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California Literary Review

Comrade J by Pete Earley


Comrade J by Pete Earley

Comrade J by Pete Earley
Comrade J
by Pete Earley
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 337pp.
CLR [rating:4]


And Joshua … sent … two men secretly to spy, saying, Go, view the land, especially Jericho. And they went there and put up in the house of a whore named Rahab.
[Joshua 2.1]

During World War II, a British master spy leased offices in Rockefeller Center, from which he directed the British secret services and information/propaganda bureau in the United States, most effectively on behalf of Britain’s desperate struggle against the Nazi onslaught, as well as to boost American morale, which until Pearl Harbor was strongly “America First,” isolationist and its population of German-Americans, over 40% at that time, sympathetic to Hitler. The United States was notoriously naïve, in short, regarding the ingrained hatred of America common to almost all the peoples of the world, including so many who had fled to new lives here. Even the creation of the FBI in the 20th Century scarcely improved our ignorance, run it seems by a paranoid director who kept files on every elected person in the nation, including presidents, and his bureaucracy of all-American Jack Armstrongs modeled on the square-jawed hero of a kid’s daily radio serial, star fullback of Hudson High.

Understandable, perhaps, given a still-forming, melting-pot nation in which a police service needed to concentrate on criminals and a plethora of arcane secret societies, contrabandists and smugglers, tax evaders, traffickers in drugs and people, and hundreds of roving, armed militias riding Harley “hogs.” Good-willed and pathetically philistine, stupid Americans were already prominent in the novels of Henry James, mocked by Mark Twain, and bitterly deplored by Melville in the 19th Century; goodwill and fervent pieties simply failed then and now to recognize the animosity of close neighbors like Mexico and Canada, partly because rich Americans were conflating evangelization with capital investments, as Conrad showed in NOSTROMO. Add to that the typical WASP jingoism that remains hallmarked in the FBI and our various police forces, State and local, which preserve a deeply buried core of distrust of citizens with non-Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic-Scandinavian surnames, and a consequent blind ignorance of most of the modes of thought and feeling of everyone else in the world. In short, spies — always a sine qua non for any coherent society large enough for borders — were always needed; yet they were regarded with distaste, albeit fascinated curiosity, by the decent-minded, free-spoken people we like to think ourselves. The 20th Century demonstrated that all-too clearly. For instance, to this hour it is not known whether Charles A. Lindbergh, an apparent Nazi sympathizer and American hero, was or was not a spy, one of ours or Hitler’s or both at once — perhaps because the truth would be rather disconcerting.

Spies and their operations may be many and various; nevertheless they are not the stuff of boy’s books or thrillers, though they are euphemized as “agents.” Still, it was not until the concept of strategic intelligence arrived (its founding father one Bernard Brodie who later worked for decades as a mild-mannered political science professor at RAND and UCLA), that its various branches grew and flowered in the midst of WW II, like the OSS that later morphed into the CIA. That was when the Cold War finally caused us to think seriously about the dangers that shadowed us from abroad and at home.

As for that British master-spy, who retired to become the Governor-General of the Bermudas, his autobiography offers in passing a hint that Canadians and American volunteers who enlisted against Franco were murdered in Spain by the NKVD [which attempted to assassinate George Orwell in Barcelona, and nearly succeeded with that bullet into his neck], so that their passports could be reconfigured for use by Russian agents who returned later to spy, chiefly on the permanent enemy of Stalin and his successors, from Krushschev to Putin — the United States. It was not until Sputnik went into orbit in October 1957 and Russian culture language experts were suddenly needed that we found ourselves lacking what we needed to know (although that necessity waned as the Cold War faded in 1989). And the situation repeated itself in 2001 when a new sort of war against us announced its intentions in too-plain a fashion after 9/11, and it became terribly obvious that we had never seriously thought to prepare for counter-intelligence in our universities and colleges, whether in Chinese, Russian, Persian, or Arabic language and culture studies. The resources demanded, meaning money and grants, were not even imagined to be a national priority. Unfortunately, that remains the case with us. A few daring documentary film makers working here and there to offer glimpses of the world out there will not suffice.

Not so with those persistent rivals, no, enemies rather, of our do-good, good-willed society whose fabric never had been whole since the Puritans landed, which continues patchwork, rent at every seam. Even as nuclear disaster, in whatever form, looms ever closer, the culture of diversity and moral equivalency that somehow devolved from the misinformation, disinformation and the sheer anthropological-psychological naivety permeating our culture, combined with an immanent American penchant for guilt-ridden self-hatred twinned with a sentimental hankering for the lower depths of criminality threatens our sleepwalking society’s security and future well-being.

