On the surface, it seemed strange that Bill Harvey had been chosen to take over the Berlin Operations Base, one of the CIA’s most important and prestigious installations. He spoke no German, or any other foreign language, and he had no service overseas—he had never even been overseas. Unlike so many of his CIA colleagues, Harvey had not served with the OSS during the war, and had no dashing stories of time behind enemy lines.
Harvey did not look the type either. The former FBI G-man from Indiana was nothing like his more refined colleagues, with their boarding school pedigrees, Ivy League connections, and easy grace. Some were amused and more than a few appalled by Harvey, a blue-collar gumshoe who did not even own a trench coat. In a CIA then dominated by the blue-blooded eastern establishment, Harvey was defiantly, almost gleefully midwestern.
Just under six feet, with a bullet-shaped head and bulbous, pear-shaped body that was big and getting bigger, Harvey looked like a flatfoot from a Raymond Chandler novel. His eyes bulged from his head owing to a toxic thyroid nodule, giving him a perpetually manic look. Yet the lips beneath his pencil-thin mustache were strangely delicate—“a glamour-girl’s mouth in a toad’s face,” wrote Norman Mailer, who used Harvey as a character in his novel about the CIA. Harvey had a voice like an acetylene torch emanating from somewhere deep inside his gut. With little prompting, he could erupt with strings of obscenities that were as terrifying as they were creative.
Some suspected that his crude speech and “deliberately countrified manner” were calculated to shock his more genteel colleagues; indeed, the politer the company, the more he seemed to swear. Stories circulated of his rampant womanizing, though they were likely untrue and probably planted by Harvey himself to add to his persona.
What was not exaggerated was his drinking, which even by the prodigious CIA standards of the day was in a league of its own. Waiters at his favored lunch spots on Connecticut Avenue knew to have a pitcher of martinis waiting the moment they spotted his distinctive figure at the door, blocking light. Two generously poured martinis would be gulped down before the food even arrived, and another pair downed by the time Harvey ambled back to work with his distinctive “duck-like strut that was part waddle and part swagger.” Back at the office, it was not unusual to see him snoring at his desk by early afternoon.
Generally, Harvey was enshrouded in clouds of smoke from the three-plus packs of Camels or Chesterfields he inhaled every day. He sat at meetings paring his nails with a hunting knife, or repeatedly flipping the lid of his Zippo lighter, or, even more disconcertingly, spinning the cylinder of his snub-nosed revolver. No one else at the CIA regularly carried weapons, but Harvey always did, with one gun in a shoulder holster and often a second tucked in the back of his pants. “If you ever know as many secrets as I do, then you’ll know why I carry a gun,” he growled at anyone who asked.
Harvey was having lunch in Georgetown with Bill Hood, a CIA officer who had served in the OSS, when they noticed another officer at a nearby table. “Fucking namby-pamby,” Harvey growled. “Not worth shit.”
Hood stopped him short. “Listen, Bill, that man was a radio operator who jumped into France with less protection on him than you’re wearing right now.”
Beyond what he carried on his person, Harvey kept a virtual armory in his office, usually including a gun sitting in plain view atop his desk, as if he were awaiting an ambush. When visitors dropped in, he would fiddle with the weapon, loading it and gently letting the hammer down. Some theorized that his fascination with guns reflected a subconscious need to compensate for his lack of military service in World War II; others ascribed it to a frontier mentality. “Maybe, amateur psychoanalysis aside, he just liked firearms,” theorized David Murphy, a longtime colleague.
Regardless, there were good and obvious reasons to be sending Harvey to the world’s hottest intelligence battleground. He was a warrior, for whom “the Cold War was as real as . . . hand-to-hand combat,” one contemporary said. Harvey, it was said, had a nose for a spy. It had been Bill Harvey who had laid out the case in June 1951 that Kim Philby, the smooth and popular SIS liaison in Washington, was actually a KGB spy who had been draining Western intelligence of precious secrets for years. “He turned out to be right on Kim Philby and that counted for a lot,” said Tom Polgar, a CIA colleague.
The Philby episode was more proof of what even his detractors had to concede was true: No one in the young CIA knew more about Soviet intelligence than Harvey.
Some CIA officers attributed Harvey’s attitude to a sense of inferiority to the East Coast elite and envy that he was not part of the establishment. Others concluded that he simply did not like the “Yale boys,” as he often called them. What is clear is that Harvey never tried to fit into the prevailing East Coast ethos, not that it would have been remotely possible.
