Affaire Rosenberg: Les sorcières ont même… fondé la Silicon Valley soviétique!

Engineering_communism_4 Ultime infirmation du mythe de l’innocence des Rosenberg (dont on risque d’attendre peut-être encore longtemps la traduction française – merci Florin Aftalion et le numéro d’avril de Dossiers secrets de l’Histoire), le livre du journaliste américain spécialiste en informatique Steven Usdin (Engineering Communism, 2005) dans lequel il relate sa découverte d’un des plus importants membres du réseau Rosenberg (Joël Barr – forme américanisée de Zbarsky), qui, au moment où les membres du réseau commençaient à tomber, avait été exfiltré avec son complice Alfred Sarant en Union soviétique où ils avaient grandement contribué à créer l’industrie soviétique des microprocesseurs, la fameuse Silicon Valley russe de Zelenograd.

Mais il faut dire que le livre n’a pas été très bien reçu non plus dans les mileux de gauche américains car il remet en cause les derniers arguments des défenseurs du mythe Rosenberg. A savoir que le réseau offre ses services aux soviétiques non pas pour les aider dans leur lutte contre le nazisme mais bien avant juin 1941 (au moment donc où Staline était encore l’allié des nazis). Et d’autre part, contre la minorisation systématique qu’en font les apologistes des Rosenberg, il démontre toute la valeur des informations fournies à l’armée soviétique durant et surtout après la 2e guerre mondiale.

L’ironie étant que les milieux (néo-conservateurs) ayant le mieux reçu l’ouvrage d’Usdin trouvent aussi leur inspiration dans cette même génération de brilliants jeunes gens, qui, eux aussi issus du ghetto juif de New York dans une Amérique en pleine Grande Depression et largement antisémite, avaient fait leurs études au fameux NY city College (qualifié par Usdin de “plus radical college, à l’époque, des Etats-Unis). Mais… eux étaient troskystes et non, comme Julius Rosenberg et ses amis, stalinistes!

Extraits:

Why do intelligent young people dedicate their lives to ideological fantasies?

Together Barr and Sarant gave the USSR over 9,000 pages of documents detailing over 100 weapons systems, including not only the most advanced land- and air-based radar systems used to track aircraft, guide bombs and locate enemy submarines, but also analog computers and insights on manufacturing techniques. Other members of the Rosenberg ring provided Russia with the proximity fuse and 12,000 pages of blueprints for the first American jet fighter.

Secret documents that Barr and his colleagues slipped to Soviet intelligence hastened the Red Army’s march to Berlin, jump-started its post-war development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and later helped Communist troops in North Korea fight the American military to a stand-off.

Among the quietest and most deadly submarines in the world, Kilo subs equipped with Uzels are operating today in the fleets of China, Iran, and India. If the Chinese launch an attack on Taiwan, the Iranians decide to scuttle tankers in the Persian Gulf, or India attacks Pakistan’s sea lanes, the torpedoes will be aimed and the craft will be navigated with the assistance of a computer designed by two American Soviet engineers.

How Two American Spies Helped Build the Soviet Silicon Valley
By Steven T. Usdin

In early 1973 an American spy operating under the cover name Philip Staros overcame his claustrophobia and squeezed into the crowded control room of a brand new Soviet Tango-class submarine as it plunged under the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. The largest diesel-powered submarine ever built, the Tango was created to elude and destroy American nuclear submarines.

Speaking confidently in flawless Russian, Staros was demonstrating to a group of Soviet admirals how the Uzel, the first digital computer used in a Soviet sub, could track several targets simultaneously and calculate how the torpedoes should be aimed and fired. He and another American, Joel Barr, known in Russia by the KGB-supplied alias Joseph Berg, had led the team that designed the Uzel.

The story of how Staros-whose real name was Alfred Sarant-came to be onboard that submarine, and of how he and Barr created the Uzel and many other advanced Soviet military technologies, begins in New York in the 1930s. It is a Cold War drama combining espionage, high technology, romance, and betrayal. And it hinges on a question that is as relevant today as it was seven decades ago: Why do intelligent young people dedicate their lives to ideological fantasies?

