Judith Coplon, the daughter of Samuel and Rebecca Moroh Coplon, was born in Brooklyn on 17th May, 1921. Her father was a toy manufacturer. Her great-grandfather, a peddler who had emigrated from Prussia, was a prisoner during the American Civil War at Andersonville. (1)
Coplon won a full scholarship to Barnard College, where she majored in history and was a member of the Young Communist League. Coplon graduated in 1943. According to the FBI agent, Robert J. Lamphere: "When she had applied for a job with the Economic Warfare Section of Justice, in New York, the FBI had run a background profile on her and had told Justice that she'd been involved at school with a branch of the Young Communist League and had published pro-Soviet writings in the campus newspaper." (2)
Coplon joined the Justice Department in 1944. "A background security check conducted in 1944 when Coplon had first gone to work for the Justice Department had shown that she had been a member of a Young Communist League student club as an undergraduate at Barnard College. In 1944 that was not a bar to employment, however, and her personnel file was not even flagged for attention when she was transferred to a job giving her access to Justice Department and FBI internal security investigative data regarding Soviet espionage activities." (3) American cryptographers decoded an NKVD message dated 20th October, 1944, requesting information on "Judy Coplon" who "works in the US Justice Department". (4)
Judith Coplon had a meeting with Vladimir Pravdin, the NKVD station chief in New York City on 4th January, 1945. Pravdin was impressed by Coplon who was described as "very serious, shy, profound girl, ideologically close to us." He went on to argue: "We have no doubts about the sincerity of her desire to work with us. In the course of the conversation (Coplon) underlined how much she appreciated the credit we gave to her and that, now knowing for whom she was working, she would redouble her efforts. At the very first stage of her work (Coplon) thought she was helping the local compatriots (the CPUSA)... She thought the stuff acquired by her couldn't represent an interest to the compatriots but could for an organization like the Comintern or another institution bearing a relationship to us. She added that she hoped she was working specifically for us, since she considered it the highest honor to have an opportunity to provide us with modest help." (5) Soon afterwards she was recruited as a Soviet spy (codename Sima). (6)
Coplon, who had access to FBI files, became an important source of information for the NKVD. In February, 1945, Duncan Chaplin Lee, a senior figure in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), wanted to withdraw from spying. Joseph Katz reported to Anatoly Gorsky: "Saw (Lee) last night. After beating his chest about what a coward he is, how sorry he feels about it, etc., he told me he must stick to his decision to quit. Though I agreed to meet again in case of necessity, in my opinion, there is no sense in using him. He is totally frightened and depressed. He suffers from nightmares where he sees his name on lists (of accused Communists within OSS), his life is destroyed, etc." (7) NKVD instructed Gorsky to use Lee as a "talent-spotter" within the OSS. However, after Judith Coplon warned that investigations would soon begin on all previous leads on Communist sources within the government, Gorsky was ordered to cease all contact with Lee. (8)
Judith Coplon became one of the most NKVD's most valued sources. It was pointed out that she was completely devoted to the cause: "She treats very seriously and honestly our task and considers our work the main thing in her life. Her serious attitude is demonstrated by her decision not to marry her former fiancé because, otherwise, she couldn't continue working with us." (9)
Coplon's main attention was focused on the main Justice Department counter-intelligence archive that collected information from the various government agencies - FBI, OSS, and naval and army intelligence. She passed to her NKVD contact a number of documents from this archive. This included FBI materials on Soviet organizations in the United States and information on leaders of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). A review of the data shocked NKVD. "The materials show how thoroughly the smallest facts from conversations, correspondence, and telephone talks held by our organizations, individual representatives, and workers in the country are recorded." (10)
On 26th October, 1945, Judith Coplon told the NKVD's station chief in New York City that the FBI had been listening to the telephone conversations of Robert Oppenheimer and Haakon Chevalier since May 1943. (11) This was important information as "Oppenheimer had been a constant, if unsuccessful, target for recruitment." (12) As a result of this information NKVD decided to bring an end to their attempts to recruit Oppenheimer.
Evidence emerged in December 1948 that suggested Judith Coplon was a Soviet spy. Robert J. Lamphere, the author of The FBI-KGB War (1986), pointed out: "Coplon's case had to be handled with the utmost care, because her position at justice was a difficult one for us. The FBI had always felt relatively secure from Soviet penetration, but here was Coplon, as a political analyst in the Foreign Agents Registration (FAR) section of Justice, who also worked on some 'internal security' matters in which sensitive FBI reports were continually on her desk or within easy reach. That meant the agency most compromised by her was the FBI. Coplon routinely handled some Bureau materials that had to do with the Soviets. While the most sensitive stuff such as that dealing with our breakthrough in the KGB's communications - never went near her, what she did see on a regular basis was damaging enough. (13)
FBI officials obtained the authorization of Tom C. Clark, the Attorney General, to wiretap Coplon's office and home phones. She was also followed in the hope that they would be able to identify her Soviet contacts and other members of the spy network. In January 1949 FBI agents discovered that she was meeting Valentin Gubitchev, a Soviet employee on the United Nations staff. They decided to set a trap by creating a memorandum "that contained enough truth to make it seem important and enough false information to make it imperative for Coplon to grab it and quickly deliver it to her Soviet contact." (14)
As Hayden B. Peake has pointed out: "After surveillance established that she was in regular contact with an NKGB officer in New York City, the FBI planned to arrest them when she passed classified documents to him. However, two problems arose. First, at the time of arrest, she had not passed the documents, although they were in her possession. Second, she was arrested without a warrant, although the FBI had had plenty of time to get one. These details would figure significantly in her appeals." (15)
Judith Coplon was arrested on 4th March, 1949 in Manhattan as she met with Valentin Gubitchev. They discovered that she had in her handbag twenty-eight FBI memoranda. This included details of the intensive monitoring of individuals such as David K. Niles, Frederic March, Edward G. Robinson and Edward Condon, who were all supporting Henry Wallace in his 1948 Presidential Campaign.
