Former NBC News reporter Irving R. Levine, who died last year, was a hilariously nerdy TV presence: A soft-spoken, bow-tied mensch. So it's surprising to learn, via declassified FBI files, that he deftly parried KGB attempts to blackmail him.
Levine, whom we briefly eulogized after his death in March, covered economics for NBC News in the 1970s and 1980s, and we always got a kick out of him because he was this mousy little man with the anachronistic bearing of a 1950s Latin teacher. But it turns out that Levine was among the first network news reporters to get a visa to cover the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and his FBI file, which we obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, tells a gripping tale of espionage involving an attempt by the KGB to set Levine up and turn him into an informant, and some heavy duty FBI spying into his private life. UPDATE: A commenter points out that Levine related the meat of this story in this New York Times op-ed in 2001.
Levine arrived in Moscow to cover the Soviets for NBC News in July 1955. More than a year later, he was approached by a Russian journalist he had met through a friend. Over dinner, the Russian—his name is redacted in the documents—told Levine that the Soviets could easily kick him out of the country, and asked him to provide information about "other American correspondents in Moscow, what they were writing about, what their thoughts were, how they felt about the situation in Moscow, and generally an analysis of their thinking."
Figuring that his dinner partner was working on behalf of Soviet intelligence, Levine rebuffed the man's request. He was told to keep quiet about the conversation or risk being tossed out of the country. A few weeks later, the man contacted Levine again and asked him to meet with another Soviet, who would eventually identify himself to Levine as a KGB agent, at a Moscow hotel. Levine agreed, and the agent told Levine through a translator that the request over dinner had been mishandled—the KGB didn't want him to spy on his American colleagues, but did want him to "relate to them what the German, French, and Italian correspondents were thinking and writing." When Levine again refused, the agent mentioned the case of a UPI reporter who had been kicked out of the country for a minor infraction earlier that year. Then he pulled out the ace up his sleeve: A picture of Khrushchev from the New York Times that some anti-revolutionary reactionary had defiled with a drawn-on mustache. The agent said that it had been found in Levine's office wastebasket, and could be seen as grounds for expulsion if he didn't cooperate.
When Levine laughed off the Khrushchev drawing and denied responsibility for it, the agent pulled out another piece of paper: A photocopy of a personal letter Levine had written to a friend in New York, in which Levine "repeated a joke which was then current in Moscow and concerned Josef Stalin." The joke, the agent said, was "an insult to the memory of a Soviet leader, and could also result in Levine's expulsion." Levine refused to cooperate and accused the KGB of opening his mail (which under the circumstances was a fairly obvious deduction); the agent said the Soviets "don't do things like that" but refused to say where he got the letter.
The agent ended the meeting by saying Levine would be thrown out of the country if he told anyone about the overture. About three weeks later, the Soviet translator who had been at his meeting with the KGB agent asked Levine to lunch and told him that no action would be taken against him. Leaving that lunch, Levine thought he was under surveillance, and "accosted the man who was surveilling him." The man said nothing and disappeared.
A few weeks after that, a Russian student called Levine out of the blue and asked urgently to meet him. The student first asked for Levine's help buying American goods, which he thought Levine could have mailed to the U.S. embassy to escape Soviet intervention. When Levine refused, he asked Levine for U.S. dollars. Levine recognized the young man's request as a "crude attempt" to entrap him, and wrote up a story for broadcast about the scheme. He presented it to Soviet censors, who rejected it, and promptly smuggled the script to his bosses in New York for broadcast.
The translator contacted Levine one last time, to tell him that Soviet authorities were looking for the "brash young man" who had contacted him "and that when he was discovered the situation would be satisfactorily handled"—perhaps attempting to set Levine up to feel pressure to cooperate if he thought the man would be harshly punished.
Levine returned to New York in 1957, and promptly went to the FBI with his tale. He told NBC News chief Bill McAndrew about the contacts, and McAndrew called FBI assistant director Louis Nichols to tell him. Nichols recorded the "bloodcurdling" conversation in a memo to Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover's deputy:
Tolson asked McAndrew and Levine to meet with FBI agents in New York to set the story down. When the agents asked Levine why he thought the Soviets targeted him, he offered that there was one American correspondent, whom he refused to name, with whom Levine was friendly and was thought to be spying for the Soviets. Levine thought this correspondent may have suggested him as a prospect to his handlers.
The FBI, of course, took great interest in the potential identity of the reporter Levine suspected of spying, and deduced from circumstantial evidence that it was a correspondent for the Charlotte Observer.
The reporter's name is redacted, but according to the FBI documents, the reporter had at least one front-page story in the Observer in the summer of 1956. We contacted the Observer's library to ask for the names of anyone with a front-page story in 1956 datelined in the Soviet Union, but came up with nothing.
The grand irony of Levine's decision to tell his government about the Soviet attempt to "subvert" him can be found in the other half of his FBI file: Reams of intelligence reports from a "confidential informant" who was conducting surveillance on him for the FBI. The reports go into great detail about Levine's private life and wedding plans, and appear to be based in part on wiretapped telephone conversations. Here's a taste of just a few:
UPDATE: The FBI documents describe William McAndrew, the NBC News official who accompanied Levine in his meeting with FBI agents to discuss the blackmail attempt, as "Director of Public Affairs, NBC." We knew that McAndrew was a former president of NBC News, so we assumed that in 1957 he was a publicist and later became president. His son just e-mailed to say that the FBI's designation was wrong, and that McAndrew had in fact been in charge of NBC News since 1951. We've corrected the post.