The Dead Hand

Title:                      The Dead Hand

Author:                 David E. Hoffman

Hoffman, David E. (2009, 2010). The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. New York: Anchor Books

LCCN:    2010537754

U264 .H645 2010



  • Originally published: New York : Doubleday, c2009.

Date Updated:  August 27, 2015

This review is based on one by Nigel West.[1]

The collapse of the Soviet bloc can be viewed from many perspectives. Several separate attempts to document and explain those events, and their causes, some concentrating on the intelligence dimension, while others have tried to paint the political backdrop. Both the defector Ken Alibek and the British scientist Brian Jones have described the clandestine Soviet research conducted in to biological warfare. At center stage of this drama, of course, was Western concern over the stockpiles of Soviet nuclear warheads and evidence that, despite public pronouncements, Moscow was secretly sponsoring the development of lethal pathogens. It had also engaged in a deliberate cover-up to conceal an accident in April 1979 in which deadly anthrax spores had been released from “Compound 19,” a laboratory in Sverdlovsk, which killed 60 local residents. Indeed, having accepted the terms of an international ban on such products in 1972, the Soviets had created a cover organization, Biopreparat, that was ostensibly engaged in the development of innocent pharmaceuticals, whereas it was really operating classified plants at Koltsovo and Obelensk to make lethal bacteria, nerve gas, and the smallpox virus.


A veteran Washington Post journalist, David E. Hoffman has combined the different aspects of the arms race, disarmament talks, and the biographies of individual participants into The Dead Hand, a very readable chronology that focuses on Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin but draws in some equally familiar intelligence players, among them Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, Vitali Yurchenko, and Oleg Gordievsky. Yet Hoffman’s is not simply another tale of espionage, but rather of a largely unpublicized Western effort to identify and neutralize the Kremlin’s massive investment in highly toxic weapons that were officially the subject of an international ban.

Cold War mistrust led Moscow to disbelieve that the West had abandoned this research and to suspect that work on germ warfare was continuing in secret in Britain at Porton Down, in the United States at Fort Detrick and Fort Douglas, and at Australia’s Pine Gap. In fact, the NATO members abided by the prohibition and had little reason to imagine that many thousands of Soviet technicians were still engaged in the field, sequestered in isolated military installations that had neither been declared nor opened for international verification inspection. The details emerged only when a series of top-level defectors, led by Vladimir Pasechnik, Ken Alibek, Sergei Popov, and a mystery man codenamed TEMPLE FOR TUNE, disclosed the terrible truth.

The West’s reaction to the disclosures was subtle: instead of generating a firestorm of media-fueled indignation, huge amounts of Western money were devoted to closing down the sites as part of Project SAPPHIRE in Kazakhstan, improving-security at storage facilities, and converting laboratories into manufacturing peaceful products. Moreover, under the West’s influence, Soviet scientists tempted to accept lucrative contracts in North Korea, Syria, Iraq, and Iran either submitted reports on their activities or were persuaded to stay at home. On one occasion, an entire Soviet missile design bureau was hired by Pyongyang and was about to move to North Korea when wiser counsel prevailed.


The Dead Hand reveals the hideous Soviet reality, not just of its massive commitment to covert biological weapons programs making VX and sarin, but to an institutional disregard for openly negotiated treaties, such as the agreement not to dump obsolete nuclear reactors into the ocean. Even Yeltsin’s government instinctively concealed the truth about misconduct from the Soviet era and sought to prosecute whistleblowers intent on publishing details of the breaches. Hoffman was also determined to reveal the true scale of Soviet incompetence, as he illustrates with his fascinating version of the KAL 007 shootdown.


