Big Pussy, Philby and ‘B': Scenes From a Mole Marriage

I was just watching the rerun of the final episode of The Sopranos ‘ second season, the one in

which they expose and dispose of Big Pussy, the crime-family mole. It captured

the schizoid way that friends and colleagues respond to those who betray them

at close range-betray them, not behind their back, but in their face. It’s both

intimate and horrifying. In the language of mole literature, they’ve been

“penetrated.” The sequence concludes with the penetrated and the penetrator all

sharing shots of tequila on Tony’s boat before they shoot Pussy and throw his

bulky body into the ocean.

It was beautifully and subtly written, and what I loved was

the way the subplot and subtext of the episode-about Tony Soprano’s food

poisoning-reflected the Big Pussy mole plot. Throughout the scenes leading up

to the execution of Big Pussy, Tony is puking and farting and racing to the

toilet. There’s a lot of speculation in the dialogue about what caused the food

poisoning: Was it the chicken vindaloo at the Indian restaurant, the zucchini

flowers or the mussels at the Italian restaurant? The mystery suggests that the

food poisoning is really a metaphor: Tony just can’t digest the fact that his close friend has betrayed him, and he

experiences the trauma of betrayal internally.

I found myself thinking about that as I was reading the

100-page FBI affidavit and dossier on the mole who called himself “B”. I found

myself thinking about the mole whose history I knew best, Kim Philby. What

triggered it all was the lie B told about Kim Philby.

You know about Philby, right? The Godfather of moles, the

one sometimes called “the Spy of the Century,” a.k.a. the “Third Man.” Not

precisely the Third Man of the Graham Greene novella or the film of that name,

though there’s more of a link between the two than is generally known. (See my

column, “Thriller of the Century,” Jan. 17, 2000.)

The lie about Philby was one the alleged mole told not to

the F.B.I. he was deceiving, but to the Russians he was spying for. The lie

about Philby had been quoted in much of the initial coverage of the arrest of

Robert Hanssen, amid allegations that he is the mole who called himself B, the

agent who, the F.B.I. claims, volunteered his services to the K.G.B. in 1985.

(To preserve Mr. Hanssen’s presumption of innocence-particularly important

considering recent F.B.I. blunders in the Richard Jewell and Wen Ho Lee cases-I

will refer to the mole by the pseudonyms used in his correspondence with his

Russian handlers: “B,” “Ramon Garcia,” “G. Robertson” and-I love this one-“Jim

Baker.”) Barring a confession, the F.B.I.’s task will be to prove in court that

Robert Hanssen is B. (Has James Baker

been interrogated yet?)

The lie about Philby appears in one of the last letters that

B wrote to the Russians. Quoting from the F.B.I. affidavit, The New York Times quoted B as follows: “I decided on this course when I was 14

years old-I’d read Philby’s book.”

But if the spy was Robert Hanssen, that’s a glaring lie,

because Mr. Hanssen-born in 1944-would have been 14 in 1958, five years before

Kim Philby defected to Moscow, 10 years before his memoir, My Silent War , was published in the West.

So either Mr. Hanssen is not the spy-or, if he is, then why

is he lying so blatantly and obviously to his Russian handlers? Well, one

reason might be that, in addition to deceiving his ostensible bosses at the

F.B.I., B was playing a game of deception with the very people he was being

paid to deceive for. Throughout his 15 years as a mole, B attempted-with what

success we can’t be sure-to conceal his name and true identity from the

Russians. Citing security concerns (among others; he knew we might have moles

within the K.G.B. unknown to him), B repeatedly refused the Russians’ requests

for face-to-face meetings or anything else that might give away his identity.

The lie about Philby might have been a way of disguising his

age, and thus further concealing his identity.

But what’s most interesting about the Philby lie is the

letter in which it comes: a remarkable, emotional, self-dramatizing letter from

a mole at the end of his tether. It’s a letter that B wrote approximately a

year before his arrest, a letter that is worth quoting at length because it

illustrates something crucial about the relationship between a mole and his

handler. The way it’s much like a long marriage. The following is a communiqué

from a spy, but it’s also a love letter:

… I have come about as

close as I ever want to come to sacrificing myself to help you, and I get

silence. I hate silence.

Conclusion: One might propose that I am either

insanely brave or quite insane. I’d answer neither. I’d say, insanely loyal.

Take your pick. There is insanity in all the answers.

I have, however come

as close to the edge as I can without being truly insane. My security concerns

have proven reality-based. I’d say, pin your hopes on “insanely loyal” and go

for it. Only I can lose.