Judith Coplon was charged with espionage. At her trial that began on 25th April 1949 Coplon claimed "she was meeting Gubitchev because they were in love and was not planning to give him the documents. But he was married, and prosecutors brought out that she had spent nights in hotels with another man at about the same time." (16) Coplon was helped in her defence by the decision of Judge Albert Reeves to rule that in order to convict her on the charge of unauthorized possession of classified documents, government prosecutors must produce in open court the originals of the FBI documents found in her handbag at the time of her arrest.
During the trial, Coplon's lawyer, Archie Palmer, argued that the evidence from the confidential informant was in fact from illegal telephone taps. Then, over the strenuous objections of the FBI, he succeeded in getting raw FBI data collected on many famous people admitted as evidence, although they had nothing to do with the case. This included Paul Robeson, Dalton Trumbo, Frederick March, Helen Hayes, Danny Kaye, and Edward G. Robinson. At the end of her trial Coplon was found guilty of espionage.
Judith Coplon claimed: "I'm innocent of all charges. I'm a victim of a horrible, horrible frame-up." Next day, before the judge pronounced sentence, Judith CopIon had her final say. She had not received a fair trial, she insisted. "I understand that I can plead for mercy. That I, will not do, because pleading for mercy would mean an admission of guilt and... I am innocent." Judge Reeves handed down his sentence: 40 months to ten years on the first count; one to three years on the second; sentences to be served concurrently, i.e., a maximum of ten years. (17)
The following year Coplon and Valentin Gubitchev were charged with conspiracy. As Hayden B. Peake has pointed out: "The alleged telephone taps became a major element in the second trial in New York, when Coplon and her case officer, Gubitchev, were convicted together. During the first trial, FBI special agents had denied direct knowledge of the taps. At the second, however, one of them admitted that taps had been used to collect evidence presented at trial. Later, the authors found a memorandum acknowledging the recordings and indicating that they had been intentionally destroyed to avoid having to reveal their existence." (18)
Both Coplon were found guilty and Gubitchev was deported. However, Coplon appealed against both convictions. "The appellant judge in New York concluded that it was clear from the evidence that she was guilty, but the FBI had lied under oath about the bugging. Moreover, he wrote, the failure to get a warrant was not justified. He overturned the verdict, but the indictment was not dismissed. In the appeal of the Washington trial, the verdict was upheld, but, because of the possible bugging, a new trial became possible." (19)
The case caused considerable embarrassment to the FBI. As Athan Theoharis, the author of Chasing Spies (2002) has pointed out : "Their public release confirmed that FBI agents intensively monitored political activities and wire-tapped extensively - with the subjects of their interest ranging from New Deal liberals to critics of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and with information in fifteen of the twenty-eight reports coming from wiretaps. And because Coplon's own phone had been wiretapped, her conviction was later reversed on appeal. The appeals judge concluded that FBI wiretapping had possibly tainted Coplon's indictment, under the Supreme Court's 1937 and 1939 rulings in Narclone v. U.S., requiring the dismissal of any case based on illegal wiretaps." (20)
After her release, Judith Coplon married one of her attorneys, Albert Socolov. She remained free on $40,000 bail. The bail money was not returned until 1967, when the Justice Department formally dropped the case. Coplon tutoring women in prison in creative writing, and, with her husband, ran "two Mexican restaurants in Manhattan (the Beach House in TriBeCa and Alameda on the Upper West Side)." (21)
Judith Coplon refused to talk about her case but her daughter, Emily Socolov did comment that: "It's very hair-raising to read about your mother being given a code name and moved around like a chess piece.... Was she a spy? I think it's another question that I ask: Was she part of a community that felt that they were going to bring, by their actions, an age of peace and justice and an equal share for all and the abolishing of color lines and class lines? If these were things that she actually did, she was not defining them as espionage. If you feel that what you're doing answers to a higher ideal, it's not treason." (22)
Judith Coplon Socolov died on 26th February, 2011.
A background security check conducted in 1944 when Coplon had first gone to work for the Justice Department had shown that she had been a member of a Young Communist League student club as an undergraduate at Barnard College. In 1944 that was not a bar to employment, however, and her personnel file was not even flagged for attention when she was transferred to a job giving her access to Justice Department and FBI internal security investigative data regarding Soviet espionage activities.
