President Vladimir Putin has declared a new Cold War against the West. I was one of the protagonists in the old Cold War. That war was primarily carried out by spies, in spite of the media prominence given to its nuclear confrontation. The atomic bomb of Soviet bloc espionage was the illegal officer, whose extraordinary value is still too little known outside the Kremlin.
The concept of the illegal officer was—and still is—unique to Russian intelligence, and it constituted an extremely closely guarded secret. In 1964 I became a deputy chief of the Romanian espionage service, the DIE, but it was not until eight years later, when I became responsible for supervising Romania’s illegal operations, that I understood how little I had known about this super-secret intelligence discipline until then. Brigade U, as the illegal component was called, was so hush-hush that the location of its headquarters was known to only four outsiders (one of whom I had just become). Its officers never set foot inside any other Romanian intelligence organization. When assigned abroad, the illegal officers were not handled by the legal residencies but by other illegal officers run out of Brigade U headquarters. It was a state within a state, entirely self-contained.
President Putin’s new Cold War has moved the illegal officer to the forefront again. The Russian daily Vzglyad (The View) reports that George Blake—an alleged Briton who now lives in Moscow—has published a new book, Transparent Walls. The forward of this book was signed by Russia’s spy chief, Sergey Lebedev, himself. “Despite the book being devoted to the past, it is about the present as well,” Lebedev writes. I am sure he is correct.
New information coming out of Moscow confirms to an informed eye what I have long suspected. Blake, a former senior officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service known to us, at the top of the bloc’s intelligence community, as the “spy of the century,” was in fact a Russian from start to finish. In other words, he was one of the KGB’s own, an illegal intelligence officer dispatched to the U.K. during World War II, who caused more damage to the West than any other spy, ever.
That’s why Blake was able to avoid the alcoholism, wife-swapping and depression suffered by the likes of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess after resettling in Moscow. That’s also why Blake, when SIS sent him in 1947 to a Russian language course run by Cambridge University for officers of the armed services, was able to read Anna Karenina fluently in less than three months—a stunning achievement, as anyone who has studied Russian will agree, and one that gave him a strong boost up the ladder of SIS hierarchy.
Blake is history. His story still has gaps in it—as any real spy story has. But it illustrates what we can expect from Russia, as long as that country’s government is being run by former KGB officers.
* * *
On October 22, 1966, a dramatic prison break occurred in England. George Blake, who was serving an unprecedented 42-year sentence for being a Soviet spy, was sprung from Wormwood Scrubs prison—and later turned up in Moscow. For years Moscow denied any complicity in Blake’s escape. But KGB defector Victor Cherkashin recently revealed that the daring rescue of George Blake had been engineered by the KGB—Cherkashin himself had once been assigned to draw up plans for the escape. In fact, not only was Blake sprung from prison, but one of his rescuers, Sean Bourke, then joined him in Moscow. Bourke could not adjust to life there, however, so the KGB allowed him to go to Ireland, where the British had no jurisdiction.
Original KGB documents in the Mitrokhin Archive–described by the FBI as “the most complete and extensive intelligence ever received from any source,” show that the KGB’s foreign intelligence service, the PGU, also addled Bourke’s memory. On instructions from General Aleksandr Sakharovsky, the head of the PGU, Bourke was given a drug “designed to cause brain damage and to thus limit his potential usefulness if he fell into the hands of British intelligence.” Bourke wrote an innocuous book about the escape and died not long thereafter.
Why did the PGU go to such unprecedented lengths to hide its hand in Blake’s prison escape? Because it did not want to crack open a window even the slightest bit on the most secret of its secrets: the field of illegal operations.
The term “illegal operations” has nothing to do with the idea of law-breaking. In Russian intelligence terminology, a legal officer is one who is assigned abroad to a Russian embassy or other official government representation. An illegal officer is one who assumes a non-Russian identity and appears abroad as someone who has no connection whatsoever with Russia. In other words, in any Western country a Russian illegal intelligence officer looks and acts just like your nextdoor neighbor.
