Lessons from a polarizing case 65 years ago still resonate today

[Written for EXAMINER.COM]

In her new book, Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason, Christina Shelton, a retired U.S. intelligence analyst, refreshes our memory not only about the famous Hiss espionage case itself, but why it indeed still very much matters:

The story doesn’t go away, because it has become a symbol of the ongoing struggle for control over the philosophical and political direction of the United States. It is a battle between collectivism and individualism; between centralized planning and local/state authority, and between rule by administrative fiat and free markets…

Hiss firmly believed in a collectivist political ideology; he believed government was the ultimate instrument of power for solving problems and that the U.S. Constitution should be bent or bypassed to support this view. Hiss put his political belief into practice in his support for Communism and loyalty to the USSR, a state where government authority and power were not limited by the rule of law—in fact it would brook no limit.

It was high political drama more than six decades ago—controversial and polarizing. A Harvard trained and highly ranked member of the Federal Government charged by a self-confessed former Soviet spy of being a partner in those very same nefarious enterprises.

On the one hand there was Whitaker Chambers, the somewhat frumpy-looking accuser, a man who had wandered in from the darkened cold years before, having seen the sinister reality behind the propaganda-driven hope and change promised by Communism. Then there was this other guy named Alger Hiss with poster-child-for-success looks, brains, friends in very high places, and a killer resume with seemingly endless references.

Add to that mix a committee in the House of Representatives increasingly dominated by a young Congressman named Richard Nixon who was quickly climbing a ladder to somewhere—and no Hollywood writer or gifted novelist could devise a more compelling story. Along the way we learned about microfilm squirreled away in a pumpkin on a Maryland farm, one man’s dental challenges, and a President of the United States talking about something called a “red herring.”

The story simply won’t go away—nor should it. It contains the DNA of our current national political discussion and cultural divide. Ask people about the Hiss case today and many will predictably give you a deer-in-the-headlights stare. But those old enough to remember, or who have demonstrated a cultivating interest in the political history of our country for the past hundred years or so, tend to quickly reach animation. “Hiss was smeared,” or “Chambers was right,” or my favorite: “Well, that was just McCarthyism at its worst.”

Never mind that Senator Joe McCarthy didn’t even begin to make a name for himself until after Alger Hiss’s conviction on a couple of counts of perjury.

But as the saying goes—“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” And with the Hiss case it took years for a preponderance of evidence to come out proving that Whitaker Chambers was right and that Alger Hiss lied. He was a traitor and perjurer. And it still matters today, not just because of the idea of finding out the true story but because the philosophies the two men represented at the time are alive and well and every bit as distinct and diametrically opposed as the Tea Party is from the group purporting to Occupy Wall Street.

Even while denying his guilt throughout his life (he died in 1996 at the age of 92), Mr. Hiss maintained a steadfast belief in the liberalism behind all the manifestations of the New Deal. And this remains the salient talking point—the very real connection between the “progressive” political machinations and actual Marxist thought and methodology. “What Is To Be Done” gave way to what has been done. This is the story of American political liberalism from the heady days of the New Deal to the conjured euphoria of “Yes, We Can.”

Whitaker Chambers, who died in 1961, never lived to see the fall of Soviet communism. In fact, he truly believed that it would never happen and that when he left communism to embrace the ideas and ideals of American freedom he was leaving the winning side for a losing cause. We know that he was wrong—at least in the short run. Having read his wonderful political tome, Witness, several times, I often wonder what Chambers would have made of the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Yet, to sort of quote Ronald Reagan: “Here we go again.”

These days, the “constant vigilance” consistently needed to perpetuate liberty in the face of what often seems to be humankind’s default affinity for a clueless slouch toward tyranny (weeds grow naturally, flowers take work), seems to be in dangerously short supply. The Hiss case would be a great story for all Americans to revisit every few years—as a caveat and catalyst. Christina Shelton’s book is a great place to start. She reminds us that, “Hiss has become emblematic of the ideological divide that continues to this day in the United States…Hiss’s advocacy of collectivism and the need for government control over society and his support for international policies ahead of national security interests still resonate today.”

Toward the end of the book, Shelton tells the story of Vladimir Bukovsky, a man who spent a dozen years in Soviet prisons and labor camps as a dissident. He reflectively compared the former USSR and the European Union (EU), where “nationalism is suppressed in an attempt to establish a socialist European state.” He summarized his comments with words of warning:

“I have lived in your future and it didn’t work.”

