Hal's "Spies, Lies and Atomic Secrets" Conference (Santa Fe) with Road Scholar, March 2018

This is a report of Hal’s visit to Santa Fe for the Road Scholar conference, Spies, Lies and Atomic Secrets. This was my 16th educational program with Road Scholar. Normally Nancy goes with me, but she had no interest in either spies or atom bombs, so she stayed home with her horse instead.

In addition to the conference, I spent an afternoon exploring the Glorieta Pass Civil War battlefield and had some adventures in Albuquerque my final day.

Sunday, March 18

United Airlines regional jet to ABQ. (In theory I could've flown directly to Santa Fe, but I did not find convenient flights.) It was a one-hour drive to Santa Fe, cold and very windy—tumbleweeds going across the freeway, gigantic dust clouds in the distance. (At one point I actually thought a tornado was forming up ahead of me.) As I reached the higher elevation (Santa Fe is at about 7000 feet), some large snowflakes drifted around. We’re headquartered at the Hilton Historic Santa Fe Plaza hotel, which is very nice—occupying the site of a historic 300-year-old hacienda—although the WiFi in my room is lousy; I have to sit in the bathroom or next to the door to get a semi-reliable signal. The friendly hotel staff allowed me to move to a higher floor, and it was a little better, but still unacceptable for a Hilton. The Road Scholar introductory session was a big surprise—there are 140 people attending! I have never been on a Road Scholar trip that had more than 30. So I am expecting a completely different social experience this week. There was a reception at 6:30 and a buffet dinner in the hotel at 7.

Monday, March 19

Three lectures to start the program.

An Overview of the Espionage Threat to America — Dan Mulvenna (retired Canadian Mounted Police Security Services officer, focused on counterespionage; tens years teaching CI at CIA; later global security for Amoco; was in the Moscow square when Yeltsin got up on the tank!)

Dan started with lots of anecdotes and photos about tours he’s given, with famous KGB friends. He invoked “Chatham House rules,” which meant we were not supposed to publish anything he says so that he could talk frankly. The following info is so anodyne that I don’t think I’m “publishing” anything outside the rules. He spoke of trends of increasing Russian involvement (more resources to the current FSB/SVR than the KGB got in the Cold War), and the US focus is more on counter terrorism since 9/11. Motivation of spies has changed in three waves since the 30s from ideological to money to the current mixture; the famous MICE acronym is no longer complete. He showed a video of Robert Hanssen’s CIA psychologist who said his problems were lack of recognition, financial difficulties, and personal failure. Dan really didn’t stick to the topic of the threat, focusing more on anecdotes of spying in 1940–90, and Venona, 1943–79. But he did reveal that current spies in the US are older and more are foreign born than in the early days.

Dan Mulvenna
Nigel West

Atomic Espionage — Nigel West (European editor of the World Intelligence Review, author of 40 books, noted for being the first to identify and interview the mistress of Admiral Canaris! Someone pointed me to Nigel’s Wikipedia bio, which is quite interesting.)

This was a very entertaining talk that Nigel delivered without notes, leavened occasionally with rather dry British humor. Despite the broad title, it was about the British atomic program before the war. It was somewhat technical and I wonder how people unfamiliar with the material kept up with some parts of it. He covered the early history of atomic research in the UK, including the Frisch–Peierls memo and the formation of the MAUD committee and then the Tube Alloys project. He went into details of how some of the Cambridge Five came into important positions, focusing on Donald Maclean and John Cairncross, the latter of whom was ordered to convert to vegetarianism so that he could work with Maurice Hanley, Cabinet Secretary, on a full inquiry into the UK’s intelligence organizations and also on the Tube Alloys project, passing all that info to the USSR. He described Englebert Broda and his complicated sexual connections (relatives, mistresses, etc.) to Alan Nunn May and Kim Philby. Broda had few technical details, but he provided info on the personnel of the Tube Alloys project. Nigel also described Klaus Fuchs briefly—a naturalized UK citizen sent over to work on the Manhattan Project.

The British attempt to contract weapons development to the ICI company and a factory in Wales soon failed for lack of electricity and was moved to the Chalk River in Canada. When the Manhattan Project was formed and the Tube Alloy efforts were merged in, the NKVD had already fully contaminated it. Lavrentiy Beria had control of the rezidentura, both known and illegal, for both the NKVD and GRU, but he also added a new program, XY, specifically for atomic spying.

Nigel concluded with a relatively detailed look at the US Venona decryption effort, which didn’t seem too relevant to this topic of British espionage, but was interesting.