A good illegal officer could inflict more damage on the West than could a hundred classical spies. Blake was an outstanding illegal officer. He compromised two of the most productive NATO intercept operations during the Cold War, the Berlin and the Vienna tunnels. Not long ago I visited the Allied Museum in Berlin, which has a large display on the joint SIS/CIA tunnel. This very secret venture, codenamed Operation Gold, tapped into the Soviet military landlines linking East Berlin with Moscow. According to official data posted by the Museum, the tunnel allowed SIS/CIA to obtain colossally important military information from the Soviet bloc, and it cost Moscow billions to repair the damage.
Blake had informed the KGB about the tunnel from its inception, as he had taken the minutes at the first planning session, held in London in February 1954. In order to protect Blake, Moscow let the completed tunnel operation run for over a year until April 22, 1956, when Soviet signal troops, while inspecting some sagging cables, “accidentally” stumbled onto the taps. SIS and the CIA attributed the loss of the operation to a technical failure.
Blake’s value was, evidently, of overriding importance to the Soviets. Why?
At the same time, Blake was giving the KGB the names of what ended up being some 400 SIS and CIA agents. The SIS chief himself estimated that fifteen years of work in Germany could have been destroyed, and the judge who sentenced Blake in 1961 went so far as to say that he had undone most of the work of British intelligence since the end of World War II.
* * *
Most people have not the faintest idea how an illegal officer looks and acts. No wonder.
When assigned abroad, an illegal simply blends into the environment. Rudolf Abel was a typical illegal officer. As a supposedly native New Yorker named Emil Goldfus (an identity he took from a dead baby), in the 1950s he set himself up in Brooklyn as an artist and photographer. In 1957, the FBI received a tip and arrested him for espionage, but he steadfastly refused to reveal his real identity or discuss his intelligence tasks during his interrogations and subsequent trial. He did admit to being a Soviet citizen, giving the name of his deceased PGU colleague Rudolf Abel as his own true name (as a signal to the PGU that he was not talking), and eventually he was freed in a spy swap.
After 1962, when he was exchanged for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, Abel started touring the KGB’s satellite services to boost their morale. I met him once. According to his story, Abel started his intelligence career in 1927 as an expert in radio-communications, and later he headed an NKVD unit for radio-deceptions. In 1934 Abel was sent as an illegal to London. There he persuaded the famous physicist Petr Kapitsa to visit the Soviet Union, where his passport was confiscated. Kapitsa had to remain in Moscow, where he was appointed head of a Soviet research institute built for him, and in 1978 he got the Nobel Prize, as Abel told us with paternal pride. Abel also claimed to have been in London again in 1935-1936, this time as an illegal code clerk for the spy ring known as the Cambridge Five.
Abel was introduced to us just as Colonel Abel, not under his real name. “An illegal should die as an illegal,” Abel told us.
In 1972, I was taken to see Khrushchev’s and Abel’s graves in Moscow. Abel’s looked monumental; Khrushchev’s, at that time, miserable. For the PGU, the grave was the main way to honor an illegal. Abel’s gravestone displayed two names: Rudolf Ivanovich Abel and Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher. Was Fisher his real name, I asked General Sakharovsky, a former chief intelligence adviser to Romania, who was just retiring after spending fourteen years as head of the PGU. “Who knows,” he told me with a friendly wink.
The training of an illegal could take anywhere from three to eight years, including familiarization visits to Western countries and intensive language training, along with practice in clandestine communications techniques and equipment. By far the most important goal of all that training is to make an illegal feel comfortable in a new, Western identity, while at the same time to reinforce his ideological commitment to his own intelligence service.
After being dispatched abroad, an illegal is periodically brought home “black”—that is, clandestinely, in another identity—to “recharge his batteries,” meaning for political indoctrination.
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It is almost impossible to identify an illegal officer who lives in the West under the legend of having been born there. I approved many such biographical legends. All were supported by Western birth certificates, school diplomas, pictures of alleged relatives, and even fake graves. In some important cases we also created ersatz living relatives in the West by using ideologically motivated people who received life-long secret annuities from us.
