8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage

Larry Holzwarth - November 28, 2017

When most Americans think of Soviet spying in the United States their thoughts turn to the Cold War. This ignores most of American-Soviet history. Spies from or working for the Soviet Union have operated within US borders since the 1920s, and during World War II, an increasingly paranoid Josef Stalin built a large spy presence in the United States, intent on discovering what he could about American development of the atomic bomb – among other bits of information he needed regarding his ally. Some spies working for the Soviets became household names, a la Alger Hiss. Others retained a secretive, shadowy presence.

Besides spying on American activities, Soviet agents often used the United States as a staging area for operations elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, in the assassination of Leon Trotsky for example, and in spying on Nazi friendly governments in South America. Members of the American Communist party often assisted Soviet agents in these activities. Stalin also directed various Soviet agents to provide him with information regarding the planning and logistics for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe in 1944. Some spied on the United States because of Communist beliefs, some out of loyalty to the USSR, and some simply for money, endangering many lives out of greed.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
The Soviet Union spied on the United States for decades, recruiting Americans whenever possible to serve advance their aims. Wikimedia

Here are eight examples of Soviet spies operating in the United States.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
John Anthony Walker did massive damage to the US Navy’s submarine operations during the Cold War, motivated solely by money. Los Angeles Times

John Anthony Walker

John Walker was a United States Navy Chief Warrant Officer who served in Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarines where he had access to highly classified communications data in the 1960s. While stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, Walker opened a bar on the road to nearby Summerville, which he named the Bamboo Shack. After waiting several weeks for his license to sell alcohol he was losing money and when he did finally obtain the needed licenses the losses continued to mount.

Soon, financial pressures and, what Walker claimed was his wife’s drinking problems (she later said that Walker was the one with the drinking problem), led him to sell classified information to the Soviet Union. Walker promised additional materials to the radio ciphers he provided initially, and negotiated a salary with the Soviets for his continuing services. One month after Walker sold the first material to the Soviets the North Koreans seized the US Navy surveillance ship USS Pueblo – an event some analysts later alleged occurred in part to verify the information Walker had provided.

Walker recruited Jerry Whitworth, an eventual Chief Sonarman with access to additional classified materials, to support his spying activities as well as his son Michael and his older brother Arthur. He also occasionally used his wife to drop materials to the Soviets before their divorce. After retiring from the Navy he worked as a private investigator and continued, through his son and older brother, a defense contractor, to obtain and sell classified data to the Soviets. After their divorce, Walker’s former wife Barbara made several attempts to contact the FBI but was too intoxicated to be coherent when talking to FBI agents on the phone. In 1984, she finally managed to convince the FBI of her ex-husband’s spying activities, unaware at the time that her son was a participant in the espionage. The FBI arrested the members of the ring; Barbara Walker was granted immunity because of her co-operation.

The Walker spy ring seriously compromised the US Navy’s ability to communicate securely with its own submarines and its ability to track Soviet submarines during the height of the Cold War. Arthur Walker was sentenced to three life sentences plus 40 years for espionage. Michael Walker turned state’s evidence in order to receive a lighter sentence, he was released from prison in 2000. Jerry Whitworth was sentenced to 365 years in prison, where he remains.

John Walker was given a life sentence after he co-operated with federal officials in order to obtain a lighter sentence for his son. He died in prison in 2014, six weeks after the death of his brother Arthur. Walker is believed to have obtained over $1,000,000 from the Soviets in exchange for classified materials over the years.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
Alger Hiss testifying in 1950. He was convicted of perjury rather than espionage, although evidence later unearthed suggests he was guilty of both. Library of Congress

Alger Hiss

Alger Hiss was accused of being a member of the Communist Party before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) while serving in the federal government, a charge he denied in testimony before the committee. He then filed a defamation lawsuit against his accuser, Whittaker Chambers. As the defamation case was being prepared for trial, Chambers introduced evidence which indicated that both he and Hiss had been working as spies for the Soviet Union. Hiss was tried twice for perjury before Congress – the first case ended in a mistrial – and convicted in 1950. Sentenced to five years in prison, he served three years and eight months. Chambers was not charged.

