Tuesday 27 January 2004

Confessions of an American Counterspy in Paris during the Korean War

by Trowbridge H. Ford

I have never written about my experience a half-century ago in the US Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in its Paris Field Office because of feelings of guilt, embarrassment, constraints, ignorance, and other priorities, a heady mixture which other counterintelligence agents might have seen as simply paranoia if matters had turned out worse.

When Robert Hanssen, a top FBI counterintelligence officer in New York, was confronted by Anglo-American operations during 1985-6, especially Operation Courtship's double agent Sergei Motorin's assignment in Moscow to call a girlfriend in America to indicate that the Soviets had been completely surprised by the assassination of Swedish statsminister Olof Palme, what threatened the world's very survival, he felt obliged to spy for the Soviets, though he hated communism, was so troubled by what he was doing that he constantly confessed his sins to his priest, and did not need nor want the money, even giving it away to a hooker he never used.

This led Tom Mangold, the biographer of CIA's James Angleton, to conclude wrongly in a recent New York Times OP-ED piece that it was the result of the paranoia and loneliness the job induced, what caused the former CI Chief to incarcerate defector Yuri Nosenko, like the Soviets did with defectors, when he claimed that they had had nothing to do with the JFK assassination. Actually, DDP Richard Helms was responsible for Nosenko being locked up in a cell at Camp Peary, and he did it, as I tried to show in my article about him, to help hide the Agency's involvement, especially with Lee Harvey Oswald.

As with all official historians, the idea that Western intelligence agencies could commit horrendous blunders was not in Mangold's conceptual framework. Spying is always the result of something unexpected, like a secret political agenda, or expensive tastes, or something lacking, like basic integrity, in the spy. The counterspy, however, is in a better position than the simple spy to know what is really going on, what can bring into play all kinds of humanistic, mental, and probability calculations, especially if he has much experience.

He may be forced to see just how stupid, unnecessary, or criminal, even reckless, intelligence operations are, though they are not serious enough for him to officially complain, or to put them in print, much less spy for the other side. The differences between my career as a counterspy and Hanssen's are that my superiors never took matters to such ridiculous lengths that I had to spy for Moscow, though they broke almost every standard I came to know in carrying out what should have been the most routine tasks.

When I received my A.B. degree from Columbia University in 1952, I decided not to enter graduate school, making myself immediately available for the draft. I was an Army brat from the Depression years who grew up with a very false, insulated view of the world, though possessing enough intelligence to suspect that there had to be more to things than I gleaned from army life. Early on, all I knew was that I did not want to follow in my father's footsteps, and attend West Point.

Service life is the closest America ever has come to the welfare state with one's material and physical needs basically satisfied, though at terrible mental, cultural and psychological costs. I shall never forget how my childhood chums were always wondering why my family had some bookcases containing some of the world's classics. They were a local wonder, like collections of space rocks, or clerical relics. It was to compensate for this deprivation that I was sent off from the boondocks to a New England prep school at the end of WWII, and then on to college as the Cold War was heating up.

While I did well enough to graduate, all I thought that was necessary, I should have made more of the opportunities, though my choice of becoming a medical doctor, and McCarthyism were already affecting adversely the process. It was only after I had finished most of the pre-med requirement, a host of courses noted for their dryness, and drudgery, that I discovered that I didn't want to be one, especially because of my near pathological fear of seeing blood, particularly my own.

In searching around for a substitute, I wanted to register for a course taught by Franz Neumann, the famous political theorist whose study of Nazi Germany, Behemoth, has become a classic. Of course, with my grades, and background, it was out of the question, and I had to settle for a course taught by Ralph Bowen on the Enlightenment, one in which he discussed everything about the period except what the philosophes actually thought.

It was only recently that I read that they both might well have been important Soviet spies. According to John E. Haynes and Harvey Klehr in their chapter in Venona on spies in the U. S. government, Neuman aka Ruff, an economist in the OSS, was a Soviet agent (pp. 194-5) who worked with the infamous Elizabeth Bentley (p. 220), and Bowen aka Alan, while working for the State Department in some economic capacity (p. 247), had been targeted to become one during WWII by Flora Wovschin, a KGB asset so noted for collecting information from contacts that she had taken over handling them, much to the disapproval of Moscow's spy masters.