By definition, however, there are no legends without holes in them, and a knowledgeable eye can spot quite a few holes in Blake’s biography. It is characteristic of illegal officers to have allegedly been born in some country other than the one whose citizenship they claim, to avoid close background scrutiny. Blake’s biography follows that rule. He claims to have been born George Behar in Holland in 1922, as a British citizen. His mother was Dutch, his father a Turkish (or Spanish, or Egyptian) Jew who had received British citizenship for having fought with the British army. Blake claimed to have been born on 11 November—Armistice Day—a fact that so impressed his father that he insisted his child be named for King George V of England, whom the father admired. Blake also said that his father had studied at the Sorbonne, and that his parents had hopped over to London for a civil marriage, so as not to offend the Dutch relatives who were against his mother’s marrying a foreigner. These are the kinds of sentimental flourishes the KGB (and my DIE) liked to add to an illegal’s biography—but of course they could also be true.
Blake’s early biography is replete with fanciful tales of people and places that are completely uncheckable, of family members who died early, and other murky stories. His father, for instance, not only conveniently died when George was very young, but in fact George knew little about him, as they had shared no common language. The Rotterdam neighborhood where George claims to have lived as a child was conveniently destroyed in the war. That was another frequent element in an illegal’s fictional biography after World War II, when so many European neighborhoods had been bombed flat.
Blake claims that, after the age of thirteen, he spent considerable time with his father’s sister and her family in Cairo, where he learned English and French. It just happened that when he later tried to locate his alleged relatives in Cairo, he learned they were all dead.
When he first turned up on British shores, Blake also claimed to have a mother and two sisters living in London, who had escaped there from Holland. His alleged sisters, however, were born long after Blake and had learned about him through their mother, who was related by marriage to Henri Curiel, a founder of the Egyptian Communist Party. (Curiel was an identified person, although nothing confirms his relationship to Blake’s mother.) This was a trick we often used, and the old widows were always grateful to us for the annuity we provided them in exchange. Blake’s mother seemed to be happy in her role too, and she even moved to Moscow for a while, after Blake had been spirited there. In his autobiography he frequently talks with affection about his mother, who kept house for him when he was single, both in London and in Moscow.
A main concern for Russian illegals is to obtain Western citizenship without leaving any trace leading back to Russia. In consequence, a new illegal typically travels to several other countries first, under different identities. Only when his Russian connection is finally lost, is he ready to get citizenship in his final identity. Since an illegal bases this process on an initial document fabricated by the KGB, he should exchange it for a genuine one, not in the country of the issuing authority, but at one of its embassies abroad, where checks tend to be more casual—and from where he can escape in case the fabrication is spotted.
Blake ended up with a travel document issued by a British representative at the American consulate in Lyon, France during the war. He embellished his story with having had many identities—none checkable—while working with the wartime resistance in Holland, France and Spain. As he casually remarks, “I have fairly often had to change my name in the course of my life.”
The most important rule for an illegal who wants to remain in the good graces of his government, is never to admit to being an intelligence officer in possession of a fake biography. Blake played it by the book. In April 1961 he was brought back from Lebanon, where SIS had sent him to study Arabic, and was confronted with documentary evidence (provided by a source who had defected to the American CIA) that he had been supplying information to the KGB. For two days Blake denied everything. At the end of the third day, the SIS interrogator in desperation remarked: “We know that you were working for the Soviets, but we understand why. While you were their prisoner in Korea, you were tortured and made to confess that you were a British intelligence officer. From then on you were blackmailed and had no choice but to cooperate with them.” Blake indignantly denied that he had been tortured or blackmailed by the Soviets, claiming he had acted out of conviction, out of a belief in communism. He then proceeded to confess his treachery in an uninterrupted monologue—pausing only at one point to ask: “Am I boring you?”
This is Blake’s confession, which his sympathetic interrogators so readily believed. In 1948 SIS sent him to South Korea, assigned as the only SIS officer at the British legation in Seoul. In 1950 the North Koreans captured the legation, took all the British employees prisoner, and moved them to North Korea. There Blake read Marx’s Das Kapital and other books in Russian that had been thoughtfully supplied to the prisoners by the Soviet embassy. Blake claims that as a result he was won over to communism, secretly asked to meet with a Soviet officer, and in 1951 volunteered to cooperate with the Soviet intelligence service. The SIS interrogators congratulated themselves on having made Blake confess, because without his confession the case would not have stood up in court.
