The endless accusations of moles being present in most of Western intelligence services by Soviet defector Anatoliy Golitsyn was like a supernova but was unseen or heard by most in related intelligence groups, much like the subsequent events that may follow a supernova, Golitsyn’s mole claims backed with the power of the CIA’s Counterintelligence leadership and staff formed a proverbial black hole. This became another part of the vast intelligence abyss, and its pull on the careers and lives of many people would slowly be felt and most were unable to escape the tendrils of this massive investigation for traitors. As 1961 passed, Golitsyn would accurately describe some details of yet unknown betrayers within British intelligence and this information when added to later revelations added to the weight of the mole hunt. Yet, this larger hunt for CIA moles was precipitated upon ideas that were unproven and relied largely upon a single defector and his supporters.
The suggestion of a mole can be just as destructive to a related intelligence organization as the existence of one. Due to a handful of famous mole agents that were detected in multiple clandestine groups, such as the Cambridge Five spy ring within British intelligence, the existence of other moles was a realistic possibility. It would have been incredible hubris to imagine that American intelligence organizations were immune to such penetration operatives, yet to assume they were present lacking definitive evidence is too a grand mistake. The mole hunters were determined to find potential betrayers in their midst, but the manner in which they conducted the investigation was often unreliable and based on group supposition.
Some might ask why James Angleton valued the claims and ideas of Golitsyn in favor of his own fellow CIA officers and the answer is multifaceted. It begins decades prior amidst the 1940’s, during Angleton’s operations in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) X-2 division. During his time in X-2, Angleton was offered training by British Secret Intelligence Services (SIS, MI6) and met his longtime MI6 contact and British Soviet division officer Harold “Kim” Philby. The two men would establish a reportedly close relationship and lunched together to compare intelligence leads and operations. Angleton in the years following the mole hunt stated during an interview that OSS was “perforated” with KGB agents and “goddamn” Communist Party members.[i] His foundational idea was that if OSS could be utterly penetrated it was only reasonable to assume CIA had been as well. Indeed the 1950’s would reveal multiple British moles and further spur Angleton’s belief that his own intelligence group must have too been penetrated. While that is not unreasonable, the OSS and British traitor claims often had an evidentiary basis that his later accusations did not.
The purge would not end until roughly two decades had been spent in search of the elusive man whose last name began with a K, may have ended in “sky”, served in Germany, and had the KGB code name Sasha. Upon these parameters set by Golitsyn, the Counterintelligence Staff undertook an exhaustive search of CIA employees and officers, but it is notable these searches did not extend to the highest leadership in the CIA. It appeared that James Angleton and Anatoliy Golitsyn realized the extent of their hunt’s reach, if they accused people at the helm of the Agency their hunt would likely be quashed before it truly began. This apparent search limitation, in my view, offers that they could never fully answer the mole question if all related people were not inspected. It further became apparent that Angleton was now overrun with Golitsyn’s suspects and began a massive expansion of Counterintelligence Special Investigations Group (CISIG) and his staff. Such additions were not likely to have received support from Angleton’s bosses if he accused them and this confined the search to those at the level of James Angleton or below in the Agency structure that met the prerequisites to be “Sasha.”
As 1961 concluded, the abyss opened by James Angleton and Anatoliy Golitsyn deepened and began to claim its first victims within and without the US intelligence structure. The first primary suspect the mole hunters set upon was a notable Agency technical expert who helped develop and expand the Agency’s device spying arsenal for over a decade. Among Golitsyn’s offered information was the KGB possessing knowledge of a major technological advancement the CIA was developing, and the Secretary of the Technical Requirements Board S. Peter Karlow was deemed the primary suspect. Reinforcing these accusations were Karlow fulfilling most of the elusive parameters of “Sasha”, his last name began with K, he served the Agency in Germany during the 1950’s, and his original name before his family changed it was Slavic. Just weeks following Golitsyn’s appearance and the claims of a mole, Karlow’s decades of service to the US military and CIA began to unravel.
Sergei Klibansky aka Serge Peter Karlow was born the same year his parents became United States citizens during 1921. Sergei’s mother was from an affluent Russian family that held textile holdings in Silesia, but these were lost due to the Soviet revolution. Karlow’s father was an in demand vocal performer and sometimes claimed until the revolution to have been Russian due to the prejudice that Germans following WWI faced. Despite this dissociation with Germany, the Klibansky family traveled over a dozen times and lived for periods in that nation amid Sergei’s youth. As 1931 passed, the family would suffer a tragic loss when Sergei’s father committed suicide due to financial devastation resulting from the Great Depression. Six years later when Sergei graduated McBurney Preparatory School in Manhattan the family changed its name and Sergei Klibansky became Serge Peter Karlow.
As the early 1940s arrive,d WWII raged and Karlow left Swarthmore College to join the United States Navy with an intention to enter the ranks of US intelligence. The next year Karlow was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was responsible for organizing a minor naval squadron to aid field projects in Corsica. While Karlow undertook the rebuilding of a base used by Allied forces, he was among the few survivors on his ship when it struck a German mine and exploded. Due to the polluted waters, Karlow was forced to have a leg amputated, but soon obtained a prosthetic limb and retrained himself to live as normally as possible. Upon his return to the US that year, Karlow was greeted by OSS Chief William J. Donovan and received the Bronze Medal for heroics. Donovan subsequently appointed Karlow to serve on his staff until the end of WWII, and this appointment, in addition to his natural technical expertise, later allowed him to join the CIA when it formed in 1947. Karlow would spend the 1950’s in Europe developing and improving Agency Technical Services Division (TSD) equipment to aid in anti-Soviet clandestine operations.