Haynes and Klehr cited Neumann twice in Appendix A, those who had covert relations with the Soviets, and based the claim upon a clarification of what had been stated about Ruff in Allen Weinstein's and Alexander Vassiliev's The Haunted Wood. It seems that there were two Ruffs, though, but Haynes and Klehr are quite sure that the dangerous one was Neumann (n. 218, p. 459). Nigel West, in his Venona, added to the catch by claiming that Bowen continued to spy for the Soviets even after Wovschin aka Zora had arrived in USSR in 1949, the year before I took the course with him.

Now, all this is misuse of Venona fragments by most ignorant analysts to make the worst case possible against the persons in question. That any authors could publish a book, especially by Yale University Press, and claim that Neumann was an economist does not imspire confidence in their work. Robin W. Winks, in YUP's Cloak & Gown, Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, published in 1987, had a most positive view of Neumann, seeing him as not only a "superb intellectual historian and political analyst" (p. 85), but also a dedicated naturalized citizen who held OSS's Central European section together as best he could despite its weak leadership, disparate interests, and sharp differences about Germany's future. Under these circumstance, to clarify the false claim by Weinstein and Vassiliev about Ruff at Neumann's expense, rather than admit that the matter is just too confused to be resolved with the evidence available, was a form of witch hunting, which they then go on to compound by claiming that he worked with Bentley when he clearly was not that Ruff.

Similar complaints can be made of Bowen's treatment who was an historian of ideas when they indicated that he may well have been an important economic spy. What could a person with knowledge about thinkers like Rousseau, Fenelon, and Montesquieu have had which the KGB would be even the slightest bit interested in? (They wouldn't claim, would they, that this was why his lectures were so boring - he was saving all the interesting bits for Moscow?) Bowen was simply a broken man by the time I met him. This fishing expedition for important spies became even more vindictive when Haynes and Klehr discussed the unsatisfactory settlement of Rudolf Abel's spy ring because of his hurried arrest, implying that they may have been Columbia's spies who Lona and Morris Cohen were now working with. (p. 317ff.)

I mention these cases not only as other examples of what I complained about in an earlier article - the tendency of spy chasers, thanks to Venona, to make everyone, even those who clearly had an alibi, equally guilty - but also to illustrate the broad knowledge needed to be an effective counterspy, what I sadly lacked when I joined CIC. While I do believe that my performance in tests resulted in my going to Fort Holabird as a possible intelligence analyst rather than to Korea as a so-so rifleman, I nearly didn't graduate because of how I reacted to an asinine order that I write, as if I were a child, 500 times that "I shall not smoke in the latrine" while on breaks from classes, a new restriction I overlooked soon after it was made, and what I compounded by adding all kinds of contingencies to the written demand which still might result in failure.

I later came to learn that my mother did everything short of suicide to make sure that I was assigned to Europe upon completion of my eight-week course rather than to the Far East. She instinctly knew that I would get mixed up with some gung-ho character, and get myself killed.

Once in Europe, my father, a brigadier general who commanded Com Z's Advance Section in Verdun, part of NATO's support structure, pressured people in CIC through his mere inquiries about when I would be posted, possibly to Paris, that I sailed through the administrative steps in record time, a process which left other soldiers I met understandably angry, and me feeling most guilty. I never asked for any special treatment. 66 CIC's headquarters in Suttgart, on the morning after I arrived, reacted to his call about my arrival by making sure that I was gone by the next morning, something unheard of, and my stay in Detachment A's headquarters in Orleans was similarly abbreviated.

In Paris, my education began in earnest. It was right after Stalin had been assassinated by his underlings for fear that he was about to start another round of blood baths, and the Rosenbergs were executed the following June, precipatating the most violent riots I have ever witnessed. The French capital was where the action was, and my official senior officer, the commander of Detachment's A middle region, wanted to take over its Paris Field Office (PFO) as its headquarters. Attached to PFO, though, was a Major Frederick Sala, the Paris Liaison Officer, who reported directly to the CO in Orleans. I was the clerk/typist for both.

One day, the Major from Orleans appeared unannounced, and once he had determined that no one else was in the office, he ordered me to open Sala's files, hoping to find evidence that he was neither qualified nor performing his function. When I refused, explaining he was not authorized to see them, he threatened to court martial me after I repeatedly declined to obey direct orders. I knew enough about the Army that he could not make good on his threats. I disliked the cut of this character from Orleans.

