Book Review Editors Note
CIA SPYMASTER: Kisevalter, the Agencys Top Case Officer, Who Handled Penkovsky and Popov. By Clarence Ashley. (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2004. Pp. 350. $24.95 cloth.)
A "case officer" is a staff officer in an espionage agency who recruits foreign nationals ("agents") to spy against their own country, and then "handles" or manages the operation ("case) so that the agents safety is protected while he or she provides secret information to the case officer. Essential traits of a good case officer are multiple, but include initiative, imagination, innovativeness, common sense, good judgment, strong interpersonal skills, "street smarts," a high tolerance for ambiguity, an understanding of the country or culture in which hes operating, command of the local language, exceptional personal integrity, and cool nerves. George Kisevalter possessed all of this and more: a high IQ, a photographic memory, a natural facility for languages, modesty, humility, andin the words of a close frienda "great love and understanding of his fellow man."
Born in pre-revolutionary Russia, fluent in Russian, and keenly knowledgeable of Russian history, Kisevalters almost unique personal abilities and the circumstances of his early years eventually combined with the vagaries of the Cold War to place him at the very center of Americas national security during one of the most critical moments in world history. Joining the Central Intelligence Agency in 1951, Kisevalter began working in clandestine operations orientedquite naturallyagainst the Soviet Union. In this capacity, he handled two of the most important Soviets ever to spy for the WestPyotr Popov and Oleg Penkovsky. Clarence Ashleys book is the life story of George Kisevalter framed around these two intelligence operations. The importance of Kisevalters personal qualities are soundly woven into the operational history of these two cases, imparting a clear realization that, without Kisevalter, these two cases might not have produced the vital intelligence that they did, leaving he reader to wonder how, and in what ways, might the world be different today had not Kisevalter been present.
In late 1952, Pyotr Popov, a major in the Soviet military intelligence service (GRU), sought out a contact in American intelligence in Vienna. Kisevalter was asked to handle this agent who ultimately provided the first accurate description of the post-World War II Soviet military structure, weapons systems, and Moscows intelligence operations throughout the world. Popov continued to spy for the CIA until 1958, when he was caughtthrough no fault of Kisevalterand executed.
As important as Popov was to the United States and the West, it was Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, another Soviet GRU officer, who has earned the sobriquet, the "spy who saved the world. Like Popov, Penkovsky volunteered his services and Kissevalter was called in to handle the spy, in league with two counterparts from the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6). While providing highly sensitive in-telligence on an astonishing amount and variety of subjects, it was Penkovskys intelligence on the Soviet Strategic Missile Forces that was the most important. In one of those critical, and fortuitous, coincidences of history, this intelligence became available to President Kennedy just as Premier Khrushchev was moving intermediate range missiles into Cuba. Penkovskys intelligence was vital to JFKs ability to resolve the crisis without war (including nuclear) against either Cuba or the Soviet Union.
Ashleys recounting of Kisevalters life is thorough, and the details of the Popov and Penkovsky cases are sufficiently adequate for readers to come away with a good sense of the difficulties they presented, the operational modalities they involved, and the vital importance of each. But the reader should be aware that this is not a conventionally scripted biography. Ashley was Kisevalters friend and business partner, and so he has written the book through his own experiences and conversations with Kisevalter rather than from scholarly research and interviews. As such, the author himself has become a character in his own book, recounting conversations in a first person style, including at times a "question and answer" format. Those readers expecting a more detached or academic biography may find Ashleys style somewhat off-putting. Lacking the skills of a professional writer, Ashleys straightforward narrative relies upon simple sentence structure and basic compositional organization.
As both the Popov and Penkovsky cases have been written about in greater detail by others, the real value in this book is that the reader is able to meet a man who is unlike any with whom most people are ever privileged to know. That one individual could possess so many marvelous (indeed, enviable) qualities, live such a fascinating life, and make so many meaningful contributions to his country, and still be the down-to-earth, unassuming, modest man that was George Kisevalter, is truly remarkable. He deserves to be viewed as a hero as much for who he was as for what he accomplished. And so Clarence Ashleys book does succeed, because when you finish the last page, you are left wishing that you, too, could have known this extraordinary man.