Aleksandr Feklisov: Spy handler for the KGB

Aleksandr Semyonovich Feklisov, intelligence officer: born Moscow 9 March 1914; married (two daughters); died Moscow 26 October 2007.

Aleksandr Feklisov remained proud of what he regarded as his espionage triumphs in three stints as a KGB officer. In New York in 1941-46, he handled agents as renowned as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for passing on defence secrets. In London, from 1947 to 1950, it was Klaus Fuchs, who would later be sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. In Washington, from 1960-64, as Feklisov was later fond of recounting, he played a heroic role in proposing a last-ditch deal to the White House that ended the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Yet, Feklisov did not recruit Julius Rosenberg as a Soviet spy: he helped his boss Semyon Semyonov handle Rosenberg and only took over his case in 1944. But he did recruit David Greenglass, who worked at Los Alamos on the top-secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Once in London in 1947, Feklisov took over as case officer for Fuchs, a refugee German nuclear scientist who had also been working on the Manhattan Project and had long been passing secrets to Moscow.

More ambiguous was Feklisov's role in Washington at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. He always insisted that his meetings with the ABC News State Department correspondent John Scali, as the crisis deepened in late October 1962, were crucial to the deal that saw Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy back away from war, even if he admitted that the United States had exaggerated his role in speaking for the Kremlin. Scali was in close contact with the State Department, and Feklisov and he traded assertions over whether, if the United States invaded Cuba, the Soviets would invade West Berlin, and what terms might be agreed to persuade Khrushchev to withdraw missiles from Cuba.

Bizarrely, Feklisov and Scali's respective recollections of who had said what burst into the public domain in the 1980s and 1990s, as a younger generation of historians tried to understand those dramatic days. Yet further scholarly digging revealed how much of a sideshow this back-channel turned out to be. Feklisov had not been let into the inner loop by the Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and was often acting at cross-purposes. Even KGB headquarters did not know what Feklisov was up to.

Even worse, from an intelligence point of view, it later became clear that Feklisov had no agents or sources inside Kennedy's inner circle during the missile crisis and had to rely on third-hand gossip from a US military intelligence officer and from a bartender at the National Press Club. Humiliating for Feklisov, Aleksandr Sakharovsky, the head of the KGB's foreign intelligence directorate, scrawled across his wordy telegrams: "This report does not contain any secret information."

Born in Moscow in 1914 into the family of a railway-worker, Feklisov began studying radio-technology in 1930. He then worked in a Moscow factory and joined the Communist Party. In 1939, the party assigned him to join the foreign intelligence service.

Using the name Aleksandr Fomin and with the codename "Kalistrat", in February 1941 Feklisov joined the KGB rezidentura in the Soviet consulate in New York, before the United States had entered the Second World War and while the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany.

After his abrupt departure from Britain in April 1950 in the wake of Fuchs' arrest, Feklisov returned to KGB headquarters in Moscow, becoming head of the critical US section of the First Chief Directorate (the KGB's overseas spying arm) in 1955 after a stint in Communist Czechoslovakia.

Again using the name Aleksandr Fomin, Feklisov was assigned to Washington in 1960 to head the KGB rezidentura, a crucial post at the height of the Cold War. After his return to Moscow in 1964 Feklisov taught at the Red Banner Institute, the KGB's academy, where he remained until his retirement in 1974.

Feklisov's interest in history and his books of memoirs (one was published in English as The Man Behind the Rosenbergs in 2001) and broadcast interviews allowed him to set out his recollections. Although Feklisov spun tales of heroic deeds and hinted at other work still too secret to be told, the truth seems to have been more mundane.

Felix Corley