Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Abel

Abel is a perfect example of how terrible some books about the Cold War can be. This account, written by Louise Bernikow, covers a relatively narrow subject in the intelligence battle between the Soviet Union and the United States, yet it widely misses the mark.

In the book's epilogue, the author and her main source, Rudolph Abel's "friend" Burt Silverman, go to Moscow in an attempt to meet Abel. This is ten years after the trial, and Abel has since been exchanged for an American pilot. They never get to meet him, but Silverman writes a letter to Abel:
The book about you will, I think, be a truthful and honest one. It will try to explain why you are remembered so [d]early by many of the people you met. Certainly all my friends have that memory and think of you affectionately.
He is, of course, talking about a man who lived in the United States under false pretenses and spied on it for a hostile foreign power. Yet, he is thought of "affectionately."

Bernikow, Silverman, and their ilk think that they have a sophisticated and nuanced view of the world, not like those reflexive "McCarthyist" anti-communists who are somehow the villains of this story. Yet their idiocy-- their useful idiocy-- is manifest. Here is a book in which a Soviet illegal's legend-- a man who never really existed-- is held up as a charming and beautiful human being, worthy of adoration and respect. Even after he was revealed to be a spy for the KGB! Instead of facing reality, the author and her accomplice Silverman chose to believe that it was the legend, Emil Goldfus, who was real, and the spy Rudolph Abel who was the legend. One could excuse them for thinking this way, but to write a book with this as the premise is just incredible.

The story is a good one, to be sure. The man known to Burt Silverman and his group of New York intellectual, liberal, Jewish artists as "Emil Goldfus," to his fellow KGB illegal and incompetent subordinate Reino Hayhanen as "Mark," to those who inspected his travel documents for his journey to the US as "Yurgesovich Kayotis," to different people in New York as "Martin Collins," and to those who investigated him for espionage as "Colonel Rudolph Abel, KGB," was in fact none of these; he was Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher, born in England but raised in the Soviet Union.

The name Fisher never appears in Abel, as it was unknown to the author and pretty much everyone else. Nevertheless, Bernikow knew the extent to which Abel's life was a deception and yet chose to believe that Emil Goldfus, painter and musician, friend of liberal intellectuals, was the real man. Why? Because it is more convenient and comfortable to believe it, despite all the evidence. Because to admit otherwise would be to challenge a catalog of presumptions that Bernikow would prefer unchallenged.

Still, it's interesting why Fisher maintained such a legend. In The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Christopher Andrew writes, "The Centre [KGB] instructed Fisher not to seek employment for fear that his employer would make inquiries which would blow his cover. Instead, he was told to open an artist's studio and claim to be self-employed."

Bernikow would argue that, despite the determination of the outward appearance of Fisher's life by the KGB, in his inward life Abel really was a thoughtful and sensitive artist and intellectual. The alternative, that liberal intellectual types are easily deceived and naturally sympathetic with political systems that are the antithesis of our own, is apparently too much for the author.

Bernikow spends most of the time with the trial arguing that the case being made in the press, that Abel was a 'master spy' and connected to all sorts of illegal KGB activity in the country, is ludicrous. In her understanding, Abel was a professional who did what he was asked but didn't do very much, while his subordinate Hayhanen (who testified against Abel), was an incompetent, drunken philistine.

Thus, there is not much about this book that is "truthful and honest" as Silverman claims. The reader does not learn practically anything about Fisher/Abel/Goldfus's actual activity in the United States. For example, from Sword and the Shield:
In 1949, as the basis of his illegal residency, Fisher was given control of a group of agents headed by Morris Cohen (codenamed LUIS and VOLUNTEER), which included his wife Lona (LESLE). Following Elizabeth Bentley's defection, the Centre had temporarily broken contact with the Cohens early in 1946, but renewed contact with them in Paris a year later and reactivated them in the United States in 1948. The most important agent in the VOLUNTEER network was the physicist Ted Hall (MLAD), for whom Lona Cohen had acted as courier in 1945 when he was passing atomic intelligence from Los Alamos.
Andrew writes later that "in recognition of the VOLUNTEER group's success, Fisher was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in August 1949." Yet Bernikow in Abel makes it sound like any connection between Abel and Cohen is highly spurious.

Nevertheless, it is true that the American media made the spy out to be much more than he actually was. (Later, the KGB did the same thing.) Andrew writes:
In reality, Fisher never came close to rivaling the achievements of his wartime predecessor, Iskhak Akhmerov. During eight years as illegal resident, he appears never to have identified, let alone recruited, a single promising potential agent to replace the VOLUNTEER network. Unlike Akhmerov, however, he did not have the active and enthusiastic assistance of a well-organized American Communist Party (CPUSA) to act as talent-spotters and assistants. Part of the reason for Fisher's lack of success was the post-war decline and persecution of the CPUSA.
So perhaps there is something to Berniknow's account. Did Abel fall in love with his life as a layabout New York artist and intellectual? Despite his professionalism, was his heart just not in recruiting agents in his adopted country? We can't really know, but Bernikow's highly impressionistic and naive book doesn't help us, either.

Here's an example of how terribly wrong Bernikow's book is:
What you learned about the craft of intelligence was elaborate, but wrong. You learned that it was the "Enemy's" craft. The New York Times printed stories of other spy rings that had been "exposed" and a historical rundown of the KGB. It was, of course, terrible one-sided. Although reporters knew enough to liken the KGB to the CIA, they went no further. There was no indication at all that we operated the same way or that we, too, had intelligence networks set up around the world. It was the pre-U2 era and no one spoke of the American craft of intelligence; comparing KGB with CIA only made it more mysterious.
This is the kind of snide assumption that irks me and anyone else who knows anything about the history of the intelligence war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Because the KGB should not be likened to the CIA. It's comparing apples and orchards.

Perhaps the media reports didn't include parenthetical remarks about how, of course, we operated this way too because they were reflexively pro-American. That is the way Bernikow repeatedly presents it. But perhaps they didn't include such remarks because the CIA did not and does not operate in the same way as the KGB. We certainly never had illegal residencies in the Soviet Union; they have had many in the US.

It is Bernikow who is ignorant and blinded by prejudice, yet she and her kind will assume to the end that it is those patriotic, God-fearing Americans who are ignorant and prejudiced. She takes it on faith that of course we do this stuff too, and a lot worse! (as the applause line goes at the leftist universities).

In reality, the KGB and CIA were and remain incommensurable. The KGB is many, many times the size, has far, far more responsibilities and infinite resources to perform them-- it was in fact the most important organization in the Soviet Union, along with perhaps the Party and the Army. And it remains very important in Russia today. The CIA, on the other hand, is quite small in comparison and marked by repeated failure. And at the time of Abel's trial, it was barely a decade old. And in a liberal democracy it is by necessity scarred by constant exposure of its methods and practices, it cannot keep its files secret for long, and it is prevented by law from defending itself in the press against media and public abuse.

And most importantly (in my opinion), the KGB has always made disinformation and propaganda a top priority, and the CIA is a preferred target of those attacks. The CIA's efforts at disinformation and propaganda on the other hand, have been stilted and comical. Yet-- and this is the remarkable thing-- in common perception KGB propaganda and disinformation are regarded as comical and ineffective, while the CIA is seen as devious and conspiratorial. What has caused this but the continued effort from one side and non-effort from the other, to influence public opinion?

Thus for all the tough work and thinking that must have informed the writing of Abel, it might as well have been written by KGB disinformation specialists for the terribly skewed picture it paints of the intelligence world. A definite pass.