While I was predictably never court martialed, the regional headquarters in Orleans moved to Paris. The whole experience, though, was so traumatic for him that he forgot that I knew all the combinations to Sala's safes, so I was amazed to discover one night on duty, the collective punishment he institututed to get back at those who did not relish his move to Paris, that they were now filled with a choice collection of French pornographic literature. Those who performed night duty did seriously entertain the idea of doing a surveillance of the new chief while visiting all its whorehouses after he had put his wife and kids on the plane for trips elsewhere, the closest we ever came to the alleged paranoia the duty induced, but we never got round to it because we were too busy with our personal lives.

Of course, the consolidation led to a two fold increase in personnel without any official increase in our mission. Officially, the office was just to process security applications for French citizens seeking employment with Uncle Sam, work the French Army counterpart (Service de la Securite de la Defense Nationale, Section Guerre) actually performed, and to check on alleged Army personnel and civilians who were engaged in possible subversive activity. I processed the former, making applications for record checks, and writing up their results in six copies- what the French achieved with a single form which they stamped with a favorable or unfavorable finding, or that the applicant was unknown - what one of our officers handled with a monthly visit to French Army headquarters.

As a result, the other agents were hard pressed to find things to do. The Operations Officer was so superfluous to them that he made a visit almost daily to see what was cooking at the PX and Commissary at Neuilly-sur-Seine. (Actually, it was better as I made fewer typing errors when he was unable to gossip in the office.) The only recollection I have of one of the agents was that he almost blew my head off, thinking apparently that I was a KGB intruder, when I arrived unexpectedly at the office late one evening.

Our new boss, once he settled down from the possibility of exploiting French hospitality by having us see if the Soviets were parachuting spies into the Massif Centrale during the East German riots, was most eager to have us break into the apartment of a DOA civilian who was suspected of being a communist. The mission was finally scrubbed, though, after the boss stated that we would be on our own if caught by the gendarmes, and we concluded that the chances of finding anything, even communist literature, which would prove the claim was almost impossible. As CIC agents, we were expected to know, if not possess, such material.

The absurdity of it all peaked when a very official looking person, wearing a trench coat, and carrying a briefcase, arrived in the office when I was alone, typing away. He identified himself as the FBI legat from the Embassy, and said that he wanted to speak to the person in charge. Once I explained that there was only me, he asked me to take a message for when he returned: we were using another agency's informant, and according to conventional practice, our office should drop him. I replied that if he would not explain who he was talking about, and for whom, there was no way we could act on his request. He replied that the information was classified, and that he was not authorised to disclose it. Of course, I had a good idea of who he was talking about, as our office had so few informants, but we would have to discard them all to satisfy this vaguest of requests, one which would have made us look absurd if we had acted on it.

Ultimately, CIA admitted that the informant was theirs, one Henri Costin, and we dropped him. Costin contended that French government instability was the result of the communists blackmailing other parties over their conduct during the Occupation. Of course, the CP had a lot of explaining to do for its activities during the Non-Aggression Act. Costin's ideas were simplistic to the point of absurdity, as scholarly studies of French politics, like Philip Williams' Politics in Post-War France, and computer studies of parliamentary voting showed. Actually, instead of center and right-wing parties being blackmailed by the communists into breaking up weak coalitions, the biggest source of parliamentary instability was the socialists whose grassroot organizations were not prepared to go along with the compromises necessary to keep coalitions afloat. Costin was apparently part of CI James Angleton's network to manipulate French politics Washington's way, a process which failed utterly with the Fourth Republic's overthrow, and de Gaulle's kicking out NATO.

I suspected that Costin was HENRI, who had survived the war to recruit a group of CP members, starting in Toulouse, and extending to Paris as the Germans departed, whose KGB network infiltrated French intelligence with devastating results, and was now extending its grip to the Agency. In typical fashion, though, Vasili Mitrokhin's KGB file, which was made available to Christopher Andrew for the preparation of The Sword and the Shield, has provided even less about possibilities (pp. 150-2) than I imagined a half-century ago. Mitrokhin almost never supplied new names of spies.

Our agent using Costin then turned his efforts to proving that Georges Bidault, the Christian Democratic leader who often served as Foreign Minister, was a communist stooge because of his marriage. Bidault, according to Andrew (p. 152), knew that his private secretary was a communist, but, according to our agent, he did not know that Suzanne, his wife, was the leading female leader of the CP. After an extensive investigation, one which was not even completed before I left the Army, the State Department was instructed, I have been told, to raise the matter with the French government, only for a last minute check to determine that there were two Suzanne Bidaults before a nasty diplomatic row ensued. Of course, there was no punishment of the CIC agent whose activities were completely without authorization.

