The Spy Who Saved the World

Title:                  The Spy Who Saved The World

Author:                 Jerrold L. Schecter

Schecter, Jerrold L.(1992) and Peter S. Deriabin. The Spy Who Saved The World: How A Soviet Colonel Changed The Course of The Cold War. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons

LCCN:    91028072

DK266.3 .S365 1992


Date Updated:  October 8, 2015

The Spy Who Saved the World tells, for the first time, the complete story of the life and legendary career of the greatest spy of the Cold War, Oleg Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet military official ever to cooperate with the West. When I was in Washington, DC, the Penkovsky Papers were extremely helpful. They finally filtered down to us (1964-66). At the height of the Cold War, during 1961 and 1962. Oleg Penkovsky provided the CIA and MI6, the British Intelligence Service, with unusually reliable data on Soviet military intentions and nuclear strength. This information, channeled directly to President John E Kennedy on a regular basis, was instrumental in assuring U.S. victory during the Cuban missile crisis. The authors base their startling and historic reappraisal of Oleg Penkovsky’s career on thousands of pages of government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Never before has the tradecraft of spying been revealed with such dramatic force. Penkovsky offered himself to the West as a soldier of freedom. His own career in the Soviet military had been stalled by the fact that his father had fought against the Bolsheviks during the 1917 Revolution, and he was obsessed by this legacy, which made him suspect in the U.S.S.R. For the CIA and MI6, Penkovsky was the ultimate inside source; his access to military secrets was unparalleled and his devotion to serving the West was unlimited. No other work has detailed in such spellbinding fashion exactly how the CIA “runs” its agents – or how brutally the KGB hunts down its turncoats. KGB surveillance brought Penkovsky’s work to an abrupt end in late 1962. The true story of Penkovsky’s trial and execution is told here far the first time. Meticulously documenting the wealth of information that Penkovsky provided, Schecter and Deriabinconclusively refute one of the enduring myths of the Cold War – that Oleg Penkovsky was a KGB plant. Penkovsky’s reporting of thirty years ago demonstrates that political and economic failures were already eroding the foundations of the Soviet empire. The Spy Who Saved the World makes a vital contribution to our understanding of the ramifications and ultimate meaning of the Cold War and provides a fresh perspective on the fragmentation of the Soviet Union now reaching its climax.

This book was written by a journalist who specializes in espionage and an earlier KGB defector to CIA. It is an authentic account based on declassified official CIA files and interviews with some of the key players on both the American and British sides. It is the best book on the Penkovsky case. A GRU officer, Penkovsky, volunteered in Moscow, and after experiencing considerable difficulty being accepted was subsequently run in place as a penetration of the GRU by a joint CIA-MI6 team. He provided a large amount of military intelligence including critical information about the Soviet Union’s missile capabilities during his relatively short espionage career, which proved of immense value during the Cuban missile crisis. This is one of several “intelligence textbooks” recommended by Dan Mulvenna, in his “The Intelligence Officer’s Bookshelf: An annotated bibliography,” compiled by Dan Mulvenna (updated December, 2011).

Nigel West is a author and consultant on counterintelligence matters. I had the privilege of hearing a series of his lectures about the Queen Mary II in the summer of 2010. This book was one of the ten best books on the Spying Game.

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[1]

Site 76: the Mount Royal Hotel. In 1961-2, GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky gave Western couriers an immense number of secret Soviet documents—over 10,000 pages-worth—photographed with a Minox given him by the British-American team who “ran” him. On several permitted trips to London and Paris; he provided information that filled another 1,200 pages of transcripts. His material was “invaluable” according to many contemporary and later observers; he was “the spy who saved the world” according to the 1992 book with this title by Jerrold L. Schecter and Peter S. Deriabin. He was probably the most important double agent we know about operating against the USSR.

But was Penkovsky a true spy, motivated by his belief that the communist system was fraudulent and harmful and that Khrushchev was provoking nuclear war? Or was he, knowingly or unknowingly, part of a calculated disinformation scheme perhaps planned by a faction within the Kremlin? Or was he first genuine and then turned? Penkovsky has been a riddle for 30 years, although less so with the opening of important CIA files on him in 1988.

Colonel Penkovsky was not quite 42 years old when he walked into a third-floor suite here.iin April, 1961, for his first clandestine meeting with MI6 and CIA. He was heading a six-man delegation that had. come to London to acquire Western technology; as a GRU officer (with the State Committee for the Co-ordination of Scientific Research Work) he had the rare privilege of foreign travel. He also had an “unreliable” background. His father had been a lieutenant in the White Army, dying in the siege of Rostov in 1919; the son bitterly resented being held back because of a father he had never known. Some think that if Colonel Penkovsky, after his 20 years in the Red Army, had become General Penkovsky, there would have been no Agent Penkovsky.

Penkovsky had been making reckless overtures to Westerners in Moscow since 1960. Was he a provocateur? Had he been observed and forced to be a “postman”? MI6 and CIA took the risk of working with him (and working with each other, which multiplied the danger of leaks). Each night for several weeks in April-May, 1961, Penkovsky would sneak out of his room above the corner of Portman and Oxford Streets (Room 566) and walk quickly down to the Anglo-American team in Rooms 360 and 361. Here he would pour out his knowledge, his opinions, his passions, his worries. He “gushed like a swollen stream,” writes Schecter. During one of these sessions Penkovsky said, “This is an historic room. Someday there will be a memorial plaque here.” (There isn’t, of course.) Each night Western intelligence officers would take the empty wine bottles away with them, removing all evidence of the lengthy meetings. (On a later trip Penkovsky stayed at the Kensington Close Hotel, off Kensington High Street, and the four-man team met him at a flat in the Little Boltons.)