William King Harvey believed he was smarter than the Ivy Leaguers, and he was usually right. He was born in 1915 in Danville, Indiana, where his father, an attorney, died ten months after his birth. His mother, Sara King Harvey, who had studied at Oxford and held a PhD in Elizabethan literature, taught at Indiana State University at a time when females in academia were unusual. Bill, an only child, had a close bond with his mother, an elegant woman who spoke perfectly inflected English without a trace of the local Hoosier twang; the two engaged in Shakespeare quotation duels throughout her life. An Eagle Scout who finished high school early, Bill went to work at age fifteen as a reporter and printer at the newspaper owned by his grandfather.
In 1933, he entered Indiana State, where he excelled, completing the coursework at such a fast pace that he was admitted to the law school after only two years and graduated with a law degree in 1937. He also left Indiana a married man, having wed a fellow student, Libby McIntire. In March 1938, he opened a law practice in her hometown of Maysville, Kentucky, southeast of Cincinnati on the Ohio River. But his heart was never in it, nor did Harvey have anything close to the glad-handing demeanor helpful for a small-town lawyer.
Not long after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Harvey applied to the FBI, eager for some kind of action. A bureau special agent sent to investigate him found him to be self-confident and “very level-headed,” as well as possessing a “good vocabulary.” The applicant, he noted, “admits taking a social drink.” Harvey was offered a job in November 1940.
Harvey was assigned to the prestigious New York field office and was soon in the thick of FBI attempts to penetrate German espionage rings in the United States. He was part of a team that recruited an agent inside the German consulate in New York, leading to the arrest of thirty-seven reputed spies working for German military intelligence, known as the Abwehr. After Pearl Harbor, he pleaded for an assignment overseas, but his superiors wanted to keep his skills close to home. He was sent to the German desk at FBI headquarters in Washington, where his enthusiasm and expertise in combatting the Abwehr throughout the war were rated as “particularly outstanding.”
But Harvey had a streak of independence that drew the ire of the one person who mattered at the FBI—its powerful director, J. Edgar Hoover. In October 1945, shortly after the war’s end, Harvey approved a bugging operation in New York City without higher approval. Hoover was irate, telling him that he had “exercised extremely bad judgment.”
Despite this misstep, Harvey was soon thereafter among a trio of FBI agents who made up the first U.S. counterespionage team aimed at the Soviets. He was in the thick of a case that became one of the biggest spy stories of the time when it was made public several years later. In the fall of 1945, a woman named Elizabeth Bentley approached the FBI to confess that she had worked for years as a courier for a Soviet spy ring, exposing a shocking penetration of the U.S. government by Soviet intelligence. Eventually, she gave the names of more than a hundred people in the United States and Canada who were working for the Soviets, including twenty-seven people in government agencies, among them Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official.
For the next two years, Harvey was consumed with the investigation, working leads and gathering evidence, and in the process becoming an authority on Soviet espionage operations in the United States. Despite the tremendous volume of material collected, the FBI was unable to build enough of a case to prosecute anyone for espionage, although Hiss was later convicted of perjury. Harvey again drew high marks for his “vigorous, forceful and aggressive” work, and he was rated one of the best FBI supervisors in Washington in a 1947 efficiency report. “His grasp of the details of Russian espionage operations in this country was a revelation to most agents,” according to an FBI evaluation.
But his FBI career came to a sudden end when he again displeased Hoover. On the night of July 11, 1947, Harvey played poker and drank some beers at a farewell party in Arlington for an FBI agent who was being transferred. He was driving through Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington on his way home when his car stalled in a heavy downpour. Unable to get the engine restarted, he dozed off in the car. By the time he awoke, it was 10 a.m., and when he made his way home, he found that his worried wife had contacted his office. He immediately called to report that he was fine, but it was too late—an investigation had started. The FBI’s head of domestic security, Mickey Ladd—who had been at the party—reported “no indication that Harvey was drinking any more or any less than anyone else.” But beyond driving intoxicated, Harvey had violated one of Hoover’s strict rules: Agents were required to either telephone the office every two hours or leave a phone number where they could be reached.
Harvey’s supervisors recommended leniency, considering his talent and the long hours he put in on the job. Hoover saw it differently, directing that Harvey be transferred to the Indianapolis office, a humiliation for someone of his experience. Within weeks, Harvey resigned from the bureau.
The CIA was only too happy to have Harvey. Several weeks after his resignation, he was hired by the Central Intelligence Group, which soon thereafter became the CIA. The fledgling agency had almost no counterintelligence expertise. Harvey arrived with high prestige as an expert on Soviet espionage, which was exactly what the CIA needed. “No one cared that Harvey had run afoul of J. Edgar Hoover’s chickenshit regulations,” recalled Tom Polgar.
