A member of the “Cambridge Five,” the British spy Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby (far right) served as a double agent for the Soviet Union during World War II and in the early stages of the Cold War.
The mission: to kill the three most heavily guarded men in the world.
The assassins: a specially trained team headed by the killer known as The Most Dangerous Man in Europe.
The adversary: A lone Secret Service agent, Mike Reilly.
The location: a top secret six day summit conference.
The stakes: nothing less than the future of the world.
This is the true story told in my forthcoming (to be published a year from now, June 2020, by HarperCollins) non-fiction book, THE NIGHT OF THE ASSASSINS.
In 1943, as World War II was coming to an end, the three Allied leaders – Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin – decide to meet in-person for the first time at a top-secret conference in Tehran. They will meet for six days to discuss rebuilding the world after so much of Europe was reduced to rubble, and so many American and Allied lives lost.
The Nazis learn about the meeting and decide this is Germany’s last chance: although the war is undoubtedly lost, if they can assassinate the Big Three, a peace can be negotiated that will allow the Reich to survive.
We know that these assassins did not succeed, but the story of how very close they came is a shocking must-read story that is often swept under the rug of history.
Be the first to read this book.
Cryptography, Post World War II
This method of code breaking and deciphering may have changed with the onset of the Internet and modern technology, but the approach remains the same.
In this excerpt from In the Enemy’s House, I walk through the hypothetical stages of how a Russian spy might communicate—and how a cipher clerk might be able to decode that message. This is the technique in which the US worked backwards to capture Russian spies during the Cold War era.
Code-Breaking, In the Enemy’s House:
The system worked, in its plodding, laborious, and seemingly foolproof way, basically (and hypothetically) like this:
A Russian spy, call him Paul Revere, came in from the cold to the New York rezidentura (as the Soviet diplomatic missions were known) with an important message that needed to reach Moscow without delay: “The British are coming.”
The cipher clerk grabbed the message from the secret agent and jumped into action. Like a diligent copy editor, he smoothed Paul Revere’s unpolished prose, taking care that it conformed to all the elements of style that had been drummed into him in cipher school.
He must, he knew straight off, disguise the source. The security-conscious KGB prohibited the mention of an agent’s actual name in a cable; only aliases could be transmitted. So the dutiful clerk checked a top-secret list for Revere’s code name. He found it: Silversmith.
The rest of the brief message needed some sprucing up, too. There is no “the” in Russian; the article is a notion alien to the language. Also, verbs were often deleted in cables, the logic being that they were implicit and only slowed down the recipient’s unbuttoning of an urgent message. Finally, per another stylistic convention, certain nouns with Western national and ideological affinities, such as “British” (or, say, “CIA” or “FBI”), were replaced with an insider’s jargon, a practice rooted more in a jaunty spy fellowship than any security concerns. Thus, “British” became “Islanders.”
The edited message the clerk transcribed on his work sheet—the verbs deemed necessary—now read: “Silversmith reports Islanders coming.” (Of course, KGB-trained clerks wrote in Russian, using Cyrillic characters; this example, for clarity’s sake, is playing out in English.)
With the editing of the plaintext—i.e., the original message—completed, the clerk was ready to take the codebook out of the safe.
The codebook was a secret dictionary that allowed the members of the club—in this case, KGB officers—to communicate with fellow clubmen without outsiders being able to understand. It was employed to translate the information into the secret language—to encode it.
The club’s shared covert language was numerical. Words, as well as symbols and punctuation, and often entire phrases, were reduced to four digits. If a word was not in the KGB’s dictionary—an American family name or some abstruse scientific term, for example—then there was a prearranged way to handle that, too: a specific four-digit number was employed to announce to anyone in the club receiving the message, “Here’s where we’re going to begin spelling an untranslatable word.” Next, the word would be spelled out in Roman letters, with two-digit designations for each letter taken from a “spell table” that was an appendix to the secret dictionary. And, finally, to indicate that this strange (at least to a Russian reader) word was completed, there’d be another specific two-digit number—the “end spell” code.
Working carefully, checking and rechecking each word in the codebook, the code clerk would soon have come up with a translation:
Silversmith reports Islanders coming
8522 7349 0763 6729
Next was another small but crucial security measure. The four-digit dictionary words were transformed into unique five-digit numbers by a simple bit of hocus-pocus: the initial digit of the second four-digit group was tacked on to the end of the first group, and so on, the immediately subsequent digits moving forward until each group was now five numbers. However, for the final unit, the remaining digit would become the first number of the original last word. The clerk’s worksheet would now read like this:
Silversmith reports Islanders coming
85227 34907 63672 96729
And with this, the first lock on the door had been turned: the message had been encoded.
