Archive for the ‘Cold War Bunny’ Category

Serena Frome “Sweet Tooth”

Posted: February 28, 2014 in Britain, Cold War Bunny, MI5
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Sweet_Tooth_(novel)I was very interested in reading this book as the author, Ian McEwan, has a long track record of writing interesting female characters, and 1970s Cold War London seemed an interesting setting for the novel.

“Sweet Tooth” chronicles Serena, a young British woman with a talent for math and a passion for reading, who is really nothing more than a consummate drifter. She drifts along in college, in and out of relationships, into a career with MI5 at the hand of an ex-lover who is really a traitor, drifts along her in her jobs duties, and eventually into a relationship with an asset of an anti-communist propaganda operation, the eponymous “Sweet Tooth”. 

Not unlike the United States at the time, during the 1970s, England’s national securities weren’t particularly great jobs for the ladies who often were little more than secretaries. Serena follows this same path until she is pulled into this operation where security services seeks to anonymously sponsor talented authors, who in turn, hopefully write about the glories of a capitalistic society. 

Serena is chosen for her prolific knowledge of literature and probably because she described as tall, blond, and not bad to look at. She poses as an agent of an arts foundation, nabs an up and coming author, and promptly begins an affair with him.

However, Serena isn’t particularly good at juggling the secret life of her job (yawn) against her personal life (double yawn). Really, this plot device is so played out when it comes to female characters, that if it weren’t for McEwan’s gorgeous writing, I would have stopped reading fairly early on in the novel.

In the end, Serena is found out, loses her job, and seems to have lost the guy. At this point in the story, you realize you don’t really know Serena particularly well. This is either because she comes across as being not very self-aware, which is understandable as she isn’t a very deep character to begin with, or it is just a fault of poor writing. However, this is Ian McEwan, master of the unforeseen ending, which I will not devolve here, but let me just say that it is, technically, a fault of poor writing, just not McEwan’s. …I’ll leave it to you to read and figure it out…

It’s a shame, really. Such a fascinating subject shouldn’t be reduced to a romance novel, which is what has occurred here. Secretaries have enormous potential in this genre, what with the amount of confidential material that passes through their hands, and the tendency men had/have to overlook the intelligence of the woman who fetches their coffee…

Still, it’s beautiful writing but hardly a spynovel. Enjoy. Or not.

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ImageIn one of the most original Spy-Dame personas that I have seen in either film, book, or TV, the incredibly nuanced performance by Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, a Russian sleeper-agent on FX’s 1980s themed “The Americans”, is remarkable for the fact that, one, Elizabeth is a rare example of a fully-realized female character, and two, for the fact that the character wrestles with the seemingly mundane and quintessential female problem of trying to have it all – but with a twist.

Elizabeth (actually “Nadezhda”), raised in post-war, Communist Russia by a single mother, is a young KGB agent assigned to pose as part of a suburban couple in America with another KGB agent, husband “Phillip”. Elizabeth and Phillip only know each other by their American names as a method of protection in case they are ever caught. They arrive in America in the late 1970s and the series follows them years later as the live as an established married couple, produce two children, and reside in the suburbs while running a travel agency in Washington DC. The perfect cover as the couple navigate their secret life as deep-cover spies.

And Elizabeth is one tough customer: a master of disguise, a talented wireless radio operator, a skilled tradesman in espionage, pretty good at hand-to-hand combat, and a consistent strategic thinker – and all while also dealing with the appropriate amount of stress of being a mother. But here is where Elizabeth diverges from the norm: however harried Elizabeth may be as a mom, it is not to comedic effect. Elizabeth struggles with the balance of work-home life because first and foremost, Elizabeth is a dedicated Soviet, a loyal servant to the cause. While her husband Phillip often suggests early they either defect or disappear permanently in America as the country is not all that bad and their kids are as American as they come, Elizabeth will not here of it. She is The Job and The Job is not over. If her children are “too American” it is simply because Elizabeth is “not finished with them yet”.

Elizabeth plays the maligned disciplinarian in the eyes of her children while her husband is the “fun parent”, a fairly typical story construct on any level, but there’s an interesting duality in this spy thriller. While she does love her children and has, if not love, but strong affection for Phillip, they are still part of The Job in her mind and that influences much of her actions, as her family life is part of her cover, part of her job. For example, we learn early on that Elizabeth was assaulted by a senior training officer in Russia, and while this is a certain catalyst for events in the pilot episode, it is not something that defines Elizabeth as a character because the only thing that does define her is her commitment to The Soviet Cause. So a predator in the Soviet ranks is almost something she took in stride, as part of the job, until she decides it is not.