Six decades later, Barr vividly remembered the personal circumstances that led him to embrace communism as a teenager during the Depression. First there was a "tremendously harrowing scene" when marshals evicted his family from their Brooklyn apartment, then their shame at relying on charity for groceries, and finally the miserable tenement "with no toilet in the apartment, no hot water, only a coal stove for heat," and elevated trains roaring by twice per minute just feet from the windows.

The Communists’ analysis, that the nation was run by and for a tiny, greedy elite that oppressed the workers, seemed plausible to Barr, as it did to thousands of other young people who grew up in the 1930s in New York’s Jewish ghetto.

Barr enrolled in City College of New York (CCNY), the most radical campus in America, to study electrical engineering. Like other colleges it had two main political groupings; instead of identifying themselves as Democrats or Republicans, however, CCNY students’ allegiance was divided between Stalin and Trotsky. The faculty published an underground Communist publication, Teacher and Worker, that echoed the Daily Worker.

Barr quickly associated himself with the Stalinists and joined a Young Communist League chapter headed by Julius Rosenberg.

After graduating, Barr, Rosenberg and many of their CCNY friends joined the Communist Party. Their world was turned upside down on August 21, 1939, by news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Barr’s friends remained in the Party and, as Jews who understood Hitler’s intentions, in doing so they crossed the line from the left edge of the political spectrum into the territory of the zealot.

After a decade of economic depression, Barr and his comrades considered themselves fortunate to find any work, so they took jobs with virtually the only employer that was hiring, the military.

When Barr started at the U.S. Army Signal Corps Laboratory in the summer of 1940, everything about the technology he worked on, even the word "radar," was a military secret. Although the job was intellectually stimulating, contributing to the war effort was troubling to Barr and his comrades. The Communist Party of the U.S., following the line dictated by the Kremlin, was stridently opposed to American preparation for war or assistance to Great Britain.

Rosenberg conceived of a way out of the dilemma, a solution that would allow dedicated communists to work for the military while remaining true to their ideals. The answer was staring them in the face every day: the blueprints and manuals they worked with could be of great value to the Soviet Union.

Rosenberg started down the road to becoming a spy before German troops crossed into Russia-that is, at a time when Stalin was allied with Hitler and there was every reason to expect that information given to Moscow would be sent on to Berlin. He and Barr volunteered their services as Soviet patriots.

Members of the Rosenberg ring were optimally placed to obtain valuable technical information. While senior scientists were subject to strict security measures, including compartmentalization, the CCNY graduates designed manufacturing processes and performed quality-control inspections at factories. They needed to know how weapons were built and were encouraged both to study related weapons and to bring their work home.

The Russians merely had to supply Leica cameras for microfilming and provide their agents with rudimentary training in spy craft to minimize the chances that their activities would be detected. The amateur spies were more talented at stealing and copying classified information than at covering their tracks. But, their astounding successes were made possible by U.S. counterintelligence, which was fixated on Nazi espionage and viewed domestic communists as potential subversives, not industrial spies.

The FBI aggressively searched for communists in sensitive government jobs, but it took half-hearted actions when it found them. When the Bureau alerted Army counterintelligence that Barr was a secret member of the Communist Party, he was quickly fired, an act which should have been the end of his career in military electronics and thus as a Soviet spy.

Barr wasn’t out of work long, however. Within three weeks he was working for Western Electric Corp. and had access to some of the most sensitive defense-electronics secrets in the American arsenal. Rosenberg and other members of their espionage ring had similar experiences.

Barr recruited Sarant to assist with extracting and microfilming classified documents. Together Barr and Sarant gave the USSR over 9,000 pages of documents detailing over 100 weapons systems, including not only the most advanced land- and air-based radar systems used to track aircraft, guide bombs and locate enemy submarines, but also analog computers and insights on manufacturing techniques. Other members of the Rosenberg ring provided Russia with the proximity fuse and 12,000 pages of blueprints for the first American jet fighter.