According to Chambers, Alger Hiss had worked within a group of communist party members known as the Ware Group. Hiss was implicated as being part of a Soviet espionage group which was attempting to acquire information regarding American nuclear weapons. Several independent sources implicated Hiss as being an active member of the Ware group in addition to Chambers, including other known Soviet spies in the United States and Canada.

A Roman Catholic priest from Baltimore, John Francis Cronin, approached HUAC member Richard Nixon. He informed Nixon that he had seen information in the FBI files about communist infiltration of labor unions on Baltimore’s docks which clearly indicated that Alger Hiss – who worked in the State Department – was an influential communist.

Chambers later provided photographic evidence of classified documents which had been concealed in a pumpkin on his own farm in Maryland. Chambers claimed that the documents had been provided by Hiss. By the time the evidence was presented, the statute of limitations had expired and Hiss was not charged with espionage. Years later, the pumpkin photos were found to be of non-classified materials.

Additional evidence – some of which appears to exonerate Hiss and some of which implicates him in other espionage activities – has surfaced since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By 2001 a consensus among historians and investigators was that Hiss was indeed a spy for the Soviet Union, with much of the evidence against him still classified.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
The hollowed out nickel alongside the coded message it contained. FBI

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage

Rudolf Abel aka William Fisher

William Fisher was a Soviet intelligence officer of the KGB who used multiple aliases and identities to establish a spy ring in the United States tasked with obtaining secrets of atomic weapon development following the Second World War. The network he developed and built was extensive and closely supported by KGB officers in both Moscow and the United States.

Fisher communicated with handlers in Moscow through the use of several methods, one of which was to include microscopic messages in hollowed-out American coins, which could easily be passed surreptitiously. One such coin became his undoing when it was accidentally used as part of a payment to a paperboy.

The coin – a nickel – broke open when the boy dropped it on the ground, and it and the microfilm it contained were soon in the hands of the FBI. For the next four years the FBI struggled to find the meaning of the coded message on the microfilm and the origin of the coin. In May 1957 a KGB agent ordered to return to Moscow defected, and from him the FBI learned the content of the message, which was personal in nature and addressed to the KGB agent defecting at the time, Reino Hayhanen. The defecting agent also revealed the nature of Fisher’s activities as a spy and much of the materials Fisher and his network had sent to the Soviet Union.

When Fisher was arrested, he gave his name as Rudolf Abel and his New York apartment was a treasure trove of trick devices for the concealment and delivery of messages. Abel was tried and convicted on three counts of espionage and sentences to 30 years in federal prison. He was later exchanged for American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, an event dramatized in the film Bridge of Spies.

After returning to Moscow, Abel became a lecturer for the KGB on espionage activities and methods. He died in 1971. The FBI never caught any of the other members of the network he established in the United States to spy for the Soviet Union, and the extent of its damage to the United States has never been fully determined.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
After having been found guilty of espionage Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are separated as they leave the courthouse. Library of Congress

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

The Rosenberg’s – husband and wife – were American citizens who were the center of a spy ring established largely by Julius to provide information to the Soviets on American atomic weapon research and development. They also illegally obtained and transferred to the Soviets information on other advanced American defense projects, including the development of jet engines for aircraft, submarine sonar systems, and radar systems.

The network they developed included David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, Harry Gold, and Klaus Fuchs, all of whom were eventually determined to be working for the Soviets. Fuchs was a German scientist who had worked in the British atomic weapon program before joining the American Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. During the Second World War Fuchs transmitted classified information via his handler Gold to the Rosenbergs, who forwarded it to the Soviets.

When Harry Truman informed Stalin that the United States had developed a weapon of previously unheard of destructive power at Potsdam in 1945 – having himself only recently learned of it – he noted that Stalin did not seem either surprised or concerned. Stalin’s knowledge of the atomic bomb’s existence was likely the result of the Rosenberg group.