History of Spycraft in Santa Fe — Ellen Bradbury Reid (An art historian who was the daughter of a Los Alamos scientist, Ellen is working on the history and legacy of the Manhattan Project, serving as a consultant for “Race for the World’s First Atomic Bomb: A Thousand Days of Fear” (PBS/BBC, 2015). She has published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and recently organized the conference “Legacies of the Manhattan Project,” held in 2015 at the Santa Fe Institute.)

Ellen Bradbury Reid

Once again, the title of the talk was a poor representation of the topic, because Ellen talked almost exclusively about life at Los Alamos, where she lived from the age of 6 through high school. She was a very entertaining speaker with lots of anecdotes about daily life and the various famous characters she met. There was first no housing for her family, so they lived in a tent and then in Bandoleras, but later she lived in LA. Her father was an explosives guy working for George Kistiakowsky on explosive lenses, and the spy David Greenglass worked for him! (He told Ellen that Greenglass wasn’t very smart, but you didn’t need to be smart to put a file under your arm and walk out. Taking secret papers out was quite common, to work on in your quarters, and no body searches were performed.) Klaus Fuchs was known as brilliant, a good babysitter, and a good dancer. She did talk a little about his clandestine meetings in Santa Fe with Harry Gold, and about the office at 109 E Palace St, where Dottie McKibbon greeted new LA residents reporting for duty. She recounted stories of Site S, where [conventional] explosion tests occurred daily at 10, 12, and 3, so that everyone would know an accident had not happened.

In the Q&A, I asked about her opinion of the WGN TV show Manhattan. She instantly said it was "stupid" and found two things to criticize immediately—the maids at LA were Pueblo Indians who did not speak Spanish, let alone English, and the fences were not constructed correctly, but she did say she visited the set and thought it generally looked good. She said her high school was very good, with a team name of Bombers, which they were forced to change eventually. And she (and “everyone”) loathed Edward Teller, who for some reason talked with her for three hours to justify his shabby treatment of Oppenheimer. She said Gen. Groves hated J. Edgar Hoover and wouldn’t let the FBI near Los Alamos, and she repeated a rumor about Hoover getting rid of Oppenheimer’s mistress, Jean Tatlock, who supposedly committed suicide.

Next we went off on a “Spy Walk” of downtown Santa Fe, led by Mark Utgaard, the leader of the 35 of us in the “Verde” subgroup, and saw a few interesting places. (Boy, am I glad I dressed for winter weather! Pretty brisk.) 109 E Palace St is where incoming people assigned to Los Alamos were sent, to be greeted by Dottie McKibbon. We saw La Fonda Hotel, where there was a bar that some of the bigwigs went to occasionally, and was the only decent hotel at the time. There’s a cathedral down the block where military police sometimes climbed up to watch the bar with binoculars through a large window (now stained glass). The Spitz jewelry store clock was a landmark for spy meetings or dead drops, although the store is defunct and the clock is now on the other side of the plaza, next to the art museum. The Zook Pharmacy, now a Häagen-Dazs, was where the first assassination attempt against Leon Trotsky was planned in 1940. I also found the Cornell Building, which claims to be the site of the jail from which Billy the Kid escaped in 1879, although there is a dispute about the actual location. An interesting connection for me is that Civil War general Lew Wallace was the governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time.

Leader Mark in front og the Palace of Governors, Santa Fe Plaza
Spitz clock
Some neat peppers in the Plaza
Civil War and Indian fighting monument
109 E Palace
Dottie McKibbon
La Fonda Hotel
Former Zook's Pharamacy
Original appearance
Billy the Kid info
Cornell Building, supposedly the site of the jail Billy escaped from

After dinner, they showed the movie Fat Man and Little Boy with Paul Newman. Since it's over two hours, I decided not to stay up that late. I can [re]watch it when I get back home.

Tuesday, March 20

By accident, I happened to sit next to our first speaker at breakfast, so we had an interesting discussion of the effects of Soviet spying on their bomb program. He is convinced they got a three-year acceleration and that the Korean War might not have happened when it did without the bomb in Stalin’s arsenal. I asked him about one of my favorite TV shows, The Americans, but he said he had only watched a few episodes because it is too inaccurate for his tastes; he said that Soviet illegals kept a much lower profile than the TV spies did, and rarely got involved in assassinations and other dramatic stuff. (From my standpoint, even inaccurate tales are OK if they are dramatically interesting. For instance, virtually all Civil War movies are inaccurate, but I have enjoyed many.)

