KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Agents

Title:                  KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Agents

Author:                 John Baron

Baron, John (1974). KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Agents. Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association.

LCCN:    73079532

HV8225 .B37


Date Updated:  April 20, 2016

When this early book on the KGB appeared it shocked the KGB because of its accurate insights into the KGB officers serving around the world. The KGB believed that publication of the book was an operation by U.S. and Western intelligence communities to expose and hinder their operations. They of course subsequently retaliated with publication of an exposé of CIA officers world-wide. While dated, this is still a useful counterintelligence reference to earlier KGB operations and personalities and the Cold War intelligence battle. 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).

Reviewed by George C. Constantinides[1]

The KGB and its predecessors, their central role in maintaining the Soviet regime, and their long history of espionage and covert action abroad have been documented in many ways. Yet there have been comparatively few full-length studies published in English of the organization and operations, both at home and abroad, of this important, nay vital, support of the Soviet system, without which that system would collapse. Barron brings together more information about certain KGB collection and action operations and more up-to-date data on its organization and reveals more names of operatives on all levels than have ever before been collected in one book. His conviction, and that of his colleague Kenneth Gilmore, is “that it is impossible to understand the Soviet Union without understanding the KGB,” a conclusion with which few would argue. Main emphasis is on the KGB’s activities abroad, with chapters describing individual espionage operations and giving the identities of the KGB operatives. The KGB’s organizational structure at headquarters and field levels is outlined, and there is a short section on its internal security function within the Soviet Union. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s statement in his New York Times review that this internal function, supported by great effort and resources, is what makes the KGB sinister is his way of indicating an imbalance in Barron’s treatment.

From the range, pervasiveness, and persistence of the KGB efforts abroad that Barron describes, the KGB warrants the description as the largest in scope and most sinister foreign intelligence operation in history. Examples of collection, agents of influence, disinformation, political and other kinds of warfare, sabotage, assassination (“wet affairs”), and aid to terrorist operations abound. Chapters on the departments of the KGB responsible for sabotage, assassination, and disinformation reveal many valuable facts for the first time. The short chapter on satellite services is concerned mainly with one Cuban agent.

Barron had two primary sources of original data: Soviet defectors and Western security and intelligence services; the majority of the data came from private individuals. He could not have produced such a detailed and revealing study without access to Western security and intelligence organizations—he acknowledges, for instance, the editorial help of the chief of DIA’s counterintelligence department for the final version of his chapter on Sergeant Robert Lee Johnson, one of the significant cases in the book. This help gives the work a more authoritative status and greater authenticity. The Western services’ willingness to be forthcoming was probably inspired by several motives: the wish to expose Soviet activities and operatives as a counter to the ongoing Soviet campaign to discredit Western, and especially U.S., intelligence and to reveal the identities of Western intelligence personnel; the wish to differentiate between the two sides; and the desire to put Soviet activities in their proper perspective.

There were a few other criticisms of the book. Trevor-Roper disliked Barron’s style, calling it journalistic with an excess of dramatic reconstruction. The RUSI reviewer thought Barron should have used more material from reports of government commissions and trials of KGB agents-which only proves that the study was in no way comprehensive. Source identification and documentation are superior to those of the typical journalistic work, and the bibliography is fairly complete. Serious if not scholarly, this is very nearly a textbook on the subject.

This is a review by the Defense Intelligence School.[2]

An excellent, authoritative and well written account of many major cases in which the KGB has been involved around the world. Also included are some valuable details of the organization of the KGB. This is the best current book on the subject [as of 1981] although the section on the GRU is somewhat weak.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[3]

About five years [late 1960s] ago the Reader’s Digest editors began to assess the feasibility of a definitive book on the organization thought to be as important as any other organization in the Soviet Union— the KGB (Committee for State Security). Senior editor John Barron was selected to col late the mass of data and to write the book since he had served with U.S. Naval Intelligence before becoming an award-winning newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C. A list of approximately fifty names of men and women who had been connected in some way with Soviet intelligence was compiled, and interviews with all but two were arranged over a period of years. Assistance was sought and obtained from the intelligence services of Great Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands, and sane two dozen additional countries, The FBI and the CIA provided information and assistance in setting up meetings with ex-Soviet agents. The foreign office of Reader’s Digest provided assistance in searching publications for information in thirteen languages. From this data base were selected stories and episodes that exposed distinct activities of the KGB. Consequently there are dozens of case histories of KGB operatives. A list of 1,500 KGB agents engaged in espionage and clandestine operations outside the USSR is provided in the book.

[1] Constantinides, George C. (1983). Intelligence and Espionage: An Analytical Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 73-74

[2] Defense Intelligence School (1981). Bibliography of Intelligence Literature (7th ed Rev.). Washington, DD: Defense Intelligence School, p. 6

[3] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., pp. 98-99



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