Sunday 25 January 2004

Gordon Lonsdale: The Cold War's Most Underrated Spy

by Trowbridge H. Ford

Gordon Lonsdale was the Soviets' most undervalued spy because of the most self-serving investigations by the FBI when it first learned of Soviet atomic spying after WWII, and of its continuation by English-born Vilyam Fisher aka Colonel Rudolf Abel in New York during the early 1950s; of the most effective damage-control by MI5's Peter Wright at the decade's end when Lonsdale was finally suspected of being involved in London; and of subsequent efforts by the Security Service to minimize his efforts, thanks to false feedback by the Russians' successor service to the KGB. Cambridge's Professor Christopher Andrew, MI5's official historian who was given exclusive access to the files of KGB foreign intelligence archivist Vasili Mitrokhin in the research of The Sword and the Shield, has concluded that Abel was little more than a caretaker of spies already in place, Wright was nothing more than a popularizer of Anatoliy Golitsyn's conspiracy theories at Prime Minister Harold Wilson's expense, and Lonsdale himself aka Konon Trofinovich Molody was more interested in bedding girl friends, especially Ethel Gee of his only real spy, Harry Houghton, than in serious intelligence work.

Andrew even included a photograph from the Mitrokhin Archive, showing Lonsdale entertaining one of his women friends rather than allegedly the most important female spy the Soviets ever had, Melita Norwood, who would not "hit it off" with his high-flying ways. Another photo shows a toilet cistern in the men's room at the Baker Street Classic Cinema where Lonsdale allegedly put his condoms, filled with spying equipment, when he wasn't using them for more conventional purposes. Then there are pictures of the passports of Helen and Peter Kroger aka Lona and Morris Cohen, Abel's couriers for American spy rings, and a few years later radio operators, posing as antiquarian booksellers, at Lonsdale's illegal residency in Britain who were unduly recognized by the Russians ultimately.

In the text - the worst part of a bad book - Andrew 'cherry-picked', to use the current euphemism for disseminating disinformation, evidence to prove how useless Lonsdale was as an illegal. We are told that his young son, Trofim, longing for his distant dad, wrote in a letter: "...What a stupid job Daddy has got." (p. 408, underlining emphasis his.) Lonsdale's illegal residency was apparently the scene of lavish partying for the boorish British rather than site of serious spying. The residency only business seems to have been the transmission of infrequent messages on a powerful high-speed radio which was clumsily hidden, along with a variety of other spying equipment, money, and passports, in a cavity under the kitchen floor. Once arrested after routine counterintelligence work by MI5, Lonsdale was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but was exchanged a few years later for a Western spy the Soviets were holding. During Andrew's whole analysis, the Cohens appeared to be much more worthy of attention than anything Lonsdale had done - a man whose failures in war and peace apparently had driven to an early death, thanks to an overindulgence in alcohol.

Little wonder in this context that Robert Douglas, a warder of Lonsdale's at Birmingham's Winson Green prison where he was jailed, would continually want to know if he really was KGB Colonel Konon Molody, and write about it when he got the chance with Eye Spy! magazine.

While it is easy to write intelligence history of this nature, especially since the Russians are so eager to discount their successes during the Cold War that they helped make the incomplete, and most biased Mitrokhin Archive available for possible Western favor, getting to the bottom of Lonsdale's spying requires an integrated look at what Moscow was doing rather than a scissors-and-paste account long after the fact, based upon most incomplete files. At the beginning of 1943 when Stalin learned from a communist sympathizer 'K' in England, who has never been identified, the status of American and British research into the making of an atomic bomb, Anatoli Gorsky, the NKVD's London resident, was instructed to recruit immediately this most important scientist as a spy. 'K' seems to have been SCOTT, the Oxford scientist who Edith Tudor Hart had recruited in 1936 for illegal Theodore Mally, and had supplied Moscow with names of likely candidates as agents going into government from leading English universities until the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact. SCOTT, a more important recruit than Kim Philby, was obliged to cut all his CPGB ties to better protect his identity. With the German invasion of the USSR, SCOTT resumed his spying for Moscow, and once the Soviets achieved victory at Stalingrad, assuring their winning the war, he was now willing to give them the benefit of his new credibility, capability, and contacts. In return, SCOTT was given the new code name to cut all ties with his previous efforts.