Blake confession was faked. According to original KGB documents found in the Mitrokhin Archive, Blake had the PGU operational codename “DIOMID.” The PGU and its predecessors, particularly in the early years, did assign cryptonyms directly related to an agent’s life. The fact that Blake was called DIOMID strongly indicates that he did not start cooperating with the PGU in 1951 while being held prisoner in North Korea, but rather that his assignment as an illegal began with his enlistment in the British navy in 1943 and almost immediate assignment to the training cruiser Diomede and transfer shortly thereafter to SIS.
Blake’s calculated confession to SIS allowed him to keep his illegal status a secret. He understood that SIS had enough evidence to send him to prison, but if his status as a Soviet illegal were not revealed, he would eventually be released, brought to Moscow, and welcomed with honor and a pension. George de Mohrenschildt, whom I identify in my latest book as a KGB illegal associated with President Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, knew he would be never taken back to Moscow—that would have recognized that the KGB had been involved in the assassination. De Mohrenschildt therefore committed suicide when he realized he might be forced to reveal his status as a KGB illegal officer.
Loyalty to Soviet communism was another rule imposed on illegal officers who wanted to preserve Moscow’s support. De Mohrenschildt, who posed as a European American aristocrat who had dedicated his life to fighting communism, left a post-mortem ode to his commander-in-chief, Nikita Khrushchev: “He is gone now. God bless his Bible-quoting personality. His sudden bursts of anger and beating on the table with his shoe are all gone and belong to history. Millions of Russians miss him.”
Blake followed the loyalty rule as well. In all of his later statements, he has consistently shown himself a convinced communist. Even before his trial in 1961, when his counsel asked if he could say in his address to the judge that Blake was deeply sorry for all he had done, as that might help his case, Blake refused, saying it was not only untrue but also undignified. Regarding the perfunctory security checks made on him during the war, he once told an interviewer: “They didn’t realize that, throughout the war, my loyalty was to the anti-Nazi cause, not to Britain.” He also has denied being a traitor, insisting he never felt British: “To betray, you first have to belong. I never belonged.” In his autobiography—undoubtedly written with generous input from the KGB—he calls communism the highest form of society and frequently expresses the appeal to him of a society that abolishes class distinctions.
The illegal officers assigned abroad would have learned from Blake’s example that loyalty to Moscow pays off in the end, with a good pension and a happy and respected life in Moscow.
* * *
Since World War II most illegal officers have been loners, or (truly or ostensibly) married couples, but in important countries the Soviet bloc established illegal residencies. These were mini-intelligence stations, concealed in private houses and capable of carrying on intelligence operations in case of war, when the embassies and legal residencies would be shut down, and in peacetime handling extremely sensitive agents. An illegal residency consists of an illegal resident, usually an illegal support officer or team for handling secret communications with Moscow, perhaps a couple of other illegal officers, and a few agents considered too sensitive to be handled by the legal residency.
There is strong, though circumstantial, evidence that Blake was handled by such an illegal station. In his autobiography he writes that in Moscow he became good friends with Gordon Lonsdale, whom he allegedly first met when they were both serving time in Wormwood Scrubs prison in the early 1960s. Lonsdale, whom the Soviets acknowledged as their PGU officer Konon Molody, had been freed in a spy swap in 1964. (The circumstances of his arrest had provided documentary proof that he was a PGU illegal.) About him Blake writes: “Lonsdale had been a so-called ‘illegal resident.’ I have always had the greatest respect and admiration for this class of intelligence officer. To my mind there is no higher...Lonsdale was a perfect example of what an ‘illegal resident’ should be.” And he elaborates: “Only an intelligence service which works for a great cause can ask such a sacrifice from its officers. That is why, as far as I know, at any rate in peace time, only the Soviet intelligence service has ‘illegal residents.’”
