Robert Lamphere

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The Independent Online

Robert Joseph Lamphere, counterintelligence officer: born Wardner, Idaho 14 February 1918; married (one son); died Tucson, Arizona 7 January 2002.

Had he been born 50 years later, the FBI supervisory agent Robert Lamphere would today be jetting between Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, aggressively leading the interrogation of al-Qa'ida suspects, piecing together scraps of information that might pinpoint a future terrorist attack. But Lamphere's heyday came in the 1940s and 1950s. His speciality at the bureau was not counterterrorism but counterespionage – and it made him one of the greatest spycatchers of his age.

In the space of 10 years, between his entry into the Soviet espionage division and his disgruntled departure from the FBI in 1955, Lamphere handled some of the most famous cases of the Cold War. He was instrumental in unmasking the first major post-war Soviet spies in the United States, Gerhart Eisler and Judith Coplon. He was sent to London to interrogate Klaus Fuchs, arguably the most damaging of Moscow's nuclear spies. Then he led the team which broke the Rosenberg spy ring, paving the way for the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Along the way, he crossed swords with arguably the most famous spy in history, Kim Philby, and was a vital collaborator in the Venona codebreak project – so secret that even President Harry Truman was not told of it.

Lamphere was an agent of the old school, a rough-hewn man yet shrewd as a fox, a born interrogator, and possessed of boundless energy. Both his parents had died by the time he was a young man. He left his native Idaho and moved east to Washington where he finished his law degree. "I wanted to be among the very best," he said later. The FBI, its prestige at its zenith at the start of the 1940s, was a natural home.

As Lamphere was the first to admit, he also found himself in the right place at the right time. At first he was depressed when he transferred in 1945 from standard criminal work into counterespionage. Soviet espionage, he would recall, "was Siberia time; the enemy just went on and on, when you got rid of one spy another took his place". But within three years, thanks to a string of unrelated events, everything had changed.

In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, defected with a treasure trove of documents suggesting the existence of a vast Soviet spy network across Canada, the US and Britain. Next, Elizabeth Bentley, dubbed "The Red Spy Queen", turned informer for the FBI. Then came the discovery of a partially burned NKVD/KGB code book in Finland. Together with documents stolen from a KGB-front organisation in New York, the code books permitted cryptanalysts at the Army Security Agency (precursor of today's NSA) to read some of the KGB traffic from the Soviet consulate in New York to Moscow Centre.

Thus, in 1948, was born the Venona project, and Lamphere became liaison man between the FBI and the codebreaking team, led by the legendary Meredith Gardner. The hard-charging FBI agent and the shy, donnish Gardner forged an unlikely friendship – and, as more documents were cracked, Gouzenko's leads were confirmed and Lamphere's plodding beast of an investigation turned into a "raging monster".

Venona unearthed the German-born Fuchs, who had emigrated to Britain before being transferred to the Manhattan atomic bomb programme at Los Alamos. In London, Fuchs told Lamphere that his unidentified Soviet courier "Raymond" was a Jewish chemist, Harry Gold. Gold told of another contact at Los Alamos, an American soldier called David Greenglass. Greenglass implicated his sister Ethel and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, codenamed ANTENNA and LIBERAL in the Venona transcripts.

The Rosenbergs were tried and convicted, and executed on 19 June 1953 amid international protest at an FBI "frame-up". Nothing made Lamphere angrier, but he and the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew that to have used the transcript would have given away Venona's existence. Both men however believed that Ethel Rosenberg should have been spared. President Dwight D. Eisenhower thought otherwise.

In fact the Soviets had long known Venona had been broken, thanks among others to Kim Philby. Lamphere had many an argument with his British opposite numbers, not surprisingly perhaps given the clash of cultures between the no- nonsense FBI agent and the clubby, public-school establishment that staffed MI5 and MI6, so reluctant to accept there might be traitors among its own.

Lamphere was furious at London's delay in pursuing indications from Venona that a Soviet agent was operating in the British Embassy in Washington in 1944-45 (he turned out to be Donald MacLean, known in Venona as HOMER). In 1950 he was complaining at Britain's apparent reluctance to let him interview Klaus Fuchs, even though the secrets Fuchs betrayed were American secrets, and he had been uncovered thanks to Venona. But his true venom was reserved for Philby.

Their paths crossed when Philby arrived in Washington in 1949 as the new MI6 representative. At their very first meeting, Lamphere's hackles rose. "Kim Philby was seedy and unimpressive," he later wrote, "sloppily dressed and speaking with a stutter. He was never friendly to me, never in the time we knew each other." And that was before the FBI man realised that Philby had known all along that MacLean was Moscow's man in the Washington Embassy, channelling to his Soviet masters vital Anglo-American strategic plans and nuclear secrets.

Once MacLean and Guy Burgess fled in 1951, Lamphere was so sure of Philby's treachery that, within weeks, in in-house lectures to FBI field agents, he was discussing Philby as a major spy. Dislike turned to hatred as he realised the implications. Almost certainly another source told the KGB about Venona. But Philby, who had access to the transcripts, kept Moscow fully abreast of the contents. By 1949 the Soviets changed the cyphers. Never again did Gardner and his team come close to breaking them.

By then, the FBI's oppressive Hoover-imposed culture was taking its toll even on Lamphere, as he watched talented and dedicated colleagues punished for petty reasons. "Some of the FBI's discipline," he said later, "verged on thought control." After several run-ins with his superiors, he resigned from the bureau in 1955. For six years he worked at the Veterans' Administration, rising to the second-ranking post of Deputy Administrator. Lamphere left government at the end of the Eisenhower presidency, spending the rest of his career as an executive at a leading insurance company.

His most important legacy may well be his 1986 memoir, The FBI-KGB War: a special agent's story. For years, the NSA fought tooth and nail to prevent its publication. It remains the fullest and most fascinating account of a pivotal period in modern espionage history.

Rupert Cornwell