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Secret Agent Man

BOMBSHELL: The Secret Story of Ted Hall and America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy. By Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel . Times Books: 400 pp., $25

September 28, 1997|ALLEN WEINSTEIN | Allen Weinstein is the author of the recently reissued "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case." His new book, "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America," with co-author Alexander Vassiliev, will be published next year

In years to come, historians will regard the final decade of the 20th century as an enormous watershed of revelations about U.S.-Soviet espionage, and only two events will ever explain why. The Soviet Union's complete and devastating collapse in 1991 opened sealed records and shattered many apparatchiks' reserve toward their old regime, to the amazement of Western and Russian researchers. Accompanying this abundance of new information was the National Security Agency and CIA's decision between 1995 and 1996 to release cables sent during World War II to Moscow by Soviet agents in the United States; these cables had been intercepted during the war and later deciphered but concealed from public scrutiny. Even President Harry S Truman apparently never learned at the time about these so-called VENONA cables, as the program was code-named, and they would not have been released in the mid-1990s without persistent pressure from members of the bipartisan Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, including its chairman, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

The sudden availability of these classified Soviet and American intelligence records has led to publication of new, informative works on Soviet intelligence activities in the United States, to which Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel's "Bombshell" can now be added. The authors skillfully use both a number of VENONA documents and a wide range of written material, agent memoirs and interviews collected in post-Communist Russia, where both have worked as journalists.

Their focus is Theodore "Ted" Alvin Hall, who was, in 1944, a 19-year-old American physicist and Communist working at the top-secret Los Alamos complex and who became a major source of information for the Russians on work underway related to development of the atomic bomb. As one of the VENONA project's most dramatic revelations, he was exposed publicly in the 1990s as a Soviet agent. Although cable decoding in 1949-50 had led Western agents to identify atomic spies Klaus Fuchs and Harry Gold, Hall--though questioned by the FBI at the time--was never arrested as a spy because of a lack of concrete evidence. Hall, to whom the Soviets assigned the code name "Mlad" or "Youngster," was an unexpected volunteer spy who came in from the heat of the Los Alamos desert to deliver crucial materials on the American A-bomb project to a pair of Soviet couriers in 1944-45, thus joining fellow spies, German exile scientist Fuchs and American mechanic David Greenglass, who were among now-known Soviet agents at the facility.

Albright and Kunstel met Hall in 1995 and persuaded the scientist to sit for hours of interviews. (Hall had left Los Alamos in 1945 and a few years later abandoned atomic physics to pursue a distinguished career as a microbiologist at Cambridge University.) Their exchanges bolster the book's richly documented account of Hall's professional and personal development as well as his brief but damaging career as a Soviet agent.

Hall's initial courier was Saville Sax, a close friend from Harvard student days and fellow Communist, who was soon replaced as Hall's go-between by an even more self-assured young party activist named Lona Cohen. Lona and her husband, Morris, fulfilled a number of Soviet intelligence assignments in the United States during the 1940s and, in the following decade, in England under the aliases of Helen and Peter Kroger. Both were arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for espionage in England before finding refuge in the Soviet Union after the two governments made an exchange of agents.

The Cohens lived out their lives as retirees in Moscow, where I interviewed Morris at a KGB hospital in 1995 shortly before his death. At the time, I was doing research for my own book, "The Haunted Wood." Although Lona Cohen worked as Hall's courier for only a period of months in 1945 and Morris (contrary to the authors' assertion) may not have met the physicist, the couple's story is also told in "Bombshell," a wise decision by Albright and Kunstel to broaden their book beyond the scope of Hall.

Despite their assiduous research into Hall's life, the authors present their most interesting information about him in those early days when he was spying at Los Alamos before the war ended, and although they suggest he may have spied for the Soviets after the war, their evidence is less persuasive. But it is Lona Cohen, brave, quick-witted and vivacious, who served as Hall's courier, among her many other covert duties, who is the most interesting figure in the book. "Bombshell's" fluid narrative weaves the basically distinct threads of Hall's life with the Cohens' in an absorbing previously untold spy story.

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