Rudolph Abel is best known as the KGB
spy traded in 1962 for U-2
pilot Francis Gary Powers
to conclude the "U-2 Incident
." Five years earlier, in 1957, he was a household name, on par with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Abel was born in England in 1901 under the name William August Fisher. In Russia
he took the name Rudolf Ivanovich
Abel. His native English ability (not to mention his ability with four other languages) made him prime agent material. He rose to the rank of Colonel
in the KGB and was dropped into New York City
in 1948. His mission was to set up a spy network to steal atomic
secrets. Many of the scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project
relocated to New York to teach in area universities.
Abel's first assignment was to find suitable locations where informants could drop information for later retrieval (known in spy trade as a "dead drop
"). He needed to take a lot of photographs to record good spots. Some of the spots he found and photographed included a waste basket outside Tavern on the Green
and under a balcony carpet at the Symphony
To avoid suspicion regarding his odd travels and shutterbuggery, not to mention all his odd microfilm developing equipment, his cover story was he was a retired photo finisher
and an artist.
Abel went by the name Emil Goldfus, a New York native born in 1902. The name came from a forged birth certificate of a real Emil Goldfus born in 1902 but died in infancy in 1903 (this was an early and common form of identify theft
... acquiring birth certificates from names taken from tombstones of infants that died within a year of birth).
Abel located to a studio apartment
at 246 Fulton street (a place called the Ovington building) . By strange coincidence Norman Mailer
was his upstairs neighbor, and was working on a book about a writer becoming involved with spies called Barbary Shore
Abel remained undetected for several years. However in 1957 a Paris
-based KGB agent named Reino Hayhanen was about to be recalled to Moscow by his spy masters. Not wanting to give up the lights of Paris, Hayhanen defected to the American embassy
, promising to tell them everything he knew. The problem was, the Soviet spy network at that time was very, very compartmentalized and Hayhanen knew very little. He did, however, remember something about a room being rented in the Ovington building.
State-side, the FBI
visited 246 Fulton street and discovered one Emil R. Goldfus (aka Abel). Initially the FBI was quite curious about a strange radio in Abel's possession. It didn't quite fit in with him being an artist. Abel tried to claim he was also interested in ham radio
as a hobby. Upon a more careful search, they found another birth certificate
in his possession with the name "Martin Collins". So who was he? Martin or Emil? The FBI placed him under arrest and made a thorough search of his studio. There they found an amazing array of spy stuff, things most Americans had only seen in movies or read about in books. They found a coin that held a microdot
in a secret chamber, a hollowed-out pencil containing 18 microfilm
s, and block of wood with another secret compartment that contained an obvious one time pad
Yeah, he was a spy
Abel's arrest was a major coup for a government trying to wake up America to the demands and reality of the emerging Cold War
. His trial was prime time stuff in newspapers and TV. However, unlike our government in its current War on Terrorism, Abel was not brought before a military tribunal. Abel was indicted in a regular court and given the full protection of the Bill of Rights. He was even able to appeal his case to the Supreme Court
, on the grounds the original FBI search was not legal. His appeal failed. Abel was given thirty years, although originally he was going to be given the death penalty. His defense attorney General Counsel James B. Donovan convinced the judge to spare his life, on the grounds he would prove useful for further intelligence. Donovan's suspicion was correct, as the Soviets happily traded Powers for this one single man.
Following the spy trade, Abel was pressed into retirement by the KGB and was forcibly located to a city 30 miles from Moscow
called Chelyushkinskoe. Many KGB spies were "retired" there so they could be kept an eye on and not be used as double agent
s by the West.
Several years later, Abel was allowed to move to Moscow. He died of cancer
there in 1971 at the age of 68.
Curiously the FBI justified its snooping on Martin Luther King
based on King's association with Stanley Levison, an executive in the Communist Party of America
. Levinson himself had known Abel. The FBI therefore justified its snooping on King as .... merely connecting the dots