Order Your Copy of In the Enemy’s House
Discover more about how Meredith Gardner and Bob Lamphere uncovered a ring of Russian spies during the Cold War as they worked on operation Venona, a top-secret mission to uncover the Soviet agents and protect the Holy Grail of Cold War espionage—the atomic bomb. A breathtaking chapter of American history and a page-turning mystery that plays out against the tense, life-and-death gamesmanship of the Cold War, this twisting thriller begins at the end of World War II and leads all the way to the execution of the Rosenbergs—a result that haunted both Gardner and Lamphere to the end of their lives.
Order your copy today.
“The spy hunt set off by the Venona decrypts is one of the great stories of the Cold War and Howard Blum tells it here with the drama and page-turning pace of a classic thriller.” (Joseph Kanon, bestselling author of Defectors, Leaving Berlin, and Los Alamos)
“Blum has managed to provide a fresh look at the familiar story of the Rosenbergs. Indeed, his book may be the last piece we need to understand the puzzle surrounding one of the most memorable espionage cases of the 20th century.” (Ronald Radosh, New York Times Book Review)
“In a time when our nation is worried about Russian influence Howard Blum brings us a page turning history of how the FBI and the forerunner to the National Security Agency ultimately tracked down the Soviet spy rings operating in America. The book reads like the best of the spy novels. His heroes are FBI agent Bob Lamphere, a hard-drinking kid from Idaho and code breaker Meredith Gardner, a nerdy language expert from Mississippi. In these two people we have a very successful integration of human intelligence with signals intelligence.” 5-Star Amazon Review, David Shulman
Excerpt from In the Enemy’s House by Howard Blum.
Elizabeth Bentley’s confession became one of the puzzle pieces that aided Bob Lamphere and Meredith Gardner as they uncovered the Russian spies aiming to steal secrets of atomic weapons from the United States during World War II. For the full story, pick up In the Enemy’s House.
Elizabeth Bentley was the pampered daughter of solid New England stock, a graduate of Vassar with a pert smile, shy charm, an inquisitive nature, and a very impressionable mind. She fell into espionage in stages, drifting along as circumstances, rather than a hard-driving dialectical commitment, pulled her in deeper and deeper. In October 1945, she walked into the FBI’s offices and willingly gave up the names of a ring of over 100 Russian spies. The tabloids coronated her “the Red Queen.”
While doing graduate work at the University of Florence, she had a fling with fascism; Mussolini’s strident right-wing rantings gave her, she’d gush, “goose bumps.” But after she returned to the States and began studying for a masters in Italian at Columbia, she did a complete about face. Bentley joined the Communist Party, mostly attracted, she would later explain, by the convivial community and rigid structure it brought to her lonely graduate student life. And for several years, this new infatuation served her well. Bentley was, as she put it, an “average run-of-the-mill Communist,” her previously empty social calendar now jammed with a hectic schedule of meetings, demonstrations, and working dinners with her tight circle of Party friends.
Looking to earn some money while she continued her studies, in 1938 she found a job as a secretary at the Italian Library of Information, just a short subway ride from her apartment up near Columbia. She hadn’t been working there long before she realized that the only information the library dished out was fascist propaganda. A loyal Party member, she approached the leaders of her cell offering to get the goods; she’d give them the proof of what the Library was really up to. They brusquely explained there were more important concerns. But Bentley, her indignation at being duped when she took the job fueling her persistence, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. And in time the harassed Party officials passed her plan on to Jacob Golos.
Golos was the real thing, a Russian-born and Moscow Center trained KGB operative. And he always had his eye out for new talent. He saw something in Bentley’s enthusiasm, her amateur’s eagerness to play spy. So he let her run with her small-time operation against the Italian Library. Under his tutelage, she was listening at closed doors, furtively sorting through her boss’s trash.
And as Bentley lurked in the shadows, as she discovered the thrill that came with her new covert life, something unexpected happened. Golos had first struck her as “rather colorless and shabby – a little man in a battered brown hat, non-descript suit and well-worn shoes.” But their shared danger proved to be a powerful aphrodisiac. She no longer paid much attention to his scuffed shoes. In her revisionist history, Golos grew in stature. He was now “powerfully built with a large head, very broad shoulders and strong square hands. “His eyes were startlingly blue, his hair bright red.” And, as if to seal the deal, she decided “his mouth was very much like my mother’s.” With her eyes wide shut, Bentley fell in love with the KGB man.
