Alexander Feklissov was born in Russia on 9th March, 1914. After obtaining a degree on radiophonics he joined the NKVD in 1939. According to an interview he gave later in life he was sent to "espionage school" where he spent "one year studying the language, the culture and the history of the UK and the USA". Feklissov also took courses on the Soviet Communist Party and "practical subjects" such as "how to get away from a follower, how to recruit new agents and how to use radiotransmmitters for coded messages." (1)
On 27th February, 1941 he arrived in New York City where he worked as an undercover agent (codename Kalistrat). "Assigned to develop radio contact between the NKVD station and Moscow, Feklissov set up his equipment in the consulate's upper floor where, with the help of a technically skilled American agent, Condenser, he built a new radio transmitter." (2)
Semyon Semyonov came under FBI surveillance in the spring of 1944. It was therefore decided to transfer his spy network, that included Klaus Fuchs and Harry Gold to Feklissov. He later recruited other spies. On 21st September, 1944, he described the abilities of David Greenglass and Ruth Greenglass: "They are young, intelligent, capable, and politically developed people, strongly believing in the cause of communism and wishing to do their best to help our country as much as possible. They are undoubtedly devoted to us." (3)
Other members of the network included Greenglass's sister, Ethel Rosenberg and her husband, Julius Rosenberg. Alexander Feklissov recorded details of a meeting he had with the group: "Julius inquired of Ruth how she felt about the Soviet Union and how deep in general her Communist convictions went, whereupon she replied without hesitation that, to her, socialism was the sole hope of the world and the Soviet Union commanded her deepest admiration... Julius then explained his connections with certain people interested in supplying the Soviet Union with urgently needed technical information it could not obtain through the regular channels and impressed upon her the tremendous importance of the project in which David is now at work.... Ethel here interposed to stress the need for the utmost care and caution in informing David of the work in which Julius was engaged and that, for his own safety, all other political discussion and activity on his part should be subdued." (4)
Alexander Feklissov reported that in January 1945, Rosenberg and Greenglass met to discuss their attempts to obtain information on the Manhattan Project. "(Julius Rosenberg) and (David Greenglass) met at the flat of (Greenglass's) mother... (Rosenberg's) wife and (Greenglass) are brother. After a conversation in which (Greenglass) confirmed his consent to pass us data about work in Camp 2... (Rosenberg) discussed with him a list of questions to which it would be helpful to have answers... (Greenglass) has the rank of sergeant. He works in the camp as a mechanic, carrying out various instructions from his superiors. The place where (Greenglass) works is a plant where various devices for measuring and studying the explosive power of various explosives in different forms (lenses) are being produced." (5)
Feklissov suffered a set-back when one of his agents, Julius Rosenberg, was sacked from the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, when they discovered that he had been a member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). NKVD headquarters in Moscow sent Kvasnikov a message on 23rd February, 1945: "The latest events with (Julius Rosenberg), his having been fired, are highly serious and demand on our part, first, a correct assessment of what happened, and second, a decision about (Rosenberg's) role in future. Deciding the latter, we should proceed from the fact that, in him, we have a man devoted to us, whom we can trust completely, a man who by his practical activities for several years has shown how strong is his desire to help our country. Besides, in (Rosenberg) we have a capable agent who knows how to work with people and has solid experience in recruiting new agents." (6) Leonid Kvasnikov main concern was that the FBI had discovered that Rosenberg was a spy. To protect the rest of the network, Feklissov was told not to have any contact with Rosenberg. However, the NKVD continued to pay Rosenberg "maintenance" and was warned not to take any important decisions about his future work without their consent.