Julius Rosenberg began working for the Soviet NKVD in the fall of 1942. During the war, he provided the Soviets with a complete proximity fuse – highly classified and used to detonate anti-aircraft shells when they reached a predetermined nearness to their target. When World War II ended only the United States had an atomic bomb, but the Soviets detonated a test bomb in 1949, to the utter shock of American officials and scientists. Investigations soon identified Fuchs as a source of classified material being stolen and provided to the Soviets and before long Julius and Ethel’s role in the espionage was known to authorities.

Since the Rosenberg’s conviction and execution for espionage in 1953 an ongoing campaign has been conducted – led largely by their two sons – to clear their name and establish their innocence, claiming that they were the victims of Cold War paranoia. The release of classified documents from the former Soviet Union has revealed their long-standing espionage activities against the United States. Julius acted as a courier carrying classified information to other Soviet agents, and recruited most of the members of the network which stole it, with Ethel providing advice and guidance. Ethel also collected money from the Soviets as payment for the pair’s services and assisted Julius in concealing his activities. Ethel also actively recruited her brother into the network. Soviet records include the payments made to the pair.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
Aldrich Ames sold information to the Soviets which led to the death or imprisonment of several intelligence operatives working for the United States. ABC News

Aldrich Ames

Aldrich Ames was a counterintelligence specialist in the CIA. During the course of his career in US intelligence, Ames spied for the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation, compromising more US assets than any Soviet spy who preceded him. In 1985, Ames approached the Soviet Union by walking through the doors of their Embassy, motivated by the desire to acquire money to pay off some of his burgeoning debts from an expensive divorce and an equally expensive mistress. He was paid $50,000 on his first contact with the Soviets, in which he established his credentials as a CIA and FBI insider, but according to his own statement provided them little of actual value.

Ames began to reveal to the Soviets CIA and other intelligence agencies assets in place which were providing intelligence on the Soviets to American and British organizations. The CIA was quickly aware that many of their assets were suddenly missing – in Soviet prisons or dead – and that something was wrong which was compromising them to the Soviets.

CIA investigations focused on possible data breaches through wiretaps and bugs, followed by investigations into possible broken or otherwise compromised communication codes. The CIA attempted to blame the losses on another agent who had been suspected of selling information to the Soviets but soon the loss of assets unknown to the second traitor increased CIA suspicion of Ames.

It was Ames’ reckless spending beyond the means of his CIA salary which finally led to his undoing. The CIA increased their monitoring of him through electronic and financial surveillance, old fashioned examination of his household trash, and the use of car monitors which followed his travel. Ames made frequent visits to the Soviet embassy and just prior to a scheduled visit to Moscow in 1994 he was arrested along with his second wife.

Initially, he protested his innocence but later entered a guilty plea to espionage and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Ames stated his actions working for the Soviet and Russian governments led to the compromising of “…virtually all Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services known to me…”. Ames also allowed the Soviets to feed false information to American agents which was eventually viewed by three different American presidents. At least ten assets he identified were executed by the Soviets or Russian services.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
Robert Hanssen surpassed Aldrich Ames in the number of American assets whose names were sold to the Russians, leading to their death or imprisonment. FBI

Robert Hanssen

Robert Hanssen worked for the FBI for 27 years, during at least 22 of which he also worked for Soviet and later Russian intelligence services, motivated in his own words by the easy money available from selling information to America’s enemies. Hanssen worked for the Soviet GRU and later the KGB.

His activities in the FBI helped dictate the type and quantity of information he was able to make available to the Soviets. And much of the information he provided on Soviet agents working for American agencies, served to confirm information given them previously by Aldrich Ames. Hanssen was occasionally careless revealing classified information which drew minor administrative rebukes but little else, despite the expressed concerns of FBI personnel working for him.

In 1977 the Soviets began building a new embassy building and the FBI prepared a tunnel to be used to house equipment which would allow Americans to eavesdrop on Soviet decoding procedures. Hanssen informed the Soviets of the tunnel’s existence – which the FBI had never used – in 1989 in return for $50,000. Hanssen also provided the Soviets with lists of all Soviet agents working for the FBI and other agencies on more than one occasion, again in return for cash payments. The discovery, by a relative, of large amounts of cash hidden on his property led to the recommendation that he be investigated for espionage in 1990, but led nowhere.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hanssen attempted to hide evidence of his treason, concerned that review of Soviet files would lead to his exposure. In 2001 he resumed his double dealings, then sold classified information to the Russians, after determining that he was not under investigation by American agencies.

