Never Trust a Chekist

Russian intelligence officers are a congenitally cagey breed. They are never more deceptive when appearing to divulge important truths. Their memoir accounts in particular are to be taken with grains, perhaps bags, of salt.

One of my favorite memoirs from a KGB master-spy is Aleksandr Feklisov’s, published in English in 2001 as The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (the Russian original, published in 1994, has minor but not unimportant differences), which devotes a lot of attention to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, as the title indicates.

Feklisov served under diplomatic cover in New York between 1940 and 1946. His actual job was with the Soviet intelligence station or rezidentura. During that long tour, he handled many Soviet agents in America, most famously the notorious Rosenbergs, who were executed by the U.S. government in 1953 for passing atomic secrets to Moscow. Feklisov had more than fifty meetings with Julius and his memoir is at pains to portray Ethel especially as innocent of espionage: a not very plausible claim, as I previously explained in detail.

Feklisov could never quite keep his story straight about the Rosenbergs — he gave a half-dozen differing accounts of their activities on Stalin’s behalf before his death in 2007 at age ninety-three — and he’s open about his bias: the memoir includes a photo of an aged Feklisov kissing the Rosenberg’s gravestone!

His later espionage career included bigger and better things, including heading up the KGB’s Washington, DC rezidentura from 1960 to 1964, at the height of the Cold War. His claim to fame was engineering a resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, a historic event that Feklisov’s memoir recounts in a somewhat truthful fashion.

As with celebrity autobiographies, nobody reads KGB memoirs to discover truths, you’re reading to see what hints they drop about dirty secrets not previously divulged. Here Feklisov does not disappoint, and his memoir drops numerous hints about KGB spies in the West never before revealed — though, of course, the author is too clever and gentlemanly to give actual names.

One of the most important accounts, from the perspective of American counterintelligence, is Feklisov’s telling of his encounter with “Rupert” in New York City in the waning days of the Second World War. He praises “Rupert” as a “real ghost” and states that this mystery man was never unmasked as a Soviet agent. Feklisov recounts his difficulty in actually meeting up with “Rupert.”

Meeting with American agents face-to-face was a risky proposition and such matters had to be handled with care. Every second Friday of the month beginning in July 1944, Feklisov took position outside the Astoria Theater on Broadway around 8:45 pm and waited for the mystery man to show. Feklisov only had a vague description and a fuzzy photo forwarded from the Center, Soviet intelligence headquarters in Moscow, to go on.

Months went by with no-show after no-show but Feklisov was a patient man and eventually, on the evening of second Friday of February 1945, he finally spotted somebody who might be his quarry, a man in the uniform of a major in the U.S. Army. He resembled the photograph so Feklisov asked him, “Excuse me, you’re waiting for Helen, right?” to which “”Rupert” replied, per prior arrangement, “You must be her cousin James.” At last the Chekist had his man.

They had a drink together and “Rupert” explained that he had just returned from overseas, where it was impossible to communicate with Soviet friends. He had a remarkable story to share with Feklisov. “Rupert” was assigned to Army intelligence, specifically its super-secret code-breaking arm, which was doing so much to win the war against Germany and Japan.

“Rupert” explained that Army signals intelligence was reading high-level encrypted Japanese military and diplomatic communications, a top secret program given the coverterm MAGIC. They were also reading Japanese diplomatic communications between Tokyo and their embassy in Moscow, and thus were gaining insights into certain Soviet activities and intentions.

U.S. Army SIGINT was not yet reading Soviet encrypted communications with regularity, according to “Rupert,” but there he brought bad news. He explained to Feklisov that American intelligence was working hard to crack Soviet codes and was making important early progress in decrypting the communications of the Soviet secret police. This above-top-secret program, subsequently termed VENONA, ran until 1980 and was one of the biggest secrets of American intelligence during the Cold War. And Moscow knew about it years before even President Truman was told about VENONA.

The big problem with Feklisov’s account is that it’s not true. It’s partly true, to be sure, but the lies told are as revealing as the facts. He is describing an actual clandestine meeting that happened in Manhattan between a Soviet case officer and an American intelligence officer in February 1945.

The planning for that meeting was detailed in a VENONA message that was not decrypted until well after the meeting took place. On February 16, 1945, Moscow Center instructed the New York rezidentura to prepare for a meeting with agent ZVENO (LINK in Russian) at nine p.m. on February 24, and included information about the passwords to be used.

ZVENO was William Weisband, a U.S. Army SIGINT officer who was a high-ranking Soviet secret agent from 1934 to 1950. Weisband has a good claim to be the most damaging traitor in the history of American intelligence (see details here), or at least until Edward Snowden. ZVENO/Weisband was also discussed in an earlier VENONA message from June 1943.

Weisband did inform the Soviets about VENONA, as subsequent accounts would reveal, but he never served in the Pacific (his time overseas was in the Mediterranean theater) and he was never an Army major; in 1945 he was a mere lieutenant. Who, then, was “Rupert”?

Feklisov pulled an old Chekist trick by running two different agents together to muddy waters, even decades later. Old school Soviet spymasters were sticklers for keeping secret the identities of foreigners who served their cause. Meticulous counterintelligence work, including rummaging through archives, reviewing yellowed case files, and interviewing the elderly, slowly revealed the identity of “Rupert.”

He was a prominent American who indeed did serve in U.S. Army intelligence in the Pacific during World War Two, achieving field-grade rank. And he was indoctrinated for a wide range of SIGINT secrets. U.S. intelligence files never hinted that he was a traitor, but he had been a hardline Communist before the war, though never an actual party member (often Soviet spies were told to steer clear of the Community Party, which was closely watched by the FBI).

After the war, however, “Rupert” had a change of heart and transformed into a Cold War liberal with anti-Communist views. His Bolshevism was a youthful indiscretion, and by the 1950s he was part of Washington, DC power circles and a friend to presidents, none of whom had any inkling of his secret past. Feklisov did not lie when he stated that he never met “Rupert” again after their drink in New York.

By the time we discovered the identity of “Rupert” there was no point in revealing his treason. He was long dead and, besides, his conversion to anti-Communism after 1945 seemed sincere and a mitigating circumstance of sorts. Reports were filed away and, like Aleksandr Feklisov, I’m not naming names when it’s not necessary. Perhaps someday the right FOIA request will ferret out who “Rupert” was. For now, I’m keeping mum like a good counterintelligence officer should.