US embarrassed as Putin honours spy who came in from the cornfields

In Sioux City, Iowa, they are calling him the spy who came in from the cornfields. But, in Russia, the man the neighbours remember as a polite and private intellectual is being feted as one of the most important spies of the 20th century.

When George Koval died in his Moscow apartment last year, at the age of 92, no obituaries were published detailing his wartime double life of treachery as a deep-cover agent of Soviet Military Intelligence, the GRU.

He penetrated America's most secret atomic facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio – where the plutonium, enriched uranium and polonium used to create the atomic bomb were developed. Such was the embarrassment of US intelligence at its total failure to protect the country's secrets that it has maintained a blanket of secrecy over the Koval affair, which it had known all about for 60 years.

But, 10 days ago, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer himself, surprised historians by bestowing a posthumous title of Hero of the Russian Federation on Koval.

With that, the cat was finally out of the bag. Koval, aka Agent Delmar, was hailed as "the only Soviet intelligence officer" to infiltrate the Manhattan Project, the secret plan to develop the first nuclear weapon by the US, Canada and the UK. Mr Putin's announcement said his work "helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own."

Yesterday, Russia's foreign intelligence service followed up the Koval award with generous tributes to George Blake, another of Moscow's main spies. Blake, 85, betrayed some of the West's most important secrets during the Cold War, alerting Moscow to the identity of possibly hundreds of Western agents while working for the MI6. At 85, he remains unapologetic.

"I could have left the service, and I could have joined the Communist Party, and I could have sold the Daily Worker at a street corner, and many people would say that would have been a more honourable cause," he told the English-language Russia Today cable television network. "But I felt that I could do more for the cause, make a far greater contribution if I set aside my scruples."

But the details of Koval's feats, now just starting to emerge 65 years after he plundered America's most precious secrets, are causing a complete reassessment of espionage during the Second World War. The Russian press has been filled with stories of his achievements which involved sending detailed descriptions of the secret sites back to Moscow, along with comprehensive information on the precise methods of producing enriched uranium and plutonium.

On 29 August 1949 at 7am (soon after Koval had returned to the Soviet Union and narrowly avoided capture), the Soviets used the "Oak Ridge cocktail" to explode their first atomic bomb in Semipalatinsk.

Mr Putin's award has finally freed those American scientists still living and who knew Koval in the Forties and Fifties, to finally talk about him. What emerges is a tale of incompetence and rivalry among US spy agencies, with echoes of the CIA's more recent failure to co-operate with the FBI and catch two of the September 11 hijackers who were in the country for 16 months before they crashed a jet into the Pentagon. "There is an excellent parallel with 9/11" and the failure of US intelligence to spot him, said Arnold Kramish, a retired physicist who studied with Koval and worked with him on the atomic project.

"General Groves [in charge of security at atomic facilities] did not trust the FBI and used army counterintelligence to spot spies," he said yesterday. "But their competence was in analysis, not detection, and even though there were plenty of signs that something was not right yet he slipped through, just like in 9/11."

When the two attended wartime training at City College in Manhattan everybody wondered why Koval was there as he was at least 10 years older than other students. But there were other, more obvious clues, if anyone had looked.

The Koval family emigrated from the USSR to Iowa and George Koval was born there on Christmas Day, 1913. But his mother was a member of the socialist underground and, when Stalin created a Jewish region of Birobidjan, the Kovals moved back. George, the future spy, was 18 at the time. He returned to the US when another spy was recalled during Stalin's purges.

When the Americans dropped atom bombs on Japan, a Soviet defector told the US that the secrets of the Manhattan Project had been compromised. When the US came across Soviet literature describing the patriotic Koval family who had returned home from Iowa, Koval got wind of it and fled to Russia. Four years later, the Soviet's tested their device at Semipalatinsk.

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