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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 117-119

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Athan G. Theoharis, Chasing Spies: How the FBI Failed in Counterintelligence but Promoted the Politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War Years. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. 307 pp. $27.50.

The heart of this volume repeats the theme Athan Theoharis has pursued through numerous books and articles: In the name of internal security the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) oppressed innocent people and trampled on civil liberties in its eagerness to suppress criticism of the status quo. In particular, his earlier works depicted the FBI's investigations of the American Communist Party (CPUSA) and other radicals as having lacked any legitimate basis. The bulk of Chasing Spies continues this theme, focusing on cases of the FBI's use of warrantless wiretaps and buggings; warrantless, surreptitious entries to photograph evidence ("black-bag" jobs); close surveillance; informants inside the CPUSA; and cooperation with congressional committees investigating domestic Communism. Theoharis describes all of this in detail and in scandalized tones.

Nevertheless, in light of the declassification of the decrypted Venona materials and the documents that have emerged from Soviet archives, it is no longer possible to ignore Soviet espionage and the CPUSA's role in it. Consequently, Theoharis surrounds his recapitulation of FBI investigatory abuses with a discussion of the new evidence. He writes that

Venona and KGB records confirm that leaders of the American Communist party had served either as couriers or had recruited individuals to steal U.S. secrets for the Soviet Union.... The fact that the Soviets spied on the United States ... is in itself not a startling revelation. (p.237)

If one's knowledge of Soviet espionage had been based on Theoharis's earlier writings, the disclosure of CPUSA involvement would have been very "startling" indeed. He deprecated claims of significant Soviet spying and CPUSA assistance, and he steadfastly attacked the credibility of defectors from Soviet espionage such as Elizabeth [End Page 117] Bentley, whose testimony has now been overwhelmingly vindicated. His glossing over of Soviet espionage was key to his criticism of the FBI's internal security activities as unjustified.

In Chasing Spies Theoharis concedes that there were spies, but he palliates spying for Josif Stalin: "American spies may have aimed to further Soviet interests and betray their own nation, but the effect of their actions compromised neither long-term nor immediate U.S. security interests" (p.17). Theoharis's assessment is not—and cannot be—supported by documentation. To give an example, the network of American sources who worked under just one of many Soviet intelligence officers, Itskhak Akhmerov, delivered 2,766 reels of microfilm to Moscow from 1941 to 1945. The Leica cameras favored by Soviet intelligence typically held 36 frames. If each frame recorded one page, Akhmerov's sources, who constituted only a small fraction of the total number of Soviet spies, provided more than 90,000 pages of material. Theoharis has not read that material (neither has anyone else) or the hundreds of thousands of pages from other networks. His confident assertion that this material "compromised neither long-term nor immediate U.S. security interests" is therefore baseless.

Furthermore, Theoharis claims that Soviet spies not only did not harm U.S. interests, but actually helped: "the information about U.S. industrial productivity and military strength provided by the Silvermaster group—the numbers being overwhelming—might have deterred Soviet officials from pursuing an aggressive negotiating strategy" (pp.16-17). We have only limited knowledge of the influence of espionage on Stalin's foreign policy decisions. The notion that information from Soviet spies scared Stalin into moderation is at best highly speculative.

To downplay Soviet espionage, Theoharis emphasizes that

KGB and Venona records document ... political intelligence operations: reports on the plans and objectives of Democratic and Republican officials; operations directed against Communist political adversaries—Trotskyites, Russian Monarchists, Social Democrats, Russian Orthodox, prelates, and anti-Russian Polish Americans. (p.236)

Theoharis dismisses these Soviet political intelligence activities as "silly" (p.16). In...