THE BLOG

Russian Spies Return: It's Not the First Time

07/16/2010 10:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

He was only five feet - six inches tall and occasionally ballooned up to 185 pounds, but the pudgy, moon-faced chemist from South Philadelphia with the obsequious manner and apolitical demeanor was one of the Soviet Union's most trusted and highly regarded secret agents. Harry Gold blended in so well that neighbors and co-workers at both the Pennsylvania Sugar Company along the Delaware River and Philadelphia General Hospital in West Philadelphia were dumbstruck when the FBI arrested their quiet, diminutive colleague in May 1950 for transferring the secrets of the Atomic Bomb to the KGB.

His boss at PGH told the FBI that of the hospitals hundreds of employees, "Gold was the least likely to be involved with atomic secrets and Soviet espionage." And a startled next-door neighbor told reporters, "You'd never in a million years suspect this guy of being a spy."

But little Harry Gold was a spy and a damn good one. For years he unobtrusively went about his business, taking classes at Penn and Drexel, putting in long hours at the sugar refinery, and assisting friends and colleagues with their academic studies. But he was also funneling industrial and military secrets to the Soviets, meeting with his KGB handlers in Philadelphia and New York City, and directing the clandestine affairs of other Americans working for the Soviets. And he did all of this while appearing to lead the most law biding - not to mention boring - lifestyle imaginable.

The recent arrest of ten American citizens accused of being Russian spies harkens back to an earlier era when Cold War espionage was an ever-present concern and the protection of governmental and scientific secrets a major preoccupation. The accused in the current case are a cross-section of seemingly honest, well-liked individuals and married couples with children. They worked normal jobs, lived in stable, middle class communities, and refrained from political activity. Their arrest caught everyone by surprise.

The Murphy's of Montclair, New Jersey, for example, were considered average suburban folk and were well liked by their neighbors. Even the photogenic Anna Chapman of Manhattan - now an overnight web sensation and in hindsight a potential Bond girl - was never thought suspicious, much less a deep cover mole trafficking in state secrets. She and the others were said to be too normal, too enveloped in the fabric of American life to be foreign agents.

But what did one expect, a tall, broad-shouldered Sean Connery look-a-like or the scowling KGB chief Lavrenti Beria to be the object of this investigation? Over many years the film industry has successfully created our notion of what secret agents should look and act like. The iconic James Bond image of a suave, debonair playboy who can transform himself into a fearless warrior at a moment's notice in defense of flag and country is permanently carved in our collective psyches. But actual secret agents, be they foreign or domestic, rarely fit the dashing Hollywood model.

During the many years I delved into FBI files, Soviet documents, various legal papers, and the scores of people I interviewed for my forthcoming book, The Invisible Harry Gold: The Man Who Gave the Soviets the Atom Bomb, it was repeatedly shown that just about anybody could be a foreign agent. Sure, you could rule people out as being too tall, too dumb, or too lazy, but you did so at your own peril. Some easily forgotten people are capable of incredible acts.

Hundreds of Americans spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and 40s and the vast majority of them were physically unimpressive and not particularly dogmatic politically. In fact, many were downright ordinary and therefore better able to blend in and carry out their assignments without drawing attention to themselves. Their shadowy tradecraft demanded it. Agents were told not to read controversial literature, never attend political events and rallies, and do everything possible to seem normal - in short, become the average American citizen. Some did it remarkably well.

The long serving Harry Gold, for instance, more resembled the Pillsbury Doughboy than our false notion of the physically striking, omni-competent master spy. One could pass him on the street a dozen times and never take notice of him; he was clearly unexceptional. As a youth in South Philly's old Jewish quarter, he was tormented - both verbally and physically - requiring his father to escort him to the public library on Broad Street. Even as an adult, he would be saddled with an array of peculiarities such as an obsessive-compulsive disorder, a profound nervousness around people he didn't know, and an obvious shyness around women. Daniel Craig he wasn't, but he was dedicated and indefatigable, and dutifully carried out the orders and missions his Soviet superiors gave him.

And so it may be with the ten suspects now in custody. It remains to be seen whether they were sleeper agents or, in fact, trading in valuable information. But it remains a historical fact that the Russians perfected the tradecraft of spying far beyond anyone else during the 20th century. Granted, much in Russia has changed in recent years and the Cold War may be over, but just because their attraction to a communist political and economic system has ended, doesn't mean they have jettisoned their passion for learning other nations' most prized secrets. Espionage continues and the most unlikely people often carry it out.