Whether or not Coplon had compromised U.S. security interests, her trial proved embarrassing to FBI officials. Judge Albert Reeves ailed that in order to convict her on the charge of unauthorized possession of classified documents, government prosecutors must produce in open court the originals of the FBI summaries found in Coplon's handbag at the time of her arrest. Producing these memoranda did not compromise sensitive national secrets, for some had been made available to Coplon for the express purpose of trapping her. But their public release confirmed that FBI agents intensively monitored political activities and wire-tapped extensively - with the subjects of their interest ranging from New Deal liberals to critics of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and with information in fifteen of the twenty-eight reports coming from wiretaps. And because Coplon's own phone had been wiretapped, her conviction was later reversed on appeal. The appeals judge concluded that FBI wiretapping had possibly tainted Coplon's indictment, under the Supreme Court's 1937 and 1939 rulings in Narclone v. U.S., requiring the dismissal of any case based on illegal wiretaps.
Anticipating this problem but fundamentally opposed to the public release of information relating to FBI operations, Hoover sharply criticized Attorney General Clark's decision to comply with Judge Reeves's disclosure order rather than drop the case. Producing the documents in open court, Hoover protested, posed the "broader issue of the future of the Bureau." It would risk identifying FBI double agents and thereby compromise national security investigations. The FBI director further contended that the public release of the memoranda, by revealing the subjects of FBI investigative interest, would also ensure "an unprecedented outburst of criticism" of the FBI, the Justice Department, and the attorney general. Hoover preferred to "see the Coplon case go by default if other legal steps are not available for the protection of the security of our files and the rights of individuals [identified in FBI reports] not yet formally charged with any crime."
Not content to lodge his protest with the attorney general, Hoover ordered Ralph Roach, his liaison to the White House, to show a copy of it to White House aide John Steelman (but not to leave the letter with him), "pointing out my position...& stressing that had Attorney General acted as I suggested all of this furor would have been avoided." The attorney general had brought up this matter at a cabinet meeting, Steelman advised Roach, had fully presented Hoover's objections, but after consulting with army and navy intelligence officials had decided that "it was important that the Government win the Coplon case, and that we should win it at all costs." Truman's opinion had not been sought; the attorney general briefed the president only on "what was being done and that a decision had been reached to continue the case." The cabinet minutes in fact record that Clark had outlined his department's difficulties in prosecuting the case and his "determination to go forward with the prosecution."
Hoover's concern over the "security of our files" reflected his public relations concerns rather than legitimate security interests. Production of the memoranda confirmed that FBI agents closely monitored liberal and radical political activities and that the FBI had wiretapped extensively, validating criticisms that FBI investigations focused on political activities. The reports also indirectly supported the motion of Coplon's attorney, Archibald Palmer, for a hearing to determine whether the FBI had wiretapped his client. U.S. Attorney John Kelly, Jr., urged the court to reject Palmer's motion as "primarily a fishing expedition which requires no answer." Siding with the government, judge Reeves rejected Palmer's request.
During Coplon's second trial in New York, her attorneys again demanded a pretrial hearing to determine whether their client had been wiretapped. The presiding judge, Sylvester Ryan, ordered the hearing, which established that Coplon's phones at her office, her Washington apartment, and her parents' residence in New York had been tapped, and that these taps had been installed on January 6, 1949, and had continued for two months after her arrest. These
revelations raised three questions. First, had the wiretaps provided the lead resulting in the FBI's uncovering her alleged criminal activities? Second, had these taps intercepted Coplon's privileged conversations with her attorneys, alerting government prosecutors to the defense's trial strategy? Third - and a question potentially most damaging to the FBI's image-why had FBI officials remained silent during Coplon's Washington trial when the U.S. attorney dismissed the defense motion as a "fishing expedition"? Had Justice Department officials even known of FBI wiretapping practices? The pretrial hearings at the second trial produced further embarrassment for the FBI: the agent who had originally denied under questioning any "previous knowledge" of whether the FBI had wiretapped Coplon, had in fact routinely received the records of these wiretaps and had destroyed "quite a number" of the tapes of these wiretaps "in view of the imminence of her trial."
FBI officials also feared that judge Ryan might honor Coplon's attorneys' subpoena for the records and testimony of AT&T officials regarding FBI wiretapping. If this request were honored, Hoover lamented, "all wiretapping is through." Meeting with FBI assistant director Louis Nichols to discuss the perspective problems posed by these cumulative revelations of FBI wiretapping, Deputy Attorney General Peyton Ford suggested that the Justice Department disclose how the FBI learned of Coplon's recruitment. Ford proposed that they seek the agreement of Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson and "his intelligence people" to use the Venona information, as "this would be ample protection for the Bureau and the Department." Hoover counseled against this idea as "most unwise." Ford's suggestion was either not pursued or was disapproved.
