“An Agent in Place”

February 6, 2006

March 26, 1966 Recently I was traveling in Poland, Hungary, and Berlin. During my train rides I was reading a lot of John Le Carré and Len Deighton novels, and as much as I enjoyed them I became more curious about how accurate they were. So I turned to my trusty CNY set to see if there was any good reporting on espionage — and boy, did it come through.

In 1966 the New Yorker ran a three-part article by Thomas Whiteside about a Swedish spy who had recently been captured. His name was Stig Wennerström. The article is called “An Agent in Place,” and it’s one of the best things on espionage I’ve ever read — it was also released as a book. Wennerström had been a spy for the Soviet Union in America and later in Sweden. The first two parts of the article are both a little dry and quite different from the third part, and it’s necessary to read all three parts to get a full picture of the case and derive the lessons that Whiteside wanted to impart. The article supplied me with just the kind of model I was looking for, a glimpse of the true nature of running a covert agent that I could use to “test” the credibility of the books by Le Carré and Deighton.

In 1993 the Center for the Study of Intelligence, which I think is run by the CIA, declassified an internal report on the Wennerström case. In passing the author of the report, Alexander Mull, called “An Agent in Place” “the best single unclassified history of the case from the intelligence point of view.” You can download that CSI report here in HTML or PDF format.