Celebrating Russia’s Most Famous Atomic Spy

koval1112.jpgAt the beginning of November, President Vladimir Putin posthumously awarded a Hero of Russia medal to the American-born spy George Koval, who was the only KGB man to infiltrate the Manhattan project. Koval, who worked under the codename “Delmar”, died in Moscow back in 2006, and there has been no other official reason for the timing of this posthumous award. According to the Kremlin press release, despite his position on the top secret project, “Mr Koval managed to send descriptions of the sites back to Moscow, along with information on their areas of work and the processes and production volumes of the elements in question.” The most information about Mr. Koval has been collected by the New York Times (see excerpts after the jump), and many other news agencies have picked up on it, including the AP which carries the headline: “In time of raised tensions, Moscow honors its Cold War spies.” Here’s another strange coincidence: according to the Times piece, at one point Koval was assigned to a top secret Dayton facility which oversaw the production of Polonium 210. What is Moscow trying to say to its people and to the world by celebrating a long dead Iowa-born atomic spy? Perhaps the kneejerk reaction would be to assume that the Kremlin wants to play the nationalism card as much as possible before the elections, or simply wanted another jab in the eye of the Americans, who have known about Koval for years but have not disclosed the breach. One blogger I just found sees it a different way: “The Soviets went to great lengths to present themselves as the orgininators of their own bomb. By admitting that the bomb had been acquired through espionage, the status of Soviet science is somehow diminished, and with that the entire concept of having a bomb being correlated with a scientifically advanced society is tarnished. … it is becoming more evident that the ability of the Soviet Union to develop a nuclear weapon in such a quick span of time is largely due to espionage, rather than scientific activities.

From the New York Times: A Spy’s Path: Iowa to A-Bomb to Kremlin Honor

Since then, historians, scientists, federal officials and old friends have raced to tell Dr. Koval’s story — the athlete, the guy everyone liked, the genius at technical studies. American intelligence agencies have known of his betrayal at least since the early 1950s, when investigators interviewed his fellow scientists and swore them to secrecy.The spy’s success hinged on an unusual family history of migration from Russia to Iowa and back. That gave him a strong commitment to Communism, a relaxed familiarity with American mores and no foreign accent.“He was very friendly, compassionate and very smart,” said Arnold Kramish, a retired physicist who studied with Dr. Koval at City College and later worked with him on the bomb project. “He never did homework.”Stewart D. Bloom, a senior physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who also studied with Dr. Koval, called him a regular guy.“He played baseball and played it well,” usually as shortstop, Dr. Bloom recalled. “He didn’t have a Russian accent. He spoke fluent English, American English. His credentials were perfect.”Once, Dr. Bloom added, “I saw him staring off in the distance and thinking about something else. Now I think I know what it was.”Over the years, scholars and federal agents have identified a half-dozen individuals who spied on the bomb project for the Soviets, especially at Los Alamos in New Mexico. All were “walk ins,” spies by impulse and sympathetic leaning rather than rigorous training.By contrast, Dr. Koval was a mole groomed in the Soviet Union by the feared G.R.U., the military intelligence agency. Moreover, he gained wide access to America’s atomic plants, a feat unknown for any other Soviet spy. Nuclear experts say the secrets of bomb manufacturing can be more important than those of design.Los Alamos devised the bomb, while its parts and fuel were made at secret plants in such places as Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Dayton, Ohio — sites Dr. Koval not only penetrated, but also assessed as an Army sergeant with wide responsibilities and authority.“He had access to everything,” said Dr. Kramish, who worked with Dr. Koval at Oak Ridge and now lives in Reston, Va. “He had his own Jeep. Very few of us had our own Jeeps. He was clever. He was a trained G.R.U. spy.” That status, he added, made Dr. Koval unique in the history of atomic espionage, a judgment historians echo….By 1934, Dr. Koval was in Moscow, excelling in difficult studies at the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology. Upon graduating with honors, he was recruited and trained by the G.R.U. and was sent back to the United States for nearly a decade of scientific espionage, from roughly 1940 to 1948.How he communicated with his controllers is unknown, as is what specifically he gave the Soviets in terms of atomic secrets. However, it is clear that Moscow mastered the atom very quickly compared with all subsequent nuclear powers.In the United States under a false name, Dr. Koval initially gathered information about new toxins that might find use in chemical arms. Then his G.R.U. controllers took a gamble and had him work under his own name. Dr. Koval was drafted into the Army, and by chance found himself moving toward the bomb project, then in its infancy.The Army judged him smart and by 1943 sent him for special wartime training at City College in Manhattan. Considered a Harvard for the poor, it was famous for brilliant students, Communists and, after the war, Julius Rosenberg, who was executed for conspiring to steal atomic secrets for the Soviets.But Dr. Koval steered clear of all debate on socialism and Russia, Dr. Bloom said. “He discussed no politics that I can recall. Never. He never talked about the Soviet Union, never ever, not a word.”