I decided on this

course when I was 14 years old. I’d read Philby’s book. Now that is insane, eh!

My only hesitations were my security concerns under uncertainty. I hate

uncertainty. So far I have judged the edge correctly. Give me credit for that.

Set the signal at my

site any Tuesday evening. I will read your answer. Please, at least say

goodbye. It’s been a long time my dear friends, a long and lonely time.

[signed]

Ramon Garcia .

Wow! What’s going on here? Ever since my editor, “Agent P,”

downloaded the entire hundred-page F.B.I. dossier and affidavit on B/”Ramon

Garcia”/etc., I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between B and his

handlers. In particular, one of the Russians I’ve come to call “the Poet.” And

while it’s too early to make more than tentative conjectures, I think one can

say there are several things going on here:

First, the interpenetration of real spies and spy

literature. B’s melodramatic, emotional, existential language-“So far I have

judged the edge correctly”; “Only I can lose”; “It’s been a long time, my dear

friends, a long and lonely time”-seems clearly influenced by Le Carré’s

Romantic vision of the agent as a tormented hero out there alone on the edge.

The vision is best expressed in one of Le Carré’s lesser-known (but I think

perhaps best) novels, The Honourable

Schoolboy : a vision of the agent out there on the edge, taking the risks,

doing the dirty work, making the betrayals on behalf of the bureaucrats back

home.

Second, there’s tension in this marriage-and though we may

never know the specific trigger for the “lonely edge” letter, the Philby lie

picks up on a recurrent theme one can find throughout the correspondence

reprinted in the dossier: the struggle over B’s true identity. The struggle of

the K.G.B. and S.V.R. (the successor agency) to get B to give it up, and the

struggle of B to withhold his identity.

It’s easy to see why B wants to withhold his identity, but

why is it so important for the mole handlers?

It has to do with the way that historically, double agents

have often been double-edged swords.

It has to do with events that go back to Philby’s era, and

to Philby himself.

Consider one of the most famous, most history-making

intelligence failures: Stalin’s refusal to believe the warnings of Hitler’s

surprise attack in 1941. And consider one of history’s most famous intelligence

victories: the Allied intelligence deception that convinced Hitler that the

D-Day landing would come at Calais rather than Normandy, the one that caused

him to hold his reserves at Calais rather than commit them to Normandy even after the landing there-a decision that

may have decided the war. And consider the enigma of the Hess flight, the

shocking 1941 solo landing in Scotland by Hitler’s No. 2 man, Rudolph Hess, and

the way it was interpreted. All

three-victory, defeat and enigma-involving moles like Philby; the latter two

involved Philby himself.

In the first instance, Stalin nearly lost the war because he

refused to believe the reports of double agents all over the world who were

warning him that Hitler was about to attack. He was convinced that he couldn’t

trust his moles, because he feared they were actually disinformation agents in

the pay of the British, trying to split the alliance between him and Hitler. He

had moles, but (like B’s controllers), he didn’t always know who they were or

whether he could trust them.

While Hitler, in the case of the D-Day deception, did trust certain moles-and found

himself the victim of a brilliant deception operation that involved the use of false moles : the double-cross system.

The success of the double-cross system was predicated on a

remarkable intelligence coup: British counterintelligence captured and co-opted

virtually every single German agent sent into the U.K. during the war. Captured

them and either forced them to transmit disinformation on their short-wave broadcasts

back to Germany, or executed them and sent back radio broadcasts in their names to the Germans. These

dead or doubled agents convinced Hitler that General Patton was building the

main Allied invasion force across the channel from Calais, when Patton in fact

was building a false front, an empty shell designed to distract from the

Normandy destination of the D-Day invasion.

And then there was the

Hess case enigma, in which Philby was a central player. It’s a case I had

occasion to study when researching a piece on Philby based on access I’d gotten

to Philby’s private papers after his death, before they were auctioned off in

the London offices of Sotheby’s by his Russian wife and disappeared into the

hands of private collectors. (That piece, which first appeared in The New York Times Magazine , is

reprinted in my recent nonfiction collection, The Secret Parts of Fortune. )

Philby was a Soviet mole within British intelligence when

Hess’ flight stunned the world. He may have been Stalin’s most important mole in

the West. Or was he working for himself as well? He certainly seemed like a

true believer. He’d been recruited in 1934 at Cambridge (along with four others

who made up the Cambridge Ring of Five). Radicalized by the Depression and by

the West’s failure to respond to the threat of Hitlerism, Philby worked out of

ideological conviction rather than for money, as his successor mole B did.