New Novel views Kim Philby through the Looking Glass

[This review written for EXAMINER.COM]

Harold Adrian Russell Philby, better known by his prescient nickname, “Kim,” continues to fascinate writers. Having falling prey to this compelling interest myself with my own research and story, I recall what the wife of a famous writer (someone who actively covered the Washington “spy” beat for many years back in the day) once told me when I shared my interest in all things Philby.  She called it an obsession-inducing black hole.

She understated the case.

So I waited for the latest offering from skilled espionage-stuff writer, Robert Littell, with great anticipation.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The recently released novel is called Young Philby. The narrative is voiced by several characters, real people who interacted with Kim Philby throughout his journey from naïve Cambridge student idealism to full-fledged treachery as one of the most notorious Soviet agents in history.  He was a man addicted to what one biographer called “the drug of deceit.”

Along the way in the pages of Littell’s interpretation of Kim’s life, we witness his (presumably) theory about Philby’s development as an espionage agent.  We learn about a key recruiter, an early love interest, and the order of things with relationship to the other well-known Cambridge spies: Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, and Anthony Blunt.

Littell’s chronology when it comes to the order of recruitment seems to be one of the most fictional aspects of Young Philby, not fitting with the actual history of what happened. But then again, his ultimate speculation in the book about Philby’s real agenda and loyalty is, as well, clear fiction—compelling fiction—but fiction nonetheless.

A good book from an excellent author who knows his genre—Young Philby is a quick read that will linger in your mind.

Forgotten Jewish Hero of Thanksgiving

[This article appears at EXAMINER.COM]

Our national Thanksgiving narrative is rich with stories about proclamations, gatherings, meals, traditions, football, and of course, the obligatory pardoning of a turkey by the president of the United States. Schoolchildren rehearse that day long ago when the Plymouth pilgrims broke bread. We note famous things men named Washington and Lincoln said.

But did you ever hear of Gershom Mendes Seixas?  He is one of America’s forgotten heroes.

We hear much these days about our “Judeo-Christian” heritage and its early and enduring influence on our culture. A look back at the founding era of our nation reminds us, however, that only about 2,500 Jews actually lived in the colonies in 1776. Usually those of us who speak of that early dual influence are referring to the Christian Bible with its Jewish roots.

But pointing this out is not to say that Jews were not active and represented during the colonial and founding periods. Quite the contrary.  And Gershom Mendes Seixas is a case in point. Described as “American Judaism’s first public figure,” he was appointed, in 1768, chazzan of New York’s Congregation Shearith Israel – the only synagogue serving the city’s approximately 300 Jewish residents.

He was just 23 years old at the time. Largely self-taught in the Talmud with much help from his devout father, he never actually became an “official” rabbi. In fact, it would be several decades before a rabbi was ordained in America.

Seixas was the first Jewish preacher to use the English language in his homilies. He was a gifted teacher and tireless worker. And when it came to the American Revolution, he was a patriot – as demonstrated by his actions while the colonies were struggling to actually realize the independence that had been recently proclaimed.

His synagogue, like much of the greater public, was somewhat divided on the issue of independence. But Seixas used all of his persuasive skills to convince his congregation that they should cease operations in advance of the approaching British occupation of the city, during the early days of the conflict.

He fled to his wife’s family home in Connecticut, carrying various books and scrolls precious to the synagogue for safekeeping. In 1780, he accepted the leadership role at a synagogue in Philadelphia, where he became an outspoken cultural voice regularly calling on God to watch over General Washington and the great cause.

When the war ended, he was invited back to resume his work with Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. He returned with the books and scrolls to serve from 1784 until his death 32 years later.

When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, Seixas was asked to participate as one of the presiding clergyman. This was certainly an act of gratitude by Washington for the preacher’s stalwart support during the war. It was also, though, an expression of Washington’s thinking about the importance of religious freedom and diversity in the new nation.

Later that year, as the nation set aside Thursday, the 26th of November, the date so designated by the president for Thanksgiving, Seixas preached a sermon to his New York congregation.  His Thanksgiving Day message was based on a text from the Psalms where it talks about how King David had “made a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Seixas told his listeners that they had much to rejoice about – “the new nation, its president, and above all, the new constitution.”

Warming to his theme, he reminded them that they were “equal partakers of every benefit that results from this good government,” and therefore should be good citizens in full support of the government.

Beyond that, they were encouraged to conduct themselves as “living evidences of his divine power and unity.” He further admonished them “to live as Jews ought to do in brotherhood and amity, to seek peace and pursue it.”

As the nation prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, Gershom Mendes Seixas’s sermon is every bit as relevant to all of us 223 years later.