Three more lectures today:

Heyday of Soviet Espionage in United States — Harvey Klehr (professor of history and politics at Emory U., co-author of Spies, The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, and other books on the American Communist movement and Soviet espionage in America)

This was a bit dry, but there were PowerPoint slides to show us spy photos. Harvey focused primarily on Soviet activity before WWII. This was a lengthy parade of spy profiles, including Igor Gouzenko, Elizabeth Bentley, Isaak Ahknerov, Hedda Massing, Noel Field, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Larry Dugan, Michael Straight, and Joseph Katz. He emphasized the key role that the CPUSA played in espionage, and how they included a number of paid organizers, sometimes paid from the proceeds of smuggled Tsarist jewels. He identified some famous folks who were involved peripherally with the Commies, including Carl Sandburg, Armand Hammer, I. F. Stone, and Ernest Hemingway.

In the late 30s, NKVD and GRU operations were decimated by purges, with Stalin paranoid about Trotskyites. The spy rings put together afterward suffered from a real defect—the spies knew quite a number of each other and tended to meet together at CPUSA meetings, so if any were exposed, the whole bunch would be. Elizabeth Bentley turned herself in and exposed sixty people, but the FBI considered her a pathological liar (until Venona showed she was truthful) and didn’t do anything. They passed her confession to the Brits, and Kim Philby sent it to Moscow, so all sixty escaped.

Harvey Klehr
John Haynes

Soviet Atomic Espionage in the United States during World War II – John Haynes (political historian, prominent in the Library of Congress, co-author of Spies)

I’m sorry to say that this one was even drier, a paper read slowly in a quiet voice with no visual aids. Maybe that’s how presentations are done in libraries. John went through the names of spies, but said little about the information they stole or its importance to the Soviets. Although they made good inroads with the early British atomic program, it was slower going to get into the Manhattan Project. He gave capsule descriptions of Clarence Hiskey, Russell McNutt, George Koval, Julius and Ethel, Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall. He covered the various meetings between Fuchs and courier Harry Gold in New York and Santa Fe. He claims that all of the key contacts dried up in 1945, although I am aware that Fuchs made significant contributions to (and passed along data about) the hydrogen bomb program in 45-46. I got a little frustrated listening to thirty minutes of audience questions that had very little to do with the topic of the lecture or the speaker/historian’s expertise.

The Case of J. Robert Oppenheimer – John Haynes and Harvey Klehr

John started with a bio of Oppenheimer and then proceeded to outline all the negative accusations considered at his security clearance hearing before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954. He consorted with all sorts of Commies in the Bay Area before the war and his wife, mistress, and brother were CPUSA members too. He gave false testimony about being approached by George Eltenton and/or Haakon Chevalier about sending nuclear info to the Soviets. There was a suspicious wiretap in which a graduate student of his could be heard talking about gaseous diffusion with Steve Nelson, a big CPUSA guy in Oakland. And after the war he opposed, supposedly on philosophical grounds, the development of the H-Bomb.

Then there was a lengthy audience discussion [note to Road Scholar: this sort of thing works best in a small group, not an auditorium of 140] that pretty much concurred with Lewis Strauss and the AEC: JRO was a security risk. Although there was annoyance that his clearance was pulled one day before it was scheduled to expire. Next, Harvey read out a lot of evidence that accumulated long after JRO died, including Venona decryption and the Vassiliev Notebooks, that pointed toward a few conclusions: the Soviets wanted to recruit him and tried a few times unsuccessfully (although it seems as if the NKVD station in the San Francisco consulate wasn’t entirely sure how important his actual role was and didn’t do a great job trying); despite his denials, he really was a CPUSA member until at least April 1942; his ideology seems to have changed over time such that in the mid- to late 40s he no longer took positions that aligned with the communists. There was another audience discussion that wound up being more sympathetic to JRO, but there were still those of us who could differentiate between the statements “JRO was a Soviet spy” and “JRO did things that made the government reluctant to trust him on future secret projects.”

My opinion on this is that Gen. Groves took an understandable risk in putting JRO in charge of Los Alamos, despite the suspicious evidence, because it was an emergency and he knew of no alternative candidate, but that the AEC was justified in pulling the clearance after the war, after we understood how damaging the Soviet military and intelligence threats were.

This evening is dinner-on-your-own and the Road Scholar folks offered to group together the lonely single attendees for non-hosted dinners in four different local restaurants. I picked Il Vicino Wood Oven Pizza! Well, I sort of bollixed it up—there were actually two signup sheets and I picked the wrong day. So I ended up going on my own. Three stars (out of five) on my pizzameter.