COMRADE J can help to dispel our illusions. One of its suggestive passages recounts how the late Carl Sagan, a popular and prominent astro-physicist, for instance, fell for a phony program gestated by the KGB at Yuri Andropov’s request based on some draft paper that three Russians — a geophysicist, a mathematician, and a computer expert — concocted from their fantasied mathematical model about the impending “nuclear winter.” Sagan spent some years alarming the world with his campaign to disarm his own country and the West, as if Dr. Strangelove were a real person and Edward Teller a monstrous fool. Such hoaxes have regularly been propagated by the KGB and swallowed whole by scientists and the media. All those inherent American tendencies and traits were wonderfully demonstrated by Herman Melville long ago in 1857 in THE CONFIDENCE MAN, a novel utterly forgotten until it was picked up and republished in the late 1940s by THE GROVE PRESS. (Partly, some Stalinoidal academic critics were to blame for Melville’s having been occulted.) In short, Americans are not their own best friends when they imagine others admire and wish them well. Everyone on Melville’s Mississippi steamer — white, black, yellow, red or brown; widows, waifs, rich and poor— no matter, all are conned and ruthlessly swindled. Today more than a century later, it’s as if no one ever comprehended Graham Greene and Gunther Grass, or took notice of their violent loathing both of their own countries and ours in the decades after 1945. Le Carré has followed in their wake, a second-rate, but most successful weaver of cynical thrillers.

The foregoing musings are inspired by COMRADE J, the work of a former Washington Post reporter who’s written a clutch of books on the subject of espionage and its characters. It is derived from lengthy interviews, 126 hours of taped, face-to-face conversations with one “Comrade Jean,” the KGB code name for Sergei Tretyakov, himself the son of KGB parents, well-trained from adolescence, and finally promoted to chief of the Russian mission in Ottawa; and then, after trial years of stellar performance, sent with his wife and daughter to the Russian mission in 1995. That place in a 19-story building in Riverdale, complete with electronics sweepers galore and a floor shielded from penetration (called “the submarine”), housed a large complement of spies and their families, offices and operations centers. In 2000, he defected, after which little by little it came out he had been functioning under the cover of First Secretary in Press Relations at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United States. That he was the highest ranking defector ever to have been lost to the Russians after 1989 resulted in a hot flurry of complaints on the part of Moscow, answered by silence from the US. The book is an indirect autobiography, partly a history of his life and career, partly confessions of his activities and analyses of others’, beginning with his education, and moving from his studies and youth leadership in Moscow, until it focuses on his superb work in Canada and then New York, where he ran an enormous number (60+) of informants, spies, officials co-opted from the hapless and rotten multinational bureaucracy of the UN, and comprised — there is no other word for it — of many useful idiots. There was also a similar operation in Washington, which reached as high up in Clinton’s Administration as Strobe Talbot, a top State Department official and Russian expert. How they worked and whom they recruited is fascinating to learn: especially when “ambassadors” and their ilk can be had for dinners and watches and the like! And cash of course.

There is little in the variety of tales told here that might titillate a reader who fancies that spying is armed derring-do, a là Le Carre, Greene and legions of thriller writers, let alone what is shown in all those heavy-breathing movies. COMRADE J is about the gathering of intelligence, which can of course be dangerous work if a spy goofs up, as today’s long list of murdered journalists and dissidents in Moscow suggests. Mainly, the job requires the usual cover, journalism to get around, and sub-ambassadorial status, as well as disciplined discretion, the former supplied by any government, the latter by one’s training and subtlety in reading character: information-collection is the primary goal of intelligence. Documents must be purloined and transferred; they come from those who can obtain classified material, whether the government’s or coming out of corporate labs, and are either desperate for cash, or driven by hatreds fueled by ideology or pathology (though pathology should be spotted by any agent worth his pension).

Tretyakov’s revelations to Earley are not corroborated by FBI or CIA sources, since his importance proved so immense to Washington that no one was permitted to relate the least information about the how, the why, the what or wherever of his contacts and his disappearance after driving away with his wife and young daughter from the Mission’s HQ in Riverdale. One principal reason seems to be that for a time he was a double agent working for the US, although that is never discussed. As is well-known since the arrests of American moles Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, the KGB’s standard policy is the prompt execution of their Russian informants. Tretyakov lives disguised as an ordinary American citizen somewhere today.

