Let’s celebrate the opening of the Oliver Stone film Snowden, not to mention, the latest dump of information from the FSB’s Snowden archive, within an interesting website: The Spy Museum.
While WeaponsMan.com readers might be most interested in the museum’s collections of spy weapons and other spy tech, the human stories of the villains and heroes of espionage — their hero/villain status often depending on whose side is looking at it.
Along with all the spies you’ve heard about, the museum features ones you probably haven’t, like Judith Coplon. Coplon, an employee of the FBI and Department of Justice, seems to have been an ideological recruit to the Soviet Union just after World War II. Like many left-leaning New Yorkers such as the more famous Rosenbergs, the Soviet tale of collectivized equality and working-class solidarity was more appealing to Coplon than American individualism.
Coplon came under suspicion, and…
…[w]as placed under intense surveillance. FBI agents placed taps on her telephone line, monitored her mail and followed her as she traveled. Neighbors claimed that Coplon was quiet and did not entertain male guest in her apartment. Surveillance, however, indicated that she engaged in sexual affairs with several men, presumably for the purpose of obtaining classified information.
Often traveled to New York City on the weekends, often asking to leave from work early on Fridays. Took classified documents home with her and retyped them. Gave the retyped documents to Gubitchev when she visited him in New York.
Requested a special document containing a list of suspected Soviet spies. Director Hoover personally delivered a fake version of the document to Coplon’s supervisor, who immediately provided it to her. Coplon, upon receiving the document requested the rest of the day off and then traveled to New York for the weekend (followed by FBI agents – January 14, 1949).
Was trailed by FBI agents around Manhattan until she finally met with Gubitchen in a restaurant. After exchanging documents, the couple left and boarded a subway train. As the doors to the train were closing, Gubitchev bolted from the train and evaded the trailing FBI agents.
At this point, the FBI had enough to bag Coplon, but they wanted her Russian contact, an intelligence officer using the name Valentin Gubitchev and under official cover as an employee of the United Nations, arguably the greatest CONUS nexus of foreign intelligence gathering. So they shuffled her to a new position… and kept a weather eye on her.
Having been observed passing documents, Coplon was transferred to another division of the Department of Justice, in order to keep her away from sensitive documents. Coplon continued to seek access to such documents, volunteering to aid her replacement in getting up to speed.
Requested additional classified information that her supervisor had recently obtained (fake information received from Hoover). Her supervisor left the information in Coplon’s view and left the room. Coplon left the room and caught a train to New York (March 6, 1949).
Coplon and Gubitchev were caught red-handed. Gubitchev had had diplomatic cover earlier as a member of the Soviet Delegation, but when he took the UN employee job he exposed himself to American law; he was tried and convicted. Coplon was defended by a mysteriously (cough Soviet cough) funded Dream Team of lawyers, and supported by a vociferous lobby of left-leaning literati, press and public members in Washington and New York, but she was still convicted.
It wasn’t the end for her, though, as her pro-Soviet lawyers didn’t give up: she married one of her attorneys, Albert Socolov, who helped get her off on technicalities on appeal. Socolov was himself both a WWII US Military veteran and a suspected Soviet agent or fellow traveler. In her obituary, her daughter Emily fences around Judith’s treachery (and suggests that she’s no more loyal than her mom):
It’s very hair-raising to read about your mother being given a code name and moved around like a chess piece. Was she a spy? I think it’s another question that I ask: Was she part of a community that felt that they were going to bring, by their actions, an age of peace and justice and an equal share for all and the abolishing of color lines and class lines?
Honey, if you think that’s what the USSR stood for, you slept through the 20th Century.
If these were things that she actually did, she was not defining them as espionage. If you feel that what you’re doing answers to a higher ideal, it’s not treason.
Sorry. Treason you got away with is still treason. Had justice truly prevailed, Judith would have been hanged, and Emily never born.
The Coplon case was, for both the American security authorities, and the Soviets’ Fifth Column of American Traitors and supporters like the lawyers, an important dry run for the imminent Rosenberg and Alger Hiss cases. Three groups of traitors, three different cases, three different outcomes.
In any event, the Spy Museum site will introduce you to a lot of spies like the late, unlamented Judith Coplon, and give you a rundown on the famous ones like Walker, Hanssen, and Pollard (as well as our famous spies in the adversary’s services, like Penkovskiy and Pacepa).