Wednesday, March 21

Happy Spring! This was the big day of the week for me, the visit to Los Alamos. We took a very pretty 45 minute bus ride up into the mountains. Mark gave color commentary on local flora and geology. The whole area up there is actually a super-volcano, which last erupted 1.4M years ago. The topography of the LA site is quite dramatic, with deep canyons bordering high, narrow mesas. That’s a primary reason Oppenheimer chose the place for his lab—isolated and easy to control access to just a couple of entrance points. I was unprepared for the appearance because I had seen so many wartime photos of shacks and Quonset huts and Army barracks, but now it really looks like Los Altos, California (or many similar small-ish California cities). There was very little typical New Mexico architecture, such as adobe. The current national laboratory is on the other side of the mesa and we couldn’t go there, but it hosts 18,000 employees, whereas the town of LA has 10,000 residents. (In 1945 there were 6-8,000, figures differ.)


The original Tech Area (TA-1) surrounded Ashley Pond, and this is the area where we spent our time. (The pond is funny because Ashley Pond, Jr, was the founder of the exclusive wilderness boys’ school that originally owned the site, so it should actually be Ashley Pond Pond.) We started at Fuller Lodge, a large building constructed of 711 massive Ponderosa Pine logs, used by the boys as a dining hall, and by the scientists as a sort of community center. There we got a relatively brief session with some historical society guides giving us an overview of the three spies at LA. This overview might have been better situated on Tuesday before we got a much more detailed 90 minute lecture on the same topic.

Fuller Lodge
Reverse side

We spent an hour in the Bradley Science Museum, which is quite compact considering it covers three different areas: the Manhattan Project, modern weapons issues, and other science research done by the modern lab. I spent almost all of my time in the first two. There was a good movie about the history of the Manhattan Project. The technical exhibits about the atomic bomb were pretty basic, covering nothing I didn’t already know from reading the two famous Richard Rhodes books, and the H-bomb was really skimpy. I was very impressed with info about how large LA was and how many remote testing sites were scattered all over; it sure wasn’t just a group of physicists with blackboards. Then we took a five minute guided bus ride of Bathtub Row, a short street of houses that were originally built for the school, where senior MP folks resided. They were the only accommodations during the war that had bathtubs, so apparently people were anxious to babysit for those occupants.

Fat Man
Little Boy
Simplified model of the Gadget
Firing circuits
Groves and Oppenheimer
The part of the site we visited is the tiny white space in the top center of this map
An aerial view shows the interesting canyon/mesa terrain
B61 gravity H-bomb

This was an intro to our next visit, the History Museum, which is now a feature of the odd, new Manhattan Project National Historical Park—odd because it is a non contiguous national park, with portions here, and in Tennessee and Washington state (and headquartered in Colorado). The museum is housed in the LA Guest Cottage and the so-called Hans Bethe House (which he occupied for only six months). Here was more MP history, but also pre-MP boys’ school and some post-war. They also have exhibits about Nobel Prize winners and a reproduction of a Cold War living room. I had time to walk around a few other Bathtub houses, including Oppenheimer’s, which is currently owned privately, but has a life trust to turn it over to the park. We concluded our visit with bag lunches in the Fuller Lodge and I took a relaxing walk around Ashley Pond to see the ducks and geese. On the drive back, Mark pointed out some impressive Pueblo villages way up on dramatic cliffs.

Boys' School Mechanic's Cottage
Hans Bethe House (and museum)
Oppenheimer House
Ashley Pond
Oppenheimer and Groves
Contemplation on Ashley Pond (photo courtesy of Sharon Heidy)



Glorieta Pass

We had a few hours free that afternoon, so I drove the Glorieta Pass battlefield, about 20 minutes from Santa Fe in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There were two phases to this battle, on March 26 and 28, 1862, and the former minor action around Johnson’s Ranch in Apache Canyon, does not seem to be preserved or interpreted, so the focus is on the Pigeon’s Ranch area, east of the pass, part of the Pecos National Historical Park. The drill to visit is to find the PNHP visitor center, past the town of Pecos on NM Hwy 63, where you get the lock combination to the battlefield gate and a $2 trail guide, and then you drive for about 6 miles to the gated parking lot. I was the only one there, enjoying the mild weather so different from earlier in the week. There is a 2.25-mile walking trail, which is nicely maintained. There are a number of wayside signs that cover interesting topics, but they aren’t usually keyed to actions in those specific locations. However, with the $2 pocket trail guide, you get detailed explanations of 14 numbered stops. You can't really see a lot because there’s considerably more vegetation than there was in 1862, but I got an appreciation for the terrain, which has lots of canyons and arroyos, and a very impressive Artillery Hill that the Confederates attacked up. The battle is interesting because the Union troops (a lot of Colorado volunteers, but also some 350 US Regulars) were driven back and defeated, but the Confederates suffered a strategic defeat because Major Chivington snuck around the flank, over Glorieta Mesa, and destroyed the Confederate supply train, so they had to withdraw back to Texas.

