THE SPY IN THE RUSSIAN CLUB

How Glenn Souther Stole America's Nuclear War Plans And Escaped to Moscow

By Ronald Kessler

Scribner's. 275 pp. $19.95

In June 1989 the Soviet army newspaper Red Star carried an extraordinary obituary. Mikhail Yevgenyevich Orlov, a 32-year-old Soviet intelligence officer, had died suddenly. His "short but brilliant ... life ... was totally devoted to the struggle for removing the threat of nuclear catastrophe hanging over humanity." Orlov's work made "a major contribution to the security of the Soviet Union" and had demanded "enormous personal courage and expenditure of all his physical and spiritual strength."

In a parenthesis, Orlov was identified as Glenn Michael Souther, an American. The next day, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov admitted that Souther had committed suicide.

Ronald Kessler's new book, "The Spy in the Russian Club," tracks Glenn Souther from his birth in Munster, Ind., to his burial in Moscow and exposes the seamy side of the sometime choirboy and born-again Christian. Kessler has also written a stinging indictment of U.S. naval security procedures.

At school, Souther was a popular, above-average student, an apparent stereotype of conventional, middle-class upbringing. After graduating from high school and completing a semester at Purdue, Souther abruptly enlisted in the Navy, possibly to defy his father. He was assigned to an aircraft carrier with home port in Italy. There he soon married an Italian woman.

Although Kessler has thoroughly explored the spy's personal life, the more interesting details of his espionage training and handling remain interred in the KGB archives. According to Kryuchkov, the recruitment occurred "early in Souther's naval career," an allegation amply substantiated by Kessler. While assigned to the 6th Fleet as a photographer, Souther became interested in communism, and made little secret of his belief in the communist system. No explanation is offered for this conversion other than that it may have been a substitute for his earlier, strong religious beliefs, and a reaction against his father, possibly intensified by a dislike for Navy discipline.

His apparent ideological motive for volunteering to work for the KGB makes him almost unique among the recent crop of American traitors, yet his loyalty to his spymasters was sweetened by large cash payments. At about this time he began drinking heavily and launched a series of extramarital adventures. He also won a list of impressive commendations from his superior officers.

Service as a photographer with the 6th Fleet may not have given Souther much access to classified data, but the KGB had long-range plans for him. After his honorable discharge and graduation from college as a Russian-language major, he moved into the big time by enlisting in the naval reserve.

Kessler states that Souther's reserve duties in the Navy Fleet Intelligence Center for Europe and the Atlantic, or FIC, gave him "access to all of America's nuclear war plans." Even if "all" the republic's nuclear war plans are cached in the Norfolk Navy installation, it seems unlikely that any enlisted reservist -- and part-time employee -- would have access to the entire bundle. This quibble to one side, the FIC vaults must contain a trove of ultra-secret documents of great interest to Moscow.

Despite evidence of the harm Souther was in a position to do, one must wonder if he was as valuable an agent as the KGB's bathetic eulogies would have us believe. The wily Russians have been known to overpraise an admitted spy in the hope of drawing attention away from other sources of leaks.

In any case, Kessler makes much of the Navy's lopsided view of security. The tomblike, two-story premises of the intelligence center lie deep within the Norfolk naval base, bathed in lights and protected by ultrasonic motion detectors. Although heavily armed Marines stand ready to repel any intruder, the defenses against the more likely instance of a traitor within the gates are less impressive. Any reasonably close examination of Souther would seem to have disqualified him for the security clearance he was given.

He was first denounced as a spy by his disgruntled wife at a New Year's Eve party in 1982, but no action was taken. Although the pressure of his double life apparently compelled Souther to boast of his secret activity and mysterious income to several of his paramours, it was not until 1985 that his brother-in-law, a naval intelligence officer, reported his suspicions. Another eight months passed before Souther, who was drinking heavily, spending far beyond his means and talking loosely, was subjected to a low-key FBI interview.

The young spy denied contact with any foreign intelligence service, but three weeks later left Norfolk for Rome and an ostensible visit to his by now ex-wife and their son. Souther was next heard from in 1988, when the Soviet Union announced that he had been granted asylum. After trying to contact him for a year, Kessler received a letter from Moscow in June 1989. Souther suggested that Kessler submit a list of questions for his consideration, and in closing thanked the author for his "kind attentions towards my life's vicissitudes." Three weeks later, the KGB announced Souther's suicide.

The reviewer's latest novel, "Cry Spy," was recently published.