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KGB 'recruited hundreds' of American spies: Author says Soviet Union penetrated top levels of US government

AS THE tangled secrets of the Cold War unfurl, allegations have surfaced suggesting that the KGB penetrated the upper levels of the United States government far more effectively than anyone has previously acknowledged.

According to a book published in the United States today, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an investigation into claims by a former KGB employee that the Soviet agency recruited 'many hundreds' of American civilian and military personnel to spy on their behalf in the latter days of the Soviet empire.

The FBI has refused to confirm or deny the claim, although it is likely to be met with official scepticism. But the agency said that 'pursuant to its foreign counter-intelligence responsibilities, (the FBI) has opened a number of cases related to the activities of the former KGB and its successor agency. The process of thoroughly analysing and evaluating that kind of information continues.'

The book, The FBI: Inside the World's Most Powerful Law Enforcement Agency, is by Ronald Kessler, an author on US intelligence issues. His previous access to the FBI helped expose alleged travel abuses by its former director, William Sessions, who was fired last month. Mr Kessler has claimed that the suspected KGB spies include former high-ranking US government officials.

If the claims prove to have some foundation, then the KGB was behind a far more serious breach of US national security than has ever previously been suspected. Mr Kessler claims that the information came from a former KGB employee, with access to the agency's files, who alleges that possibly more than 1,000 Americans were spying for the Soviet Union in recent years.

The author claims the FBI has confirmed the authenticity of the source, and has mobilised agents in most large US cities to work on the case. He also alleges that one US military employee stationed in Germany has already confessed.

Wayne Gilbert, chief of the FBI's Intelligence Division, said in March 1992 that the bureau had launched scores of investigations using leads from former East bloc spies. At the time the FBI was working on fewer than 100 cases that could lead to 'a couple of hundred'. Mr Gilbert told USA Today he hoped for convictions against '10, 20, 30 people'.

Robert Gates, who stepped down as CIA director in January, doubted the extent of the possible Soviet penetration described by Mr Kessler. 'The magnitude that he's describing is way beyond anything anyone else has ever suggested,' he said