This sign on NM 50 is actually not near the battlefield
Some background
Steep Artillery Hill approach, as seen by the Confederates

Back in Santa Fe, I had a burger at the Burger Stand at Burro Alley, which I mention only because both it and the truffle fries were really excellent. (Despite the name, it is a bar/restaurant, not a stand.)

Thursday, March 22

Three lectures today.

The Rosenberg Spy Ring — Steven T. Usdin (Senior Editor and Washington Editor of BioCentury, author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley)

The focus here was the non-atomic spying by the Rosenberg ring, which was probably good because there would have been a lot of overlap with previous sessions. Morton Sobell, William Perl, Michael and Ann Sidorovich, Nathan Sussman, Alfred Sarant, and Joel Barr (Joe Berg) were all involved with defense contractors and sent a lot of critical blueprints to the Soviets, including the proximity fuse, the first jet plane, anti-aircraft fire control systems, and radars. He concentrated on Sarant and Barr, who fled by various paths through Europe and Mexico and then founded the Soviet microelectronics industry in a city/lab named Zelenograd. In the Q&A, Steve was asked about how the Rosenbergs were caught and to pontificate on their executions. A lot of the audience complained that they couldn’t understand him; he did mumble a bit.

Steve Usdin
Rusty Capps

The “Parlor Maid” Case — Rusty Capps (Retired FBI Supervisory Special Agent, investigated several international terror groups as an FBI agent, managed the Anti-Terrorism Operations Center for the ‘84 and ‘96 Olympic Games)

This was the story of a Chinese agent, Katrina Leung (codenamed PARLOR MAID), who we thought was operating as a double agent on our behalf, but instead led two FBI agents astray, having affairs with both, while extracting a lot of money from the FBI to gather intelligence deemed interesting enough to brief four US presidents. I didn’t find the topic really relevant to the theme of the conference, but it had a few salacious details, so the audience seemed okay with it. Rusty gave a robustly delivered, corporate-style PowerPoint presentation, trying to cram the absolute maximum amount possible of tiny type, numbers of tiny photos, and acronyms per slide.

The Chinese Intelligence Threat to the United States — I. C. Smith (Former Associate Director of FBI, focused on Chinese counter-intelligence. Author of INSIDE, A Top G-Man Exposes Spies, Lies and Bureaucratic Bungling)

Once again a lecture did not match its title. This was a lengthy description of a single case, the spying of Larry Wu-Tai Chin, who was arrested in 1985 and committed suicide in prison after he was convicted. If there was any info on the general Chinese threat, I missed it while nodding off. Waking up for the Q&A, I witnessed him taking the first question and provided a 30-minute answer that did address some generic issues.

I. C. Smith

So we have spent an entire day of lectures without any connections to atomic espionage. SAD.

Before dinner I took some photographs in the New Mexico state Capitol building, which was really interesting because it is filled with local artwork.

Under the rotunda of the NM Capitol
Kearny's March
NM Senate
Cool bison made from odds and ends

After dinner was a final talk at 7:30:

A Tewa Woman’s Reflection on Urgency — Beata Tsosie-Peña

The topic title did not pique my curiosity, but I found out in advance it was about how atomic program environmental issues have affected New Mexico native Americans, and Mother Earth, etc. So I didn’t bother to attend.

Friday, March 23

Spy Technology — H. Keith Melton (military historian and expert on clandestine devices, professor at the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, involved in leading the International Spy Museum, and technical advisor to the TV show, The Americans!)

Keith was, by far, the best presenter of the week—informative, well-spoken, humorous, with perfect sets of PowerPoint slides. He is a big collector of spy paraphernalia, maybe the biggest. His lecture specifically concerned Russian illegal “Covcom” (covert communications). He said that the modern generations of illegals have been entering the US with their own names, but they were preceded by previous waves using false legends that support and back them up. He focused on the Ghost Stories case—I don’t know it’s called that—involving the glamorous spy Anna Chapman. He differentiated between secure and secret communication. The former is supported by encryption, the latter by steganography. (He gave a completely adequate tutorial about how steganography works.)

Through a series of stories, photos, and videos, he illustrated techniques of brush passing, block caches, and dead drops, showing them done well, and poorly. (One interesting example concerned burying cash under a rock. A trick the Russians use is to wrap it in condoms and wrap those in masking tape, making it impossible for someone to open the package undetected.) He described radiograms, transmitted groups of numbers on Sony shortwave radios. He gave a detailed look at using thumb drives with Windows CE on them to boot up PCs at Internet cafes so they can't be traced.