Plenty is new in The Dead Hand, although some professional eyebrows will be raised by Hoffman’s assertion that Vladimir Vetrov was “a defector in place,” and that Oleg Gordievsky was “a double agent.” Nor, for that matter, were the KGB officers betrayed by Ames’s “double agents.” Some would also take issue with the proposition that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) IVY BELLS communications-tapping operation had been initiated when the USS Seawolf had “set down by accident right atop” a Soviet submarine cable. And did the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) really sabotage Soviet gas pipelines by interfering with a Canadian software program designed for the management of fuel systems? Such reservations aside, Hoffman has gained access to some unsung experts, such as the CIA‘s Julian Hoptman and Christopher Davis of the United Kingdom’s (UK) Defence Intelligence Staff, and delivered a compelling history of how the Soviet Union’s most dangerous weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were removed by rail to St. Petersburg, shipped by sea to Houston, Texas, and then taken overland to New Mexico for destruction.


Hoffman’s analysis traces the Communist implosion back to the moment in May 1987 that a nineteen-year-old German student, Mathias Rust, penetrated Russian airspace in his rented Cessna aircraft and touched down in the middle of Red Square, to the total humiliation of the much-vaunted Soviet air defense network. Truly, the Soviet Union was a third-world country, but it was armed not just with nuclear weapons but some 40,000 tons of chemical agents and vast quantities of other WMD. Indeed, at the time of the USSR’s disintegration, its republic of Kazakhstan possessed 104 ICBMs, each tipped with ten independently targeted warheads. The trick was to find and secure the arsenals, and then render the weapons harmless before they fell into the wrong hands or attracted the attention of unscrupulous politicians. To the credit of all concerned, Project SAPPHIRE was pulled off, but some Russians still insist, even to this day, that the Sverdlovsk anthrax disaster was simply a case of contaminated meat.

But David Hoffman concludes his excellent study on a somewhat pessimistic note: “The tools of mass casualty are more diffuse and uncertain than ever before … The Dead Hand of the arms race is still alive.”

Some comments by Roy Berkeley:[2]

Holy Trinity Church is in Knightsbridge, London. Just north of Brompton Road (A4) and northeast of Victoria and Albert Museum, on Cottage Place. This dead letter box—also revealed by Oleg Gordievsky[3]—seems not just problematic but downright foolish. The drop is near the statue of St Francis of Assisi to the left of the church. “The statue is surrounded by a small fence to protect the flowers planted round it,” according to Moscow Centre’s directions. “If you stand facing the statue, there is a large tree growing just to the left. The fence passes close to the tree. The site for the DLB is on the ground at the base of the tree, between the tree and the fence.”

The KGB officer who wrote the above description mentions having this out-of-the-way seat: an empty film cassette remained “exactly in place” all day. The spot is indeed “fairly inconspicuous”and the path lightly travelled. But servicing this drop would seem risky; many windows overlook the place from the church and from nearby residences. Critics have argued for decades that communism discourages (or even extinguishes) initiative, enterprise, and excellence among its people. These two DLBs would seem to confirm such a theory.

We don’t learn in Instructions from the Centre what resulted from SIS knowledge of these suggested DLBs. Within months, Gordievsky had defected (see Brompton Oratory) and the entire KGB operation in London was a shambles. But Gordievsky had been working for MI6 for a decade, one third of the time in this city. How many “illegals” and their KGB support officers had been observed at similar DLBs in London? How many of these people had been “turned” afterward by MI6—or, in their innocence, used by MI6 to send disinformation to Moscow Centre or to uncover more KGB contacts in London? Identifying a DLB doesn’t end the game but only begins a new round.

[1] Nigel West. “Exposing the Hideous Soviet Reality,” International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence (25, 1, Spring 2012, pp. 195-198). Nigel West, one of the world’s most prolific authors and writers on intelligence-related issues, is also a Lecturer at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, Alexandria, Virginia. The author of numerous volumes in the Scarecrow Press series of historical dictionaries, among them Ian Fleming’s World of Intelligence: Fact or Fiction (Lanham, MD, 2009), his recent book is Snow: The Double Life of a World War II Spy, co-authored with Madoc Roberts. Under his given name, Rupert Allason, he was for many years a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

[2] See Berkeley, Roy (1994). A Spy’s London. London: Leo Cooper, pp. 108-110

[3] Andrew, Christopher (1991) and Oleg Gordievsky (eds.). Instructions from the Centre: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations, 1975-1985. London: Hodder and Stoughton


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