But, like B, he also worked for the love of the game.

A game-playing streak that may have disclosed itself in the

Hess case. It came at a turning point in the war, when Hitler was on the verge

of deciding whether to attempt an invasion of the U.K. or to send his forces

east against Stalin’s Red Army.

Suddenly-literally out of the blue-Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s

No. 2 man, landed his plane in Scotland and asked to be taken to a Scottish

lord, a leading light of the “peace party” in the U.K. Instead, he was captured

and taken to London for interrogation. The whole world, including Stalin, was

insane with desire to know what was going on. Philby’s controllers pressed

their moles: Was there a deal in the making that would leave Stalin out in the

cold to fight Hitler alone? Was this a British intelligence plot?

And here’s the

fascinating thing: Philby didn’t tell Stalin the whole truth. He shaded the

truth; he fabricated a key detail. We know this in part because the former

Soviet Union declassified the Soviet file on Hess, the so-called Black Bertha

file (“Black Bertha” was supposedly Hess’ nickname in the homosexual

underground).

It revealed that Philby had fed Stalin’s paranoia about

Hess, that he’d told Stalin, through his Russian controllers, that Hess had been part of a British plot to sign

a separate peace with Hitler and turn him against Stalin.

Can we know that for sure? Perhaps not; but I found a

tip-off in a little fabrication Philby made in his report to Stalin. I tracked

down the Scottish lord’s son to ask him about his father’s involvement in the

Hess flight, and he told me he’d concluded that “Philby lied” to Stalin. He lied,

the son told me, “by claiming that he was present at a

dinner in Berlin when my father supposedly met Hess-which never happened. My

father never met Hess.”

This seemingly minor lie, a claim of insider knowledge by

Philby to bolster his British-plot claim, was to have long-term consequences

for the postwar world. Stalin berated Churchill about it as late as 1944, and,

according to one of the best histories of the K.G.B. and its moles,

“contributing to Moscow’s distrust of British intentions was to be one of

Philby’s main achievements as a wartime Soviet agent.” A distrust that helped

create the paranoid psychic landscape of the Cold War.

Again an instance of how a double agent can be a

double-edged sword because he can have a double agenda: partly the one he’s

assigned, partly the one that may come from his own love of the game, of being

in a pivotal, double-facing position in which he can play one side against the

other, make them both dance to his own tune.

That’s why B’s handlers were so concerned to know the true

identity of their mole. That’s why they kept suggesting to him that they meet

face-to-face in a foreign country, suggestions that B consistently rejected.

Because it’s not enough to have a mole; you have to be certain you can trust your mole. The Russians feared a

double-cross operation: that B had been arrested and “turned” and used as a

conduit to feed disinformation to them. That’s why the relationship became more

strained, particularly in the last few years.

Because in the beginning of their relationship, the Russians

had reason to feel secure: They had backup to check out B’s good faith. They

had C.I.A. mole Aldrich Ames, who’d volunteered his services less than six

months before B did. And so when B first approached the K.G.B. with his initial

blood-money offer-the names of three K.G.B. men who were moles for the U.S.-the

Russians took swift action, because Aldrich Ames had already given them the

same names (but they didn’t take

action until they had B to back up Mr. Ames’ claims).

But then, in 1994, Mr. Ames was exposed and arrested, and

suddenly the tension in the mole marriage between the Russians and B seems to

have ratcheted way up.

Because now they had only each other, and trust became more

a matter of faith on both sides. B would also wonder if the ostensibly

anti-Communist government of Boris Yeltsin would be as loyal to those who spied

for its Communist predecessors.

Enter the Poet.

That’s what I’ve chosen to call the author of the note from

the K.G.B. to B exchanged on April 15, 1991, not long before the K.G.B. coup

attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, at a time when things were in tremendous

flux in the Soviet Union.

Here’s how the Poet, the K.G.B. controller, chooses to open

his letter to his F.B.I. mole:

Dear Friend:

Time is flying. As a

poet said:

“What’s our life, / If

full of care / You have no time / To stop and stare?”

Why this stop-and-smell-the-roses advice from the K.G.B.? A

way, perhaps, of establishing a confiding bond of intimacy when geopolitical

allegiances were cracking and shifting. And when B makes a reference to Chicago

in one of his messages, the Poet comes back with a Beatles reference:

[T]he magical history

tour to Chicago was mysteriously well timed. Have You ever thought of

foretelling the things? After Your retirement for instance in some sort of Your

own “Cristall [ sic ] Ball and

Intelligence Agency” (CBIA)? There are so many people in this world eager to

get a glimpse of the future. But now back to where we belong….

