Once More Into a Hall of Mirrors : Spies: The mystery of 'Top Hat,' 'Fedora' and other undercover agents who made the Cold War so confounding.

Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf)

American spy-runners spotted something more than routine muddying of the waters a few weeks ago, when the Soviet Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, reported the arrest and conviction of an army general on charges of spying for the United States since the early 1960s. Pravda called him "Donald," but Americans who had spent years arguing about him had no trouble recognizing the Soviet spy they called "Top Hat"--a central figure in several bitter intelligence controversies left hanging when he mysteriously disappeared in Moscow in the mid-1980s.

The FBI recruited Top Hat when he was attached to the Soviet mission to the United Nations. J. Edgar Hoover and his men considered him a gold mine with his secret reports about military research and Soviet plans for using nuclear weapons in the event of war. The CIA eventually decided Top Hat was a fake--perhaps even part of an elaborate effort to deceive the United States about the lethal accuracy of Soviet missiles.

Since nothing is ever a coincidence in the world of spies and counterspies--and since it is not Pravda that chooses to run stories about KGB, but the KGB that chooses to run stories in Pravda--Americans immediately began to ask themselves why this intriguing bit of not-so-ancient history was being published now. Such questions are the meat and potatoes of the counterintelligence business.

In real life, Top Hat was Lt. Gen. Dmitri Fedorovich Polyakov, a career army officer in the Soviet military intelligence agency known as the GRU. After Polyakov was rotated home for a tour of duty in Moscow in 1962, the Americans largely lost contact with him until his next foreign assignment, as military attache to Burma in 1966--where the CIA took over his handling.

According to Pravda, Polyakov moved on to a post in India in the 1970s and at some point was told by his case officer that an operational slip by the agency had compromised him. Evidently the clue was picked up and relentlessly pursued by a KGB officer, Alexander S. Dukhanin. When or how Dukhanin finally unearthed Polyakov, Pravda does not say, nor is it clear whether the death sentence was ever carried out.

On its surface, Pravda's Polyakov story was blandly straightforward: ever-vigilant KGB catches yet another U.S. spy. This seems well-timed because glasnost has been a public relations disaster for the KGB. Last spring, the new KGB head, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, was forced to defend himself before the new Congress of Deputies, and the KGB has been publicly insisting on the legitimacy of its foreign-intelligence role ever since. Kremlin-watchers also point out that Dukhanin has recently been criticized for bungling an investigation of Gorbachev's most conspicuous critic on the Politburo. The Pravda story can thus be read as a defense of Dukhanin, a defense of the KGB--even a defense of Kryuchkov.

In the business of counterintelligence, facts are all very well--but their correct interpretation is what matters. No counterintelligence analyst worth his salt would grant the public-relations aspects of the Pravda story and leave it at that. The Polyakov case, they say, touches too many others--and hidden somewhere in that web is the cryptic Soviet message that explains why the story is being told now. It may be years before the American side emerges--if ever--but in the meantime one can point to three still-unresolved intelligence controversies that involve the Polyakov case. All help to explain the endless secret friction that fueled the Cold War.

To begin with, Top Hat was not alone. Only four months after he contacted U.S. diplomats--in November, 1961--a second Soviet official at the United Nations was recruited by the FBI. This KGB officer was given the code name, "Fedora." His real identity is still unpublished but, like Top Hat, he provided the FBI with important information about the Soviet strategic rocket forces.

The agents' names are principally linked, however, because both backed up the story of yet another Soviet defector, the KGB officer Yuri I. Nosenko, who switched sides in February, 1964. Nosenko was the subject of an unusually intense CIA investigation because he claimed to have seen the KGB files on Lee Harvey Oswald and reported that Soviet intelligence had taken no interest in--had not recruited--the man who killed John F. Kennedy. From the beginning, the CIA suspected Nosenko was a Soviet agent provocateur --deliberately sent to deceive. Two of Nosenko's claims--that he was a KGB colonel and that he had defected after an alarming recall message from Moscow--were checked with Top Hat and Fedora. Both agents reportedly said both claims were true. When Nosenko later conceded both were false--he was a captain, not colonel, and he had fabricated the recall to force the CIA to accept him--suspicion immediately fell on the bona fides of Top Hat and Fedora.