The Spy Who Betrayed the Berlin Tunnel Has No Regrets

[This article was written for, and first appeared at, EXAMINER.COM]

There is a celebration of sorts going on in Russia these days.  The 90th birthday of a British traitor is being marked by a documentary film and personal greetings from President Vladimir Putin—a man who knows a thing or two about the spy business.

George Blake was apparently drawn to the Soviet side while working for the SIS in Korea. He was captured by the North Koreans and eventually decided to turn traitor. It’s a strange story with a Manchurian Candidate feel.

For most of the 1950s, he wreaked havoc on British and American security services.  These days he tells everyone that he’s fine with what he did.  “I am a happy person, a very lucky person, exceptionally lucky,” he told a recent interviewer.  Interestingly, there seems to be a connection between Blake’s missing moral compass and the fact that along with loyalty to his homeland, the other thing left behind in his life was any semblance of belief in ultimate accountability. “I do not believe in life after death,” says Mr. Blake. “In my childhood, I wanted to become a priest, but that passed. As soon as our brain stops receiving blood, we go, and after that there will be nothing. No punishment for the bad things you did, nor rewards for the utterly wonderful.”

George Blake in 2002

Unlike his traitorous contemporaries—Philby, Burgess, and MacLean—who all lived notably barren and frustrated lives in Russia after fleeing there to avoid accountability for their nefarious work, Blake seems to be a person at peace with himself.  Or so he says to Russian media and a world that barely remembers the dangerous dynamics of the Cold War.

George Blake is likely responsible for the deaths of many British agents—and at least one extensive and expensive joint U.S. and British intelligence initiative.

These days, the Berlin of that era is most often remembered for an airlift and a wall – the latter becoming the ultimate Cold War icon. But a few years ago, the CIA declassified a report, originally written forty years before, reminding us that when it came to Berlin and Cold War history, there was a third image – one that is often forgotten.

In between the airlift and the wall there was – a tunnel.

Nicknamed “Harvey’s Hole” after legendary Bill Harvey, head of Berlin Operations Base for the CIA during that period, the digging of a tunnel twenty feet longer (1,476 feet) than the Empire State Building was tall, was the biggest wiretap job in history. The idea was modeled after a successful British effort in Vienna, though the Austrian version was significantly smaller at mere 70 feet. The Berlin dig was dubbed Operation Gold (to insiders it was also referred to a PBJOINTLY).

The basic idea was to tunnel under a quite unappealing part of Southern Berlin, beneath the dividing line between the American and Soviet sectors. More than 650 people were employed in London and Washington, D.C. to process information gleaned from the taps. On the American side – just to show the dimensions of what they had to analyze – 4,000 feet of messages were handled daily. The mother lode was the KGB Headquarters compound located in the Karlshorst district of the city.

Digging began in August 1954 and the tunnel was completed in February 1955. The work involved displacing 3,000 tons of dirt and the installation of the actual physical taps on three cables – considered the most sensitive aspect of the project. The tunnel was ready for information to start flowing on May 11, 1955.

However, though it wasn’t known at the time, the initiative was doomed almost from its conception. The tunnel lived as an espionage conduit for 11 months and 11 days before being discovered by the East Germans on April 21, 1956. The story was that they had been looking for a problem with one of their cables, when they accidentally came upon evidence of the tunnel.

This was the widely accepted version of the events at the time as evidenced in the now declassified history. An internal CIA memo prepared two months after the tunnel was blown concluded that “the loss of this source was purely the result of unfortunate circumstances” beyond their control.

But Bill Harvey (who was known in some circles and “the American James Bond”) was never satisfied that the Soviets had just happened on the tunnel. A skeptic by nature, it would take a few years before that skepticism was vindicated. With painfully fresh memories of moles in the British intelligence community (MacLean and Burgess had defected to Moscow in May of 1951), some on the American side were understandably leery of such a massive and highly sensitive joint espionage venture. But whatever the concerns, they were dismissed in favor of the potential benefits.

But in this case, there really was a mole—George Blake. He would not be exposed as a KGB spy until 1961, but he had already been working for a few years for the Soviets by the time he was uniquely positioned to betray this project to his handlers. In fact, he attended vital meetings – always taking detailed notes – having ironically been tasked by MI-6 with preparing a written record of the discussions about the tunnel and its progress. He did so faithfully and gave copies to all involved. Of course, he kept a copy for himself – but it wouldn’t stay in his possession for very long.