Why should the British citizen George Blake, even if he had worked for SIS, know so much about PGU illegal residents? I postulate that Blake had been the express reason for the PGU’s establishment of its first postwar illegal residency in London. That was a very big deal, but Blake was a very big case. After his return from Korea in 1953, Blake held important positions at SIS headquarters, and the PGU’s illegal component surely wanted to keep in close touch with him and provide a rapid way for him to send PGU headquarters his anticipated voluminous intelligence on SIS operations.
Here are the facts. The first members of Molody’s illegal residency to arrive in London were the illegal agents Morris and Lona Cohen, whose identities had earlier been compromised in the United States. (The Cohens had both been born in the U.S., making them KGB agents rather than officers, but otherwise their careers paralleled those of illegal officers.) They were scheduled to be sent to Japan, but suddenly they were assigned as the communications support team for the new London illegal residency. In May 1954 they traveled to Paris to pick up new identities as Peter and Helen Kroger, also meeting Molody there. Morris once claimed he and his wife had selected Dutch names because they were originally scheduled for assignment to South Africa. I note, however, that Blake’s alleged Dutch background could have given him a reason for knowing the Krogers, should they have needed a public excuse for meeting in person. In London, the Cohens, now Krogers, rented a house in a secluded area and set themselves up in the antiquarian book business. In fact they were the communications unit for the illegal residency’s encoded radio, microdot and secret writing contact with Moscow. It was also in 1954 that Molody went to Canada to establish his identity as the Canadian Gordon Lonsdale.
In March 1955 Lonsdale arrived in London and established himself in the vending machines business. Over the next six years he is known to have handled essentially only two agents, Harry Houghton and his girlfriend Ethel Gee, both of whom provided classified information on submarine warfare. The complicated process of establishing an illegal residency does not seem an efficient way for the PGU to have handled two normal cases that surely could have been run out of the legal residency. (Molody also briefly handled a long-time London legal residency agent, but after two months she was turned back over to the legal residency. That was in early 1959, just when Blake returned from a tour of several years in West Berlin.)
The defector Oleg Gordievsky tells us that Molody was (as of 1985) the only postwar illegal officer whose portrait was hanging in the Memory Room of the PGU. Molody’s handling of Houghton and his girlfriend, two valuable but routine agents, would not have earned him such a great honor. But his handling of Blake certainly would have. That would also explain why Blake expressed “genuine joy” over accidentally running into Morris Cohen in Moscow one day in 1971. According to the Mitrokhin Archive, the two exchanged telephone numbers and agreed to meet, but then KGB headquarters discouraged them individually, and each found a reason to make excuses to the other, as confirmed by their bugged telephones. They never met again. Although the Cohens and Blake had briefly met in Wormwood Scrubs prison in the U.K., the KGB clearly did not want them to be seen as close friends, as that might have confirmed that they were both members of Molody’s illegal residency. (Blake does not even mention the Cohens/Krogers in his autobiography.)
In 1959 the CIA told SIS that it had information about two Soviet agents operating in Britain, one working in naval research and one in SIS. By March 1960, British Security Service officers had sufficient information to identify Harry Houghton (and his girlfriend Ethel Gee), whom they followed to identify Lonsdale (Molody), who in turn led them to the Krogers (Cohens), but the British cleverly let the case run, hoping to learn more. In August, Molody was overheard telling Houghton that there would be no monthly meeting in September as he was visiting the U.S. (actually Moscow), but he hoped to be back for their October meeting.
Molody was away from 27 August to 17 October. While he was gone, MI5 was able to copy his code pads and decipher his radio traffic, positively identifying him as a KGB illegal. The traffic was monitored for two months after Molody’s return from Moscow, but it consisted only of routine instructions for handling “SHAH” (Houghton) and messages from Molody’s family in Moscow. The Government Communications Headquarters (the British equivalent of NSA) then identified a similar radio traffic link, containing about twice the volume, which had run from ca. 1955 to August 1960, and then abruptly stopped. In early September 1960 Blake left London to study Arabic at a school in Lebanon, and I suggest that the decrease in Molody’s radio traffic with KGB headquarters may have been related to Blake’s new assignment and Molody’s own future without him.