Image credit: Spartacus Educational
Golos, who had a wife and a son back in Moscow and a mistress in Brooklyn, soon added Bentley to the queue. Only in addition to being his lover, she also served as his courier. Golos ran a widespread network of diverse and valuable contacts, from a chemical engineer who was passing on blueprints of secret industrial processes to a Washington-based cell with high-placed assets in the Treasury Department and even the White House. And Bentley was Golos’s indefatigable legman, to use the jargon of her new profession. In her knitting bag – an inspired bit of tradecraft that even the veteran KGB man admired – she brought back haul after haul of secret documents; after just a single trip to Washington, she’d brag, her bag was stuffed with forty undeveloped rolls of microfilm.
On Thanksgiving of 1943, Golos, as he’d requested, devoured “a super special meal with all the trimmings.” It turned out to be his last supper; he died that night of a heart attack. And Bentley inherited his networks.
But her new KGB handler soon grew uncomfortable with the double mystery she presented – as a woman and as a possible traitor. At first he was eager to play matchmaker. “She is a rather attractive person,” the agent runner informed Moscow Center. “If I could give her in marriage to one of our operatives,” he nearly pleaded. “If there is no one [here], why not send someone from home?”
Then Bentley’s behavior grew erratic. She showed up drunk at one debriefing. At another she reported that she had found a new lover, a man she met in a hotel lobby. At still another, she revealed she was considering “an intimate liaison” with a woman. The KGB handler, now in full panic, didn’t need to wait for any more warning signs. He cabled Moscow: “Only one remedy is left – the most drastic one –to get rid of her.”
Did Bentley know what Moscow Center was mulling? As she tells the story, she simply had, after long, thoughtful walks on a Connecticut beach, reached the conclusion that “Communism…had failed me. Far from answering the problem of suffering and injustice, it had only intensified it.” And so with “shaking knees” she walked into the FBI field office in New Haven in late October, 1945, and announced, “I’d like to see the agent in charge.”
Bentley hadn’t arrived at FBI’s doorstep lugging the sort of hard, incriminating evidence Gouzenko had stuffed under his shirt. She was asking simply to be taken at her word. Compounding the problem, her allegations were as incendiary as they were incredible. She named more than 80 Soviet sources and agents, and identified a dozen government agencies whose secrets had routinely been passed on to the KGB.
A shaken Hoover, even before her charges could be investigated and substantiated, felt he had no choice but to inform the White House. On November 8, 1945, a special messenger delivered the director’s preliminary report. “Information has been recently developed from a highly confidential source indicating that a number of persons employed by the Government of the United States have been furnishing data and information…to espionage agents of the Soviet government.”
If you’re an American—and alive and breathing—you probably know a lot about the current Russian investigation. (Maybe more than you want to.) You likely know facts like:
The investigation is being conducted to better understand how Russians and Americans attempted to influence the 2016 election using social media ads, rallys, and in-person conversations.
Robert Mueller is leading the investigation. Mueller has been the leading investigator on sweeping mob investigations and massive cover-ups.
Paul Manafort’s trial is currently underway. None of the charges are actually related to Russian interference in the 2016 election, but it’s widely believed that as Trump’s campaign chairman, he had misconduct that suggests collusion.
13 Russians have already been indicted for their alleged roles in a huge, complicated plan to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
Two members of Trump’s campaign — national security adviser Mike Flynn and foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos — have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and are cooperating with the Mueller probe.
The U.S. president, Donald Trump, continues to dismiss the investigation, calling it a “hoax” and a “witch hunt” — though of course the facts indicate otherwise.
But even if you know these basics, and more, you might be missing a big part of the story. To understand what’s really happening here, you need to go back—way back—to Russian KGB interference in the United States in the 1950’s atomic era. These are outlined in my bestselling history, In the Enemy’s House.
Amongst other praise, the CIA says, “In the Enemy’s House is a solid addition to Cold War literature and an especially revealing look inside the minds and often tense lives of a brilliant cryptologist and a dogged FBI counterintelligence agent as they dealt with an all-absorbing challenge of strategic significance, an important chapter in the history of Soviet and US intelligence operations.”
So what do you need to really understand about the past in order to understand the current Russian investigation?
Here are 10 facts from Cold War history that help to put into context the intense relationship we’ve had during the decades since World War II with Russia, and why Putin, a former KGB spy, likely knows more than he is asserting.
Vassily Zubilin was the head of the Russian spy network in the 1950’s. Zubilin worked under a banal diplomatic cover at the Soviet Embassy, but, under his real name of Zarubin, he was the crafty deputy head of the KGB Foreign Intelligence Directorate Service… and the chief KGB officer in the U.S.