So how does a Dame have it all? How does Elizabeth manage marriage, children, and home while trying to champion Mother Russia and maintain a secret identity? Most often through cold reserve, tenacity, big-picture thinking, and the ability to give a good beat-down when warranted.

The bigger question that will face Elizabeth in the series is the constant test of her ideology and whether it will uphold as Elizabeth realizes that her Russian counterparts are not quite the patriots she has held them out to be, and then, what will her actions be?

You say “potato”, I say “po-tah-toe”, you say “Mata Hari”, I say “get your facts straight”…damn this is getting tiresome…

So history is playing yet another round of “Blame Dame” with the acts of a cowardly US Colonel towards a dame being mislabeled as “Sexpionage”. Sigh.

Here we go: Kim Soo-Im (1911-1950) was a highly educated Korean Socialite. During the post WWII years, when Korea was trying to shrug off it’s Japanese controlled, colonial, feudal shroud, the young and educated were leaning left-towards communism-as a way to modernize their society.

Kim was an orphan who was raised by missionaries and was educated at a prestigious women’s college. She supported herself by working as an office administrator and ran in a highly fashionable circle of Korean intellectuals. In 1941, Kim met Lee Gang-Kook, an older married man who was also the head of Seoul’s leftist movement. They became involved and remained so until the Korea’s crackdown on communists in 1945 forced Lee to flee to Northern Korea.

Kim was left behind and due to her fluency in English, she became a translator for American forces stationed in Korea. Enter Col. John E. Baird. His role in Korea was to monitor the black market, Korean informants, and theft of US Army property. Kim became his assistant, and more, and Baird set Kim up with housing and eventually fathered her child, a son, Wonil Kim.

This went on until m1949, when the US Army began withdrawals, Baird’s American wife came to town for a visit, and Kim’s ex-lover Lee, had risen to political heights in the North and began to pubicly trash talk the Southern Regime.

In 1950, Kim was no longer employed by the US Army and Baird was skipping town back to his family across the pond. This left Kim vulnerable and she was rounded up in a leftist witch-hunt where the South Korean government charged her with a dirty laundry list of crimes, the most serious of which claimed that Kim relayed top-secret US withdrawal plans to her ex-lover Lee in the North.

No evidence was presented. No witnesses were brought forth to corroborate the charges. But on the third day of trial, Kim broke down and confessed. I’m willing to put money that the amount of torture she suffered during her imprisonment, in the form of water boarding, electric shock, and the terrifying use of pliers, played no small part in the matter.

Col. Baird, well aware of Kim’s dire circumstances, and who could have manned-up, stepped forward, and refute the charges, did nothing for her.

Kim was sentenced to death and was swiftly executed.

The US Army, well aware of the situation, did its own follow up investigation and recently declassified reports show that the charges against Kim were a set-up. Not only that, Col. Baird was not privy to any such sensitive information, hence, Kim could have not passed it along to Lee Gang-Kook.

Kim’s son, Wonil, was adopted by a missionary family who eventually headed back to the US. Well aware of his mother’s story since there was a few TV movies aired that trumped her up as an “Asian Mata Hari” (one narrated by an actor by the name of Ronald Reagan), Wonil began a life’s quest in clearing his mother’s name.

Wonil tracked his father shortly before he died in 1980, and despite the undisputable fact that he looks exactly like dear old dad, Col. Baird rejected him outright claiming a “Mr. Smith” as Wonil’s real father. Despite this, Wonil developed a close relationship with his father’s family after his death. Wonil is now collaborating with a Korean filmmaker on his mother’s life story in efforts to dispell the myths that have surrounded her so long.

And the kicker of it all: according the Army intelligence reports, Lee Gong-Kook was employed by the CIA’s Joint Activities Commission in Korea as a secret agent. He was executed in 1953 after the Korean War ended for being an American spy.

Kelly Warren (1966-), part of the Clyde Lee Conrad US Army spy-ring, was convicted of consipiracy to commit espionage and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1999.

Clyde Lee Conrad was a sergeant in the Army serving in Germany during the final days of the Cold War. He, along with 3 other Army personnel, including Army Private Kelly Warren, a clerk with access to top-secret documents also serving in Germany, sold NATO defense plans of Western Europe should the Soviets decide to invade. The happy recipients of this intel were Hungarian Intelligence Officials.

