Operation Dragon, according to the late Ion Mihai Pacepa and James Woolsey, was a code name used by the KGB and the PGU (Soviet Foreign Intelligence) for a new disinformation campaign, put into operation to get the world to think that Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy on behalf of either the CIA, the Mafia, the FBI, or right-wing businessmen. Its purpose was to remove suspicion that the Soviet Union was responsible for the assassination.
According to the former CIA chief under the Clinton administration, James Woolsey, and the former head of Communist Romania’s equivalent of the KGB, the appropriately named DIE, Ion Mihai Pacepa, President Kennedy was shot on orders coming from Nikita Khrushchev himself by agents of the Soviet Union. Operation Dragon advances a new version of the theory already proposed by Gen. Pacepa in a previous book published in 2007, Programmed to Kill.
The only difference is that this time around Pacepa is joined by the former head of the CIA, James Woolsey. From my reading, it is unclear what if anything Woolsey contributed, since all the arguments come from Pacepa with a few references to Woolsey believing some of the book’s claims. Why a well thought of businessman and intelligence chief would lend his name to this project remains a mystery, since almost everything in the book is pure fantasy presented without compelling evidence.
Delusion and Disinformation
In the very first chapter, the authors discuss a plot initiated by Josef Stalin to assassinate Pope Pius XII. The plot was called off after Stalin’s death, and the would-be assassin retired from the KGB. That proposed plot was indeed detailed in Britain by the defector Vasili Mitrokhin in 1992, when he copied extensive files from the KGB archives and revealed many Cold War secrets to the West. The assassination was to be carried out by a Soviet agent named Grigulevich operating under the alias Tedoro Castro, a wealthy Costa Rica coffee merchant, who met frequently with the Pope.
Why is this even included? Perhaps it is there to inform readers that actual plots to kill foreign leaders were in fact what the KGB did. Otherwise, the story has no relation to the book’s main point.
After writing this, Woolsey and Pacepa present a few paragraphs that anyone knowing the history of the American left will howl about in response. They refer to an American citizen named Bob Avakian, a supporter of Maoism, who once posted a photo of himself standing next to Mao in Tiananmen Square.
Avakian formed an American Maoist group in California, which he called the Revolutionary Communist Party. A small and hardly influential Marxist-Leninist sect, the group was anything but a mass movement, and never approached the membership of the American Communist Party, even in its era of decline, when the party could boast only a few thousand members. The authors then ask whether Avakian was “a contemporary version of Grigulevich.” They admit they have no “contemporary source” for this assertion. Their evidence, such as it is, consists solely in the fact at the time of their writing, Avakian was in the process of writing a new Soviet-style Constitution for the United States.
Sadly, this is the sort of “evidence” presented throughout the book for all its claims, but especially for the theory that the Soviet Union was responsible for J.F.K.’s assassination. The reader is supposed to trust the authors and their conclusion, although the “evidence” they offer is based on dubious sources and relies on one document in particular that most likely does not exist or was a KGB forged disinformation source.
After a few chapters giving the history and development of Soviet espionage, which has been treated by others but sets the stage for the thesis of the book, Pacepa and Woolsey get down to business in a chapter titled “Stealing America’s Nuclear Bomb.” Here, the attention is on the chief scientist of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer. In their eyes, Oppenheimer was the top Soviet spy within America’s secret wartime project. The responsibility to recruit scientists to provide the data for making a bomb was put in the hands of a top intelligence agent, Lt. General Pavel Sudoplatov, whose account Pacepa and Woolsey trust implicitly.
The problem is that none of Oppenheimer’s biographers have ever found any evidence that he was a Soviet agent. Indeed, back in 2011 the preeminent scholars of Soviet espionage, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes demonstrated Sudoplatov’s lack of credibility in a lengthy paper, “Special Tasks and Sacred Secrets on Soviet Atomic Espionage.”
