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Once More Into a Hall of Mirrors : Spies: The mystery of 'Top Hat,' 'Fedora' and other undercover agents who made the Cold War so confounding.

February 04, 1990|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf)

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — American spy-runners spotted something more than routine muddying of the waters a few weeks ago, when the Soviet Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, reported the arrest and conviction of an army general on charges of spying for the United States since the early 1960s. Pravda called him "Donald," but Americans who had spent years arguing about him had no trouble recognizing the Soviet spy they called "Top Hat"--a central figure in several bitter intelligence controversies left hanging when he mysteriously disappeared in Moscow in the mid-1980s.

The FBI recruited Top Hat when he was attached to the Soviet mission to the United Nations. J. Edgar Hoover and his men considered him a gold mine with his secret reports about military research and Soviet plans for using nuclear weapons in the event of war. The CIA eventually decided Top Hat was a fake--perhaps even part of an elaborate effort to deceive the United States about the lethal accuracy of Soviet missiles.

Since nothing is ever a coincidence in the world of spies and counterspies--and since it is not Pravda that chooses to run stories about KGB, but the KGB that chooses to run stories in Pravda--Americans immediately began to ask themselves why this intriguing bit of not-so-ancient history was being published now. Such questions are the meat and potatoes of the counterintelligence business.

In real life, Top Hat was Lt. Gen. Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov, a career army officer in the Soviet military intelligence agency known as the GRU. After Polyakov was rotated home for a tour of duty in Moscow in 1962, the Americans largely lost contact with him until his next foreign assignment, as military attache to Burma in 1966--where the CIA took over his handling.

According to Pravda, Polyakov moved on to a post in India in the 1970s and at some point was told by his case officer that an operational slip by the agency had compromised him. Evidently the clue was picked up and relentlessly pursued by a KGB officer, Alexander S. Dukhanin. When or how Dukhanin finally unearthed Polyakov, Pravda does not say, nor is it clear whether the death sentence was ever carried out.

On its surface, Pravda's Polyakov story was blandly straightforward: ever-vigilant KGB catches yet another U.S. spy. This seems well-timed because glasnost has been a public relations disaster for the KGB. Last spring, the new KGB head, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, was forced to defend himself before the new Congress of Deputies, and the KGB has been publicly insisting on the legitimacy of its foreign-intelligence role ever since. Kremlin-watchers also point out that Dukhanin has recently been criticized for bungling an investigation of Gorbachev's most conspicuous critic on the Politburo. The Pravda story can thus be read as a defense of Dukhanin, a defense of the KGB--even a defense of Kryuchkov.

In the business of counterintelligence, facts are all very well--but their correct interpretation is what matters. No counterintelligence analyst worth his salt would grant the public-relations aspects of the Pravda story and leave it at that. The Polyakov case, they say, touches too many others--and hidden somewhere in that web is the cryptic Soviet message that explains why the story is being told now. It may be years before the American side emerges--if ever--but in the meantime one can point to three still-unresolved intelligence controversies that involve the Polyakov case. All help to explain the endless secret friction that fueled the Cold War.

To begin with, Top Hat was not alone. Only four months after he contacted U.S. diplomats--in November, 1961--a second Soviet official at the United Nations was recruited by the FBI. This KGB officer was given the code name, "Fedora." His real identity is still unpublished but, like Top Hat, he provided the FBI with important information about the Soviet strategic rocket forces.

The agents' names are principally linked, however, because both backed up the story of yet another Soviet defector, the KGB officer Yuri I. Nosenko, who switched sides in February, 1964. Nosenko was the subject of an unusually intense CIA investigation because he claimed to have seen the KGB files on Lee Harvey Oswald and reported that Soviet intelligence had taken no interest in--had not recruited--the man who killed John F. Kennedy. From the beginning, the CIA suspected Nosenko was a Soviet agent provocateur --deliberately sent to deceive. Two of Nosenko's claims--that he was a KGB colonel and that he had defected after an alarming recall message from Moscow--were checked with Top Hat and Fedora. Both agents reportedly said both claims were true. When Nosenko later conceded both were false--he was a captain, not colonel, and he had fabricated the recall to force the CIA to accept him--suspicion immediately fell on the bona fides of Top Hat and Fedora.

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