In 1957, during one of the harshest periods of the Cold War, Soviet agents secretly photographed one of America's most well-known journalists engaging in a homosexual act in a Moscow hotel room and tried to blackmail him into becoming a spy.
The journalist, the late syndicated Washington columnist Joseph W. Alsop Jr., rebuffed the Soviets and reported the attempt to U.S. intelligence officials, many of whom were among his close friends.
Details of the incident are spelled out in a forthcoming book, "Joe Alsop's Cold War," by syndicated columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. Richard M. Helms, former director of central intelligence and a senior intelligence official at the time, confirmed Yoder's account in an interview with The Times.
After the blackmail attempt, Alsop never wavered as a passionate anti-Communist and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union. But the incident haunted him the rest of his life, and he never ventured back to the Soviet Union, according to Yoder, a longtime Alsop friend.
The use of such tactics by intelligence agencies during the darkest days of the Cold War has long been talked about. But this may be the first clearly documented case involving a prominent American figure that has become public knowledge.
And Alsop's gritty reaction to the blackmail attempt appears all the more courageous when viewed in the context of prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality during that time.
Information and photographs about the Moscow episode--set up by Soviet agents to entrap Alsop when he visited Moscow to research columns--were obtained from the CIA by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
And in a typical ploy to ingratiate himself with important leaders, Hoover circulated the material among top officials of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration--officials who had been frequent targets of Alsop's biting criticism.
Moreover, 15 years later, the KGB, seeking to undermine Alsop's credibility with his colleagues, mailed copies of the photographs to several prominent Washington journalists, according to Yoder's book, which will be published next spring by the University of North Carolina Press. The Times obtained a copy of the book's chapter dealing with the Moscow incident.
Alsop was one of the most influential political columnists of the post-World War II and Vietnam War periods. His column appeared in more than 250 newspapers, including most of the major ones. A ubiquitous figure on Washington's social scene, he had many friends in high places, including President John F. Kennedy.
U.S. intelligence officials and some of Alsop's relatives and closest friends had guarded the secret of his homosexuality and the blackmailing attempt until Yoder began researching his book.
Alsop, who died in 1989 at 78, kept top U.S. intelligence officials apprised of his contacts with Communist officials. In fact, according to Yoder and other sources, Alsop turned to one of his CIA friends for advice after the NKVD, predecessor to the KGB, tried to blackmail him.
Yoder documents his account with FBI records, other official memoranda and on-the-record interviews.
In confirming the blackmail attempt, Helms told The Times that he learned of it shortly after it happened.
Shortly before the blackmailing attempt, Alsop had gone to the Kremlin and conducted a long interview with Nikita S. Khrushchev, who was clearly outdistancing other Soviet officials on his way to becoming the unchallenged leader of the Soviet Union. The interview, like many of Alsop's columns during that period, was featured on the front pages of many newspapers.
Yoder wrote that Alsop "had written ebulliently of the convivial company of singers, talkers and drinkers gathered at his hotel from all over Europe. They were to be encountered at all hours. Among them there had been planted an agent of the secret police, who was aware of Joe's long-concealed homosexuality.
"One night in Moscow he and this companion were photographed in a sexual act in his hotel room and he was soon confronted with the photographs and, under the threat of blackmail, was urged--unsuccessfully--to become an undercover agent," Yoder wrote.
In an interview, Yoder said he had "extremely mixed feelings" in dealing with the blackmailing attempt "because I had great personal fondness and respect for Joe, and as a rule, I take no particular interest in private lives of public figures and deplore the extent to which they tend to be written and talked about these days."
"Further," Yoder said, "I was fearful it would distort the overall story of Joe's journalism. On the other hand, since I was aware of all the rumors and hearsay, I knew it would be written about by someone. In a sense the ultimate significance of the story is Joe's absolute refusal to be bullied or blackmailed or doing anything false professionally or to his country--and that's a tribute to Joe."