The whole office, though, was authorized at the highest level to conduct an extensive surveillance of a high official, named Burns, in the American CP, thanks to the demands of FBI Director Hoover. Around Christmas 1953, Burns booked a flight to Paris, and, in due course, we were instructed to determine as much as we could about his visit to the French capital when he arrived, in May, as I remember. A few months later, Burns cancelled the ticket, and hardly had we started to relax than we were instructed to resume our plans as another Mr. Burns had booked for the flight when it touched down in Canada. Of course, there was no indication that the two were the same person, but we were instructed to go ahead with the surveillance until we made sure they weren't.

When he arrived at Orly, our watchers quickly lost track of him, and for eight to ten hours, our agents were searching frantically around Paris to find the wanted Burns whose hands were appropriately scarred with burns.

When the suspect finally arrived at his hotel, our waiting agent, later a US Senator who got into the deepest trouble with the Nixon Administration over release of The Pentagon Papers, walked over to the desk, picked up Burns's hands, and utttered "Nope!", causing all kinds of relief for us, but only consternation to the subject. If either suspect is still alive, and reading this report, they can now appreciate how their private lives put American officialdom through its paces for no legitimate reason whatever.

In my simple capacity, I tried to achieve the same result when I was asked to discuss with our counterparts in the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations (OSI) the political reliability of The Reporter magazine, epecially its editor Max Ascoli, since I was known to be a regular reader. The chances of Ascoli being communist were even less than Soviet physicist Peter Kapitsa. Actually, Ascoli's connection seemed to be with the Agency, as its use of writers like Priscilla Johnson Macmillan, and its dogged support of American policies, especially in Vietnam, indicated. In sum, the suspicion was absurd, but OSI investigating it was even more so, and I told the "fly boys" so in no uncertain terms. Its source was OSI's head, General Joseph Carroll, Hoover's close associate who had been parachuted in by Senateor Stuart Symington to lead the new agency, and who, like CIA's William Harvey, cooperated with the Bureau in intelligence gathering, and operations.

The culmination of the whole, wacky experience occurred when I returned to Orleans instead of the States to be discharged from the service. I wanted to serve my full two years to the last day to make more sure that I was not recalled if there was another national emergency. Of course, during my passes, and furloughs, I often visited my parents in Verdun during which my father usually asked me about my experiences in the PFO. I never held back, though officially supposed to, giving him the low-down on the absurdities, the latest of which was CIC's G-2 visiting all the posts around the globe semi-annually. The best way to describe the visits is to recall what priests do when they go on retreat or holiday. Nothing in terms of wine, food, and lodging were held back, and the personnel being visited had dry runs before the G-2's arrival to make sure that nothing was amiss. For all CIC personnel, the G-2's visit was the year's highpoint.

You can imagine my nervousness when the CO in Orleans said that he wanted to see me before I said goodbye to CIC. Actually, the agent who tracked down Burns, the PFO Adjutant, and I had shared a house on the Marne east of Paris, and the agent and I had looked seriously into the possibility of going into business in France after our discharges, thanks to the per diem pay we were receiving. We investigated the legal and technical problems involved in producing Rapid Shave, and you imagine our surprise when we learned that our potential backers, including a former French Minister of Education, had conducted serious investigations of us, including surveillances, without our knowledge. It was while returning with my associate from a Sunday visit with them at Rambouillet in a government sedan for a dinner engagement that it was rammed from behind in a pileup on the Versailles motorway, leading the boss to gloat with glee that he had finally caught us misusing government property, something he could court martial us for.

Since I was a corporal, and the agent was a lieutenant, though, there was no way he could prosecute me, though I suspected that this was still what the CO wanted to see me about. You can imagine how my nervousness turned to anxiety when the genial Texan brought up everything I had told my father about the PFO, what he had gotten feedback from the G-2 when he visited my father's HQ, asking about CIC's performance in his command. My father had hardly trusted me with the time of day until then. Fortunately, I had not disclosed anything which wasn't true, and needed fixing. After hearing me out, the CO thanked me, shook my hand, and wished me well in civilian life. Short of this, I might have been prosecuted for telling tall tales.

Unfortunately, I don't think that my candor did either my father or CIC any good. He was forced to retire two years later, and I'm sure his involvement with me didn't help. As for Detachment 'A', the last thing I heard shortly afterwards was that the course-loving CO had moved the comfortable headquarters, noted for its sumputous lunches and leisurely afternoons, to Pithiviers at the cost of $100,000 to the tax-payers, after complaining to the Adjutant that "the chateau is all hunted out."