Secret documents that Barr and his colleagues slipped to Soviet intelligence hastened the Red Army’s march to Berlin, jump-started its post-war development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and later helped Communist troops in North Korea fight the American military to a stand-off.

By June 1947 security procedures at defense contractors had tightened up a bit and Barr’s employer, Sperry Gyroscope, contacted the FBI to ask about his reliability. A quick inspection of the Bureau’s files revealed that he’d been fired as a communist five years previously. The FBI interviewed two of three references Barr had provided Sperry, but they provided no useful information. Inexplicably, the third reference was never contacted; his name was Julius Rosenberg.

When Sperry fired Barr in October 1947, he figured that his career was over at a minimum, and that he might be in danger. He sold all of his belongings, collected some cash from his KGB contacts, and made plans to travel. Barr told his girlfriend that he planned to try to visit the Soviet Union to get a first-hand look at communism.

Barr remained in covert contact with the KGB as he traveled in Europe, enjoying a bohemian life. He arrived in Paris on July 4, 1949, and convinced Olivier Messiaen, a world famous avant-garde composer, to accept him as a student.

Events at home, especially newspaper stories about the arrests of Soviet spies, troubled Barr. Worry turned to panic in June 1950, when the arrest of Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, was announced. It was clear that the cloak of secrecy around his espionage was unraveling.

The morning after newspapers reported Greenglass’s arrest, Barr walked out of his Paris apartment carrying a single bag, with a viola slung over his shoulder. As far as subsequent FBI and CIA investigations launched about a month later could determine, he vanished at this moment. For more than three decades, no one in the West knew where Barr was, or even whether he was alive or dead.

In fact, the KGB helped Barr escape to Prague, where they gave him a new identity. For the rest of his life, Barr told friends, family and colleagues that he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. His new name, Joseph Berg, was a KGB joke: he was Joe Berg from Jo’burg.

Barr’s former partners in espionage weren’t as well placed to disappear. In addition to the Rosenbergs, other members of the ring were tracked down and arrested.

The FBI knocked on Sarant’s door in July 1950. Rather than immediately arrest him, the Bureau interrogated Sarant intensively for a week, hoping that he would crack. Sarant kept his cool, however, and managed to give the FBI the slip. Accompanied by Carol Dayton, a neighbor with whom he’d been having an affair, Sarant escaped to Mexico. Each left a spouse and two young children behind.

Sarant and Dayton contacted Polish intelligence officers in Mexico City. Their escape was straight out of a spy novel, including hiding in safe houses for months, wearing disguises, carrying false passports, waiting for a moonless night to wade across a river into Guatemala, and sailing to Casablanca in the hold of a Polish cargo ship.

The American couple were stashed in Warsaw for half a year and then sent to Moscow. Barr, who had been working as an engineer in Prague, was brought to the Soviet capital for a dramatic reunion with his old friend.

Sarant, who was given the name Philip Staros, presented himself to the Russians as a brilliant engineer who had been thwarted because of his communist beliefs. The KGB believed him, or at any rate was willing to let him prove himself.

The trio was sent to Prague, where Sarant and Barr were put in charge of a team of engineers and tasked with creating a computerized anti-aircraft weapon. They succeeded, building an analog computer that received input from radar, predicted a plane’s future path, and controlled artillery. The first computerized anti-aircraft weapon built in the Soviet bloc, it was still in use with minor modifications at least into the late 1980s.

Eagerly accepting a subsequent invitation to put their skills to work in the Soviet Union, Sarant and Barr, Dayton, and Barr’s Czech wife, moved to Leningrad in January 1956. Sarant and Barr’s first project was to design a component for the equipment that tracked the Sputnik.

In July 1959, a team led by Sarant and Barr created a prototype of a new computer, which they dubbed the UM-1. The UM-1 achieved a number of Soviet firsts; among them, it was the first Soviet computer to use transistors. In contrast to the room-sized monsters produced by other Soviet computer designers, the UM-1 was small enough to fit on a kitchen table and light enough for one person to lift, and it required about the same power as a light bulb.

