doesn’t matter…[whether or not] the information contains state secrets.”
The international outcry was enormous. As the U.S. State Department’s 2007 Report on Human Rights noted: “Sutyagin and human rights groups claimed that he had no access to classified information, and that the government sought a severe sentence to discourage others from sharing sensitive information with other countries. Amnesty International has deemed Sutyagin a political prisoner, and other domestic and international human rights groups raised concerns that the charges were politically motivated and that there were problems in the conduct of the trial and the lengthy sentence.”
Yet, if political considerations led to the unwarranted arrest, conviction and incarceration of Igor Sutyagin, how different are the political considerations that appear to guide the decision by the authors of Spies to smear I.F. Stone posthumously as a spy for the Soviet Union. The authors’ case against Stone can be found in the chapter titled “The Journalist Spies.”
Like Sutyagin, Stone had no access to classified information. And, like Sutyagin’s patriotic outbursts against the United States, Stone was known to have uttered harsh words against the Soviet Union. Moreover, as D.D. Guttenplan notes in “Red Harvest,” The FBI “opened his mail, tapped his phone, rifled his garbage and subjected him and his family to daily surveillance — without finding a scrap of evidence that Stone was anything other than an unrepentant, and independent, American radical he seemed.” [Guttenplan, p. 28]
So, what’s the evidence for labeling Stone a “Soviet spy?” Little but the May 1936 claim from the KGB New York station that “Relations with Pancake [Stone] have entered that channel of normal operational work” [Spies, p. 150] and subsequent reports concerning two inconsequential services supposedly supplied by Stone (gossip about William Randolph Hearst and contact with William Dodd, Jr., see Guttenplan, p. 30)
Moreover, Messrs. Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev undermine even this threadbare evidence when they conclude: “Espionage is a secretive business. It is rare that the agents engaged in it or the agencies they serve speak honestly and openly about what they’ve done because the incentives to lie, dissemble, and continue to deceive are so strong for all concerned” [p. 541]
More to the point, “Spies never explains why we should believe KGB officers [note the FSB and Sutyagin, above], pushed to justify their existence (and expense accounts), when they claim information comes from an elaborately recruited ‘agent’ rather than merely a source or a contact.” [Guttenplan, p. 27]
Notwithstanding the errors concerning Stone and the reckless use of the word “spy,” the book contains many new revelations. New spies are identified and the book devotes nearly twenty pages to demonstrating that Robert Oppenheimer did not assist Soviet espionage. Unfortunately, the new information from Vassiliev’s notebooks must be placed in their proper context, which often requires the inclusion of much previously known information that, in turn, often makes the book tedious to read.
Finally, even when one puts aside the mistreatment of I. F. Stone, ignores the indiscriminate use of “spy” and overcomes the tedium of reading so much well-worn information, there’s still the critical issue of the harm done to the United States.
The authors, themselves, ask the question: “How much damage did these spies do?” And although their answer shouldn’t be dismissed, it is underwhelming: Mainly, they believe that “the scientific and technical data they transmitted to Moscow saved the Soviet Union untold amounts of money and resources by transferring American technology, which enabled it to build an atomic bomb and deploy jet planes, radar, sonar, artillery proximity fuses, and many other military advances long before its own industry, strained by rapid growth and immense wartime damage, could have developed and fielded them independently.” [p. 545] In a word, the Soviet Union acquired certain weapons sooner that it normally would have. Yet, such a conclusion raises anew the question of the damage done by “spies” who had no access to weapons technology.
Moreover, I just lived through eight years in which a cabal of right-wing ideologues, led by an evil Vice President, seized political power in the United States and immediately plotted to attack Iraq while ignoring dire warnings about an impending al Qaeda attack. Having enhanced the probability of successful al Qaeda attacks by their Iraq-obsessed lack of preparation, the cabal then proceeded to manipulate the fear and anger aroused by the successful attacks by lying to the American public about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (mushroom clouds) and ties to al Qaeda — in order to carry out the invasion they had been planning all along. After the lies came torture and the illegal wiretaps of innocent Americans.
As a consequence, tens of thousands of American soldiers were killed or seriously wounded. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis were killed and some 5 million were displaced. Billions of taxpayer dollars were wasted, contributing to the great recession of 2008. The cabal’s illegal, immoral invasion and decision to authorize torture blackened America’s reputation and undermined its security around the world, in part by serving as recruitment tools for jihadists worldwide.
Thus, the treason evidenced in Spies seems like so much small potatoes when compared with the damage caused by the real thing.