He revealed that the Russians adopted ASUS Eee 1005HA miniature computers for field communications. (I actually had one of these in the late 90s—a piece of junk running Windows 98, I think, with an Intel ATOM processor and putrid performance.) And he described a technique called SRAC for weak signals sent between agents that were difficult to intercept, like a proto-Bluetooth, I guess.

Anna Chapman was beautiful, but a real airhead. Keith recounted numerous instances of her screwing up tradecraft, the most glaring of which was handing her computer over to an undercover FBI guy who offered her some technical support. Keith depicted the FBI as real wizards in tracking and rounding up this ring, backing this up with videos that took lots of coordination to obtain. He gave us details of her apprehension, questioning, and prisoner exchange. One of the agents the West got back, ironically, was Sergei Skripal, who was just poisoned with nerve agent in the UK.

In the Q&A, Keith stated that counterintelligence operations rarely catch spies—they’re usually done in by other agents. He said that the ring of illegals described here—about 50 were arrested—was tasked with spotting and assessing potential recruits, and performing some logistical tasks for agents, not direct spying. However, they also served as in-country backups to perform actual intelligence during an emergency.

Keith Melton
The Ghost Stories ring
Key players in the Trotsky assassination

Murder in Mexico — H. Keith Melton

Keith’s second lecture was about Trotsky’s assassination, which was relevant because of the Santa Fe connection to Zook’s Pharmacy, as I mentioned previously. Sadly, he said that although there was some evidence that that particular Santa Fe building was used as a safe house by Iosef Grigulevich and his team and that they may have done some of the planning there, it is not certain. But Keith’s very detailed blow-by-blow of the two assassination attempts was riveting. He said that during the Cold War we know of 125 assassinations, but this one was in 1940. He started with Trotsky’s bio, which caught me by surprise—this guy was way more important to the Revolution and the early years than I understood.

When Stalin started chasing him down, Frida Kahlo arranged asylum in Mexico, in a part of Mexico City called Coyoacán. Soon Trotsky had an affair with her, while his wife was in the same house, but Diego Rivera (whom Trotsky called a dilettante) lived separately. He was penniless and wrote critical articles about Stalin to earn some money. He employed five American bodyguards from the Socialist Workers’ Party, but they were really a joke. They had to guard his compound 24x7 with only three pistols and not enough ammo to conduct target practice. The Soviet team created a private whorehouse to get the guards to reveal information. Trotsky forbade his men from searching guests entering the compound.

On May 24, 1940, the first attack failed. They had 23 heavily armed guys break in and plastered Trotsky’s bedroom with 270 bullets, but missed! Then the compound was fortified a bit. The second effort used a single guy, Ramón Mercader, who smuggled in an ice-climbing axe with a shortened handle. He hoped to escape, but knew if he shot Trotsky, the guards would hear it and lock him in the compound. So he got behind him in his office and aimed for his head with the axe. Trotsky moved and it was not a direct hit in the appropriate place for an instant kill, but he did die 26 hours later. Keith said that neurosurgeons he has talked to said he should been treatable given the technology of the time, but the local doctors could not. The assassination was one of the biggest stories of the century, even more famous than JFK would be in 1963. One other connection to our conference theme: the guys on the top of the assassination org chart were Beria, of course, but then Pavel Sudaplatov, who later coordinated the ENOMORZ spies against the Manhattan Project.

Lunch was not included today, so on expedition downtown to eventually find an Italian panino, I took some photographs inside the famous Loretto Chapel, which has a mysterious staircase that has no visible means of support. The ugly bannister shown in the photo is a later addition.

Loretto Chapel mystery staircase
Chapel altar

The Impact of Operation ENORMOZ on the Cold War — Nigel West

Nigel gave another good lecture without notes or slides, but the topic was not quite what I expected. I had hoped this would have been a wrap up that analyzed how the Soviet atomic program benefited by the spying at Los Alamos and elsewhere. So far all we’ve heard is that it was accelerated a few years—but how exactly? Instead, Nigel followed the Rosenberg spy ring some more. We’ve heard about Sarent and Berg, who gave the Soviets improved anti-aircraft control systems, proximity fuses, and a jet design; since the US could deliver atomic bombs only by plane back then, improved defenses altered the balance of power somewhat.

But the US was planning the Polaris submarine missile system, and the “Portland Spy Ring” tried to counter that. An agent codenamed SNIPER led the UK to a Polish spy named Harry Houghton, who worked in the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland, England. He and his girlfriend Ethel Gee stole critical secrets involving sonar, which would be needed to counter the Polaris threat, and plans for the first British nuclear submarine. The connection to the Rosenbergs is that Harry and Ethel passed documents to the USSR through two New Zealand residents, the Krogers, who lived near Ruislip, close to the GCHQ base (the UK counterpart to the NSA). But in fact they were not Kiwis, they were Morris and Lona Cohen of Brooklyn, spies who escaped from the US after the Rosenberg ring was discovered, and after spending time in Moscow, were now back in business.