This success led to an expansion of their team to about 2,000 people over the next two years. They designed another computer, a civilian version of the UM-1 called the UM-1NKh, which was eventually put into production and was widely used in applications such as steel plants and nuclear power stations.

Barr and Sarant then went to work on a much more advanced computer, an all-purpose computer for use in airplanes, in space and for missile control. The team also developed components that would be needed to create new generations of computers, including a novel ferrite core computer memory that was likely more advanced than anything in the U.S. at the time.

In 1962 Staros and Berg received a visit from a young engineer who was looking for help with some components of a cruise missile guidance system. He was quite impressed by their achievements and reported on them to his father. The engineer’s name was Sergei Khrushchev, and his father was Nikita Khrushchev. Sergei’s comments, and strong support from top Soviet military defense officials, prompted Nikita Khrushchev to arrange a visit to meet the two foreigners.

On May 4, 1962, Khrushchev toured Sarant and Barr’s laboratories, accompanied by a delegation that included the chief of the Communist Party in Leningrad, the head of the Soviet Navy and other senior defense industry officials. Sarant told Khrushchev that the future of Soviet power lay not in its capacity to roll tons of steel or make enormous dams, but in its ability to manipulate atoms and molecules. The key to catching up with and surpassing the West, he said, would be microelectronics, a word Sarant had introduced into the Russian language.

Sarant proposed the creation of a secret city dedicated to microelectronics. To his and Barr’s astonishment, Khrushchev agreed on the spot. Within months an official decree establishing a new city on the outskirts of Moscow was formally promulgated. The Soviet leader personally signed the papers inducting Sarant into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and making him a citizen. In August 1962 Sarant drove the first stake into the ground marking the beginning of construction of Zelenograd.

Although it was widely known that they were not Russians, Sarant and Barr’s origins were kept secret: Barr’s wife didn’t learn his real name or that he was American until 20 years after they’d married. There was more than a little opposition to foreigners getting the top positions at a high prestige operation like Zelenograd. In the end, Sarant was denied the top job and very reluctantly had to settle for number two, scientific director. Still, he had over 20,000 people with advanced degrees reporting to him and more authority than any other American had ever wielded in Soviet military industry.

Sarant and Barr’s meteoric rise was largely due to Khrushchev’s patronage, and when he was deposed in the winter of 1964 they were forced out of Zelenograd. In typical Soviet fashion, Sarant’s role in conceiving and designing Zelenograd, which rapidly became the Soviet version of Silicon Valley, became a non-event.

The two Americans retreated to Leningrad where they were commissioned to build computers and microelectronic components for the Soviet space program, the Red Air Force, and civilian industry. The CIA and American technical journals learned about some of Sarant and Barr’s computers and, without having any idea that they were designed by Americans, rated them as among the best ever produced in the USSR.

A Rand Corporation journal suggested in 1972 that one of their computers, the Electronica K-200, signaled "some fundamental shifts and improvements in Soviet design policies." The authors had no idea how correct they were when they wrote that "everything we know about [the Electronica K-200] suggests technological transfer: transfer of technology from a qualified, capable (by Soviet standards) design and production environment to an application environment long thwarted by unreliable, inappropriate, and scarce computational equipment. The K-200 is the first Soviet production computer that can be fairly characterized as well-engineered. It may not be up to Western standards, but it easily surpasses anything else known to be currently available in the Soviet Union for process control automation."

Barr and Sarant’s most lasting physical legacy, beyond Zelenograd, is the Uzel. The Soviet military liked to reuse hardware whenever possible to keep development costs down and to enhance reliability. When another generation of diesel subs was designed, which NATO calls Kilo class, it retained the Uzel; there is still a team of programmers in St. Petersburg working on Uzel software upgrades.

Among the quietest and most deadly submarines in the world, Kilo subs equipped with Uzels are operating today in the fleets of China, Iran, and India. If the Chinese launch an attack on Taiwan, the Iranians decide to scuttle tankers in the Persian Gulf, or India attacks Pakistan’s sea lanes, the torpedoes will be aimed and the craft will be navigated with the assistance of a computer designed by two American Soviet engineers.