In January of 1954 Blake met his KGB contact on the top deck of a London bus, handing over a copy of the minutes of the meetings between the CIA and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service – a.k.a. MI-6). So, the Soviets were in the loop all along.

George Blake may describe himself as happy man, but his life and work on the wrong side of history tell a different story.

Mr. Putin–Denounce This Vile Russian Hoax

[This article was written for and published in AMERICAN THINKER–Nov. 11. 2012]

There is a new tourist attraction in Moscow.  The Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened a few days ago.  It cost 50 million dollars to build, with the funds mostly coming from Russian oligarchs.  Israeli President Simon Peres attended the opening.  It’s all part of a larger campaign on the part of the Vladimir Putin regime to invite Jews back to Russia.

The very term “pogrom” is uniquely Russian.  Over the past 125 years, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled sequential and systemic persecution under the Tsars, under the Bolsheviks, and even after the demise of the Soviet Union.  Russia has a deeply engrained culture of anti-Semitism.  In fact, since 1989, that nation’s Jewish population has dwindled by more than 350,000.  According to the New York Times, as of 2010, the Jewish percentage of the total Russian population was 0.11 percent (approximately 150,000).

Lost in all the PR hype about how Russia is now so welcoming to Jews is the failure to take historic blame for one of the great crimes of the past century — Russia’s role in the creation of a spurious document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  This Russian forgery has fueled everything from that nation’s pogroms to the Holocaust (Hitler loved the Protocols and believed every word), and it even feeds the current-day hatred of the Jews by Islamists in the Middle East and anti-Semites worldwide.

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has long encouraged the distribution of the notorious publication.  And these days, talking heads on Egyptian television, now controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood in the sad wake of the ill-named Arab Spring, regularly refer to the Protocols as undisputed fact.

Mr. Putin’s regime consistently refuses to denounce the infamous forgery as a Russian creation.  As recently as March 2011, Russian prosecutors determined that the “early 19th-century document depicting a Jewish bid for global supremacy does not contain xenophobic content.”

If the Russian president is really interested in creating a kinder, gentler Russia when it comes to the Jewish people, then he should man up and acknowledge the Russian roots of this sinister lie.  He should also let the world know that such a document cannot and should not be trusted.

Not holding my breath.

The year is 1898, and Nicholas II rules a Russia that’s beginning to experience revolutionary stirrings.  The tsar is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and tends to be easily led by strong people around him.  He takes incremental steps away from his nation’s feudal past, but some in his court are alarmed.  Evil men began to seek a way to short-circuit these liberalizing influences.

If only they could convince the tsar that the voices of change he’s listening to are motivated by something other than the best interests of Russia…but how?  It was in this environment that the greatest of all anti-Semitic lies was born.  A threatening conspiracy would be manufactured — one that would bring Nicholas to his senses — and the Jews to their knees.

Mathieu Golovinski was living in Parisian exile at the time.  Though he was Russian, having been born in the Simbirsk region in 1865, he was forced to flee after repeated clashes with Russian authorities, usually having to do with his tendency to fabricate documents and evidence in legal matters.  He was a master of spin, innuendo, and dirty tricks.  He was also very skilled in the arts of forgery and plagiarism.

Oh, and he had once worked for the Okhrana — the tsar’s secret police.

Golovinski was approached by representatives from the tsar’s inner circle about creating a convincing anti-Jewish legend.  They needed a narrative — one that would be seen as proof of a sinister plot behind the winds of change beginning to blow in Russia.  He was commissioned to fabricate the evidence.

He came across an old book, written in 1864 by an anti-monarchist named Maurice Joly.  It was entitled Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu and was written as a thinly disguised attack on Napoleon III’s rule in France.  The French government suppressed the book, and the writer was imprisoned.  He committed suicide in 1878.

Golovinski decided to “borrow” from this obscure book, changing some of its cosmetics and phrasing.  It would be recast, using Joly’s fictional dialogue for a model, as the actual deliberations of a secret cabal of Jews bent on taking over the world.  When the fake was finished, it was spirited back to St. Petersburg.  Now the only thing needed was a way to get it before the ruler of the realm.

Enter the other religious zealot in and around the court of the tsar.

When most think of religious influences around Nicholas II, the focus is usually on Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who haunted that scene beginning about 1905.  But often overlooked, and certainly more ominous as far as long-term impact on the world is concerned, is the influence of his cultic contemporary, Sergei Alexandrovich Nilus.  He was a writer on religious matters and a self-styled spiritual mystic.

He is also the man who first published Golovinski’s sinister forgery.