The future took care of itself, with the arrest of Molody and the Cohens in January and Blake in April 1961. Taken together, this group, who I am convinced formed one illegal residency, inflicted enormous, unprecedented damage on the West.
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On September 11, 2002, a select cluster of former senior KGB officers gathered at the KGB museum, a dreary gray building behind the Lubyanka. They had not congregated to sympathize with us on the anniversary of our national tragedy, but to celebrate the 125th birthday of Feliks Dzerzhinsky—the man who created one of the most criminal institutions in contemporary history.
George Blake, whose smiling image is prominently displayed in the museum, was among them. His KGB-inspired autobiographical book was also prominently displayed. In it Blake states out loud, for all illegal officers hiding around the world to hear, that he never disclosed that he was an illegal officer, and that in recognition of his loyalty, the Soviet government rewarded him with a marvelous life in Moscow and with many decorations, beginning with the Order of Lenin— which Philby once happily compared to a British knighthood when he got his, although he was miffed to receive it a year later than Blake.
The fact that Blake’s book also lists among his rewards the Military Order of the Red Banner and the Military Order of Merit—decorations that only a military officer could receive—attests that the KGB displayed this book for the primary benefit of its illegal officers spread around the world. That also confirms Blake’s own status as an illegal officer, as all PGU officers, both legal and illegal, had military rank.
Today there are some 6,000 former KGB officers running Russia’s federal and local governments, and illegal officers are en vogue more than ever before. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Canada has arrested and deported at least three illegal officers working for the SVR (the new name of the PGU). Two were caught in 1996, and one in 2006. The first two, documented as Ian Mackenzie Lambert and Laurie Brodie, used the stolen identities of dead Canadian children. The third, documented as Paul William Hampel, used the identity of a living Canadian.
Without explanation, the latest Wikipedia entry on Blake, introduced a few weeks ago, suddenly describes him as a “colonel of foreign intelligence.” Evidently, Moscow wanted its illegals abroad to hear from an independent source as well that Blake is now highly honored in Moscow.
Russian foreign intelligence has always believed in standardizing its operations, as we in the Soviet satellite services were constantly taught. The phenomenal success of George Blake ensures that the traditionally Russian pattern of illegal operations will be repeated over and over in the future. Nothing succeeds like success.
 Luke Hardin, “The new cold war: Russia’s missiles to target Europe,”The Guardian, June 4, 2007.
 Departamentul de Informatii Externe, Department of Foreign Intelligence.
 George Blake, Wikipedia, October 2007.
 George Blake, No Other Choice: An Autobiography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), pp. 105-106.
 Blake, pp. 227-228, 231-232.
 Victor Cherkashin, with Gregory Feifer, Spy Handler: Memoir of a KGB Officer (New York: Basic Books, 2005), p. 69.
 Quote from the dust jacket of Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, The Sword and the Shielf: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB (New York: Basic Boks, 1999).
 Pervoye Glavnoye Upravleniye, First Chief directorate of the KGB.
 Mitrokhin Archive, p. 400.
 Blake, pp. 17-22, 207.
 Tom Bower, The Perfect English Spy: Sir Dick White and the Secret War 1935-90 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1995), p. 181.
 Mitrokhin Archive, p. 172.
 Blake, pp. 111, 137-144.
 Mitrokhin Archive, p. 399.
 Ion Mihai Pacepa, Programmed to Kill: Lee Harvey Oswald, the Soviet KGB, and the Kennedy Assassination (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2007), p. 144.
 Quoted in Wikipedia, October 2007.
 Blake, pp. 3, 134-140.
 KGB interview with Morris Cohen, p. 3, published at http://www.pbs.org/redfiles/kgb/deep/interv/k_int_morris_cohen.htm.
 Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, KGB: The Inside Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), pp. 440-442.
 Mitrokhin Archive, p. 410.
 Mitrokhin Archive, p. 410.
 Andrew and Gordievsky, p. 443.
 Mitrokhin Archive, p. 411.
 Peter Wright with Paul Greengrass, Spy Catcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer (New York: Dell, 1987), pp. 161-182.
 Steward Bell and Adrian Humphreys, “Suspected spy arrested: False identity a Russian technique,” National Post, 16 November, 2006.