On March 6, 1949, Miss Judith Coplon, a Barnard graduate and an employee of the Justice Department in Washington, had been arrested in New York during a night-time rendezvous with an attache of the Soviet delegation to the United Nations. In her purse was a handwritten note, evidently intended for her Russian contact, in which she explained her difficulty in getting access to a secret FBI report. Her trial, conviction, appeal and retrial kept the espionage-in-government charge constantly in the headlines and ever fresh in the public mind.
It was ironic that while the left began to believe that people such as Duggan had been unjustly pursued by the FBI, we were uncovering the identity of another Soviet spy, Judith Coplon.
Coplon's case had to be handled with the utmost care, because her position at justice was a difficult one for us. The FBI had always felt relatively secure from Soviet penetration, but here was Coplon, as a political analyst in the Foreign Agents Registration (FAR) section of Justice, who also worked on some "internal security" matters in which sensitive FBI reports were continually on her desk or within easy reach. That meant the agency most compromised by her was the FBI. Coplon routinely handled some Bureau materials that had to do with the Soviets. While the most sensitive stuff such as that dealing with our breakthrough in the KGB's communications - never went near her, what she did see on a regular basis was damaging enough.
Howard Fletcher and I sat down to try to figure out what to do with Coplon, and to speculate on what, precisely, she might have compromised to date. It was possible that she might have increased the Russians' awareness of the revelations of Bentley and Chambers, and of our investigations that were being pursued on the basis of their accusations. Her penetration might mean that in late 1945 the Soviets had been able to warn the Silvermaster and Perlo groups of imminent danger. It certainly meant that through her the Soviets had become aware of FBI methods, informants, targets of investigation and capabilities for counterespionage.
We initially gave little thought to prosecuting Coplon. Our charge was to protect the country, and we needed to figure out what tactics would best serve that goal. How long could we afford to let Coplon, placed as she was in a sensitive position, continue her operation? This was both a counterintelligence decision and a political one. Among the factors we had to balance was Director Hoover's well-known antipathy to recommending to another government official that a suspect be kept in a potentially harmful position in order to facilitate an FBI investigation. In this instance we had the added difficulty that it was FBI material that was being compromised, and the fact that it was the Justice Department that had been penetrated - the top official of the department was Attorney General Tom Clark, Hoover's friend of over a dozen years, and his superior.
All of these factors notwithstanding, as a counterintelligence man I knew I needed time and opportunity to build the case and to find out Coplon's network and methods. Fletcher and I agreed to recommend to Hoover a mix of FBI actions that would keep Coplon where she was, minimize the damage she could do, and give us time to discover her contacts. In a memo we argued that although Coplon was a real and present threat, she'd been operating from her post for several years, and it was more important to discover her contacts than to remove her before those connections could be found. We recommended that William Foley, head of Coplon's section of justice, be informed of our suspicions so that he could keep our agents aware of Coplon's plans and activities, and we suggested physical surveillance of her. We also recommended that Hoover ask Tom Clark for permission to place wiretaps on Coplon's office and apartment telephones.
Hoover agreed with all the recommendations. I was pleased, and excited about what was to come. William Foley was told what was going on-incidentally, he was astounded at the notion that Coplon was a spy-agents were sent to tail Coplon, and I prepared a memo for the Director's signature that informed Clark about the case and requested permission to install the two wiretaps. Within a few days Clark granted permission for the taps-a fateful decision, and one that would cause us no end of difficulty.
Today when we hear the word "wiretap," hackles are almost automatically raised, and the impression remains that the FBI used such taps all the time in the forties. That's just not so. In the late 1940s the FBI used wiretaps sparingly, and always after prior consultation with and authorization by the Attorney General's office. The AG's authority to order the taps was backstopped by presidential orders, opinions of high-ranking attorneys, and so on... ings in the campus newspaper. Justice had hired her anyway, and in January 1945 allowed her to make a lateral transfer within the department, which brought her to Washington as a political analyst in the FAR section. It was this move that had been the subject of the KGB cable that had brought her to our attention in the first place.
At Justice, Coplon constantly expanded her work, and soon it included registration of agents representing the Soviet Union and satellite countries. She was rated "excellent" by her superiors and made steady progress up the civil service ladder. By 1948, because of cut-backs in personnel, she was the only political analyst left within her section and, because of her expertise in Communist matters, had taken over the job of reviewing the investigative data that the FBI supplied to justice on internal security cases. In her off-hours Coplon attended classes at American University, working toward a master's degree in international relations and writing a thesis on economic planning in the Soviet Union.
When I had all these data in front of me, I groaned-everything about her pointed to her having been a Soviet agent, and no one at Justice had even given a second thought to her expanding horizons and "expertise" in the area of matters concerning the Soviets.
Then a new wrinkle appeared: the agents tailing Coplon reported that she was having an affair with a justice Department attorney named Harold Shapiro. Now, there is an old adage in the FBI to the effect that there has never been an espionage case in which sex did not play a part. We wondered if Shapiro had any connection with espionage, so we watched from outside as the couple went into Coplon's or Shapiro's apartment of an evening, and turned out the lights. Agents followed them to a Baltimore hotel one weekend, where they registered as Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro. At this point, though, the agents became satisfied that the affair between Coplon and Shapiro was just that-an affair - and dropped the surveillance of Shapiro.