Both the quantity. and quality of Penkovsky’s material argue against his being a plant, writes Schecter. Through Penkovsky, the West learnt that Soviet nuclear and missile programmes were in their infancy, that Khrushchev wanted war but wasn’t yet prepared for it, that there was widespread disaffection in the USSR, that the military leaders were at odds with Khrushchev, that the Soviets had resumed atmospheric nuclear tests, and that the Soviets had developed an elaborate civil-defence plan and believed they could survive nuclear war. ln addition, Penkovsky revealed secrets about GRU tradecraft, identified dozens of GRU and KGB officers working in the West, copied top-secret memoranda about Soviet military strategy, provided gossip about important figures, gave details about the lifestyle of the elite, supplied technical data on key Soviet weapons (including the missiles that went into Cuba), delivered the armed forces field regulations (which gave full instructions for the deployment of combat forces and arms), and even obtained the Kremlin telephone directory (which enabled the West to put together its first chain-of-command for the Kremlin).

With Penkovsky’s information, President Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev over Berlin in 1961 and over Cuba in 1962. In fact; Penkovsky’s crucial role in the Cuban missile crisis has fuelled suspicion that he was serving an anti-Khrushchev faction. The “amazing timing” of Penkovsky’s arrest is mentioned by Knightley in The Second Oldest Profession[2]: “only by arresting Penkovsky [on 22 October, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis] could the Russians provide the final proof that the information he had been giving the West was genuine.” We now know, however, that the West didn’t learn of the arrest until 2 November, by which time the Cuban crisis was over. I don’t reject the possibility of an anti-Khrushchev faction. It could have paralleled the German opposition to Hitler, coming from the same sources (the intelligence services and the military) and for the same reasons (hatred of the Party and distrust of the adventurer at the top). But there are plenty of indications that the romantic and narcissistic Penkovsky acted on his own. I believe that he was the genuine article; if he was used at all, it was only after his arrest.

We have only supposition to explain the discovery of Penkovsky. The KGB wouldn’t talk to Schecter about it (even late in 1991), the CIA, hasn’t released its extensive study about it, and “a former KGB colonel” quoted by Phillip Knightley in 1993 may not be telling the truth. There are many possibilities. From the US, the leak could have come from a Soviet asset (Jack Dunlap) in the National Security Agency or another Soviet asset (William Whalen) in the Defense Department, both of whom saw Penkovsky’s material, or from a US Army sergeant (Robert Lee Johnson) who gave the Soviets access to flight bags at the armed forces courier centre at Orly. From the British, the leak could have come from two spies inside British Intelligence (John Vassall, Frank Bossard). And the head of MI5 (Roger Hollis), long suspected of being a Soviet mole, had taken the unusual course of asking—and getting—Penkovsky’s name.

Possibly, though, the culprit was George Blake (see Site 84 All Souls’ Place). He had told the Soviets that Rauri Chisholm was an active MI6 officer; the two had served together in Berlin during the 1950s. When Chisholm turned up in Moscow in 1960 he would have come under full surveillance. When Chisholm’s wife, Janet, became Penkovsky’s contact in Moscow, she too would have been under the most careful scrutiny. Even such seemingly innocent contact as meeting casually ina park (Penkovsky seemingly offering chocolates to her charming children) is seen now as questionable tradecraft,

Or was there a mole—someone never uncovered in British or American Intelligence—who learnt of Penkovsky? A senior KGB officer smiled at this question from Schecter. “No, no. This is sheer imagination.” We can be forgiven, I hope, for smiling at his answer.

Tom Bower, who produced a 1991 television documentary on Penkovsky with the assistance of Novosti, the Soviet press agency, suggests that Penkovsky was discovered because of two unauthorized meetings: one with Greville Wynne (see Site 34 19Upper Cheyne Row), the other with a British diplomat who might have been Rauri Chisholm. The Bower-Novosti documentary, Fatal Encounter, would be more convincing if Bower’s same sources hadn’t proclaimed only months earlier (to Schecter) that it was not Rauri but Janet Chisholm who led them to Penkovsky, and it was Penkovsky himself (confessing) who led them to Wynne. (Knightley’s “former KGB colonel” also points to the surveillance of Janet Chisholm as leading to Penkovsky, prompting Knightley to claim that the real betrayal of Penkovsky was by SIS: knowing that Blake had compromised Mrs. Chisholm, SIS was “cavalier” in its handling of Penkovsky because it was “desperate to re-establish its reputation with the CIA”.) The Bower-Novosti documentary faults MI6 for dealing dishonestly with the CIA and irresponsibly with Penkovsky and it provides persuasive evidence for those accusations. But the fact that the Russians gave one version of this story to Bower and quite another to Schecter only reminds us that we probably know less about the Penkovsky affair than we will know in the future.

[1] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 188-193

[2] Knightley, P. (1987). The Second Oldest Profession: Spies And Spying In The Twentieth Century. New York: Norton.


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9 Responses to The Spy Who Saved the World

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