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The Last Great "Illegal"

The year 1957 marked a watershed for Soviet intelligence operations in the United States.

By Thomas Boghardt

On June 21 of that year, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials entered New York's Latham Hotel—which still exists today—and arrested a certain "Martin Collins" for failure to register as a legal alien. After a few days of stonewalling, Collins "confessed" to being a Russian named Rudolf Ivanovich Abel.

His real name, however, was Vilyam ("Willie") Fisher. He was by far the most accomplished KGB officer then operating in the United States, and Soviet espionage in the United States declined markedly after his arrest.

Fisher's background qualified him superbly for the spy business. Born to Russian émigré parents in Newcastle upon Tyne, he spent the first 18 years of his life in Britain, steeped in Western culture. After the Bolshevik revolution, the family returned to the Soviet Union, and Fisher was quickly recruited by Soviet intelligence. During World War II, he trained radio operators for guerrilla and intelligence operations behind German lines. In 1946, he received an assignment of historic proportions: to establish himself as an "illegal"—an intelligence officer without diplomatic cover—in New York and run Moscow's extensive spy network in America.

The Soviets could hardly have made a better choice. Not only was Fisher fluent in English and at ease in the West, he also blended in perfectly. His manner was bland, his personality unmemorable. A small, thin-faced man, nothing about him drew attention. With a knack for painting, he settled in Manhattan in 1948 as a bohemian artist named Emil R. Goldfus and quickly integrated into the local artistic community. In his covert capacity as Soviet spymaster, he directed his agents to collect top secret military data on U.S. underwater detection devices, rocket techniques, and nuclear armaments. He was also tasked to monitor operations at the United Nations and collect information on New York Harbor. Fisher's clandestine means of communication with Moscow—microfilm, microdot, and radio transmitter—were never compromised, nor was his cover ever blown. He was detected through no fault of his own when his assistant Reino Hayhanen defected to the U.S. embassy in Paris and betrayed his superior. Fisher was duly arrested and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, but in 1962 he was exchanged for downed American U-2 pilot Gary Powers in a famous "spy swap" on the Glienicker Bridge in Germany.

Fisher's case teaches a timely intelligence lesson. While attaching intelligence officers to an embassy is a comparatively safe approach—at worst, a "blown‚" officer is sent home as persona non grata—well-prepared "illegals" are much better positioned to penetrate their environment. American officials, for one, were thoroughly impressed with Abel. Former OSS director William Donovan "admired Rudolf as an individual," and CIA director Allen Dulles wished his agency "had three or four just like him." Robert Kennedy even requested an existing portrait of his brother John painted by Abel for the White House. Sensing a provocation, however, the Soviets turned Kennedy's request down.