The Ugly Truth Behind the Secretive World of Spies

An East German armored car guards the border crossing between East and West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate, August 1961. (German Federal Archive)

Bland. James Bland.

The quiet secret agents of the real world are nothing like their dashing movie counterparts. They don't sip vodka martinis with exotic beauties. They don't face villains with steel jaws.

They risk their lives. And sometimes save the world.

That's the message of Marc Favreau's "Spies: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia." A half-century history of the Cold War, it profiles more than a dozen secret agents. Not one stood out in a crowd.

That's what kept them alive.

The battle between the former U.S.S.R. and the U.S. began before the Second World War was over. The Kremlin particularly prized Americans who could be persuaded to pass along information.

Some did it for money, others did it for love.

Elizabeth Bentley was a Vassar graduate and a dedicated Communist in 1938 when she fell for "Timmy." What the lonely woman didn't know was that Timmy was actually Jacob Golos, one of Stalin's top spies.

He quickly drew her into his secret world. In public, they ran a travel business, which will sound familiar to fans of "The Americans." Privately, they ran a spy network, providing fake passports to the Kremlin's secret agents.

When Golos dropped dead in their New York apartment, Bentley took over the operation. But her bosses in Moscow didn't trust a woman to do the job. Besides, she knew too much. They decided to get rid of her.

Before they could, though, she got rid of them. On the day the war ended, Aug. 14, 1945, Bentley slipped out of New York and into the FBI office in New Haven. She turned over the details of a wide-ranging Russian conspiracy.

It was a wake-up call and would fuel years of FBI investigations.

Although American politicians exploited the resulting paranoia, Bentley proved there were Russian spies among us. Being a democracy, we were vulnerable in a way the totalitarian Soviet Union never could be.

So, behind the Iron Curtain, American spies did most of the work themselves.

During the early days of the Cold War, one of the hardest workers was the chief of CIA operations in Berlin, a man later dubbed "the American James Bond."

Balding and jowly, William Harvey didn't look like any of the screen Bonds. But he dared to think outside the box. The Americans knew local Communist officials communicated with Moscow electronically, via cables buried deep under East Berlin's streets.

So, Bentley proposed, let's go digging.

The CIA erected a nondescript building in West Berlin and started tunneling. After four months, they created an underground passage 1,800 feet long. It rivaled anything from "The Great Escape."

Except this time, Americans were slipping into enemy territory.

Once the Americans found the communication cables, they planted bugs. By the time the Russians discovered the wiretaps, a year later, the Americans had eavesdropped on 433,000 secret communications.

Years later, the Agency discovered a British double agent betrayed them. Much of the information they had stolen might have been disinformation.

Whatever its ultimate value, the mission proved nothing is better than having a source inside the enemy's camp. But how to find a live, willing Russian?

America continued to rely on technology, including surveillance by super-secret U-2 spy planes. That approach went down in flames, literally, when the Soviet Union shot down pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1960, an event the CIA experts swore was impossible.

Worse, after the crash, the Agency's hubris led the U.S. government to flatly deny there had been a spy plane. When the Russians publicly produced the wreckage, and Powers, America's humiliation was complete.

Powers was eventually released in a prisoner swap detailed in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies."

With technology falling short, America increased its efforts to find its spies behind the Iron Curtain. A few months after the U-2 disaster, they had a breakthrough when a Col. Oleg Penkovsky approached them.

Because his father opposed the Communist revolution, Penkovsky was routinely denied promotions. For years, he watched his friends grab all the plum jobs. Seething, he finally agreed to spy for the Americans.

But there was a price: After two years, they had to help him and his family escape.

Penkovsky delivered crucial information, including about the Soviet Union's new Cuban missiles. But before the two years were up, a KGB agent caught him passing secrets. He was immediately arrested and killed by firing squad.

It would be a decade before other Russians stepped forward.

But then, Alexander Ogorodnik, a cash-strapped Soviet diplomat, started spying for the Americans and a dissatisfied KGB colonel, Oleg Gordievsky, began doing the same for the English.

Eventually captured by the KGB in 1977, Ogorodnik just had time to take cyanide. Gordievsky was luckier. Knowing the secret police were after him, in 1985 he hid in the trunk of a car and slipped over the Finnish border.

He lives in London today. After a poisoning attempt 12 years ago, his security has been increased.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, continued to recruit in America. Unlike the old days, though, these spies weren't interested in the cause. They just wanted the cash.

John Anthony Walker, a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Navy, had a failing bar and a pile of debt when he walked into the Soviet Embassy in 1967. He gave them secret codes. They gave him cash.

The arrangement continued for 18 years, with Walker recruiting two more Navy men -- his son and his brother. Discovered and arrested in 1985, Walker got a life sentence. He died in prison in 2014.

Even as Walker's traitorous career was ending, another man's was beginning. Aldrich Ames, a longtime CIA agent, had watched his career stall. His bosses disliked his sloppiness, and fondness for alcohol. Ames, meanwhile, hated that he only made $60,000 a year.

So, he started a side business, with the Russians.

It was an easy exchange. Ames walked in with the names of Russian double agents and walked out with $50,000. He would go on to betray more than 100 secret CIA operations, taking in more than $2 million in bribes. Among the men he gave up was Gordievsky.

His bosses, though, had been right: Ames was sloppy. He couldn't help flaunting his new wealth, buying a mansion and driving a Jaguar. Naturally, that drew unnecessary attention. Ames was finally arrested in 1994.

He is serving a life sentence, without the possibility of parole, in federal prison.

He outlived the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. But Russia continues. The espionage continues, although Moscow has taken most of its anti-American efforts online.

But President Vladimir Putin -- KGB's former chief in East Berlin, who was burning secret files even as the Wall fell -- still likes the old ways.

In 2006, the defector Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned after meeting two Russians in London. Last year, another double agent and his daughter were poisoned as well but survived. Putin is said to still nurse a grudge against Gordievsky.

The Cold War goes on, as do its spies. Even if, compared to 007's exploits, they leave us shaken, not stirred.

This article is written by Jacqueline Cutler from New York Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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