In February 2001, he was finally arrested by the FBI after an exhaustive investigation, and charged with fifteen counts of espionage for which he faced the death penalty. Hanssen negotiated a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to all fifteen counts and was sentenced to fifteen consecutive sentences of life imprisonment. He remains in federal prison.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
American Elizabeth Bentley spied for the Soviet Union before becoming an informant for the United States. Library of Congress

Elizabeth Bentley

Elizabeth Bentley was an American born graduate of Vassar College who attended meetings of the American League Against War and Fascism while in graduate school in Florence, Italy. Her association with many of the League’s members, who were communists, led to her joining the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) upon her return to America in 1935, and to her new job at New York City’s Italian Library of Information.

The library was mainly a fascist propaganda facility and Bentley indicated her willingness to spy on Fascist Italy for the CPUSA. Jacob Golos worked as Bentley’s handler, and by 1940 the pair were lovers. Unknown to Bentley at the time was Golos’ role as a NKVD intelligence officer. The pair were deeply involved in obtaining American classified information regarding Nazi Germany and forwarding it to the Soviets.

In 1943, Golos suffered a fatal heart attack and Bentley assumed his role in the Soviet espionage hierarchy, although she was plagued by depression over the loss of her lover and a serious drinking problem which went back to her days in Italy. By 1945, Soviet agents were urging Bentley to emigrate to the Soviet Union.

Bentley, possibly through paranoia exacerbated by her heavy drinking, believed that she was being closely watched by Soviet agents and that if she was to go to Russia it would lead to her arrest and execution. In late November 1945, with World War II over, and the Soviet-American relationship rapidly deteriorating, Bentley decided to reveal her spying activities to the FBI.

Bentley informed the FBI of over 150 agents spying in the United States for the Soviets, more than three dozen of them employees of the federal government. The FBI decided to leave Bentley in place and suspicion of her by the Soviets soon led to a recommendation from Moscow that she be eliminated. In the late 1940s, Bentley testified before the HUAC and identified numerous Communists and Soviet spies working in the United States. By the early 1950s the former Soviet spy was a paid informer for the FBI, was converted to Catholicism by Bishop Fulton Sheen, and lectured on the perils of godless communism to largely Catholic audiences. She died in 1963 of cancer, in New Haven Connecticut.

8 Soviet Union Spies Stationed in the United States Who Did Serious Damage
The tapping device used to record Soviet telephone conversations across an underwater cable now sits in a Russian museum. Wikimedia

Ronald Pelton

Ronald Pelton was a former intelligence analyst who had worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) when he was arrested and convicted for spying for the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Pelton exposed to the Soviets one of the US Navy’s biggest intelligence coups of the Cold War, a submarine operation known as Ivy Bells. US submarines had installed taps on submerged telephone cables in Soviet waters, allowing conversations about naval operations to be recorded and the tapes collected by periodic visits from US submarines.

Pelton informed the Soviets of the wiretap’s existence and the Soviets delayed recovering the device for some time, using their knowledge of the operation to feed false information to the Americans. The device was eventually recovered by the Soviets and is in a Russian museum, clearly marked as property of the United States Government.

Pelton resigned from the NSA in 1979, unhappy with his salary, and worked in various jobs – none involved with intelligence operations. He continued to feed information to the Soviets, based on his own memory and on maintaining contacts with former coworkers. He made several visits to the Soviet Embassy in Vienna, Austria and continued to provide information on what he remembered of American espionage activities and methods to the KGB.

In 1985, senior KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko defected (temporarily) to the United States and revealed to the Americans that Ivy Bells had been compromised, describing in general terms the physical appearance of the former analyst who had provided the information.

The ensuing investigation soon identified Pelton as the culprit and when they confronted him he confessed to having provided classified information to the Soviets for the sum of $35,000. Charged by the federal government, Pelton was convicted in 1986 and three concurrent life sentences placed him in prison until his release in 2015.