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A Very Important Spy

In response to:

The Truth About the CIA from the May 13, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

Thomas Powers’ “The Truth About the CIA” [NYR, May 13] suggests that “none of the spy tales recounted in recent books seems to have provided the edge for victory” in Cold War battles. He includes among “the CIA’s failures to predict major events” Khrushchev’s placement of missiles in Cuba. “This may sound perverse,” writes Powers who sticks a toe into the middle of the battle between the covert operators and the policy makers of thirty years ago, now the self-styled wise men rewriting history by omitting one of the most dramatic elements of that titanic struggle.

On the thirtieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis Robert McNamara once more ventured an op-ed page piece in the New York Times praising the President’s Executive Committee for its brilliant performance. McNamara failed to mention that President Kennedy was not driving blind. He had in his hands intelligence information from Soviet military intelligence Colonel Oleg Penkovsky telling him that Khrushchev was bluffing about Soviet missile strength. The President also had specific details of the SS-4 medium range missiles being placed in Cuba.

Mr. Powers might have noted that McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and the other non-CIA members of the Kennedy Executive Committee which managed the Cuban missile crisis have yet to find room in their hearts to acknowledge the role of Colonel Penkovsky, the greatest Cold War spy.

Mr. Powers is gracious in his praise of The Spy Who Saved the World which for the first time utilized the actual CIA files revealed under the Freedom of Information Act. The book is not always kind to the CIA, but it does disclose in detail that it was CIA director John McCone who warned President Kennedy that Khrushchev was placing offensive surface to surface missiles in Cuba on August 10, 1962. McCone, the lone Republican on the Kennedy National Security Council, argued that Soviet surface to air missiles were being built around sites that were not airfields or ports, thus suggesting they were protecting offensive missile sites. On the basis of McCone’s presentiment President Kennedy ordered continued overflights of U-2s over Cuba until the missiles were discovered on October 14, 1962, after McCone pressed for continued U-2 coverage of Cuba. McCone faced strong opposition from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy as well as the President’s Soviet experts. They all argued that the Soviet build-up in Cuba was purely defensive and that the Soviet Union had never placed offensive missiles outside its own borders.

In his review Mr. Powers asserts that “not even the most celebrated Soviet spy for the West, Oleg Penkovsky, who photographed thousands of pages of secret documents over an eighteen month period in 1961–1962, can clearly be identified as a prime mover in a major episode of the cold war.” Yet it was Penkovsky who was the catalyst for closing the missile gap and who provided the information that allowed President Kennedy to force Khrushchev to blink and back down during the Cuban missile crisis.

Penkovsky’s reporting was instrumental in changing the American estimate of Soviet missile strength. On October 21, 1961, while the twenty-second Communist Party Congress was taking place in Moscow, Deputy Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric announced that the United States “has a nuclear retaliatory force of such lethal power that an enemy move which brought it into play would be an act of self-destruction on his part.” Gilpatric warned the Soviets that the United States had “a second strike capability which is at least as extensive as what the Soviets can deliver by striking first. Therefore, we are confident that the Soviets will not provoke a major nuclear attack.”

Gilpatric’s speech was based on the information Penkovsky had been supplying for six months and new satellite photographs taken of Soviet missile sites over the summer of 1961. Here was a classic example of intelligence information driving policy decisions. Mr. Powers can be the judge of what constitutes being a prime mover of a major episode in the cold war.

The manual that Penkovsky supplied for the SS-4 missiles enabled President Kennedy to ascertain the amount of time needed to put the missiles in place and gave him a window to exchange letters with Khrushchev before the missiles became operational.

The combination of strategic and tactical material provided by Penkovsky contributed to the Soviet removal of their offensive missiles from Cuba, a major turning point in the Cold War by anybody’s reckoning.

Mr. Powers says that in 1962 Penkovsky stopped providing information and asks how and why the CIA lost touch with him. In January, 1962, Penkovsky reported that Mrs. Janet Chisholm, the wife of a British intelligence officer and his contact in Moscow, was under surveillance. Penkovsky suggested they stop meeting in public places but continued to deliver film and materials to her at diplomatic functions until Mrs. Chisholm left Moscow in June, 1962.

The KGB, because of its rivalry with the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, needed an airtight case against Penkovsky before arresting him and continued to keep him under surveillance to determine whether he was working alone or with a spy ring. Penkovsky was a high ranking officer with protectors inside the system. This is the explanation of why Penkovsky was not arrested until September, 1962. The CIA did not lose touch with Penkovsky; it was forced to stop contact with him because he was under surveillance.

Mr. Powers brushes aside the never proven accusations that Penkovsky was a double agent with the glib suggestion that “such arguments by their nature can go on forever.” Indeed they can, but none of Penkovsky’s material was ever proven to be false or fabricated. His protectors were demoted after his conviction and more than two hundred intelligence officers who had contact with him were reassigned. The campaign to brand Penkovsky a double agent was a KGB disinformation ploy to cut Soviet losses in the Penkovsky case, downplay his importance and lessen the impact of the vital materials he provided to the West.

Jerrold L. Schechter
Washington, DC

Thomas Powers replies:

There is a phrase for this, I have been told, in the intelligence business: it is called falling in love with your agent. It is not a sin, but it definitely interferes with clear vision. Oleg Penkovsky was an important spy for the West who delivered important information of use to American officials during the Cuban Missile Crisis—on this Mr. Schechter and I agree. But I am afraid we do not agree that Penkovsky’s role was a central one or that it determined the outcome of the crisis. The operational manuals for the Soviet SS-4 missiles, delivered by Penkovsky, did allow close monitoring of Soviet progress in placement of the missiles in October 1962, but possession of those manuals was only one factor among many. John McCone was both alone and right when he insisted that the Soviets were putting missiles into Cuba, but his reasoning had nothing to do with Penkovsky or any other intelligence material—it came from his gut. Once U-2 overflights established that missiles were indeed there, President Kennedy determined on a forceful response which again had nothing directly to do with Penkovsky. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara confessed there was no missile gap soon after taking office and his conclusion was based on satellite photographs, a newly acquired capability, not on information provided by Penkovsky.

Penkovsky was an important spy, but he was a little bit crazy, as Mr. Schechter and his coauthor, the late Peter Deriabin, amply demonstrate in their interesting book, and he conspicuously failed to warn the West of the two most dangerous Soviet initiatives during the period in which he was active—the building of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and the placement of missiles in Cuba a year later. Early warning in either instance could have saved the world from a dangerous encounter.

Was Penkovsky a plant? I well remember the note of outrage and injury which came into Jack Maury’s voice when he described what were to him obtuse, willful, and perverse insinuations that Penkovsky’s material was not reliable or important. But the fact remains that Soviet counterintelligence officers photographed Penkovsky meeting with the wife of a British intelligence officer in Moscow in January 1962. When a spy goes on delivering material after he’s been identified it’s a good bet—not a positive and established fact but a good bet—that the other side has taken control of him. The Soviets know the answer to this question and maybe they’ll tell us. But until they do some doubt must linger.

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