An interesting tidbit is that Lona Cohen worked for the famous jeweler, Harry Winston, who was successful in business in part because he was money-laundering jewels for the NKVD!

Counter-Espionage: Spies & Spycatchers — Dan Mulvenna

This was a rather jumbled lecture that started with boilerplate CI slides, filled with bureaucratic jargon and hierarchy charts. Then Dan talked about an operation called Prologue in which the KGB launched a series of deception ops to distract CIA attention from some moles operating in Langley. Finally he spent most of the time on TRIGON, Aleksandr Ogorodnik, whom the CIA inserted into the Soviet Foreign Ministry. He delivered good intel for a while, but was betrayed in 1977 by a Czechoslovakian translator working at the CIA. He committed suicide with a cyanide pen/capsule (provided to him by the infamous Aldrich Ames). The KGB was initially able to convince the CIA that he was discovered by bad tradecraft, not betrayal by a mole.

Q&A — Dan and Nigel

There were quite a few questions that I did not transcribe, but they involved CIA/FBI cooperation (Dan remarked that the US is the only country without an internal security service, like MI5); Christopher Steele (Nigel said he’s a friend of his, but said the famous Trump Dossier is worthless as an intelligence report); DEA/CIA cooperation (yes); liaison relationships with allied intel services; could assassinations reach the US (yes, and some may have already happened but we can't know for sure); Jonathan Pollard (he was not simply an innocent Israeli patriot, but offered to sell docs to China and others). Dan remarked that he’s dismayed at the recent instances of intel professionals who have been taking partisan positions, even after they leave service; it damages the country.

Regarding the assassination issue, they recounted instances of Soviet attacks on journalists by planting Plutonium dust in their desks. Since most of them were smokers, when they died of cancer six months later, no one suspected.

We finished up with another reception and a farewell dinner.

In assessing this Road Scholar conference, I have to give it a mediocre grade. I enjoyed the Los Alamos field trip a lot and thought about half the lectures were good to excellent. But the remainder were off-topic (what I thought the topic was supposed to be anyway—atomic espionage), mismatched between the advertised title/subject and what was said, or poorly presented. Too bad. The conference organizers and staff were great, and the hotel service was very good (except for the WiFi). I will probably not attend another conference-format Road Scholar again; little of the social interaction available with a group of 20-30 is possible when 140 people are in the room.

Saturday, March 24

I decided to spend the day in Albuquerque before flying back early Sunday. My first stop was the National Nuclear Museum of Science and History and this is a cool place. It is 49 years old, originally part of Kirtland AFB, but on 9/11 it got kicked out and has bounced around a bit before settling on its current home. It starts with the Manhattan Project, of course, and is a bit light on the physics, but it has a few test rigs used in Los Alamos. They show a movie from the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series that is quite good—Road Scholar could have benefited by showing it as an intro early this week. There was no mention of spying in the movie or anywhere in the museum. They go to some effort to give you WWII military history, presumably to help you justify dropping the bombs on Japan. I talked with a friendly docent and got into a moderate argument about liquid thermal diffusion and the Oak Ridge S-50 plant; researching it afterward shows I was right.

Museum exterior
Los Alamos test equipment
One of the Army cars used to transport scientists to Los Alamos
A more accurate model of the Gadget than Los Alamos showed
One section of a Calutron for isotope separation
Little Boy and Fat Man again

There are numerous Cold War bombs, missiles, and tactical nukes on display inside and a lot of information on uranium enrichment (but not plutonium, oddly) and nuclear reactors. They have a modern isotope separation centrifuge, which I had never seen before, and I was amazed to find it was a chromed up stainless steel cylinder about a foot in diameter and 30 feet high! (The docent claimed there was classified tech inside it, but I really doubt they left it in for the museum.) There is also a room about nanotechnology for some reason, and the obligatory children’s stuff. Outside they have a great collection of bombers, fighters, ICBMs, cruise missiles, giant nuclear bombs, the sail from an SSBN, and even an Atomic Annie 280mm cannon, all in pristine condition. I spent three hours there and recommend it.

