Atomic Bomb Spies

Pavel Sudoplatov

Sudoplatov, Pavel, and Anatoli Sudoplatov, with Jerrold L. and Leona P. Schecter. Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness--A Soviet Spymaster. New York: Little, Brown, 1994. [pb] Updated ed. 1995.

For Sudoplatov's obituary see David Stout, "Pavel A. Sudoplatov, 89, Dies; Soviet Spy Chief at Height of Cold War," New York Times, 28 Sep. 1996, A13; and London Times, 2 Oct. 1996, 19.

According to Legvold, FA 73.4 (Jul.-Aug. 1994), the "Administration for Special Tasks ... was responsible for sabotage, kidnapping and assassination ... beyond the country's border." Sudoplatov directed Trotsky's assassination. He eventually controlled "Department S, the organization responsible for gathering intelligence on atomic bomb research in the West.... [He held] intensely sensitive positions.... [I]n the book's most discrediting section, he tars the famous principals in the Manhattan Project with the unsubstantiated charge of knowingly abetting Soviet agents in gathering the information Moscow so eagerly sought."

Bates, NIPQ 10.4, says that the "big question about this book is credibility. There is little documentary evidence offered. It is largely General Sudoplatov's memory and his word. I still recommend it, keeping the undocumented nature of the book in mind."

For Powers, NYRB (9 Jun. 1994) and Intelligence Wars (2004), 59-79, "the charges against Oppenheimer in Sudoplatov's book tend to evaporate on scrutiny." There is a "complete lack of the establishing and supporting details[] that are the signature of genuine espionage cases.... [I]n the few cases where details are cited they are irrelevant, misleading, or blatantly wrong." In addition, "[i]t is impossible to distinguish Sudoplatov's real memories, however confused by age and years, from the Schectors' own research and general editorial tidying up."

Peake, WIR 13.1, notes that "the intensity of ... criticism has exceeded expectations.... The documentation offered varies from substantial to nil, and the expert reaction has been mixed." The greatest reaction came in response to the naming of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and Niels Bohr as voluntary sources for the NKVD. "Most of the more than fifty articles and reviews published to date attack the validity of these allegations." Peake reviews the arguments pro and con. "Whether they played the role he assigns to them, even [Sudoplatov] may not know for sure. But that he believes the essense of his ... story is very likely indeed.... [O]verall Special Tasks is a valuable contribution that will stimulate further research."

David Holloway, "Soviet Nuclear History: Sources for Stalin and the Bomb," Cold War International History Project Bulletin 4 (Fall 1994), pp. 1-9, argues that "[s]ome of the claims ... -- especially that ... Oppenheimer,... Fermi,... Szilard, and ... Bohr knowingly passed secret atomic information to the Soviet Union -- are dubious.... Other aspects of his account -- for example, about the status of the [Soviet] atomic project during the war -- are quite misleading. [footnote omitted] The reliability of Sudoplatov's memoirs is, moreover, further clouded by the impossibility of distinguishing Sudoplatov's recollections from what has been added by his co-authors."

Cold War International History Project Bulletin 4 (Fall 1994), pp. 50-59, carries two articles and the translation of what purports to be three KGB documents (pp. 50-51, 57-59) relevant to Sudoplatov's accusations against the American physicists. Both articles discount Sudoplatov's version: Vladislav Zubok. "Atomic Espionage and Its Soviet 'Witnesses,'" pp. 50, 52-53; and Yuri N. Smirnov, "The KGB Mission to Niels Bohr: Its Real 'Success,'" pp. 51, 54-57.

Cold War International History Project Bulletin 5 (Spring 1995), pp. 155-158, carries letters from the Schecters, Sudoplatov, and Robert Conquest (who wrote a foreword for Special Tasks), responding to the articles in CWIHPB 4 (Fall 1994).

The Schecters note that there are "physicists who have affirmed the intelligence value of the answers Bohr gave to the questions prepared by Soviet intelligence in November 1945." They also quote a number of other Russian sources for the validity of Sudoplatov's presentation.

Sudoplatov (letter to appear in the paperback edition to be published by Little, Brown): "[T]here were many more sources of atomic secrets besides Fuchs.... I never wrote that Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard and Bohr were agents of Soviet intelligence. They cooperated, but we never recruited them.... Bohr's answers to Terletsky's carefully prepared questions helped to verify scientific papers of Oppenheimer, Szilard and Fermi and others which were obtained by our intelligence and made available for our scientists.... [T]he thrust and important facts of my story are irrefutable."

Conquest: "Niels Bohr's moral integrity ... is not at issue, though his political attitudes may be.... The question is merely a factual one" of whether he gave useful information. "With all its errors it seems clear that on the substance of the Bohr incident ... Sudoplatov's ... account has been confirmed."

Cold War International History Project Bulletin 6-7 (Winter 1996), p. 278, carries a letter from Yuri N. Smirnov responding to letters in CWIHP 5 (Spring 1995): "I assert that nothing in Sudoplatov's version regarding this mission [to Niels Bohr] stands up to a comparison with the facts..., and it is a total hoax." Also, the Bulletin, p. 279, carries a "character reference" for Smirnov from Victor Adamsky.

According to Evans, IJI&C 7.4, Sudoplatov joined the Cheka in 1921 and survived in that environment until 1953. He then served a full sentence of 15 years in Soviet prisons, and was not officially "rehabilitated" until 1991. Sudoplatov's position in the NKVD/NKGB/MGB high command "gave him an authoritative (but not necessarily always reliable) view." With regard to the "Atomic Spies" chapter, there is a "virtual absence of documentary evidence to substantiate Sudoplatov's allegations." Whether memory has served Sudoplatov well in his fascinating "oral history" may or may not be shown by the documents which may or may not become available in the future.

Surveillant 4.1 reports that "Time magazine's managing editor, James R. Gaines[,] was ... quoted in a Washington Post article dated 2 May 1995 expressing some regrets at the way its nine-page excerpt..., run in the magazine [on 25 Apr. 1994], was handled.... [T]he paperback edition is the version to purchase, since it contains updated material which uses recently released documents to bolster Sudoplatov's accusations about atomic espionage."

William J. Broad, "F.B.I. Disputes Theory of Atomic Bomb Plot," New York Times, 3 May 1995, A8 (N), reports on an FBI statement that it has no evidence to support Sudoplatov's charges that the architects of the atom bomb spied for Moscow, and in fact has secret evidence to the contrary. The FBI's conclusion was made public on 1 May 1995 by PFIAB Chairman Les Aspin. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh wrote Aspin that "the bureau 'is not in possession of any credible evidence that would suggest that Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, or Leo Szilard engaged in any espionage activity on behalf of any foreign power....' To the contrary, Mr Freeh added, 'the F.B.I. has classified information available that argues against the conclusions reached by the author of "Special Tasks." The F.B.I., therefore, considers such allegations to be unfounded.'"

Jerrold Schecter, a co-author of Sudoplatov's book, "is continuing to amass documents to try to back up the charges of atomic treason and criticized the F.B.I. [on 2 May 1995]. He said that he had requested the bureau's files before the book was published ... and was upset that after 50 years only the F.B.I.'s conclusions were being made public."

See also, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, "Special Tasks and Sacred Secrets on Soviet Atomic Spies," Intelligence and National Security 26.5 (Oct. 2011): 656-675: "In regard to Soviet atomic espionage Special Tasks and Sacred Secrets are neither reliable nor credible."

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