Truth and Spies: David E. Hoffman Recommends the Best Books on Espionage
David Hoffman, the author of our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for August The Billion Dollar Spy, considers why espionage remains vital today and recommends some of the best further reading on spying.
William Hood, a long-time CIA officer, wrote a book, Mole, about an early Cold War espionage operation in Vienna during the 1950s. Spying, he wrote, is a dirty business. Strip away all the ‘claptrap of espionage’, he added, ‘and the spy’s job is to betray trust’. The only justification a spy can have, according to Hood, ‘is the moral worth of the cause he represents’.
These words are worth recalling now, in days of a budding new Cold War between Russia and the West, at a time when spying is again front-page news around the globe. There is a tendency to dismiss all espionage as a dirty war, to say ‘everybody does it’ and therefore everyone is equivalent. Yes, everybody does it, but no, not everybody is the same, not when it comes to what Hood called ‘the moral worth of the cause’.
Like it or not, the world today remains divided between those who cherish freedom and those who would destroy it. There are those who believe in democracy, rule of law and civil society as universal values and defend them, and those who believe in strongman power, repression, political prisons and autocracy.
For the United States, United Kingdom and other democracies, it is vital to discover the intentions and capabilities of adversaries. That’s why we have spies, and why we ask people to betray their country – in service of liberty. Spying is a dark alley, somewhere between peace and war, the unrelenting contest that must be fought to preserve and protect that liberty.
Today, espionage is just as often carried out by cybersleuths and digital warriors as by old-fashioned foreign agents. But the human dimension cannot be ignored. Satellite imagery and cyberattacks can reap tons of information, but they cannot see inside the minds of men and women. There is an essential role for running human spies, whether in Russia or China, or in other dark corners of the globe, like North Korea.
The Billion Dollar Spy offers a picture of one Cold War operation that was based on a single human source inside the Soviet Union. While the events happened a generation ago, they suggest just how vital espionage can be – and still is.
At the centre of the story is Adolf Tolkachev, an engineer at a top secret military radar facility. In the 1970s, Tolkachev began to feel something eating away at him. He was angry about the past, because of how Stalin had sent his wife’s mother to be executed as an enemy of the people, and her father to the gulag for eight years. He was also angry about the present, because all around him he saw nothing but empty promises. He decided he had to act – to do something. He volunteered to spy for the CIA, and eventually they ran him as an agent. He provided the United States with tens of thousands of pages of secret documents about Soviet air defenses and military technology, an incalculable trove that provided insights into Soviet capabilities and intentions – including research plans a decade into the future.
Asked his motives at one point, Tolkachev was vague. ‘I am a dissident at heart’, he said. But later he wrote to the CIA that he didn’t spy because he loved America. ‘I have never seen your country with my own eyes’, he wrote, ‘and to love it unseen, I do not have enough fantasy nor romanticism’. No, Tolkachev spied out of hatred. He was driven to espionage by this terrible system, from Stalin’s dictatorship to Brezhnev’s long, suffocating stagnation. It was a hidden hand that pushed him forward.
Years later, his wife Natasha said Tolkachev did it ‘for freedom in our country’. I think that was a pretty remarkable motive for a man who had never lived in a country with freedom, or even visited one.
Tolkachev became a spy because of the moral worth of a cause, the cause of freedom, and his revulsion at what Soviet communism had become.
Hopefully, there are other Tolkachevs out there today who can see the world as clearly as he did, who might come forward to provide insight into the minds of the men who lead Russia, China, North Korea and other places.
This Cold War story is not only about history, but about the world we live in today.
Good reading on spying – some suggestions
I am looking forward to Ben Macintyre’s new book, The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War forthcoming in September, the story of the operation to run Oleg Gordievsky, a KGB officer turned agent for the United Kingdom.
A major CIA clandestine source during the Cold War was Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish army colonel. The best book on the case is Benjamin Weiser’s A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
The CIA has published a study of the intelligence provided by Kuklinski, as well as earlier agents Pyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky in the 1950s and early 1960s, as it pertained to the Warsaw Pact and the Cold War standoff in Europe. The study is free and can be found here.
Those interested in an authoritative history of Cold War spying must delve into the extensive and comprehensive works of Prof. Christopher Andrew – including his latest, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence.
Readers interested in technology and gadgets should devour Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton’s book, with Henry Robert Schlesinger, Spycraft: Inside the CIA’s Top Secret Spy Lab. Also, Melton’s Ultimate Spy is a richly-illustrated and fascinating volume.
Not all spying was with clandestine sources. For an example of an incredible CIA operation involving machines as well as men, read Josh Dean’s The Taking of K-129: The Most Daring Covert Operation in History, a gripping account of how the CIA attempted to recover a Soviet submarine in the Pacific.
One of the best accounts of an espionage operation outside the Cold War is Uri Bar-Joseph’s account of an Israeli agent deep inside the Egyptian leadership, The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel.