Harvard’s Covert Gambit: Foiling a Daring KGB Operation

Derek Leebaert recounts his double life at Harvard spying on Russians for the FBI

3 mins read
KGB shield on Harvard background

In the grim depths of the Cold War, Yuri Andropov, the tall, gaunt chairman of the Soviet KGB, came to a stark realization: Moscow had to do something to cope with the West’s  accelerating technological superiority.  Without some quick and decisive remedy,  he reckoned, the Soviet Union’s vast military capacities—from intercontinental ballistic missiles to main battle tanks—could become irrelevant. 

Andropov, a future general secretary of the Communist Party, recognized In 1970 that the Soviet Union was at least six years behind the United States in computers and software. Modernizing the communist giant’s technology base overnight was impossible, of course.  But there was a well honed KGB tool he could turn to: espionage.

To that end, he opened a new directorate, “T,” with an operating arm known as Line X.  Its mission was to steal the West’s latest technical and scientific advances, particularly in America, including the designs of sophisticated weaponry. Moscow’s Military-Industrial Commission helped write the collection requirements.

By 1975 Andropov had at least 77 agents and 42 trusted contacts  working for Directorate T within U.S. companies and laboratories, including defense contractors. Back then, Boston’s famed Route 128 was America’s Silicon Valley, a target-rich environment that  included corporations like Data General, Digital Equipment, and Wang, as well as labs at MIT and Harvard.  IBM, the unrivaled computing behemoth of that day, had a presence as well.  It was there that Andropov plotted a big bite.

A supposed thawing of tensions among the two superpowers provided access for the KGB and GRU (military intelligence). Between the summers of 1972 and 1974, Moscow and Washington signed 29 treaties and agreements covering trade, finance, the arts and arms control—including a thousand-word U.S.-Soviet code of conduct regarding the “Basic Principles” of bilateral relations. Each side pledged to renounce “efforts to obtain unilateral advantage at the expense of the other.”  

However, according to Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin’s memoir, In Confidence, Andropov, the Kremlin’s spy master, was the “cosponsor with [Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei] Gromyko of the major foreign policy proposals.” Andropov intended to weaken the United States, he wrote, “by means of negotiations” while strengthening Russia’s economy and armed forces through theft and espionage.

Either unaware of, or discounting Andropov’s hidden hand in Moscow’s strategy, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, believed a “degree of interdependence” with the Soviets was essential, as he avers in his Years Of Renewal. The idea was that “interdependence” might dissuade Moscow from using “its conventional superiority to spark a crisis” in Europe while the United States was hamstrung by Vietnam. Besides, as Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt recalled in his own memoir, Kissinger told him America had “passed its high point like so many other civilizations” and needed “to persuade the Russians to give us the best deal we can get” in an arms-control treaty.   Whatever the reasons, a grave incaution characterized much of Washington’s political-military thinking about détente. There were but a few exceptions. 

One alert official was the Harvard-trained economist Gus Weiss. At  44, he was a member of the White House Council on International Economic Policy and responsible for managing exports of militarily significant technologies. In spring 1974, he spoke to the chief of the Soviet/East European Division of the CIA’s clandestine service about troubling patterns he was observing among Soviet trade and cultural missions. 

Besides other problems, he explained, Soviet delegates were often showing up at defense-related facilities that had nothing to do with either their official itineraries or ostensible expertise in, say, music or agriculture. Weiss  knew that during the 1960s, Soviet efforts to catch up with the West had depended largely on espionage. This time he was detecting another well-organized KGB or GRU enterprise.     

Weiss later recalled that U.S. intelligence had “no evidence and no sources”  reporting on the existence of an overarching KGB plan for technology theft. Indeed, an intelligence official, most likely CIA, told him, that infiltration of that sort was “not usual Soviet practice.”   

So Weiss took it upon himself to launch critically important, off-the-books operations to blunt the Soviet espionage initiative, according to a retrospective he contributed in 1996 to the CIA’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. A quarter century after that, his contribution to the Soviet Union’s collapse was the subject of a Smithsonian Channel documentary, “How the CIA Turned the Tables on Soviet Industrial Espionage” (for which I was a commentator).  The film was followed by a feature piece in Wired, “The Secret History of a Cold War Mastermind.”  

Yet there is still much more to reveal. Weiss’s initiatives within the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and eventually the Reagan administrations became entwined with similar ad hoc projects to thwart Directorate T that were occurring around the Boston epicenter. Those have never been reported, and, at the start, Harvard University was Ground Zero. 

Source: SpyTalk

Derek Leebaert

Derek Leebaert won the 2020 Truman Book Award, and, in 2023, published Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made. He cofounded Harvard/MIT’s journal International Security, and helped launch the Museum of the US Army.

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