To the Editor:
The review published in the Fall 2009 issue of Nieman Reports of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America,” by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev leaves open the question of how long “dear old Izzy,” as I.F. Stone was known, was paid to spy for Soviet intelligence. Since Stone has a medal for investigative journalism named after him and awarded by the Nieman Foundation annually in his honor it is important to the credibility and integrity of the foundation and its fellows to get Stone’s story right. For the words of Stone’s hagiographer Myra MacPherson dismissing Stone’s actions with the phrase “being misled and naïve does not make one a spy” to be offered as countervailing evidence is an example of what it means to get the story wrong.
The documented record on I.F. Stone’s ties to Soviet intelligence goes back to 1936. The pattern of his writing, especially his book, “The Hidden History of the Korean War 1950-1951,” in which he falsely charged that the U.S. conspired with South Korea to start the war, documents his obeisance to the Soviet propaganda line at a critical juncture. Former KGB Major General Oleg Kalugin in his 2009 memoir, “Spymaster,” recalls a meeting with Washington Post editors where he was angrily attacked for slandering “one of the best and most respected journalists in America.”
Kalugin replied: “I never said that Stone was a Soviet agent, but now I’ll tell you the truth. He was a KGB agent since 1938. His code name was ‘Blin.’ When I resumed relations with him in 1966, it was on Moscow’s instructions. Stone was a devoted Communist. But he changed in the course of time like most of us.”
The review [“Spies and Journalists: Taking a Look at Their Intersections
” by Murray Seeger] never really comes to grips with the issue of what constitutes being a spy other than to suggest that if a journalist is paid for information that makes him one. Vasilliev’s notes from the KGB archives and decrypted Soviet intelligence messages make it clear that Stone was a paid agent and Soviet propagandist. He broke with the Soviet Union in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, but was convinced to resume work by Kalugin in 1966, and then made a final break in 1968 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Stone told Kalugin, then based under cover in the Soviet embassy in Washington as a press officer, that he would never again take money from the Soviet Union. The testimony of Stone’s former control officer (Kalugin) is solid evidence that he was a paid agent.
The references to Stone’s code name Blin, or pancake, in the Venona messages decoded by the National Security Agency, and in Vasilliev’s notes, demonstrate a pattern of activity far more extensive than professional contacts between a journalist and Soviet sources. As Haynes and Klehr conclude: “It is clear that Stone consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938—that is to say, he was a Soviet spy—but it is unclear if he re-established that relationship in 1944-45. That Stone chose never to reveal this part of his life strongly suggests that he knew just how incompatible it would be with his public image as a courageous and independent journalist. His admirers who have so strenuously denied even the possibility of such an alliance, need to re-evaluate his life and reconsider some of the choices he made.” It is unfortunate that the Nieman Foundation has ignored this aspect of Stone’s career in its efforts to position him as a role model for fearless investigative journalism.
It is apparent to me, as a former Moscow bureau chief for Time magazine (1968-70) who later wrote extensively on Cold War espionage, that there are still blank spots in the career of I.F. Stone as a Soviet agent that need to be filled in, especially KGB financial support for his publications. So, too, are there unanswered questions about the role of Robert Oppenheimer, a friendly, but unpaid Soviet intelligence asset, who was an unlisted or secret member of the American Communist Party. According to an internal Soviet intelligence document, Oppenheimer provided “cooperation in access to research for several of our tested sources, including a relative of Comrade [Earl] Browder [head of the American Communist Party].” Haynes and Klehr ignore this material to reach the unsubstantiated and premature verdict, ostensibly supported by Nieman Reports, that the Oppenheimer case is closed.
However, their coauthor Vasilliev acknowledges that he had no access to the files of department “S” (illegal intelligence) and “T” (scientific technical intelligence), where the facts can be found. The unbreakable rule of Soviet intelligence is never to expose its own agents or assets, living or dead, and especially if their children are alive. Evidence on Stone and Oppenheimer is still carefully buried in sealed Soviet intelligence and presidential archives. The full, compelling story remains to be told.
Jerrold L. Schecter, NF ’64
He is coauthor of “Special Tasks, The Memoirs of An Unwanted Witness—A Soviet Spymaster” and “Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History.”
Bob Giles, NF ’66, curator of the Nieman Foundation, responds:
In my role as publisher of Nieman Reports, I read each issue of Nieman Reports in its final proofs before it is published. Given my work in establishing the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence at the Nieman Foundation, I’d followed the controversy over Stone’s history with the KGB in biographies written by Myra MacPherson and D.D. Guttenplan and in the reviews of “Spies.” My own reading of the portions of “Spies” dealing with whether Stone was paid to spy for Soviet intelligence suggested to me that there continue to be unanswered questions about his relationship with the KGB, and thus I felt that the authors’ conclusion was not supported by compelling evidence. I asked that changes be made in Murray Seeger’s article to indicate that Stone’s defenders believe that the evidence now available does not support the conclusion that Stone acted as a spy for the Soviets.
To the Editor:
I.F. Stone used to say “Establishment reporters undoubtedly know a lot of things I don’t. But a lot of what they know isn’t true.” Murray Seeger’s essay “Spies and Journalists: Taking a Look at Their Intersections
” in the Fall 2009 issue of Nieman Reports illustrates his point nicely.