A warhead before and after ICBM reentry
The nukes from the 1966 Broken Arrow in Palomares, Spain
Atomic artillery shell
Trident Missile
Recreation of the Trinity site
Close-up of the Gadget (with masking tape pre-arming)
Peacekeeper (MX) missile
Snark and Mace (early cruise) missiles
Gigantic H-bomb
Atomic Annie
Nike Hercules (my father worked on this project at Western Electric!)
Terrier missiles

I drove to Old Town Albuquerque and had a late lunch, and then joined the Breaking Bad RV Tour. We rode in an RV just like Walt and Jesse used in the first season, fitted out with about a dozen seats and all the mock meth cooking equipment. We visited or drove by 20 locations used by Breaking Bad and/or Better Call Saul. Between stops we engaged in trivia quizzes (I won twice!) and watched location-relevant clips from the shows. My only problem was that I chose my seat poorly and had difficulty getting good photos in the drive-bys. Our guides were two bit actors from BB: one played a DEA agent in season 5, the other a waiter in season 4, although I did not catch the significance of his role. Here’s the list of places:

  • Central Grill, which I believe used to be Liu’s Chinese Food, from where Combo Ortega called Jesse in season 1.
  • Chuck McGill’s house in BCS.
  • The tree Krazy-8 ran into after escaping from the RV. Our guide said this is the most famous tree in Albuquerque.
  • Jesse Pinkman’s house, which now has a garage standing where the RV was parked in BB.
  • The Dog House diner, which appeared numerous times in BB and BCS.
  • The self-service laundry where Jesse sold baggies of meth.
  • Tuco’s headquarters office (it was here that I answered a question about fulminate of mercury and won a little baggie of candy that looks just like Walt’s blue meth—I hope TSA doesn’t find it).
  • Kim’s apartment building from BCS.
  • The corner where Combo Ortega was shot by Tomás, the little kid on the bike, and where Walt later ran over and killed the two thugs.
  • The Santa Fe Railroad yard that was used to represent the Philadelphia place Mike Ermentrout shot the crooked cops in BCS. This pair of dilapidated warehouses with hundreds of broken windows has been used in many movies and TV shows. New Mexico has generous tax incentives to film in the state.
  • The RV junkyard where Jesse climbed over the fence onto a porta-potty and then fell into it. The scene was originally written for Jesse to be chased by guard dogs, but they ran out of money for rental dogs and saved $30,000 with the porta-potty.
  • Twisters restaurant, which is the famous Los Pollos Hermanos, identical except for signage. We got a free drink and burrito here—they don’t serve chicken!
  • El Moreno Mexican restaurant, which was called El Michoacano on BCS, where Mike had his staged fight with Tuco to get the police to arrest him, and where Tuco and Nacho intimidated Krazy-8 over his money collections.
  • Crossroads Motel, HQ for Wendy the junkie prostitute.
  • Rio Grande Market (or fruit stand), where the Spooges steal the ATM in season 2.
  • Grove Café, where Walt poisoned Lydia in the atrium with ricin in a Stevia packet. Our guide says the restaurant, which has a great breakfast, has seen requests for Stevia jump dramatically.
  • Jane and Jesse’s apartment, which happens to be for rent today.
  • McDonald’s on Central across from the university, which has no TV connection, but was the place that the woman got $3.5M in a famous lawsuit over hot coffee scalding her crotch.
  • The “spaceship house,” which is an unusual local landmark, but I didn’t catch any TV connection.
  • Danny’s Auto shop, which masqueraded as a gas station, where Walt burned up "Ken’s" BMW by shorting out its battery with a window squeegee.
  • The A1A car wash, which is called Mister Car Wash now, where we got free coffee and popcorn. I think this is the biggest car wash I have ever seen, at least in terms of building size. They have lots of BB photos and mementos inside. (Here I won my second trivia prize, a Walter White driver’s license, for guessing at a question I have already forgotten. I’m going to try to use this as a joke somewhere, although not TSA tomorrow.)
  • The first Better Call Saul billboard.
  • Walt and Skyler’s house, which is supposed to be at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, but is really at 3828 Piermont Drive Northeast. The poor woman living there has been so plagued by vandals and people tossing pizzas on the roof, that she has surrounded it with a metal fence, signs, and security systems. She has been known to sit out front all day to chase people away.
  • Finally, the industrial laundry building that Gus used to hide the modern meth lab in the basement.
    The touring RV
    Fitted with seats
    Our "waiter" and fake meth cookery
    Dog House
    Gus Fring's restaurant
    is actually a Twisters
    Interior almost identical (except signage)
    El Moreno (I was on the wrong side of the RV!)
    Jane and Jesse's apartment
    The spaceship house
    Danny's Auto
    A1A Car Wash
    The guys set off a smoke bomb
    Our "DEA Agent" tour guide
    Location of Saul's first billboard
    Walt and Skyler's house
    Gus's laundry and meth lab
    The "Candy Lady" in Old Town with her candy meth

After a very interesting three hours, I checked in to an airport hotel for my early flight Sunday.