In this lengthy review essay, Klehr and Haynes also dispute the other book on which Woolsey and Pacepa base their story: Jerrold and Leona Schechter’s Sacred Secrets: How Soviet Intelligence Operations Changed American History. Woolsey and Pacepa rely so heavily on Sacred Secrets that Klehr and Haynes’ demolition of the book casts severe doubt on all of Operation Dragon’s claims as well.
A Credibility Gap
Woolsey and Pacepa ignore the best available research on Soviet espionage (Klehr, Haynes, and Vassiliev’s Spies) by slandering it, arguing that the authors accept “the barrage of disinformation the Russians have spread.” This is incredible because Spies is based on documents smuggled into Britain by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent. After the fall of the Soviet Union and his turn from intelligence to journalism, he was offered the assignment of writing a history of the KGB. Throughout this work, Vassiliev diligently copied many of the documents he was given to support his research. After emigrating to the U.K. in 1996, he managed to retrieve his research, which became the basis for two books on Soviet espionage.
Pacepa and Woolsey do not accept the documents in Spies, many of which are verified by documents found in the Venona Project—a cache of deciphered Soviet KGB messages sent to agents in the United States that allowed scholars to better understand how Soviet intelligence operated. Instead, they smear Vassiliev, arguing without a shred of evidence that the KGB gave Vassiliev these documents to release in London as Soviet disinformation. Woolsey and Pacepa write:
The Vassiliev notebooks are not credible, because they were created by the KGB specifically for their publication in the United States and surfaced shortly after the publication of Sudoplatov’s memoirs. Its many references to the unrecruited Oppenheimer appear to us to be disinformation designed to conceal the fact that he was actually a cooperative source who enabled Russia to build its own atomic bomb.
The authors’ rejection of Spies is based solely on the fact that its evidence does not conform to their contention that Oppenheimer was a Soviet spy. Again, as Klehr and Haynes conclude, “the evidence that by the mid-1940s [Oppenheimer] had left his earlier Communist allegiance behind and sincerely supported America’s role in the Cold War is fully convincing.” This conclusion is accepted by virtually every scholar of Soviet espionage.
Nonetheless, Woolsey and Pacepa insist that Vassiliev’s notebooks are “spurious,” and that “the KGB officially released [them] for publication in the U.S. in 2009.” (They make no distinction between the KGB and its successor organization, the SVR). They again say that Klehr and Haynes “firmly dismiss all of Sudoplatov’s report on atomic espionage as the ramblings of a weak mind based on ‘sparse documentation with no provenance.’” They fail to mention that many of Vassiliev’s documents are confirmed by their concurrence with documents in the Venona transcripts, which they completely ignore.
The two authors then use and present as major evidence a document that appeared in the Schechter’s book Sacred Secrets. That document is allegedly a top-secret letter dated Oct. 2, 1944, supposedly written by the head of Soviet state security, Boris Merkulov, to Stalin’s intelligence chief, Lavrenti Beria. It is considered so important that the authors reproduce it in full.
The letter has Merkulov telling Beria that from 1941 to 1943, they were given reports about the A-bomb preparations on uranium and its development from two KGB agents, Vasily Zarubin and Grigory Kheifetz. They had been informed about the start of this work in 1942, Merkulov says, by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was “an unlisted member of the apparat of Comrade [Earl] Browder”—in other words, a member of the American Communist Party. It goes on to say that CPUSA chief Browder confirmed that Oppenheimer also “provided cooperation in access to the research for several of our tested sources.” That included “a relative of Comrade Browder.” Merkulov then recommends that from 1944 on, American agents must “sever the contacts of leaders and activists of the CPUSA with scientists and specialists engaged in work on uranium.”
There is one problem about this Merkulov letter. The Schechters’ book, Sacred Secrets, Klehr and Haynes write, “provided no information on the provenance of this document,” and the Schechters offer “no explanation of the circumstances under which they obtained it or the archive where it was found.”