Initially placing the Protocols as a chapter in one of his books, Dr. Nilus saw to it that the potentate was fully briefed and convinced about the purported Jewish threat.  And like Rasputin, he also had the ear of the ruler’s wife — so the tsar, never a man to have his own firm opinions, fell prey to the lie.  And in the days following his nation’s defeat at the hands of the Japanese, circumstances were ripe for the rotten fruit of a compelling scapegoat.

On January 9, 1905, the tsar’s troops opened fire on protesters who peacefully marched near the palace in St. Petersburg.  This would become known as Bloody Sunday.  The tsar and his inner circle saw in the Protocols the real reason for the unrest — it was a big Jewish plot to overthrow the monarchy.

So it began — the gargantuan conspiratorial lie that has reared its hideous head time and time again over the past one hundred-plus years.  Jewish plotters were blamed for The Great War (1914-1918).  Then in its aftermath, when Germany was struggling to recover from defeat, the big lie was discovered by the greatest demagogue of the day, Adolf Hitler.   By the time the future German dictator was sent to prison in 1923, he was well-versed in the Protocols and drew significantly from the forgery as he wrote his own delusional tome, Mein Kampf.

And the biggest publishing hoax of the past one hundred years is not going away.  Islamists are using it to fan contemporary flames of hatred.  It’s arguable that there are more copies of the lie-laden text available today than ever before.  Hamas, the group now ruling Gaza, owes article 32 of its charter to these long ago discredited writings when it says things like: “Zionist scheming has no end[.] … Their scheme has been laid out in The Protocols of Zion.”

If Vladimir Putin and Russia are serious about stemming the tide of anti-Semitism, they should take historic national blame for The Protocols and dedicate a big section of the new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center to exposing the big lie and denouncing any person or nation that actually believes it.

Putin, Russia, Yalta, and Whispered Assurances

It hasn’t taken long for the Russians to noise it about that they are ready to cash in on an ill-advised promise made when two presidents thought no one was listening. You may recall President Obama’s whispered assurance to then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”

Of course, there is a new—yet ever old—Russian president these days. Vladimir Putin is back. He’s a mix of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria. Putin is an experienced strongman and intelligence officer. Hardly someone to be impressed by flexibility. I just read Michael Dobbs account of what happened when the “Big Three”—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met at Yalta to carve up what was left of Europe. The book is called, Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War. I heartily recommend it to you.

Dobbs gives a wonderfully detailed account of what happened when a weak and ineffectual president—blinded by unrealistic optimism (and in ill-heath) and determined to approach the Soviet dictator with his own brand of flexibility—gave history away to a ruthless tyrant.

In newspapers across America today, there are stories coming out of Russia with headlines such is this one in the Miami Herald: Russian Hopes for U.S. Flexibility on Missile Shield. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said this a day after the U.S. election: “We hope that President Obama after his re-election will be more flexible on the issue of taking into the account the opinions of Russia and others regarding a future configuration of NATO’s missile defense.”

I went back and reviewed two of my past articles—one earlier this year, the other from 2009—and they both read sadly prophetic:

Russia Rejects Our Reset Button in Favor of Theirs
(October 18, 2009)
The President Whisperer (March 30, 2012)

The Cambridges Spies are Back in the News with Release of Diplomat’s Secret Diaries

Guy Liddell was the deputy director general of MI-5 (sort of like their FBI, with MI-6 being more like CIA, domestic vs. international work—but much more overlap over there) in Great Britain in 1951.

He was also a very good friend to several men who, though also working for the British government–though they actually Soviet spies. It was quite the scandal more than 60 years ago–and it’s all in the news again.

Names like Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean, Anthony Blunt, and especially, Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, are familiar to anyone interested in the history of espionage in the Cold War. Their stories read like spy novels—but, in fact, this stuff is all too true.

Kim Philby

[Note: I have dealt with these “Cambridge Spies,” along with a lesser known ring of spies at Oxford in my novel, CAMELOT’S COUSIN.]

Guy Liddell was their friend and started figuring things out way too late. Recently his personal diaries were released to the National Archives over there (Kew, in West London) and they are quite revealing:

Spies investigator ‘shared his secrets with Russians’

The man investigating the defection of two of the notorious “Cambridge spies” was unwittingly confiding in members of the same group of Soviet double agents, newly released records reveal.
The personal diaries of Guy Liddell, deputy director general of MI5, have been released to the National Archives in Kew, west London.
They describe the moment when security services realised Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean had fled to the Soviet Union in May 1951.
[To read the complete story in Cambridge University News, CLICK HERE]