The report from 'K' put the lie to the claim that spy John Cairncross was The Fifth Man, responsible for getting the Soviets involved in producing atomic weapons, another claim by Andrew. Cairncross's documents only proved important, once Stalin had decided to make the bomb. As for the report's substance, one only has to read atomic physicist Igor Kurchatov's reaction to it. As soon as he had responded to other advice from 'K' about demagnetizing the ships of the Northern Fleet - now the most important priority if the USSR was to win the war - he read their atomic aspects with the greatest enthusiasm, explaining to Molotov: "Wonderful materials, they fill in just what we are lacking." (David Holoway, Stalin and the Bomb, p. 95) To make the most of 'K's' contacts with the least danger of exposure, the NKVD organized at least three networks of spies: (1) Gorsky's group which would so take advantage of 'K's' information from, and contacts with Oxford, Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, Birmingham, Columbia, Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory, Berkeley, and Cal Tech that Ruth Kuczinsky aka SONIA was recruited to keep track of the intelligence flow; (2) Vasili Zubilin's and later Abel's group, centered around CPUSA activists, and serviced by the Cohens, relying upon like-minded atomic scientists QUANTUM, Steve Nelson, Theordore Hall, Saville Sax, and others for their take; and (3) the rag-tag group, headed by the Rosenbergs, and ultimately handled by Alexandr Feklisov, which was recruited for extra bits of information, and insurance.

Atomic spying operations were struck a nearly-fatal blow, though, by the defection of GPU cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko in Ottawa in September 1945. Gouzenko knew the code names, and many details regarding the atomic spies, and with careful assistance he could have blown all the networks sky high. Instead, the Canadians only most reluctantly pursued their own nationals involved, except for British physicist Alan Nunn May, and the FBI only became interested when Director Hoover could connect diplomat Alger Hiss to the whole mess, thanks to turncoat Elizabeth Bentley's vague recollections of CPUSA spying in NYC. As a result, the rest Gorsky's network escaped, thanks to the dragged out exposure of Cambridge diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, though Klaus Fuchs was finally caught four years later after he worked with Feklisov. Of course, this only corroborated what the FBI had dressed up about the Rosenbergs, and their City College associates, thanks to handler Harry Gold's, and their brother-in-law's plea bargains with authorities. As for the Cohens, they too escaped, and with them went the names of other important, still unknown spies.

Once the Rosenbergs (the Soviet decoys, and American scapegoats) had been executed, and Burgess and Maclean had fled to Moscow, the KGB gave Abel and roving assistant Lonsdale the responsibility of rebuilding the atomic network. The Cohens were given new identities as the New Zealand Krogers, and set up shop in Ruislip, England, as dealers in antique books, loading them with microdots, containing vast amounts of secret, scientific and industrial information, for shipment to selected Soviet sites. Abel's job was to see to the preparation of such reports for the Cohens as he re-established contacts with the remnants of communist sympathizers who had spied for the Soviets. Lonsdale's responsibility was to develop new spies, and sources of strategic information without any contact with the USSR, thanks to his connection with the most secretive 'K' who would only deal with his handler through dead letter drops.

Lonsdale learned generally what was required in the way of spying regarding atomic energy, jet engines, rockets, radar, submarine development, aircraft design, satellites, avionics, computers, microprocessors, and the like from the findings of the Colemore Committee. Its published debriefings of the so-called Dragon Returnees, the German scientists, headed by rocket scientist Hermann Oberth, who had been obliged to work for the Soviets after WWII, told Lonsdale all he needed to know about where to start, from whom, and how to develop more intelligence from America, and the UK. Then, of course, 'K' could supply all kinds of new possibilities, deceptive cover, and real feedback.

Hardly had Lonsdale started developing possibilities than Abel himself, despite a warning from Moscow to leave, was arrested by the FBI on June 21, 1957, thanks to the defection of another wayward communist, his KGB assistant Reino Hayhanen, an obvious decoy to protect Lonsdale's activities. Hayhanen had spent his time drinking, whoring, quarrelling with his wife, and trying to fix the fallout from the Rosenberg fiasco. The Bureau, consequently, went wild over finally catching a real agent, preferring to arrest Abel immediately, fearing that he would escape too if it conducted a surveillance of his activities to discover other spies. "In his safe-deposit box," John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have written in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, "the FBI discovered photographs of the Cohens, along with recognition phrases used to establish contact between agents who have not met previously." (p. 318) Little wonder, to everyone apparently but Professor Andrew, that when the Soviets got the chance, they agreed to exchange not only Abel for the famous U-2 pilot Gary Powers but also Lonsdale for Oleg Penkovsky's handler Greville Wynn after he too was finally caught.