According to the Schechters, and now Woolsey and Pacepa, Kheifitz and another Soviet agent Elizabeth Zarubina met with Oppenheimer, at a time when the FBI was closely monitoring the Manhattan Project chief, which would make such a meeting unlikely. Sudoplatov argued in his book, and his claim is repeated in Operation Dragon, that Zarubina, Vasily Zarubin’s wife, took this data to “a drugstore in Santa Fe, which had been used as a meeting point…that became a safehouse where the Polish couple could also pass documents to other unregistered illegals.” They would then “act as couriers, taking the documents to other unregistered illegals, who then would go to Mexico City, where “the Soviet intelligence chief Lev Vasilievsky would receive them and ensure their clandestine transmission to Moscow.”
The problem is that this safe house, which the Soviet Union had purchased to use for participants in the Trotsky assassination in 1940, was run by Kitty Harris, whom the Schechters argue was a courier for atomic secrets. It was Harris, they say, who carried them herself to Vasilievsky in Mexico. Venona documents that Woolsey and Pacepa seem to be unaware of, however, reveal that Kitty Harris lived in Mexico City from 1943 to 1946, where she was KGB liaison with left-wing trade union leaders. Not one Venona reference to Harris mentions that she did courier work or was a participant in atomic espionage.
As for their evidence, the Schechters wrote that copies of the documents they used would be presented to the Hoover Library in Stanford, California, where scholars and researchers could use them. Klehr and Haynes did just that and could not locate the October 2 letter both the Schechters and Woolsey and Pacepa swear by. Klehr and Haynes conclude that Jerrold or Leona Schechter were given fake documents. To date, neither has given any satisfactory answer as to the provenance of the October 2 letter. The only sound conclusion one can reach is that this document does not exist, and it itself is most likely Soviet disinformation.
There are many other whoppers in the book; indeed, too many to mention or cite. One year after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, they write that Russian intelligence agents met to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police agency, created by Felix Dzerzhinsky. In 2014, Vladimir Putin announced at this annual meeting that a new intelligence agency would be added to the FSB, called The Dzerzhinsky Division.
Woolsey and Pacepa then ask: “This must raise a question…. Is it a pure coincidence that the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001” and the attack at Benghazi in 2012, “took place on the birthday of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka…?”Evidently, there is no such thing as coincidence. The insinuation that these attacks were not orchestrated by Islamists, but in fact were undertaken by the successor agency to the KGB suggests a detachment from reality.
Now it might be true that during the Cold War, the KGB trained some terrorists, like al Zarqawi, just as they trained other terrorists from around the globe. That does not mean that al Zarqawi, “was a secret KGB/FSB operative.” When Communists used to assert a half-truth or what other people considered a lie, they would start by saying “It’s no coincidence that….” Evidently Pacepa, who most likely dreamt up this argument, could not give up his old Communist mindset.
Back to Oswald
The authors also claim that the Warren Commission proved Lee Harvey Oswald was trained by the KGB to kill JFK, and that the proof was in secret “code words” embedded in the report, which, somehow, Woolsey and Pacepa were the only people to notice and decode. They explain that the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission report “contain dozens of KGB codes and operational patterns,” that none of the Commission members deciphered or even knew they were there. That is because of its “members’ lack of familiarity with KGB codes and patterns.” They offer no indication of what the “code was,” or proof for their hypothesis. Nor do they explain why other American agents and other Soviet defectors never exposed these codes.
More “proof” the authors offer to show that Oswald was a KGB operative, is yet another conspiracy theory. Oswald, we know, had tried to kill General Edwin Walker on April 10, 1963, but failed. Woolsey and Pacepa argue that because Oswald shot at Walker only once his doing so “was primarily a test exercise for Oswald to prove [to the KGB] that he would be able to escape and learn from a real assassination in the U.S.”