I love that last line: the second Beatles reference from the K.G.B. poet, “Magical Mystery

Tour” followed by “Get Back.” The Poet later throws in a reference to a

country-and-western song, “The Green, Green Grass of Home.”

Was the Poet truly a poet and a Beatles fan? Or had his

agent-running training instructed him to use these devices to establish rapport

with lonely, sensitive moles, who need to believe they’re dealing with a

sensitive soul as a partner?

It’s about this time that a long separation occurs and then

a quarrel over money, which is not really a quarrel over money but a quarrel

over trust . B seems to have been

transferred away from his sensitive national-security-related posting in the

F.B.I. When he reestablishes contact, the Russian partner in the marriage

expresses “sincere joy” and then makes the mistake of striking a false note on

the money issue:

“[S]ince our last contact a sum set aside for you has risen

and presents now about 800,000 dollars.”

This sum was supposedly set aside in a Moscow bank after the

Russians had declined, on security grounds, to open a Swiss account for B.

Rather than being pleased, B is deeply offended :

“We do both know that money is not really ‘put away for you’

except in some vague accounting sense,” he says. “Never patronize at this

level,” he instructs his espionage partner with asperity. “It offends me, but

then you are easily forgiven. But perhaps I shouldn’t tease you. It just gets

me in trouble.”

Flirtatious B! Picking a quarrel in order to enjoy the

make-up sex, one might say.

Because he’s not really mad, he’s a bit sentimental: “I

greatly appreciate your highly professional inclusion of old references to

things known to you in messages … to assure me that the channel remains

unpirated. This is not lost on me.”

Well, the sentiment is practical. After the separation, he

wants to make sure that he’s communicating with his Russian partner, not an

F.B.I. sting operation.

But sentiment, even jealousy, is there in B’s comments on a

rival suitor. Listen to him rag on Felix Bloch, the suspected State Department

mole whom B was said to have helped escape entrapment back in 1989 through a

timely warning. It comes in the context of B explaining once again why he won’t

reveal his identity through a meeting in a foreign city:

I am loath to do so not because it is risky but

because it involves revealing my identity. That insulation has been my best

protection against betrayal by someone like me working from whatever

motivation, a Bloch or a Philby. (Bloch was such a shnook … I almost hated

protecting him, but then he was your friend and there was your illegal

[agent] I wanted to protect. If our guy sent to Paris had balls or brains both

would have been dead meat … (emphasis

mine).

What are the lessons from studying these scenes from a mole

marriage? One might be tempted to say that moles are more trouble than they’re

worth. You can’t be absolutely sure you can trust these figures of deception

unless you have another mole, which raises questions of whether you can trust

the back-up mole not to be fronting his

own agenda.

But there is one sense in which moles may have served a

larger purpose in history than their small-time betrayals. You could make the

case, if you were inclined, that moles saved the planet. It’s often forgotten

how close the mutual suspicion, hostility and paranoia between the nuclear

powers brought us to the brink of nuclear war. Thirteen Days is a salutary reminder of the one instance when this

broke out into the open, but for 40 years a planet-destroying nuclear war was,

in the words of the song “Gimme Shelter,” “just a shot away.”

The fact that it didn’t

happen is a subject worthy of wonder, investigation and conjecture. And I have

a conjecture to offer: Maybe moles made a difference. On both sides. Maybe the

fact that, in looking across the divide, both geopolitical and psychological,

each side felt they weren’t completely blind

about the other, the fact that each side felt they could see inside the other, had penetrated   each other, may have made a difference. It may have defused the

fear of a surprise attack, which was the great wild-card nuclear war danger.

The fear of a surprise attack leads to plans to preempt the surprise attack

with a surprise attack of one’s own. To strike preemptively on the slightest suspicion to prevent one’s

missiles from being destroyed in their silos before they can retaliate-which

leads to a dangerous, “use it or lose it” hair-trigger mentality.

The fact that each side felt it had an early-warning

system-a mole-within the other side’s centers of power and intelligence may

have made the difference: In the ultra-tense dialectic of suspicion and

distrust, the fact that each side had penetrated the other may have defused

potential planet-destroying surprise-attack paranoia.

Or not. We may never know. This is in no way a defense of the

betrayals that moles like B have committed; it doesn’t exculpate them from

responsibility for the deaths of friends and colleagues, for the death of trust

itself. It’s no accident that Dante reserved the ninth circle of Hell for those

who betray and inform.