On the night of January 14, 1949, however, our watching and waiting game showed signs of paying off. Coplon was in the habit of going up to New York twice a month to see her parents. When we learned from William Foley that she was going to be in New York on the fourteenth, we made plans to cover her entire trip to the city.
It was quite a chase. Upon arrival in Pennsylvania Station, instead of taking a subway to Brooklyn, where her parents lived, Coplon took one in the opposite direction, to the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. FBI agents under the direction of Scotty Miller watched as Coplon waited for someone on the corner of Broadway and i93rd Street; after ten minutes a man appeared. He was rather short, with dark hair, clean-cut and conservatively dressed. The two went to an Italian restaurant and had dinner; Miller and another agent slipped into the restaurant as well, but couldn't overhear their conversation. After dinner, as Coplon and the dark-haired man walked to a subway, they seemed to be arguing, and Coplon raised her voice and poked at the man with a rolled-up newspaper. Both took the subway downtown several stops, and at 125th Street the man waited until the last second and then bolted out of the subway door, losing the agents who were tailing him.
Initially alarmed at having lost the dark-haired man, the agents the next day combed our extensive files of Soviet nationals and found him listed as Valentin Alekseevich Gubitchev. We had one hell of an espionage case in the making. We quickly found out what we could about Gubitchev. He was born in 1916 in the Orlovsky province, in the Ural mountains, trained as a construction engineer, and had entered the United States in 1946 as a diplomat, a secretary to the Soviet United Nations delegation. We wanted to know if he had diplomatic immunity - if so, of course, we couldn't arrest him. The answer delighted us: shortly after he had entered the country on a diplomatic passport, he'd changed jobs and become a direct employee of the United Nations Secretariat, assigned to work on the construction of the new U.N. building complex in Manhattan. Therefore he was no longer considered a diplomat and had no automatic immunity from prosecution.
I longed to be able to arrest both of them, preferably in the act of passing and receiving secret information. But on a Saturday morning within days of the moment we identified Gubitchev, the entire game was nearly lost. I was working alone in my office when Howard Fletcher walked in and sat down. He had, he said, been talking with the Director, and reported that Hoover was no longer willing to recommend that Coplon be kept on at justice. With the Soviet national involved, it was all too hot. Further, Hoover had evidently been under pressure from Tom Clark and others at justice to have Coplon removed.
"I can't believe it," I said. "This case has great potential. We've worked for years to penetrate a situation just like this, and now it's all going down the drain because no one is willing to take a risk?"
That was the way it was going to be, Fletcher said: Judith Coplon would be discharged from the Department of Justice under the Loyalty of Government Employees program. There'd be no fuss made about it whatsoever.
"You can't let this happen," I protested. "You've got to do something about it."
"This won't be the end of the world, Bob. Perhaps we can get her to talk."
"I don't know what I'm doing in here on a Saturday morning, working like a dog," I shot back. "I think I'll go home."
"Simmer down," Fletcher said.
I told Fletcher that he absolutely had to change the decision. More time was needed to develop the case. I pleaded for a couple of months and said that whatever damage Coplon already had done wouldn't be magnified if she were kept on a bit longer.
Fletcher didn't believe anyone could do anything to change the minds of Hoover, Clark and the Justice Department hierarchy-but he said he'd try. After he left the office, I sat there, depressed, sure that a lot of work and a precious opportunity had all come to naught.
I must have lit a fire in Fletcher, though, for later in that day he told me that I could have a little more time with the case. I thanked him profusely. But I knew that the reprieve was only temporary, and that quite soon the powers that be would again become nervous and would want to shut down Coplon's operation. Before that time, I had to do something to speed up the process and to catch Coplon and Gubitchev in the act of committing espionage.
Judy Coplon was a communist when she graduated from Barnard College during World War II. She soon went to work for the Justice Department as an analyst, and for the Soviet NKGB as an agent. In 1948, she appeared on the FBI’s radar screen - special agents observed her meeting repeatedly in New York with an officer of the MGB, as the service was then known. In 1949, both were arrested and Coplon endured two trials. Her defense: she was meeting a Soviet intelligence officer because she was writing a book and gathering firsthand experience during pillow talk. She was convicted twice: Neither the juries nor the appellate judge believed her.
But at the outset, Marcia Mitchell did. Coplon, she concluded, was a victim of anti-communist hysteria, and she would prove it. Only after doing the research for this book did Mitchell realize that, despite what she called “perjured testimony from FBI special agents” and a “lack of physical evidence,” Coplon was indeed guilty.
Mitchell’s co-author and husband, retired FBI special agent Tom Mitchell, held different views before and after working on the book: Coplon was guilty - the evidence made that clear. Novelists do not execute lengthy, complicated, anti-surveillance maneuvers with classified documents in their possession before meeting with Soviet espionage officers. He agreed, in part, about the lack of physical evidence - Coplon never produced any book notes, a book outline, or a manuscript. However, he took a more sanguine and realistic view of the perjury claims. In the context of the times - more than 50 years ago - he concluded that the FBI agents were merely evasive, as directed....