Intelligence is meant for the eyes of policy-makers. Those who provide it live on borrowed time, although Tretyakov’s prime Canadian traitor, “Arthur,” is declared to be working still at high international levels, doubtlessly undermining everyone he can in the West. The same sort of rot, greed or ideology is apparently the chief characteristic today of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. One may assume, judging from frequent OpEd pieces by important “Fellows” of the esteemed Council on Foreign Affairs, that when Tretyakov remarks that some of them were his best sources of intelligence, that prominent Americans are easily duped or they are simply fools, if not traitors. Sometimes, he says, a fine source simply dries up and is allowed to disappear, as was the case of one Russian naturalized as a US citizen, who pilfered and delivered upwards of $40 million worth of government-funded patent drug research from his California employers, and was paid $800,000 by Moscow, a terrific bargain as Tretyakov says. The same sort of information collection can be supposed to go on in our secret weapons research outfits, not to mention university labs. Having myself lunched over 45 years with university colleagues, I would not be surprised to hear that. Scientists particularly demand open exchange, for the sake of science. The question they seldom seem to ask themselves is: What is being exchanged? By whom, and for what? They could learn something from Comrade J’s recounting of his career.

The revelations of the structure of training and modus operandi of the Russians, and presumably the Chinese, if not that of our allies as well, is what makes his story enthralling, keeping in mind that the slightest misstep, even that of being suspected of fabricating intelligence for the sake of a pay raise and promotion, can be the death warrant for a Russian agent. There are anecdotes about the fools he dealt with as well as the stupid gaffes of his own spies. There’s a wonderful tale about his having made absolute idiots of an inspecting KGB General and his vulgar mistress; their types came to power after Yeltsin was president and exemplify what are termed nykulturny, peasant apparatchiks. There is an amazing anecdote about a high-ranking, dangerous inspector from the Kremlin to whom he told the truth about their CIA/FBI opponents, even though he considered the man 30 years behind the times. Real life is more interesting than filmic villains. And there are discussions of the secrets of all kinds stolen, how they are obtained from dimwitted and greedy UN or Washington bureaucrats whose characters are no more solid than swiss cheese. The hard, plain and simple reality of intelligence collection is the meat of the book; it is frightening in and of itself. There seems to be little exaggeration of the career Tretyakov describes; certainly little enough to doubt the fascinating reasons prompting his defection with his wife and teen-age daughter. Those reasons are believable and worth reflection by Americans soured about their country.

Matters one would like to learn more about are not supported, but their absence from the book seems justified. Earley mentions in his epilogue that the sort of things he had hoped to get from our American intelligence people, some of whom were eager to provide them — to enhance their own resumes — turned simply unobtainable after 9/11 and after the assassinations of Russian journalists as Putin began his rise to power. It was the goings-on, the kleptocracy that emerged, the sheer blatant thuggery of Putin’s entourage, the vandalism and looting that commenced after 1989, related by Tretyakov, that finally discouraged him, a professional through and through and a Russian patriot. The principles that led to his flight into the cloaking arms of the CIA and FBI are suggestive: leaving behind all his property and possessions, amounting to about two million dollars, was worth it because in his view Russia was ruined and things had gone beyond any hope of redemption in his lifetime. He wanted his daughter to grow up a free woman.

Finally, the book’s most extraordinary, damaging revelations concern the United Nations, and the simply incredible theft of billions by the utterly corrupt administration of the Oil-for-Food program that from the start was run by Saddam Hussein and most-profited French and Russian officials, among many somewhat lesser crooks from Africa and Latin America. This is still today’s breaking news even after the Volcker report; or perhaps not, since our attention has been distracted by the Iraq situation and the nuclear disasters promised by Iran and the EU’s pusillanimous fecklessness, hypocritically masked as contempt for America and Bush’s administration. Earley writes a plain prose which affords enough solid information for the imaginative reader, information that is not fantasy nourishment. It can keep one nauseated and fearful for nights on end, thinking about it. Perhaps Tretyakov’s opening epigraph will give sufficient clues to the story of his career and its meaning.

Everyone wants to be James Bond, but I am the real James Bond and we don’t operate like in the movies. I will tell you how Russian intelligence operatives actually work. I will tell you how we steal America’s secrets.

Stolen they were; stolen they will continue to be. One can only hope that the rest of the wicked world out there is slipping into the same dumbth — the late comedian Steve Allen’s coinage — we have forever floundered in. Judging from the foreign press one reads, it would seem so. COMRADE J is a book that should be widely read, even though Pete Earley tells us clearly it reveals little enough of what was and is out there in that unknown world of spies and their hosts. That’s a little more than quite enough, thank you.

Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA



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