About the time the Uzel was completed, Barr and Sarant’s fortunes took turns for the worse. One of their leading antagonists, the head of the Leningrad Party branch, was promoted to a candidate member of the Politburo. Through a series of maneuvers, their autonomy was reduced and finally eliminated. Sarant found himself a position as the director of a new artificial-intelligence institute in Vladivostok, as far away from Leningrad as a person could get and still remain in the Soviet Union. Barr stayed behind, retained a super-sized salary, but had few or no official responsibilities.

Sarant died from a heart attack in 1979 and was eulogized in Izvestia as "a tireless scientist, a talented organizer who for many years gave all his strength and bright talent to the development of Soviet science and technology." There wasn’t a mention of his foreign origins.

Traveling on a Soviet passport as Joseph Berg, Barr returned the United States in October 1990 to address an international semiconductor technology conference in San Francisco. He was astounded that his arrival was apparently unnoticed by the FBI and the press.

Barr visited the U.S. a second time in early 1991 to speak at another conference, where he met Gordon Moore and told the Intel Corp. founder that he and Staros had often cited "Moore’s Law" (that the number of transistors per square inch of integrated circuit would double roughly every year) to the Soviet leadership.

On his second trip the United States Barr applied for a U.S. passport, writing on the form that he’d lost his old one in Prague in 1950. A few weeks later a shiny new American passport bearing his picture and the name Joel Barr arrived. Barr split the remaining years of his life between Russia and the U.S., maintaining dual lives. He received a Russian pension and Supplemental Security Income as well as Medicaid in the U.S., voting in the 1992 New York presidential primary for Jerry Brown and in 1996 in Russia for the communist presidential candidate.

Barr died in a Moscow hospital in August 1998.

Steve Usdin is senior editor at BioCentury Publications.

The Story Behind the Story
Interview with Steve Usdin

Editor: Your book, Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley was published in 2005. How did you come to research and write about this particular subject?

Steve: As a journalist, I have reported on the intersection of technology, science and public policy for over twenty years. I met Joel Barr in Moscow in 1990. I was researching an article about opportunities for American companies to acquire the rights to Soviet technology. He was introduced to me as a Russian named Joseph Berg. It was clear within seconds that he wasn’t Russian; he sounded like a grown up Bugs Bunny, and an accent like that could only come from New York. The afternoon that we met he took me to Zelenograd, the Soviet Silicon Valley, although he didn’t mention his role in creating it.

We developed a close friendship, I visited him in St. Petersburg several times and he lived at my home in Washington for weeks and months at a time. We started to work on his autobiography, but the project never got far because Barr was more interested in talking about what could have or should have been than what really happened.

After Barr died I started to put together the picture from other sources-declassified American, Soviet and Czech intelligence files, interviews with friends, colleagues and relatives-and it quickly became clear that his life and the life of his friend, Alfred Sarant, were far more interesting than I’d realized. Not only were they fascinating individuals, but they had played significant roles both as spies for the Soviet Union during World War II and as pioneers of Soviet high technology.

Editor: Tell us what you know about the personal lives of Barr and Sarant and their families.

Steve: From the moment Barr joined the Communist Party in 1939-and especially after he started spying for the KGB-he led parallel lives. The habit of secrecy and duplicity spilled over into his personal life. The starkest example of this was his family life. He was a genuinely devoted family man, with a wife and four children. But at the same time, he had a passionate relationship with a married mistress who raised two of his children. Barr’s wife didn’t learn about the affair for almost two decades.

Sarant’s life, and especially the story of Carol Dayton, the woman who ran away with him, is even more fantastic. She had four children in Russia but was haunted by thoughts of the two children she’d left behind in the United States. Incredibly, after Sarant died the KGB arranged for a reunion, secretly bringing Dayton’s children to Prague in 1981. Dayton returned to the United States in 1991 and reconciled with the husband she’d abandoned in 1950.

Editor: What is your background and interest in computing history?

Steve: As a journalist, I have reported on the intersection of technology, science and public policy for over twenty years.

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