Let’s start with basic factual errors: neither Helen Bentley nor Whittaker Chambers ever worked for PM (though I.F. Stone did). Though they do claim Stone assisted the Soviets in 1936, not even the authors of “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” suggest that Stone “kept close contact with Soviet intelligence for at least six more years.” Apart from a single episode in 1936, “Spies” offers “only one additional reference” (page 151) even purporting to link Stone to the KGB in the 1930’s. Nor do the authors of “Spies” ever claim Stone was “a paid Soviet agent.” In 1944 Vladimir Pravdin’s role as a KGB agent might have been well-known to Murray Seeger, but there is absolutely no evidence that it was known to either I.F. Stone or Walter Lippmann, both of whom often met with Pravdin in his official capacity as TASS’s New York bureau chief. (Pravdin, whose real name was Roland Abbiate, was born in London, raised in Monaco, and spoke perfect “British” English—a far cry from the Boris Badenov character depicted in “Spies” and certainly plausible enough as a journalist to fool Walter Lippmann, who turned out to be a far more productive source than I.F. Stone.) It’s true, by the way, that some Soviet cables used “Imperialist” as a cover name for Lippmann. However in others, which Seeger never mentions, Lippmann is called “Bumblebee”—a distinction he shared with David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother. And speaking of the Rosenbergs, Seeger mistakenly credits “Spies” with closing a case that hasn’t been open for years. I.F. Stone never accepted their claims to innocence, but for those who did, and who persisted even after Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton’s convincing 1983 book “The Rosenberg File,” the release of the Venona material by the National Security Agency in 1996 removed all doubt. After New York Times reporter Sam Roberts’ dogged brilliance in getting Morton Sobell to admit his own guilt in September 2008 there was no case left to close.
Frankly I can’t tell whether Seeger’s failure to provide context is deliberate or inadvertent. Alexander Vassiliev’s career in the KGB had nothing to do with the fortunes of “reform” in the former Soviet Union; Vassiliev makes no effort to hide his disdain for glasnost and Gorbachev, who “didn’t care about the … recommendations provided by the KGB” (p. xxxi). His separation from Russian intelligence had even less to do with the presence of “former Communists” in the SVR, since Vassiliev was one himself. Since Seeger does cite the passage where Vassiliev boasts of the lack of Jewish ancestry in his or his wife’s family (considerably softened in Seeger’s paraphrase), his decision to omit Vassiliev’s declaration, in the same sentence, of his Communist affiliation is difficult to explain. A conscientious reviewer would also have mentioned Vassiliev’s own credibility gap: In 2003 he lost a libel trial in Britain—where the law is notoriously stacked in favor of plaintiffs—after a jury found that a reviewer’s characterization of Vassiliev as “an unreliable author whose identification of persons who worked for the KGB is in part wrong, in part based on out-of-context information, and in part mere guesswork” was perfectly reasonable. And as the historian Amy Knight pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement (June 26, 2009) Vassiliev’s most recent account of his note taking in “Spies” contradicts his sworn testimony from that 2003 trial.
Finally there is the question of what “Spies” actually does claim, namely that in 1936 Stone exchanged information with a TASS correspondent, whom he knew to be a Soviet agent, and also offered to introduce William Dodd, Jr., son of the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, to “anti-fascist” contacts. Also that “Blin” [Pancake] appears on a list of supposed agents in 1938. The only source for these allegations are Vassiliev’s notebooks, whose authority a less credulous reporter might at least want to query given Vassiliev’s record. And the only evidence that Stone was “witting”—i.e. that he knew his TASS contact was an intelligence officer—is the phrase “the channel of normal operational work” which Seeger claims “was reserved for paid agents.” If he has a shred of evidence for this assertion—rather than, for example, possibly referring to a professional relationship consisting of regular meetings between politically sympathetic journalists—it would be nice to see it. The authors of “Spies” may well share Seeger’s belief, but since they don’t have any evidence to support it either they prudently refrain from making such a bald claim.
I.F. Stone has been dead for 20 years so Seeger’s sloppy slanders can’t do him any harm. But your journal, and your readers, deserve better.
He writes from The Nation’s London bureau and is the author of “American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone.”
Murray Seeger, NF ’62, author of “Spies and Journalists: Taking a Look at Their Intersections” in the Fall 2009 issue of Nieman Reports, responds to D.D. Guttenplan’s letter:
Ordinarily I would ignore the letter received from D.D. Guttenplan as another example of the I.F. Stone Protective Society rallying around their hero when his reputation has been challenged. The contemporary Leftists have so few heroes that they have to elevate Izzy Stone to a pinnacle he never attained in real life. I do respond only because the writer accused me of “sloppy slanders.” My name had not been associated with that slander since I worked in Moscow 35 years ago and the KGB took umbrage over my reporting.
I refer those interested to the book “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America” that I reviewed to Guttenplan’s discomfort. One quote from that book, by John Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev (page 152): “It is clear that Stone consciously cooperated with Soviet intelligence from 1936 through 1938—that is to say, he was a Soviet spy—but it is unclear if he re-established that relationship in 1944-45.’’ I agreed with that conclusion and I believe the evidence is clear that Stone dallied with the KGB in the later years. An even more thorough analysis by Max Holland appeared earlier in 2009 in the Journal of Cold War Studies, published at Harvard.
I did not attempt greater context because I do not feel Izzy Stone was that important. I did not know Stone but I admired his unique reporting about the Vietnam era and admired his independence. But he was neither the first nor the greatest investigative reporter, as Guttenplan argues. Nor does Guttenplan point out that “Spies” put a big black mark on the remarkably hortatory, long “American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” that he published in the same season.
When Stone’s defenders confront irrefutable negative evidence about their hero, they attack the critics or excuse Izzy as “naïve.” Now, that would be slander. There is an interesting incestuous circle spinning here: Guttenplan, who writes for The Nation from London, wrote a scathing review of “Spies” for that magazine. Jonathan Mirsky, the first I.F. Stone Teaching Fellow at University of California, Berkeley, wrote an enthusiastic review of Guttenplan’s book for The New York Review of Books (NYRB). Stone wrote for both The Nation and NYRB. The NYRB has not published a review of “Spies.”