When 1961 passed, Karlow hoped that his longtime service would propel him to lead the Agency’s Technical Services Division. However, CIA Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms assigned Karlow to represent the Agency at the US State Department in a different position. After meeting with Helms about his aspirations, Karlow accepted the State Department job in the hopes it would lead to his desired role. Despite that, Karlow lost a limb serving honorably in WWII, received the Bronze Star, worked for the OSS, and provided major contributions to CIA’s Technical Services Division, he was a marked man. Yet, Serge had no idea yet he was the prime mole suspect and that both the CIA and FBI had already targeted him with surveillance long before he realized it.
Less than four weeks after Golitsyn’s arrival, the CIA’s Office of Security chief Sheffield Edwards formally deemed Karlow a sufficient threat and requested the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. During 1962, FBI agents began to approach Karlow to ask for aid regarding purported nearby investigations and requested he allow them to set up surveillance equipment in his residence. It was later when Karlow, a technical expert, noticed his own phone lines were acting slowly in the manner of tapped lines. Additionally, Karlow noticed that phone repair men working on his lines, but when he contacted the phone carrier no work had been scheduled. Unseen agents followed Karlow when he traveled and in one episode they observed him delivering a large package, which some assumed might be information to Soviet handlers. They would be disappointed after learning the large box contained Karlow’s prosthetic leg and it was being serviced. When Karlow returned to Helms in the summer of 1962 about his desired position in TSD he was instead assigned to the Economic Services Division.
During the summer of 1962, KGB officer Yuriy Ivanovich Nosenko made contact with the Agency via later CISIG member Tennant Bagley and Soviet Division case officer George Kisevalter.[ii] Each man were notable officers and had prior experience handling Soviet defectors, but following the meetings with Nosenko they left with nearly diametrically opposite impressions. Nosenko told the Agency men he did not want to leave Russia, but wanted serve as a defector in place and further admitted his initial claims were a contrived pretext to meet with them. Following an extensive debriefing, that included several questions regarding “Sasha” provided by CISIG member Bruce Solie, Nosenko reportedly had no knowledge of such a mole run by the Soviets. He did offer information regarding a KGB double agent that claimed CIA allegiance, provided the location of several microphones planted in the Moscow US Embassy, and, most troubling, he provided intelligence that a dead drop setup for defector Oleg Penkovsky had been compromised. This information likely explains the discovery of the relationship between Grenville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky in the fall of 1962 that led to Wynne’s expulsion from Russia as a foreign agent and Penkovsky’s summary execution.[iii]
Interestingly, some of the information that Nosenko provided would clarify a few Golitsyn claims, and combined the information revealed at least one double agent in the British admiralty. Yet, Anatoliy Golitsyn had already tired of the Soviet Division’s questions and now was entirely advising CISIG, but his eyes wandered across the oceans to possible other moles he might find. The chasm in the CIA had begun widening following appearance of another seemingly important defector. While Angleton and Bagley mistrusted Nosenko, as a prevarication akin to Golitsyn’s false defector allegations, Kisevalter and others believed he was the genuine article.[iv] The effects of this debate would have extreme ramifications for nearly every person involved.
Elsewhere during the fall, Serge Karlow hoped the Economic Division job was the last test Helm’s would require and finally appoint him to lead the TSD. Yet, he would discover, by December, that Richard Helm’s turned down the request for a promotion. Subsequently, the FBI’s Washington Field Office summoned Karlow to face accusations of betrayal and extensive questioning about his life and travels. Bureau agents utilizing a polygraph machine accused Karlow of being a Soviet mole for nearly a week, until they concluded their inquiry, but the Agency hunt continued unabated. With his reputation destroyed, Karlow was convinced his intelligence career was over, but he desired to understand what precipitated his downfall.
Serge Peter Karlow sought out James Angleton to observe the man who ultimately had overseen his undoing. Karlow was told by the counterintelligence leader his case was related to a Russian defector and that Serge must not discuss the matter with anyone. Despite accusations of betrayal and disloyalty leveled by Angleton and his staff at Karlow, the Agency technical expert was required to remain silent about the injustices he faced.[v] [vi] Serge left the CIA determined he would restore his name, but this type of impropriety would recur so long as the letter K and a defector’s word might end a career. Karlow was never told, until years later, the FBI agents, unlike his CIA colleagues, believed he was innocent. Despite the lack of evidence, Karlow was offered like a sacrifice to the mole hunt and he would be just the first of many.
[i]. James J. Angleton, Anatoliy Golitsyn, and the “Monster Plot”: Their Impact on CIA Personnel and Operations, December 2011, Studies in Intelligence, Volume 55, Number 4, Central Intelligence Agency, cia.gov, p. 42
[ii]. CIA Consolidated Files, Tennant Harrington Bagley, Primary Evidence Collections, Central Intelligence Agency, tpaak.com
[iii]. Alex Palmer, March 18, 2021, The True Story Behind ‘The Courier’, Smithsonian Magazine, smithsonianmag.com
[iv]. Tennent Bagley: CIA Agent at the heart of the controversial defection of Yuri Nosenko who came to believe the Russiand was a plant, March 05, 2014, The Independent, independent.co.uk
[v]. David Wise, 1992, Molehunt: The Secret search for Traitors that Shattered the CIA, Random House, New York, pp. 81-95
[vi]. Louie Estrada, November 8, 2005, CIA Officer Serge Peter Karlow, 84, The Washington Post, washingtonpost.com