The smoking-gun evidence of Coplon’s guilt became public in 1995 when the VENONA decrypts were declassified. These intercepted MGB cables described real espionage cases and provided clues to nearly 200 Americans who were spying for the Soviet Union - the Rosenbergs, Klaus Fuchs, and Ted Hall, to name just a few. Originally decrypted by the Army in the late 1940s, they revealed that Judith Coplon had indeed been a very productive Soviet agent, originally recruited by a college classmate, Flora Wovschin. Analysis of the VENONA intercepts suggests that some of the material that Wovschin passed to the Soviets came from Coplon. Coplon’s first Soviet handler was one of the MGB’s most important officers, Vladimir Pravdin; later she was turned over to Valentin Gubitchev, with whom she was arrested. Without the VENONA breakthrough, Coplon probably would have escaped notice.
In order to protect the sensitive VENONA project, the decrypts could not be produced as evidence at trial. But they could be used as a basis for action. The FBI put Coplon under surveillance and bugged her office and home to collect corroborating evidence. Not wishing to admit to the bugging, which was continued after her arrest and included conversations with her lawyer, the source was euphemistically identified in court as a confidential informant.
The FBI soon learned from the confidential informant that Coplon was having an affair with a Justice Department lawyer who later became part of the prosecution team at her trials. Coplon admitted, under oath that she had spent the night in a Baltimore motel room with the lawyer, but she denied sleeping with him. The admission had nothing to do with her espionage charges but did influence judgments about her credibility and moral character - she also claimed to be having an affair with Gubitchev at the same time.
After surveillance established that she was in regular contact with an NKGB officer in New York City, the FBI planned to arrest them when she passed classified documents to him. However, two problems arose. First, at the time of arrest, she had not passed the documents, although they were in her possession. Second, she was arrested without a warrant, although the FBI had had plenty of time to get one. These details would figure significantly in her appeals.
Coplon appealed the verdicts of both trials. The appellant judge in New York concluded that it was clear from the evidence that she was guilty, but the FBI had lied under oath about the bugging. Moreover, he wrote, the failure to get a warrant was not justified. He overturned the verdict, but the indictment was not dismissed. In the appeal of the Washington trial, the verdict was upheld, but, because of the possible bugging, a new trial became possible. For the political and evidentiary reasons discussed by the authors, it never took place...
The authors give some sympathetic attention to the impact of the trial on Coplon and her family. At one point, they conclude that since there was “no proof of espionage,” she “should never have been tried.” Such liberal wishful thinking does not stand up to the evidence that they themselves present. Then there is their portrayal of Coplon as an “all American girl next door,” albeit a promiscuous communist. Her family did have difficulty finding money for bail and the press attention was no doubt abhorrent - too bad. Subsequently, we are told, she “lived life as a model citizen, raising a family of decent, law-abiding children, and serving her community.” But was she really “severely punished” for her crime by the “anguish suffered” during the 17-year wait for the third trial, until the government officially decided to drop the case in 1967? The authors conclude that she was. But they discount essential features of the argument: Coplon lied to the FBI, her lawyers, her family, her friends, her children, and her husband, and she betrayed her country. Moreover, she brought it all on herself when she enthusiastically spied for the Soviets during and after World War II. Then, when she was caught, she took hypocritical advantage of the very system of justice she was trying to eliminate.
While a federal jury in Washington struggled over two million words of testimony in her turbulent trial for espionage, slim, dark-haired Judith Coplon, 28, curled up in a chair in the courthouse pressroom and chatted with newsmen. "Let's not talk about the trial," smiled Judy. "I'm all talked out."
So she talked about Poets W. H. Auden and E. E. Cummings, about modern dancing, and about vacation trips - "This time last year I was in Paris." She posed for photographers - smoothing Defense Attorney Archie Palmer's ruffled hair, adjusting the handkerchief in his suit, looking angry, looking happy, staring pensively into the distance.
Whenever newsreel cameras and microphones appeared, Judy made the same little speech: "I'm innocent of all charges. I'm a victim of a horrible, horrible frame-up."
When the verdict was ready (the jury was out more than 26 hours), Judy entered the courtroom at Archie's side, her face expressionless and pale, the blue circles under her eyes showing the strain of her trial. Smiling nervously, she turned to him: "I don't know whether I can take it or not." Lawyer Archie was brash and noisy as ever. "Don't worry," he explained with fatherly concern. "It's only a verdict."
White-haired Judge Albert Reeves, 75, mounted the bench, and the crowded courtroom was hushed. "The defendant will rise," intoned the marshal. "What say you, ladies & gentlemen of the jury, as to count one [espionage]?" In a firm voice the foreman replied: "Guilty." And to count two (stealing government documents)? "Guilty." Judy sank back, chin in hands, no longer the "simple little girl in love" that Archie Palmer called her, but the convicted spy with "the agile little Swiss-watch mind," as the prosecution called her - a trusted employee who had used her job in the Department of Justice to steal secret FBI documents for a Russian employee of the U.N.
