Soviets were able to turn him, scholars say,
because of his Russian Jewish roots.Published: November 11, 2007President
Vladimir Putin of Russia and intelligence officers
at a ceremony posthumously honoring George Koval,
left, an American-born Soviet spy. (Red Star, left;
pool photo by Dmitry Astakhov, via AFP-Getty
'regular guy' was a Russian top spy
By William J.
NEW YORK: He had all-American
cover -- born in Iowa, college in Manhattan, army
buddies with whom he played baseball. George
Koval also had a secret. He was a top Soviet
spy, code named Delmar, trained by Stalin's
ruthless bureau of military
Atom spies are old stuff. But historians say
Koval, who died last year in Moscow and whose name
is just coming to light publicly, appears to have
been one of the most
important spies of the 20th century.
On Nov. 2, the Kremlin startled Western scholars
by announcing that President Vladimir Putin
had posthumously given the highest Russian award to
a Soviet agent who in World War II had penetrated
the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb.
The announcement hailed Koval as "the only
Soviet intelligence officer" to infiltrate the
project's secret plants, saying his work "helped
speed up considerably the time it took for the
Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its
Since then, historians, scientists, federal
officials and old friends of Koval's have raced to
unearth his story -- the athlete, the guy everybody
liked, the genius at technical studies.
The Soviets were able to turn him, scholars say,
because of his Russian Jewish roots.
"He was very friendly, compassionate and very
smart. He never did homework," said Arnold
Kramish, a retired physicist who studied with
Koval at City College and later worked with him on
the bomb project.
Stewart Bloom, a senior physicist at the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in
California, who also studied with Koval, called him
a regular guy.
"He played baseball and played it well," usually
as shortstop, Bloom recalled. "He didn't have a
Russian accent. He spoke fluent English, American
English. His credentials were perfect."
Once, Bloom added, "I saw him staring off in the
distance and thinking about something else. Now I
think I know what it was."
Over the years, scholars and federal agents have
identified a half-dozen individuals who spied for
the Soviet Union on the bomb project, especially at
Los Alamos in New Mexico. All were "walk-ins" -
spies by impulse and sympathetic leaning rather
than rigorous training.
By contrast, Koval was a mole groomed in Russia
by the GRU, the Soviet agency for military
intelligence. Moreover, he gained wide access to
America's atom plants -- a feat unknown for any
other Soviet spy. Nuclear experts say the secrets
of bomb manufacturing can be more important than
those of design.
Los Alamos devised the bomb while its parts and
fuel were manufactured at secret plants in places
like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Dayton, Ohio --
sites Koval not only penetrated but also assessed
as an army sergeant with wide responsibilities and
"He had access to everything," said Kramish, who
worked with Koval at Oak Ridge. "He had his own
jeep. Very few of us had our own jeeps. He was
clever. He was a trained GRU spy."
That status, he added, made Koval unique in the
history of atomic espionage, a judgment historians
Washington has known about Koval's spying since
he fled the United States shortly after the war,
but kept it secret.
"It would have been highly embarrassing for the
U.S. government to have had this divulged," said
Robert Norris, author of "Racing for the
Bomb," a biography of the project's military
Historians say Putin may have cited Koval's
accomplishments as a way to rekindle Russian
"It's very exciting to get this kind of break,"
said John Earl Haynes, an authority on
atomic spying at the Library of Congress. "We know
very little about GRU operations in the United
THE story of how Koval became a spy centers on his
Jewish family, which had come from Russia and
decided to return.
He was born in 1913 in Sioux City, Iowa, which
had a large Jewish community and half a dozen
synagogues. In 1932, during the Great Depression,
his family immigrated to the Siberian city of
Birobidzhan, which Stalin promoted as a secular
Henry Srebrnik, a historian at the
University of Prince Edward Island who is studying
the Kovals for a project on American Jewish
communists, said the family belonged to a
popular-front organization, as did most American
Jews who immigrated to Birobidzhan.
By 1934, Koval was in Moscow excelling in hard
studies at the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical
Technology. Upon graduating with honors, he was
recruited and trained by the GRU and sent back to
the United States for nearly a decade of scientific
espionage, from roughly 1940 to 1948. How he
communicated with his controllers is not publicly
In the United States under a false name, he
initially gathered information about new toxins,
which might find use in chemical weapons. Then his
GRU controllers took a gamble and had him work
under his own name. Koval was drafted into the army
and by chance found himself moving toward the bomb
project, then in its infancy.
The army judged him smart and by 1943 sent him
for special wartime training in Manhattan at City
College. It was famous for Communist radicals,
brilliant Jewish students and, after the war,
Julius Rosenberg, who was executed for
spying for the Soviet Union.
But Koval steered clear of all debate on
socialism and Russia, Bloom said.
"He discussed no politics that I can recall.
Never," Bloom said. "He never talked about the
Soviet Union -- never ever, not a word."
At City College, Koval and a dozen or so of his
army peers studied electrical engineering.
Meanwhile, the Manhattan Project was suffering
severe manpower shortages and asked the army for
technically adept recruits. In 1944, Koval and
Kramish headed to Oak Ridge, whose main job was to
make bomb fuel -- considered the hardest part of
the atomic endeavor.
Koval gained wide access to the sprawling
complex, Kramish said, because "he was assigned to
health safety" and drove from building to building
making sure stray radiation harmed no workers.
In June 1945, Koval's duties expanded to include
top-secret plants near Dayton, said John
Shewairy, an Oak Ridge spokesman. The factories
refined polonium-210, a highly radioactive material
used in initiators to help start the bomb's chain
In July 1945, the United States tested its first
atomic device and a month later dropped two bombs
After the war, Koval fled the United States when
American counterintelligence agents found Soviet
literature hailing the Koval family as happy
emigrants from the United States, said a Nov. 3
article in Rossiiskaia Gazeta, a Russian
In 1949, Moscow detonated its first bomb,
surprising Washington at the quick loss of what had
been an atomic monopoly.
In the early 1950s, Kramish said, the Federal
Bureau of Investigation interviewed him and anyone
else who had known the spy, asking that the matter
be kept confidential.
Bloom at the time was working at the Brookhaven
National Laboratory on Long Island. "I was pretty
amazed," he recalled. "I didn't figure George to be
In Russia, Koval got his doctorate at his own
Mendeleev Institute and taught there for many
years, Rossiiskaia Gazeta reported.
His spy role began to emerge publicly in Russia
in 2002 with the publication of "The GRU and the
Atomic Bomb," a book that referred to Koval only by
his code name, Delmar.
Koval reportedly died on Jan. 31, 2006. By
American reckoning, he would have been 92, though
the Kremlin's statement put his age at 94 and some
Russian accounts put it at 93.
Posthumously, Putin named Koval a hero of the
Russian Federation, the highest honorary title that
can be bestowed on a Russian citizen.
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