BOOK REVIEW / Russia's ballistic missives: Special tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness - A Soviet Spymaster by Pavel Sudoplatov & Anatoli Sudoplatov with J & L Schechter, Little Brown pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
WITH the Cold War, it seems to be the losers who are writing the history. Revelations quarried from archives in Moscow and memoirs by Soviet agents now appear so frequently that they are threatening to dominate our understanding of the intelligence conflict between East and West over the past 50 years.

Here is another, from a man long at the hub of Stalin's foreign espionage service. Pavel Sudoplatov, now 87, takes us back to the roots of the Cold War, when the United States was developing the atomic bomb in 1943-45, and asks us to look at that period in a new light. Not only did Soviet agents penetrate the Manhattan Project, as we already knew - but they virtually ran it.

The chief scientific administrator of the project, Robert Oppenheimer, and its most brilliant experimental physicist, Enrico Fermi, supplied vital information to Moscow, as did Leo Szilard, another leading figure in American nuclear science, according to allegations in this book. And it did not stop there: Niels Bohr, the grand old man of nuclear physics theory, was encouraging them. Only the most ardent of McCarthyites could fail to be surprised.

Sudoplatov should know the truth, since he helped to run the atomic spy network - an operation usually credited with saving the Soviet Union years in the development of its own bomb. The trouble is that he offers very little evidence. Instead, his case is dressed up in detail, some of it new and fascinating but almost all of it irrelevant, which lends it an undeserved air of authority.

The allegations against Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard are that they 'shared atomic secrets' with the Soviet Union; that they 'helped us place moles' at Manhattan Project factories, and that they enabled moles to copy important documents. How is this substantiated? Sudoplatov's account is rich in personalities, places and dates relating to agents such as Klaus Fuchs, whose stories are already in the public domain, but oddly, when he comes to his three most glamorous and most highly-placed contacts, he can remember no telling details or anecdotes.

With Oppenheimer, we are given a list of agents who contacted him, but no evidence of anything specific after December 1941, when the US had barely entered the war. Far more about his Communist sympathies and friends emerged at the 1954 hearings which led to the removal of his security clearance, but even that fell short of proving he was a spy.

As for Fermi, Sudoplatov links him closely with Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to Moscow in 1950 and is generally acknowledged to have been a spy. But again, there is nothing new or specific. In the case of Szilard, all we are told is that his secretary passed on information.

Given Moscow's remarkable successes in placing Fuchs and Donald Maclean as atom spies, it would be brave to declare categorically that none of these four - Oppenheimer, Fermi, Szilard or Bohr - could possibly have been agents, or at least helpful sympathisers. But to assert, without supporting evidence, that they all were, is to smear them. These are four of the inspirational figures of modern physics: they deserve better.