As for who Lonsdale re-established contact with, and recruited on his own, MI6's Georg Blake headed the list, but others included RAF rocket designer Linney at the Miles Aircraft Development Laboratory, Guiseppe Martelli at the Culham Laboratory, the Admiralty Research Laboratory's Alister Watson, Frank Bossard from the Ministry of Aviaton, and John Vassall of the Admiralty. Then there was the Underwater Weapons Estabishment's Houghton, Gee, and 'K' himself. While Andrew has used Mitrokhin's Archive to minimize radically the scope, extent, and value of their espionage, even acting as if Lonsdale had not handled them because he only met some of them while imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs, and had such contempt for their base motives in spying that he was most reluctant to recruit them (pp. 409-10), Andrew still concluded that Lonsdale's operation represented "the silver age" of Soviet spying in Britain. It had also obviously branched out to include all kinds of contacts and agents in the industrial world who supplied vast information for making things, from systems for new technology, and plants for greater quantities of basic materials to all kinds of consumer goods. Chairman Khrushchev became so optimistic about its spying potential that he called an extraordinary congress of the CPUSSR in 1959 to declare that the Soviets were on the verge of burying the West with a communist utopia.

The network relied much on the technology Wright had had MI5 develop for fear that the KGB already had it. The reading of secret messages with the help of chemicals, and the location of microdots in books through neutron activation was central to the collection, transmission, and deciphering of the information the Krogers collected, while the means of detecting the contents of safes, and dead letter drops without detection was vital for the operation of their agents and contacts. Their antiquarian book business was an integral part of their operation, and not just a convenient cover, as it gave them constantly the means of sending what they were collecting. They rarely used radios for the transmission of intelligence. There was just too much of it. And what made it all work was Lonsdale's constant servicing of the jukes boxes and chewing-gum dispensers that the KGB had provided him - what gave him a reason for going almost anywhere.

Thanks to the vast information that Lonsdale's network was gathering, Khrushchev told the Extraordinary Congress, the 21st, that the Soviet Bloc would surpass the West by the end of the new 7-Year Plan, one which would see industrial production increase by 80 perecent. "There was to be a chemical revolution," Martin McCauley has written in The Khrushchev Era, 1953-1964, "production was to grow by 300 percent. Emphasis was to be concentrated on modern technologies, especially those pioneered by successes in space. Living standards were to rise sharply with many more consumer goods becoming available. Fifteen million flats were to be constructed and another 7 million dwellings in the countryside." (p. 64)

The problem, of course, was finding the capital, resources, labor, and management to achieve these wildly ambitious plans, and, as expect, they failed miserably. It is one thing to build a mouse trap or a better mouse trap, but it is quite another when you are trying to do so with a wide variety of plants, goods, and services for which you have almost no established capacity, networks or expertise. As a result, it was a classic case of running down everything you had in the hope that you could achieve miraculous results in yet uncharted enterprises and endeavors. Shortages, corruption, and confusion became endemic, while alienation among the population became rife. Only basic extractive and production industries, one which don't have serious product-mix problems, prospered. What can you do with much more electricity, gas, petrol, and cement ii you don't have proper energy-utilization systems, roads, and building enterprises to make automobiles, proper housing, and effective consumer items a reality. Soviet consumer industries were a joke, and the standard of living of average Soviets deteriorated during the 7-Year Plan. By the time Khrushchev fell in 1964, a joke in the USSR was that when the Americans finally reached the moon, they would find the former Party Chairman there to greet them with an ear of maize.

Little wonder that Lonsdale felt let down by the bureaucrats by in Moscow for all his spying, and told Blake so in no uncertain terms: "He was particularly critical of the inefficient and often incompetent way Soviet industrial enterprises were run and international trade was conducted." (Quoted from Andrew, p. 411) Lonsdale didn't seem to understand that stealing a formula, design or plan is much easier than producing a new chemical, providing better applicances, or building a modern housing complex at home, and trading some attractive product on the international market. Spies rarely take into account the real problems of underdevelopment. In Lonsdale's case, the more he stole, the more he just added to the problem - as more people got involved in achieving the goals, the more things went wrong. In the end, there is always a point of rapidly diminishing returns in any field of spying, and unnecessary industrial and economy intelligence almost invariably results in unexpected glitches, gluts and gizmos first.