Operation Enormoz was the code name given to the Russian attempts to steal America’s greatest prize – the mystery of how to build an atom bomb. As World War II raged, Russian science needed assistance. The West was far ahead in its work to build a bomb. To keep pace with the American atomic research, the KGB would need to help. And by “help,” Russian spies knew they needed to steal.
Cecil Phillips is the name of the young breaker who noticed that the KGB’s code had “too many sixes.” That was the first clue in deciphering the code, and ultimately bringing the Russian spies to justice.
A ‘black bag job’ is an attempt to gather enemy information that clearly involves trespassing or other illegal means. These are banned by the FBI and could only be completed with a warrant signed by Hoover (that would be destroyed instead of filed after reading). It was a black bag job that spiked the Soviet consulate in New York City and broke into their code rooms.
In the winter of 1944, young FBI agent Bob Lamphere had a terrifying stand-off in Chinatown with a corrupt official. This incident ultimately got Bob reassigned to the Soviet Espionage squad. This was the first piece in a puzzle that would lead to major espionage discoveries.
Meredith Gardner, a young code-breaker, began working at the Army Security Agency (ASA) at Arlington Hall. Gardner would find an unlikely partnership with Lamphere that would bring Russian spies to justice in the U.S.
Despite the U.S.-Soviet alliance during World War II, higher-ups at Arlington Hall determined that America needed to read Russia’s mail for secret codes in addition to Germany’s and Japan’s. They knew even then that it was crucial that the nation know precisely what the Russians are up to.
The U.S. began referring to the cracking of Russian code with a cover name – “the Blue Problem.” They took the name from an ongoing classified Navy investigation of Russian radio networks known as “Blue Caesar.”
After several dramatic discoveries of Russian espionage from file clerks to the romantic partners of state officials leading up to the mid-1950’s, FBI agent Bob Lamphere began to understand that he was in the midst of an “intense but nearly invisible combat.” It was a war, he acknowledged with a new found alertness, where “the Soviets had built up an early lead.”
Years after their code breaking broke up the ring of spies who were stealing the U.S.’s atomic secrets, Lamphere and Gardner both came to feel that Ethel Rosenberg did not deserve to be executed. The mother of two young children knew of her husband Julius’s espionage work and had even helped to recruit her brother, David Greenglass, into the ring of spies. But she was not actively involved in stealing atomic secrets. She was complicitous, but not an active Soviet agent. Lamphere wrote Hoover that she did not deserve the death penalty, only a jail sentence. And Hoover passed this recommendation on to the sentencing judge, Irving Kaufman, but the judge remained adamant and Ethel, the mother of two young boys, was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison.
Starred Booklist Review
*In the Enemy’s House.
Blum, Howard (Author)
Feb 2018. 352 p. Harper, hardcover, $29.99. (9780062458247). 341.4.
Edgar-winning Blum, a former New York Times reporter, unites journalistic detail with propulsive storytelling. Blum’s focus is on Russia’s efforts to steal atomic secrets from the U.S. during WWII by infiltrating American intelligence. These efforts were aided and shielded by an elaborate and unbreakable code, much trickier than those of the Germans or Japanese. Blum’s story is about how two Americans (the first, Meredith Gardner, an accomplished linguist and codebreaker; the second, Bob Lamphere, a somewhat reluctant FBI special agent) worked together to discover the identities of Russian spies, crack the Russian code, and keep the Russians from getting the atom bomb, at least for a while. Blum presents both a historical and a character-driven study here; perhaps even more interesting than the accounts of the spy-breaking moves and countermoves is the way that Blum shows the personalities of both Gardner and Lamphere, with the narrative arc leading to their shared sense of guilt over the fates of convicted—and executed—spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. There’s a lot of excitement throughout, as Blum shows how a piece of paper left on a desk, an overheard conversation, and a New York Times article (read by a Russian spy) contributed to hair-raising outcomes. Blum is a standout in the field of espionage history.
In the Enemy’s House is the story of an unlikely friendship between a high-spirited FBI agent and a genius code breaker. Working out of Arlington Hall, a former girls’ finishing school in Virginia that had been turned into a top secret decoding facility, the two men stumble to their surprise on Operation Enormoz – a covert KGB mission to steal America’s atomic secrets.
In the aftermath of this startling revelation, the two men begin their own mission to identify and later hunt down the Soviet spies working in America.
The photos that follow – the personal photographs of Meredith Gardner provided by the Gardner family - give a quick introduction to the life and work of the tenacious and talented code breaker whose revelations changed the course of history. And his work continues to resonate into the present day as Russian spies continue their secret war against America.