The KGB chariman when Khrushchev held Stalin’s old position as General Secretary was one Vladimir Yefimovich Semichastny. A hard-liner, he would later recommend that Khrushchev be removed from office because he feared his liberalization would lead to the end of the USSR. As KGB head, he had the task of investigating Lee Harvey Oswald after JFK’s death. Oswald had spent time in the Soviet Union, but after a thorough investigation, Semichastny concluded that Oswald had never worked for the KGB.
The authors write that Oswald “was recruited by the KGB when he was stationed in Japan in 1957,” where he was able to give the KGB the details of the American secret U-2 plane, that would be shot down during the Eisenhower presidency right before a scheduled summit between Ike and Khrushchev. The Soviets had no rockets that could have shot down the plane at that time, despite Khrushchev’s bragging that they did. “What they had actually done,” the authors claim, “was build a special lightweight plane, whose pilot was able to maneuver into the U-2’s slipstream and cause it to fall.” As usual, this assertion the authors made has no confirmation or source. Nor do they provide evidence that such a plane ever was built.
Moreover, the problem with this assertion is that Oswald had no access to any of the U-2 plane secrets while in Japan. They were only obtained by the Soviets after they shot one down, using the proximity fuse that Julius Rosenberg had passed on to them on Christmas Day in 1944. Julius met his KGB control, Alexander Feklisov, at a Horn and Hardart café on Broadway and West 38th Street in New York City. The fuse allowed a shell to explode at a short distance from its airborne target, thereby guaranteeing a hit, in addition to correcting the path of an explosive charge towards a plane. It was a precursor to future missile homing devices. It is rather amazing that two ex-intelligence agency heads would not know this and would attribute the Powers plane being shot down to information supposedly gathered in Japan by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Feklisov writes that once the device was smuggled out of the factory he worked at by Rosenberg, Soviet scientists and military leaders examined it. Immediately, new ones were put into production. “Thanks to it,” Feklisov writes, “the American U-2 reconnaissance plane flown by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960.”
Finally, I must note another nonsensical claim that is totally wrong. The authors write about the work of Morris and Jack Childs, two brothers who were trusted American Communists who met many times with Brezhnev and the Politburo, speaking on behalf of the CPUSA.
The reality is that the two brothers had been turned and were working for the FBI, to whom they reported regularly about what the Soviet leaders told them. To the Soviets and Gus Hall, the CPUSA’s head, they pretended to be loyal Communists. Indeed, when they got money for the American Party from Brezhnev, the FBI got it first and then gave the funds back to the Childses to be distributed to the CPUSA.
The authors develop a totally preposterous theory that the Politburo knew from the start that Morris and Jack Childs were FBI agents, but the Moscow Communist chiefs pretended they did not know, so they could give the Childs brothers information that the Soviets were not responsible for JFK’s death, which the Americans would then believe. The actual truth is that the revelations and material given to the U.S. by these brothers was damning and extremely harmful to the Soviet Union. Had Brezhnev and the Politburo really known the Childs were pulling the wool over their eyes, they would have been arrested and immediately executed. In the United States, the CPUSA leader Gus Hall would immediately have been expelled by the other American Communist leaders.
I can only echo the words of New York Times foreign reporter David Binder, who reviewed Pacepa’s first book, Red Horizons for the Times on January 3, 1988. Binder notes that Pacepa “has several times changed his stories…which casts doubt on his veracity.” The stories he tells in that book, Binder says, are dubious and “at least a decade old.”
I asked Mark Kramer, director of the Harvard University Center for Cold War Studies, if he had any insights into Pacepa’s credibility. Kramer is the man who edited and brought The Black Book of Communism to the United States. “He spouted nonsense,” he emailed me, “for decades… To draw attention to himself, he would make more and more outlandish claims, especially about things he couldn’t possibly have known.” Operation Dragon is simply the latest example, and the last, since Pacepa passed away right before the book’s publication, sparing himself the pain of it being ignored, or receiving bad reviews. Why R. James Woolsey would add his name to the book is a mystery that Woolsey himself will have to answer.