Judith Socolov, who as a diminutive Barnard graduate named Judith Coplon was convicted of espionage more than 60 years ago after embracing a utopian vision of communism and falling in love with a Soviet agent, died Saturday in Manhattan. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Emily Socolov. A longtime Brooklyn resident, the elder Ms. Socolov had been living in the Bronx.
Judith Coplon was a 5-foot-tall, 27-year-old political analyst for the Justice Department when she was arrested by the F.B.I. in 1949 with the Soviet agent Valentin A. Gubitchev on a Manhattan street corner. She had been identified from intercepted Soviet cables.
But her convictions for espionage in 1949 and for conspiracy (with Mr. Gubitchev) in 1950 were overturned — in one case because federal agents overheard conversations with her lawyer, and in the other because she was arrested on probable cause but without a warrant.
Still, the United States Court of Appeals concluded that “her guilt is plain,” and Soviet documents released years later supported that conclusion.
“She was a very high priority to the F.B.I.,” John Earl Haynes, a cold war historian at the Library of Congress, said on Monday, “because she was clearly in a Justice Department office, the Foreign Agents Registration Section, that was receiving the F.B.I.’s own counterespionage reports.”
While her appeals were pending, Ms. Coplon (pronounced COPE-lon) married one of her lawyers, Albert Socolov, a decorated D-Day veteran. The court restricted their honeymoon to within 100 miles of New York City.
After the verdicts were reversed, Ms. Coplon — now Ms. Socolov — lived in obscurity, raising four children, earning a master’s degree in education, publishing bilingual books, tutoring women in prison in creative writing, and, with her husband, running two Mexican restaurants in Manhattan (the Beach House in TriBeCa and Alameda on the Upper West Side).
Ms. Socolov refused to discuss her relationship with Mr. Gubitchev, a Russian working at the United Nations, or her legal ordeal. "The subject of her innocence or guilt was something that she would strictly not address," Emily Socolov said.
"It's very hair-raising to read about your mother being given a code name and moved around like a chess piece," the daughter added. "Was she a spy? I think it's another question that I ask: Was she part of a community that felt that they were going to bring, by their actions, an age of peace and justice and an equal share for all and the abolishing of color lines and class lines?"
"If these were things that she actually did, she was not defining them as espionage," Ms. Socolov continued. "If you feel that what you're doing answers to a higher ideal, it's not treason."
Judith Coplon was born in Brooklyn on May 17, 1921, the daughter of Samuel and Rebecca Moroh Coplon, a toy manufacturer and milliner, respectively. Her great-grandfather, a peddler who had emigrated from Prussia, was a prisoner during the Civil War at Andersonville, the infamous Confederate prison camp.
Ms. Coplon won a good-citizenship award in high school and a full scholarship to Barnard, where she majored in history and was a member of the Young Communist League. She graduated cum laude in 1943, joined the Justice Department in 1944 and, according to the government, was recruited by Soviet intelligence later that year.
In 1948, after intercepting a secret three-year-old Soviet cable, the Venona project, which monitored and decoded Soviet diplomatic communications, identified Ms. Coplon as an agent code-named Sima. She "will be able to carry out important work for us in throwing light" on United States counterintelligence, the Soviet cable said.
To snare her, the F.B.I. fed her a false memorandum about atomic power, then followed her in Manhattan on March 30, 1949, with 30 agents and a fleet of radio cars. After she made a series of evasive maneuvers by subway and bus, she and Mr. Gubitchev were arrested under the Third Avenue elevated line in Midtown. Several secret documents, including the faked memo, were confiscated.
"I was never and am not a Communist," Ms. Coplon later declared. "The only crime I can be said to be guilty of is that I knew a Russian."
She said she had met Mr. Gubitchev at the Museum of Modern Art and fallen in love with him, only to learn he was married. "I will always say that I'm innocent and that I'm being framed," she testified.
In 1952, after winning the right to a new trial, she remained free on $40,000 bail. The bail money was not returned until 1967, when the Justice Department formally dropped the case.
For years, though, the charges haunted her. "If she felt somebody was looking at her askance or treating her disparagingly," Emily Socolov said, "she thought about that case."
Ms. Socolov emerged in 1981 to defend her husband against accusations that money he had invested for a client was drug-related. He was acquitted.
Mr. Socolov survives her. Besides her daughter, Ms. Coplon is also survived by three sons, Benjamin, William and Daniel; and four grandchildren.
In their book about the case, The Spy Who Seduced America, Marcia and Thomas Mitchell wrote that in 1994 Albert Socolov continued to insist that his wife was innocent. But for 60 years the couple shunned publicity.
"We've had all kinds of requests for interviews, for books, but it has been our steady policy to refuse," Mr. Socolov told The New York Times a decade ago. "Other people are interested in posterity. We're not."
She was young and smart and claimed she was in love, and when Judith Coplon was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1949, she became a sensation.
A 28-year-old Justice Department employee, Ms. Coplon had been caught with secret U.S. documents at a meeting with a Russian agent on a Manhattan street. She said she was meeting him only because she loved him, but she was found guilty at two trials.
