The literature of espionage grows steadily. We have enough of it now to reach one important conclusion. Despite the delicacy of his business, despite its danger and its seriousness, and despite the impression created by spy fiction, the real-life spy is likely to be utterly fallible, often clumsy and maybe downright dumb. Moreover, the giant intelligence organizations of the two superpowers are as likely to make a hash of a secret operation as they are to pull it off. No, that is too kind; they are more likely to make a hash.
"Mole" confirms all of this, even as it entertains. This is a wonderful book for the beach and a must for the aficionado. Hood is a former CIA man himself, though he coyly declines to specify where he worked in the company, or--more important here--what personal connection he had to the case of Pyotr Popov, a rather pathetic Russian officer in the GRU, or military intelligence, who volunteered to spy for the United States. (The book jacket text claims Popov was "recruited by the CIA," but the book shows that he was an eager volunteer.)
Hood allows that this volume is "a memoir, the recollection of an intelligence operation based on the memories of some of the people who were involved in it." How much it depends on his own memory is not clear. He explains that it took him a long time to get the CIA's approval for publication of his book, but doesn't explain why. A reader is entitled to be a little angry at this cute approach.
The book also has a certain breathless quality that is annoying, though also revealing. Obviously, the recruitment of a Soviet officer was such a great event for the CIA that the agency quickly lost a sense of perspective. Popov (who first went to work for us in Vienna in 1952) never provided useful political intelligence and the value of the military information he conveyed is problematical. He was most useful to counterintelligence operations, but even here he appears to have done nothing during his service to the United States that significantly enhanced this country's security. But Hood treats him throughout like a man making an enormous contribution to the free world. For example, Popov's delivery of the payroll of the Vienna station of the GRU--"it even showed how many rubles they had converted into schillings in the GRU finance office"!--is described as though it were a major event. Of course it was within the CIA bureaucracy, but beyond that tiny world?
It would be unfair to Hood and to readers to try to tell the Popov story here. It is a good yarn, ably recounted in this book, though with a paucity of detail at certain important junctures. But there is more here than a narrative. Hood also makes two grave accusations against the FBI and the CIA, though he makes them so gently and diplomatically that you have to be alert to notice.
The first involves J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI. Apparently the most valuable intelligence tip Popov ever gave his CIA "handler" involved a Soviet woman being sent to the United States as an "illegal" resident spy. An illegal is an undocumented person with no connection to any official Soviet agency in the United States who is smuggled into the country with false identity. Col. Rudolph Abel is the most famous of this breed.
Margarita Tairova was Popov's responsibility when she passed through East Berlin on her way to take up an assignment as an illegal GRU agent in New York. When Popov provided details of her false identity and travel plans, the CIA station in West Berlin realized it would have to notify the FBI, which has statutory responsibility for catching Soviet agents in this country. Hood makes it clear that the CIA was not happy with this arrangement, because it considered Hoover clumsy and outright hostile to the agency. Ultimately, Hood writes, Tairova realized from the moment she arrived in New York that she was being followed; she and her husband, also an illegal agent, eventually managed to shake their FBI tails and leave the country. Hood suggests that her later reports to authorities in Moscow helped lead them to Popov as a mole in their midst. (Popov was exposed and arrested in 1958, and later shot for treason.) At best, Hood suggests, the FBI made a mess of the case; at worst Hoover's troops led to Popov's exposure as an American mole.
Hood's second serious accusation involves Yuri Nosenko, a name well-known to intelligence buffs. Nosenko is the former KGB agent who defected to the United States just after the assassination of President Kennedy, bearing details of Lee Oswald's time in the U.S.S.R. that appeared designed to put a lot of distance between Oswald and Soviet officialdom. Nosenko is now an employe of the CIA and is considered a bona fide defector, although the greatest doubts have been raised about his credibility, most recently by the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Nosenko gave the United States information explaining how Popov had been uncovered in Moscow, information that Hood obviously finds dubious. Indeed, Hood makes it clear that he considers Nosenko a false defector, adding another apparently authoritative voice to the chorus of doubters.
The best explanation for Popov's arrest was a chance encounter between a British intelligence officer in Berlin who discovered that the Americans had an agent inside the GRU and George Blake, a KGB mole probably recruited by the notorious Kim Philby who worked for years inside the British secret service. A tip from Blake to Moscow that the Americans had a mole in the Berlin office of the GRU would probably have been sufficient to instigate an investigation that would bring down Popov's cover.
But Popov himself made an invaluable contribution to his own demise. He drank too much, he carried on a reckless love affair with a Yugoslav woman, he took insufficient precautions. This was no James Bond, just a bitter Russian peasant who hated the Soviet regime and apparently thought he could get even with it.
Hood describes Popov's personal history and also the history of Soviet intelligence organs as though he considers himself an expert on Russia, which may be what he was inside the CIA. But like most American intelligence officials, he has little feel for the real Russia, or so it seems to me. Perhaps this is because the CIA forbids its people from visiting the Soviet Union; they can spend a lifetime studying the place, but can never see it. Hood illustrates his own limitations repeatedly, for example, when he describes Russian drinking habits. Hood recounts an occasion when Popov ate "a forkful of smoked sturgeon and washed it down with a long swallow of vodka."
This is just the opposite of the way a Russian would do it. A Russian drinks first, then takes the edge off his gulp of vodka with zakuski--a piece of fish or cucumber or bread. A small enough error, perhaps, but big enough to sink an entire intelligence operation, too.