Book Review Editor’s Note
This special “Intel Issue” reflects the explosion in intelligence historiography and the cornucopia of declassified Soviet and American documents covering the Second World War and the Cold War that began following the end of the Cold War (1989) and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), and which accelerated after the intelligence failures leading to 9/11. The revelations of the Venona files (in 1995)—the nearly three thousand decrypted telegraphic cables U.S.-based Soviet agents sent to Moscow during World War II— corroborated many of the findings based on the operational files of the KGB (and its precursors) and the confessions of defectors such as Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers. The complicity of Alger Hiss, Julius Rosenberg, Theodore Hall, Klaus Fuchs, and other Soviet agents is no longer in doubt. The lax internal security of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations facilitated Stalin’s ideologically-motivated agents’ (a number of whom were recruited out of and assisted by the Moscow-controlled Communist Party USA) extensive penetration of nearly every key U. S. government agency, including high-level positions in the departments of State and Treasury, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the Manhattan [atomic bomb] Project, Congress, and even the White House.
Nearly a generation of CIA declassification of OSS records (available at the National Archives) and oral history interviews with OSS veterans have produced a never-ending flow of books on the “shadow warriors,” two of which are reviewed here. Also included in this issue are reviews of often neglected works on naval and military intelligence during the critical stages of World War II and the height of the Cold War. Our “lead review” examines the invaluable service of a CIA officer who “handled” the most important agent in American intelligence history — Oleg Penkovsky — the “spy who saved the world.” In the coming months, more intelligence works will be reviewed in these pages, especially those focused on covert operations, terrorism, Soviet espionage in America, and more recent challenges to the intelligence community in the post-9/11 era.
HANDLER OF THE “SPY WHO SAVED THE WORLD”
Review by William J. Daugherty
CIA SPYMASTER: Kisevalter, the Agency’s Top Case Officer, Who Handled Penkovsky and Popov. By Clarence Ashley. (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2004. Pp. 350. $24.95 cloth.)“The importance of Kisevalter’s personal qualities are soundly woven into the op-erational history of these two cases—Popov and Penkovsky—imparting a clear realization that, without Kisevalter, these two cases might not have produced the vital intelligence that they did, leaving the reader to wonder how, and in what ways, might the world be different today had not Kisevalter been present.”
A “case officer” is a staff officer in an espionage agency who recruits foreign nationals (“agents”) to spy against their own country, and then “handles” or manages the operation (“case) so that the agent’s safety is protected while he or she provides secret information to the case officer. Essential traits of a good case officer are multiple, but include initiative, imagination, innovativeness, common sense, good judgment, strong interpersonal skills, “street smarts,” a high tolerance for ambiguity, an understanding of the country or culture in which he’s operating, command of the local language, exceptional personal integrity, and cool nerves. George Kisevalter possessed all of this and more: a high IQ, a photographic memory, a natural facility for languages, modesty, humility, and—in the words of a close friend—a “great love and understanding of his fellow man.”
Born in pre-revolutionary Russia, fluent in Russian, and keenly knowledgeable of Russian history, Kisevalter’s almost unique personal abilities and the circumstances of his early years eventually combined with the vagaries of the Cold War to place him at the very center of America’s national security during one of the most critical moments in world history. Joining the Central Intelligence Agency in 1951, Kisevalter began working in clandestine operations oriented—quite naturally—against the Soviet Union. In this capacity, he handled two of the most important Soviets ever to spy for the West—Pyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky. Clarence Ashley’s book is the life story of George Kisevalter framed around these two intelligence operations. The importance of Kisevalter’s personal qualities are soundly woven into the operational history of these two cases, imparting a clear realization that, without Kisevalter, these two cases might not have produced the vital intelligence that they did, leaving he reader to wonder how, and in what ways, might the world be different today had not Kisevalter been present.
In late 1952, Pyotr Popov, a major in the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU), sought out a contact in American intelligence in Vienna. Kisevalter was asked to handle this agent who ultimately provided the first accurate description of the post-World War II Soviet military structure, weapons systems, and Moscow’s intelligence operations throughout the world. Popov continued to spy for the CIA until 1958, when he was caught—through no fault of Kisevalter—and executed.
As important as Popov was to the United States and the West, it was Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, another Soviet GRU officer, who has earned the sobriquet, the “spy who saved the world.’ Like Popov, Penkovsky volunteered his services and Kissevalter was called in to handle the spy, in league with two counterparts from the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6). While providing highly sensitive in-telligence on an astonishing amount and variety of subjects, it was Penkovsky’s intelligence on the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces that was the most important. In one of those critical, and fortuitous, coincidences of history, this intelligence became available to President Kennedy just as Premier Khrushchev was moving intermediate range missiles into Cuba. Penkovsky’s intelligence was vital to JFK’s ability to resolve the crisis without war (including nuclear) against either Cuba or the Soviet Union.
Ashley’s recounting of Kisevalter’s life is thorough, and the details of the Popov and Penkovsky cases are sufficiently adequate for readers to come away with a good sense of the difficulties they presented, the operational modalities they involved, and the vital importance of each. But the reader should be aware that this is not a conventionally scripted biography. Ashley was Kisevalter’s friend and business partner, and so he has written the book through his own experiences and conversations with Kisevalter rather than from scholarly research and interviews. As such, the author himself has become a character in his own book, recounting conversations in a first person style, including at times a “question and answer” format. Those readers expecting a more detached or academic biography may find Ashley’s style somewhat off-putting. Lacking the skills of a professional writer, Ashley’s straightforward narrative relies upon simple sentence structure and basic compositional organization.
As both the Popov and Penkovsky cases have been written about in greater detail by others, the real value in this book is that the reader is able to meet a man who is unlike any with whom most people are ever privileged to know. That one individual could possess so many marvelous (indeed, enviable) qualities, live such a fascinating life, and make so many meaningful contributions to his country, and still be the down-to-earth, unassuming, modest man that was George Kisevalter, is truly remarkable. He deserves to be viewed as a hero as much for who he was as for what he accomplished. And so Clarence Ashley’s book does succeed, because when you finish the last page, you are left wishing that you, too, could have known this extraordinary man.