The convictions were overturned, and the cases were eventually dropped. Ms. Coplon married one of her attorneys, raised four children in Brooklyn, N.Y., and became an educator and supporter of literacy.
She died Feb. 26 at age 89 in a Manhattan hospital. No cause of death was reported.
Americans had just begun hearing about Alger Hiss and Russian espionage when the FBI intercepted Soviet cables between KGB stations in Moscow and New York that made them think that an agent code-named "Sima" was Ms. Coplon, who had won a citizenship award in high school.
"She had a job right there in the Justice Department, so it became a high priority for the FBI because this was someone in their own shop," said Cold War historian John Earl Haynes. "This was a time when there was something of a drought in terms of KGB sources, and it turned out she was one of their most productive agents."
The FBI arranged for a fake but important-looking document to be fed to her. "She immediately said she had to leave Washington to see her family in New York, and about two dozen FBI men followed her," said Haynes, co-author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.
The FBI tracked Ms. Coplon to a meeting with Russian agent Valentin Gubitchev and found that she had the fake document - and some real ones.
At her first trial, she said she was meeting Gubitchev because they were in love and was not planning to give him the documents. But he was married, and prosecutors brought out that she had spent nights in hotels with another man at about the same time.
Haynes said Ms. Coplon's real motive was ideological. He said she was a member of the Young Communists while at New York's Barnard College - which her family disputes. Ms. Coplon's daughter, Emily Socolov, said her mother was "completely operating on principle, purely her idealism for peace and justice. She was never self-serving."
Ms. Coplon was convicted of espionage in packed courtrooms in Washington and New York, but judges eventually threw out the convictions on grounds that included lack of a warrant and illegal wiretaps.
The FBI had been unwilling to reveal the Soviet cables in public, so the juries never heard about "Sima." One appeals judge said Ms. Coplon's "guilt is plain," even as he overturned her conviction. Haynes said her connection with Soviet spying was further proved with the release of documents in 1995.
The government never retried her but didn't officially drop the case until 1967, by which time Ms. Coplon was Judith Socolov and had four children in a Brooklyn brownstone.
She married one of her attorneys, Albert Socolov, who survives, along with their children.
Once her youngest child was in school, she received a master's degree in education and became an expert in bilingual education and literacy, her daughter said.
Judith Coplon, who died on 26 February at the age of 89, was a Justice Department employee from Brooklyn who was convicted of spying for the Soviet Union in an early Cold War trial. She had been caught with secret documents at a meeting with a Russian agent on a Manhattan street. Coplon claimed she was meeting him because she loved him, but she was found guilty at two trials in New York and Washington.
The convictions were overturned and the cases were eventually dropped. Coplon married one of her lawyers, raised four children in Brooklyn and became an educator and supporter of literacy.
Americans had just begun hearing about Alger Hiss and Russian espionage when the FBI intercepted Soviet cables between KGB stations in Moscow and New York that made them believe that an agent code-named "Sima" was Coplon, who had won a citizenship award in high school. "She had a job right there in the Justice Department, so it became a high priority for the FBI because this was someone in their own shop," the Cold War historian John Earl Haynes said. "This was a time when there was something of a drought in terms of KGB sources, and it turned out she was one of their most productive agents."
The FBI arranged for a fake but important-looking document to be fed to her. "She immediately said she had to leave Washington to see her family in New York, and about two dozen FBI men followed her," said Haynes.
The FBI tracked Coplon to a meeting with the Russian agent Valentin Gubitchev and found she had the fake document – and some real ones.
Haynes said Coplon's real motive was ideological, adding that she had been a member of the Young Communists while at Barnard College – as assertion her family disputes. Emily Socolov said her mother was "completely operating on principle, purely her idealism for peace and justice. She was never self-serving."
(1) Sam Roberts, The New York Times (1st March, 2011)
(2) Robert J. Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (1986) page 162
(3) Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, The Secret World of American Communism (1995) pages 294 and 295
(4) Commander Gulyaev, message to Georgi Dimitrov (20th October, 1944)
(5) Vladimir Pravdin, report on Judith Coplon (8th January, 1945)
(6) Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies (2002) page 46
(7) Joseph Katz, report sent to Anatoly Gorsky (3rd February, 1945)
(8) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 261
(9) Venona File 35112 page 62
(10) Venona File 35112 page 131
(11) Venona File 82702 page 320
(12) Allen Weinstein, The Hunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) page 216
(13) Robert J. Lamphere, The FBI-KGB War (1986) page 162
(14) Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies (2002) page 85
(15) Hayden B. Peake, The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War— The Judith Coplon Story (14th April, 2007)
(16) Jim Fitzgerald, The Washington Post (4th March, 2011)
(17) Time Magazine (11th July, 1949)
(18) Hayden B. Peake, The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War— The Judith Coplon Story (14th April, 2007)
(19) Hayden B. Peake, The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War— The Judith Coplon Story (14th April, 2007)
(20) Athan Theoharis, Chasing Spies (2002) page 87
(21) Sam Roberts, The New York Times (1st March, 2011)
(22) Sam Roberts, The New York Times (1st March, 2011)