Feklissov's spy network suffered a serious set-back when Elizabeth Bentley, confessed to the FBI she was a Soviet spy. On 7th November 1945, she made a 107 page statement that named Victor Perlo, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, Abraham George Silverman, Nathan Witt, Marion Bachrach, Julian Wadleigh, William Remington, Harold Glasser, Charles Kramer, Duncan Chaplin Lee, Joseph Katz, William Ludwig Ullmann, Henry Hill Collins, Frank Coe, Abraham Brothman, Mary Price, Cedric Belfrage and Lauchlin Currie as Soviet spies. The following day J. Edgar Hoover, sent a message to Harry S. Truman confirming that an espionage ring was operating in the United States government. (7)
When Kim Philby told the NKVD that Bentley had provided the names of Soviet spies, Feklissov contacted Rosenberg. Although he was not named by Bentley, one of the members of his group, Abraham Brothman, had been interviewed by the FBI following the confession. Brothman was closely associated with another member of the network, Harry Gold. He told Anatoli Yatskov that Brothman knew him as "Frank Kessler" and did not know his address: "I said that in case (Brothman) confessed about (Gold's) existence and described... what he knew about him, the FBI would try to find him. (Gold) should know that these links to him come only from (Brothman) and must not worry, since the (FBI) knows nothing about him and his work... However, (Gold) must be on the alert and demonstrate tenfold prudence and attentiveness in everything." (8)
Feklissov visited Julius Rosenberg in his home on 15th December: "We went to the kitchen and immediately began talking. I asked (Rosenberg) did he know some of (Jacob Golos's) friends. He replied he knew only (Golos) and (Bernard Schuster).... Every time he urgently needed to see (Golos), (Rosenberg) had to call him from a telephone booth and tell his secretary (Bentley) that he wanted to see him. To that secretary, he always gave only his first name, Julius... At the end of the conversation, I let (Rosenberg) know that (Golos's) secretary (I didn't name her) had betrayed us and that in this connection we worried very much about him. I instructed him on how to behave if summoned to the Hut (the FBI)... I agreed with (Rosenberg) that our connection with him would cease for three and a half months. The next meeting is fixed for the third Sunday in March 1946 at 8 p.m. at the Colony Theater, 79th Street and Second Avenue. I warned him that, possibly, another man would come to that meeting instead of me." (9)
Feklissov returned to the Soviet Union in February 1947. In a memorandum summarizing his work, he suggested that the Soviets should use David Greenglass and Ruth Greenglass as couriers and group handlers, roles similar to those previously performed by Rosenberg. Headquarters agreed: "(Greenglass), although he has the possibility of returning to work at an extremely important institution on Enormoz because of his limited education will not be able to obtain a position in which he could become an independent source of information in which we are interested." (10)
Alexander Feklissov moved to London where he became deputy station chief for scientific and technical intelligence, where he made contact with Klaus Fuchs. He explained to Feklissov the principle of the hydrogen bomb on which Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller were working on at the University of Chicago. (11) Feklissov reported: "I thanked him once again for helping us and, having noted that we know about his refusal to accept material help from us in the past, said that now conditions had changed: his father was his dependent, his ill brother (who has tuberculosis) needed his help... therefore we considered it imperative to propose our help as an expression of gratitude." (12) Fuchs was given £200. However, he returned £100 on the grounds that he could not explain the sudden appearance of £200.
In March 1948, Feklissov received orders to keep clear of Fuchs. This was because the Daily Express had reported that British counter-intelligence were investigating three unnamed scientists who were suspected of being members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. (13) Feklissov was also told that one of Fuchs' former contacts (Ursula Kuchinsky) had been interviewed by the FBI. The point was made that Fuchs would probably not now be in a position to give them any worthwhile information as even if he was not arrested, he would probably be barred from participating in secret scientific research work on the atomic problem. However, Feklissov continued to have meetings with Fuchs.
Feklissov returned to the United States in 1960 and was active during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. It is claimed that he was an intermediary between Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy for the exchange of messages between the Soviet Embassy and the USA.
He retired in 1986. Despite his illustrious career, he ended his career as a colonel. According to Sergei Kostin, co-author of his autobiography, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (2001) it was because of his bad temper he was not promoted to the rank of general. (14)
In 1997 Alexander Feklissov gave an interview to the The Washington Post where he claimed that Julius Rosenberg passed valuable secrets about U.S. military electronics but played only a peripheral role in Soviet atomic espionage. And he said Ethel Rosenberg did not actively spy but probably was aware that her husband was involved. Feklissov said neither he nor any other Soviet intelligence agent met Ethel Rosenberg. "She had nothing to do with this. She was completely innocent." (36)
Alexander Feklissov died on 26th October 2007.
The latest events with (Julius Rosenberg), his having been fired, are highly serious and demand on our part, first, a correct assessment of what happened, and second, a decision about (Rosenberg's) role in future. Deciding the latter, we should proceed from the fact that, in him, we have a man devoted to us, whom we can trust completely, a man who by his practical activities for several years has shown how strong is his desire to help our country. Besides, in (Rosenberg) we have a capable agent who knows how to work with people and has solid experience in recruiting new agents.