This conclusion escaped Andrew as he swallowed every bit of deception, and disinformation that Wright provided in Spycatcher in explaining the capture of Lonsdale, Blake, Houghton, Gee, and the Cohens. According to Andrew, Polish defector Michal Goleniewski aka Sniper identified for MI5 spies Blake, Gee, and Houghton, and his surveillance led to Lonsdale, and the discovery of the Cohens' communications center. Andrew overlooked the fact, though, that Goleniewski had been forced to defect by a mole in MI5, someone sounding much like himself, but who Wright made sound like one of his colleagues, especially Director General Roger Hollis, at Leconfield House when he wrote up his report about his capture of Lonsdale's network.

This, of course, was most unjustified as Wright himself allowed Lonsdale to run free so that he could warn all his contacts and agents that he was under surveillance, to tell his bosses in Moscow to make new arrangements for collecting their take, to establish an alibi that he was in no way responsible for what had happened, and only then prematurely force Lonsdale's arrest to authenticate the false story about what he had been stealing, and how it was transmitted to Moscow. It was a classic case of how a clever agent, in even the most tight circumstances, can control events if he only keeps cool, and uses his noodle.

From the moment MI5's Watchers confused Lonsdale for a Polish intelligence officer working at its Embassy until Special Branch officers destroyed the Krogers' house, finally locating, it seems, all the important spying gear, Wright was the driving force behind the investigation - what led to his being assigned writing up the final report. Wright apparently identified Lonsdale as the driver of the car when he met the Krogers, and exchanged packages with them. Then he persuaded MI5 to conduct a surveillance of his premises, and his movements (p. 130) - what undoubtedly tipped Lonsdale off about what its overly-eager Watchers were up to while establishing that he was little more than a playboy interested in bedding babes.

When Lonsdale was allowed to take off for parts unknown in the States during August 1960, Wright persuaded DG Roger Hollis to have the Security Service open his safe deposit box at the Midland Bank in Great Portland Street after he had been followed there, and, low and behold, it contained a suiticase and a package proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Lonsdale was the real thing. Back at the MI5 laboratory at St. Paul's, Wright wrote, "the contents were spread out on a trestle table and carefully examined by Hugh Winterborn and me. After years of trying, we had stumbled across the real thing - the complete toolbag of the professional spy." (ibid.) The Security Service was not going to rush matters as the Bureau had in the Abel case.

All the equipment for copying, and transmitting secret information persuaded MI5 to make another visit to the safe desposit box later in September, and to check its contents in the hope of discovering what Lonsdale was sending back to Moscow. While this proved fruitless, the visits were soon connected by Wright's RAFTER intercepts to messages from the Embassy (LIONSBEARD), indicating that the Soviets had been tipped off about the visits to the bank. Then Hollis was persauded to check for the leaker, and Lonsdale was allowed three more months to clean up his operation with the least damage possible. While MI5 finally tracked Lonsdale to the Krogers' residence in Ruislip, installed much more sophisticated equipment next to his apartment in the White House to monitor his messages to and from Moscow, and burgled the flat to determine the content of his secret messages, it never learned anything significant except that Moscow now wanted him home!

To make sure that this didn't happen, and no more agents were discovered - what Hollis was hoping for - the KGB forced MI5's hand by forcing Goleniewski to flee for fear of being exposed by the Polish intelligence service (UB), thanks to Wright's apparent tipoff of his identity the previous July - what neither Andrew nor Vasili Mitrokhin have anything about. About the rushed roundup of Lonsdale's network, once Wright had established he knew nothing about his fate, Wright wrote: "Arranging the arrests was a prodigious feat of logistics, and for the next three days I barely slept." (p. 135) After nine days of demolishing the Krogers' house, thanks to Wright's continual prodding, Special Branch finally found the cavity under the kitchen floor where all the camera and radio equipment had been stored. To give Wright an alibi for all the delay, he added: "everything was carefullly concealed in moisture-resistant sealed packages, and the whole system had obviously been designed to be stored for a considerable length of time. (p. 138)

Of course, the equipment could have been there for ages - only to be retrieved in case of emergency. At best, it indicated that the operation had been closed down since Wright first alleged that the Embassy had been tipped off four months before. So why did they all just stick around, waiting to be arrested?

While MI5 was most pleased with the capture of Lonsdale's ring, Moscow was most relieved that so little had been lost. The network was still essentially in place, and it was now prepared to operate on an individual basis. Any agent could send books containing microdots messages to sites of his own choosing. More important, 'K' was still in place, and was functioning more independently, and effectively than ever. When the Cold War finally ended, the KGB's successor even acknowledged that SCOTT was still alive in 1995 - before Wright's demise.