Not much is known about Warren except that she is from Georgia, served in Germany from 1986-1988, and it is assumed that due to her extremely low pay, Warren was induced, monetarily, to join the ring. She wasn’t nabbed until 1997 and it took until 1999 to finalize her conviction. Cohort Conrad died in prison of a heart-attack in 1998.

Kelly Warren has earned a special distinction in the case. Usually, those nabbed for espionage are middle-aged white gents. Warren is the first female in the military to ever be convicted of espionage. Her reward for such an honor is likely to be serving a full sentence and will not be released until 2024, at the age of 57.

Ethel Rosenberg (1915-1953) and her husband, Julius, were executed for espionage in the early days of the Cold War. As documents related to the case are now becoming declassified, one has to ask: Ethel Rosenberg, Spy-Dame or Dame Blamed?

Ethel Greenglass was born to New York City Jewish immigrants in 1915. She dreamed of being an entertainer, but became instead a secretary. She showed her chutzpah by becoming involved in labor movements and joining the Young Communist League, where she met Julius Rosenberg and eventually married.

Julius, who worked as a radio operator for the US Army Signal Corps, spied for the Soviet Union as early as 1942 and passed along classified radio reports. This is not under dispute. What is under dispute is whether nuclear secrets were in fact involved and the extent to which his wife, Ethel, was complicit.

The main case against Ethel rests on Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, a worker at the Los Alamos facility where the Manhattan Project was underway. David was involved in the spying operation with Julius and when David was arrested and had the screws put to him, David gave up the Rosenbergs. Initially he stated that his sister, Ethel, was not involved and that he had been recruited by his brother-in-law Julius. He changed his tune however and later provided incriminating testimony that Ethel was in up to her ears and had employed her typing skills in translating notes to be passed along to the KGB.

We all know how the story ends in that Rosenbergs were convicted and sentenced to death. A world-wide media circus ensued and did nothing to prevent the inevitable which was the Rosenberg’s execution by the electric chair in 1953.

Ethel Rosenberg was executed June 19, 1953. Because of this skirt’s diminutive stature, the components of the electric chair did not fit her properly and resulted in this poor broad being electrocuted not one but three times! Witnesses claim to have seen smoke rising for Ethel’s head. How lovely that must have been for her. The Rosenberg’s ostracized children were adopted by the amazingly altruistic songwriter Abel Meeropol and his wife.

So flash forward 50+ years and here’s what’s going down: David Greenglass has recanted his testimony. How fabulous…for him. Fearing for the safety of his wife and children, David claims he was pressured by prosecutors to implicate his sister Ethel. It is speculated that with Ethel in their sights, the prosecution could use her as leverage against Julius to give up the whole kit and caboodle, which, as we know, never came to be. Newly released documents are showing that the prosecution never really had a case against Ethel.

Ethel’s dear brother, David Greenglass, however, is alive and well. Having only served 10 years in prison for his involvement, David went back to wife and children living under an assumed identity.

Here’s hoping the chap continues to have a wonderfully long life ahead of him-like the one he denied his sister.

Stella Rimington (1935-), British spy-dame, was the first female Director General of Britain’s MI5.

So how does a skirt with a with a degree in English and Archival Administration become Britain’s top spy? Simple, Stella and her husband were working/living in India in 1967, where Stella found herself working for a representative of MI5 as an assistant. Stella learned the trade and upon returning to London in 1969, she applied for a permanent position with the agency, thus beginning a long and illustrious career.

Stella worked the ropes in counterterrorism, counter-subversion, and counterespionage. Obviously she was regarded as a darned smart bird, as she was promoted to a Deputy Director position in 1990 and was part of a historic trip to make nice with Russians in 1991 after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It was shortly thereafter that Stella was promoted to Director General.

A feeding frenzy ensued with the local media in trying to identify Stella and unauthorized pictures of her eventually reached the newspapers. This either coincided or inspired (you choose) MI5’s decision to increase their transparency with the public at large and, for the first time, publicize their acitvities.

Being a Poster Girl for all things-spy can’t be an easy task and Intel Chiefs in general don’t have a long shelf life, but Stella stuck it out for four years before retiring in 1996. For her service to her country, Stella was awarded Dame Commander of Order of the Bath.

Stella is now a private consultant, novelist, archivist, and so clearly the inspiration for the Dame Judi Dench’s appointment as the character “M” in the Bond franchise. I find myself dissecting all the Bond movies now just waiting for Stella to make a cameo.

The name is Stella. Dame Stella.