Alexander Feklisov, 93, who was regarded as one of the Soviet Union's principal Cold War espionage agents, with connections to the Rosenberg spy case and atomic secrets, died in Russia on Oct. 26.
A Russian news agency said his death was reported by a spokesman for the Russian intelligence service.
In addition to obtaining key secrets of western technology for the Soviets during and after World War II, Mr. Feklisov was often credited with helping to defuse the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world close to nuclear war. He was then on his second tour in the United States, serving as Soviet intelligence chief, with an office in the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW, a few blocks from the White House.
For Mr. Feklisov, deception was a way of life. His employers were obsessively secretive. But revelations he made long after the events in question have won considerable acceptance.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Michael Dobbs, formerly a reporter for The Washington Post and now on contract to the newspaper, interviewed Mr. Feklisov.
Dobbs's story was published in 1997, around the time a TV documentary was shown about the former spy and four years before Mr. Feklisov's autobiography, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs, was published. Dobbs said this week that he believed Mr. Feklisov "was being pretty truthful," particularly in his account of his dealing with Julius Rosenberg.
Mr. Feklisov said there were dozens of meetings with Julius Rosenberg from 1943 to 1946. But he said Ethel Rosenberg never met with Soviet agents and took no direct part in her husband's spying.
Both Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 after a treason trial at which they were accused of giving the Soviets atomic bomb secrets. Their fate evoked protest around the world, and many insisted on their innocence.
In Mr. Feklisov's account, Julius Rosenberg was a dedicated communist, motivated by idealism. But Mr. Feklisov said Rosenberg, who was not a nuclear scientist, played only a peripheral role in atomic espionage.
Mr. Feklisov said Rosenberg did give him the key to another one of World War II's closely guarded secrets: the proximity fuse. This device vastly improved the effectiveness of artillery and antiaircraft fire by causing shells to detonate once they came close to their targets, rather than requiring direct hits.
A fully functioning fuse, inside a box, was turned over to Mr. Feklisov in a New York Automat in late 1944.
Important nuclear information was later passed through Mr. Feklisov to the Soviets by Klaus Fuchs, a nuclear scientist working in England who was a devoted communist. Historians have said that espionage advanced Soviet bomb development by 12 to 18 months.
In his activities, Mr. Feklisov, who used the code name Fomin, sometimes employed techniques made familiar in spy novels.
For example, he told Dobbs that when handing off contraband, he and those working for him "would arrange to meet in a place like Madison Square Garden or a cinema and brush up against each other very quickly."
During the 1962 missile crisis, the United States faced off with the Soviet Union after discovering that nuclear missiles had been delivered to Cuba. After days in which war seemed imminent, a plan was devised to resolve the situation.
Some accounts indicate that the way out was proposed informally by Mr. Feklisov to ABC news correspondent John Scali at the Occidental Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. There, it has been written, he broached the idea that the missiles would be withdrawn if the United States pledged not to invade Cuba.
But Dobbs, who is writing a book on the missile crisis, said stories about Feklisov's being a "back channel" to Moscow "were overblown." Feklisov, he said, "never confirmed them."
Mr. Feklisov told Dobbs that he decided to tell of his association with Julius Rosenberg because he considered him a hero who had been abandoned by the Soviets. "My morality does not allow me to keep silent," he said.
Dobbs said that when Mr. Feklisov visited this country for the TV documentary, the former spy, an emotional man, visited Julius Rosenberg's grave and brought Russian earth to place on it.
(1) Alexander Feklissov, interview (26th October, 1999)
(2) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 191
(3) Alexander Feklissov, report on David and Ruth Greenglass (21st September, 1944)
(4) Venona File 86191 page 21
(5) Alexander Feklissov report to NKVD headquarters (January 1945)
(6) NKVD headquarters, message to Leonid Kvasnikov (23rd February, 1945)
(7) Edgar Hoover, memo to President Harry S. Truman (8th November 1945)
(8) Venona File 86194 page 365
(9) Venona File 40594 page 134
(10) Venona File 40159 page 282
(11) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) pages 313-314
(12) Venona File 84490 pages 264-71
(13) The Daily Express (23rd March, 1948)
(14) Alexander Feklissov and Sergei Kostin, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (2001) page 121