The true story of a KGB mole and his CIA handler

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 01 October, 2017
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Aldrich Ames in 1994 after being charged with spying for the Soviet Union. Photo/Getty Images

Eva Dillon's Spies in the Family makes for riveting reading in our time.

Penalties for spying have always been harsh. In the US in 1953, a conviction for espionage sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair, and in 1994, CIA operative Aldrich Ames was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole after being convicted of trading information with the Russians.

Ames survived nine years without being unmasked, despite his heavy drinking and extravagant spending. In 1985, badly in debt, he had marched into the Soviet Embassy in Washington with a note for the KGB rezident, offering his country’s secrets. This approach, amazingly low-tech by today’s standards, prompted the Russians to meet him. He later handed over a shopping bag with 3kg of classified material to a Soviet diplomat in a leak the CIA came to call “the big dump”. In return for cash, Ames betrayed almost every Soviet agent who was spying for the Americans, among them the highest-ranking mole the US had ever run, top Soviet intelligence official Dmitri Polyakov.

Growing up in a middle-class American family in the 70s, Eva Dillon had no idea of her father’s role in the running of Polyakov. She thought he worked for the State Department and that explained his frequent overseas trips. Spies in the Family is her meticulously researched account of the relationship between her father, CIA handler Paul L Dillon, and his Russian source. It’s a fascinating biography of two families, Polyakov’s and Dillon’s, and a riveting exploration of Cold War relations.

This is a true tale of epic paranoia. James Angleton, the CIA’s mad head, was so obsessively suspicious that he refused to believe Polyakov was genuine, and he almost ruined the agency’s chance to use him. Consumed with rooting out leakers, Angleton employed a mole hunter who eventually solved the mystery by accusing Angleton, a conclusion hurriedly shelved as “baloney”.

Spying is a hall of mirrors, a Great Game, a dangerous business – above all, a sea of ironies. The penalties are savage, and yet, as Dillon’s memoir makes plain, espionage can be a force for good. Once Polyakov had offered himself as a mole, he opened the way for mutual understanding between superpowers, and this enhanced diplomacy. As Eva Dillon puts it, “The full effect of Polyakov’s intelligence output in helping the United States manage the Cold War is, in retrospect, astonishing.” Crucially, his information revealed Soviet thinking as not so different from the Americans’.

Robert Gates, director of the CIA under George W Bush, noted that Polyakov’s intelligence revealed the Russians weren’t “crazy warmongers”, a revelation that “may have prevented US miscalculations that would have touched off a shooting war”.

Dillon repeatedly makes the point that Polyakov was a brave man, a nationalist and a hero. Unlike the hedonistic Ames, he wasn’t in it for the money; rather he served the Russian people who were, he believed, ill-treated by their Soviet rulers. Dillon isn’t tempted to consider the hall of mirrors from this different angle, though: could spies who betray America equally be said to play a useful role in oiling the wheels of diplomacy?

In the USSR, an outed spy could expect a bullet to the head and an unmarked grave. By the time Polyakov was unmasked, Gorbachev’s perestroika was breaking down the Cold War order, but this wasn’t enough to save him. After his arrest, his wife received only a notification that he had died. No details have ever been revealed.

SPIES IN THE FAMILY, by Eva Dillon (HarperCollins, $35)

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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