Blanche Hatfield, a Mount Holyoke Phi Beta Kappa grad and a code wrangler at Arlington Hall, introduced herself to fellow code breaker Meredith Gardner, with a flirty, “I thought you were just a legend!”And in German, to boot. It was pretty much love at first sight.
Meredith Gardner was a long, lanky, ascetic man, partial to a deliberately donnish attire. A man whose very thinness seemed to suggest that all the fun had been squeezed out of him.
Meredith and his daughter Ann on the boat to England. After the execution of the Rosenbergs, he felt a deep guilt that his puzzle-solving had culminated in their deaths. He went to work at Cheltenham, the British code-breaking facility, because he wanted to get away from America for a while.
Review Issue Date: January 15, 2018
Online Publish Date: December 19, 2017
Price ( Hardcover ): $29.99
Price ( e-book ): $17.99
Publication Date: February 20, 2018
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-06-245824-7
ISBN ( e-book ): 978-0-06-245827-8
“Both died without making any confessions”: a finely detailed study of crime and punishment in the days of the Manhattan project.
It was an unlikely pairing: a geeky linguist and codebreaker working for an early iteration of the National Security Agency just after World War II and an earnest FBI agent who teamed up to search out evidence of Soviet espionage inside the atomic bomb program.
At the end of that trail lay the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the capture of Klaus Fuchs, but success in breaking up the spy ring and ferreting out the mole deep inside the organization was not without episodes of ineptitude and ball-dropping: “then, without either warning or explanation, two months after the Blue Problem had been launched, it was ended,” writes veteran historian of spookdom Blum (The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal, 2016, etc.), a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.
Getting to that mole was one thing; doing so without tipping the Soviets off to the fact that their codes had been broken was quite another. The author’s story, which grows to enfold the Venona program, isn’t entirely new, but it reinforces several points: how thoroughly Soviet agents were able to penetrate the government and scientific circles and the undeniable guilt of those who were eventually brought to justice—and, to boot, the ordinariness of some of the key players (“when Spillane arrived punctually at two, Kalibre, along with his pregnant wife—the woman code-named Wasp—sat with him at the kitchen table”).
Blum is especially good on the motivations that caused some Americans to take the Soviet side. One explained that he felt that the American government committed “gross negligence” in not sharing atomic secrets with its recent ally, while Julius Rosenberg’s haughty arrogance may lose him any sympathy readers might have had before opening the book.
Taut and well-crafted—of great interest to students of spydom and the early Cold War.
Faulkner said, “The past is never past.”
When I’d first started researching and writing IN THE ENEMY’S HOUSE, I was intent on telling a true and previously unknown Cold War spy story.
It was a suspenseful tale about a playboy FBI agent and a nerdy code breaker who, working in a former girls’ finishing school turned into a top secret government facility, teamed up to break the KGB codes and then hunted down the Russian spies who had stolen America’s atomic secrets.
But as I continued writing, I began to realize that this was not simply a real-life thriller about the past.
Rather, as my recent piece in Vanity Fair on the Christopher Steele dossier made clear, the past is not past. To understand the full intent of Russia’s intervention in the last election, one needs to go back to the beginning of their covert attack on America – the spy story I tell in IN THE ENEMY’S HOUSE.
As my new Vanity Fair report shows, Mueller understands the art of the deal – and Flynn is only the latest to switch sides as the special counsel hunts bigger game.
The investigation into Russia’s intervention in the last election is gathering steam.
It’s helpful to look back at the John Gotti trial and what Mueller was willing to offer Sammy “the Bull,” in order to gather the evidence he needed…
And to understand what Russia is really up to in the United States, it’s necessary to go back to the beginnings of their covert war against America – the spy story I tell in IN THE ENEMY’S HOUSE.
An excerpt from the Vanity Fair piece on the distance Mueller is willing to go:
“It is not difficult to imagine the tortured debate within Mueller’s mind as he weighed the decision to let Sammy “the Bull” switch sides in the John Gotti investigation. He could allow Sammy, a man who had admittedly killed 19 men, to play for Uncle Sam’s team. Or he could go into the Gotti trial knowing that Teflon Don—the swaggering crime boss who had walked away from three prior trials—could once again get away with murder. Pulling him in one direction was a lifetime of rectitude: a lofty moral code passed on by his education at St. Paul’s School, Princeton University, and the Marine Corps. And doubtlessly pulling him in another direction was a fair share of ambition. He’d be the man who brought down John Gotti, and the world would unquestionably be a better place for it.”