The resulting CIA-FBI controversy was of the sort intelligence bureaucrats describe as leaving blood on the floor. Hoover's FBI bitterly resented the implication that the bureau had been played the fool by their best agents ever--especially since Fedora's intelligence-gathering job for the KGB meant he had to be fed substantially true information about U.S. defense research. In effect, the CIA claimed, the KGB had recruited the FBI to do its work: They tasked Fedora with information they wanted and the FBI either delivered, after exhaustive liaison with the rest of the U.S. intelligence community, or held back--thus telling the KGB what was really important. Acrimony grew so intense that Hoover broke off all relations with the CIA--except by mail. In the late 1970s, after Hoover died, the FBI conceded having been gulled by Fedora. But Top Hat was never settled.

Counterintelligence skeptics say the Pravda story would not be the first time the Soviets have tried to support Top Hat's bona fides. Nosenko defected when the CIA presence in Moscow was negligible; a string of operational disasters had impelled closing down its station in the Soviet capital. According to Pravda, the agency contacted Polyakov in May, 1964, by placing a classified ad in the New York Times for 10 days straight, saying, "Moody. Donald F. Please write as you promised. Uncle Charles and Sister Clara are OK."

This initiative was probably prompted by a CIA hope Polyakov could tell the agency about Nosenko. Some counterintelligence experts say the Soviets soon got wind of the resulting FBI-CIA fight--how remains a troubling question--and, early in 1965, arranged for Top Hat to "give" a Soviet spy in England to the CIA as proof he was genuine. The present came in the form of documents from the Soviet Ministry of Supply--they revealed clear knowledge of U.S. missile guidance technology that had been shared with Britain. The evidence led to a British missile expert who was arrested in March, 1965, and later sentenced to 20 years. Peter Wright, the counterintelligence specialist at MI-5, was convinced Top Hat was phony, and the Soviets sacrificed their man for the twin purposes of poisoning British-U.S. intelligence cooperation--as it did--and of supporting Top Hat's other claims.

But what were these other claims, and why did the Soviets consider them so important? Put briefly: One of the most intense--but least publicized--intelligence wars of the 1960s and '70s was a long argument over Soviet strategic doctrine. The central issue was whether the Soviets shared U.S. theories of deterrence, and hoped to avoid nuclear war with a threat of massive retaliation--a strategy that did not require accurate missiles. Or did the Soviets plan for "preemptive defense"--by building numerous accurate missiles able to destroy U.S. nuclear arms in a surprise attack? The answer was far from academic.

The argument came to a head in what was called the "A-Team, B-Team exercise"--a kind of competitive analytical contest run by the CIA in 1975, at the insistence of President Gerald R. Ford. The hard-line B-Team carried the day, with convincing arguments that Soviet missiles were more accurate than the CIA had figured. The evidence was technical in nature, but some suggested the Soviets had staged an elaborate deception to make their missiles look less accurate than they were. These findings put new light on information provided by Top Hat and Fedora as early as 1962--that the Soviet missile program was encountering one technical difficulty after another, and America was far ahead. Some counterintelligence experts say the answer to why Pravda published the story now will be found in the possible current relevence of old Top Hat claims.

There is still a third possible explanation for the timing of the Pravda story--simpler than the others, and so perhaps more plausible. Beginning about 1983, and lasting for two or three years, the Soviets rolled up just about every active U.S. agent inside the Soviet Union. At some point, Top Hat disappeared. The loss of an agent always prompts an exhaustive search for the fatal error--sometimes lasting for years.

The loss of so many agents was a disaster, but the CIA has yet to conclude how it happened. One possibility is many were compromised by the American CIA officer Edward Lee Howard, who defected to the Soviets in September, 1985. More likely--and more troubling--is the chance that the KGB had penetrated the communications facilities of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. If this is true, it would constitute an intelligence triumph by the Soviets, one they would hope to keep Americans guessing about.

Lost in this discussion, of course, is Polyakov himself. Beyond his name and a scant chronology of his official career, nothing has been published about the man. Does he lie in a traitor's grave, as Pravda suggests, or is he a secret hero, quietly retired at the end of a daring career? Only one thing about the Polyakov case is now certain: Whoever decided to publish the Pravda story was certainly willing--most probably wanted--to remind the world that the Cold War may be ending, but the intelligence war goes on forever.

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