Harvey was soon assigned to be chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff. He made waves from the start, gaining notice with his intense focus, hard work, and air of self-assurance. “He was a full speed ahead type of guy,” Polgar said. Beyond that, Harvey had what colleagues called an “extraordinary counterintelligence mind.” They were astonished by the encyclopedic recall he had of every detail of every case from every file he had ever looked at in his years studying Soviet intelligence at the FBI. “Here was a guy from Indiana, who had no foreign background and spoke no foreign languages,” said Murphy. “It was strange to find a guy who was as well informed as he was on Soviet activity with no background on Soviet affairs.”
Hoover was infuriated at Harvey’s hire, particularly as he realized how much the CIA valued him. In July 1950, Hoover sent an emissary to Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter, the CIA director, to complain that Harvey was being “hostile” to the FBI in his liaison work with the bureau on counterintelligence issues. Hillenkoetter replied that “Harvey’s sarcasm was merely the result of a forceful and ambitious personality,” but he nonetheless ordered Harvey to “tone down” his language.
In January 1951, Kim Philby hosted the most ill-fated dinner party in the history of the nation’s capital, or at least since the British captured Washington in 1814, found the White House dining room table set for dinner, and torched the building after eating the meal.
Philby, serving as the SIS liaison in Washington, invited all his FBI and CIA contacts and their wives to his home on Nebraska Avenue in Northwest Washington. The two dozen guests included the FBI mole hunter Robert Lamphere and the cadaver-like James Angleton, a rising force in the CIA who had been unwittingly spilling secrets to Philby for years during long, alcohol-infused lunches.
Also present were the Harveys. Bill Harvey was Philby’s closest contact in the CIA, other than Angleton. Though Harvey had “a dim view of almost everything British,” Helms recalled, he had been impressed when Philby arrived in Washington in 1949. “At last the Limeys have sent someone over here that I can talk business with,” he told a colleague.
Philby, for his part, was privately dismissive of Harvey, considering him a hick and a drunk. The first time Bill and Libby attended a dinner party at his home, Philby later wrote, Bill Harvey “fell asleep over the coffee and sat snoring gently until midnight when his wife took him away, saying: ‘Come now, Daddy, it’s time you were in bed.’”
At the party on January 19, 1951, it was Libby Harvey—herself a heavy drinker, often ill at ease in the Washington social swirl, and unhappy in her marriage—who was in her cups even before arriving. “She’d already had a lot to drink and wanted to share her disgust at the entire array of dinner guests and the party itself with anyone who’d listen,” recalled Lamphere. “Somehow she became my dinner partner, and I spent most of the meal attempting to quiet her.” The tenseness at the dinner was not eased by the awkward discomfort of CIA and FBI guests who by and large did not like each other.
Into this combustible scene walked a drunken Guy Burgess, one of Philby’s Cambridge classmates who had been recruited into the spy ring in the 1930s. Burgess’s wildly excessive drinking and notorious ill behavior had hampered his usefulness as a Soviet spy. He had recently been assigned to the British embassy in Washington as a second secretary and was staying as a houseguest at Philby’s home.
Burgess, a skilled sketch artist, began an inebriated conversation with Libby Harvey. “How extraordinary to see the face I’ve been doodling all my life,” he slurred. Libby invited him to sketch her portrait. Burgess responded with a lewd sketch portraying Libby with her dress hiked above her waist. When Burgess showed the finished work to party guests, Libby burst into tears. Outraged, Bill Harvey took a wild swing at Burgess, missed, and then jumped on the British diplomat, throttling him with both hands around his neck. Philby and two guests managed to pull Harvey off. Angleton took Harvey on a walk around the block to cool him down. The Harveys departed in a huff, and the party wound down without further violence.
A distraught Philby sat in his kitchen afterwards with his head in his hands. Harvey was a bad enemy to have. “How could you?” Philby moaned repeatedly to the unabashed Burgess. He took Harvey to lunch the next day trying to make amends for the incident. “I had apologized handsomely for [Burgess’s] behavior, and the apology had apparently been accepted,” he later said.
But if Harvey forgave, he certainly did not forget.
On May 25, 1951, a rented Austin pulled up in a hurry shortly before midnight on a dock in Southampton, England. Out popped Guy Burgess, accompanied by Donald Maclean, another member of the Cambridge spy ring. Abandoning the car at the dock, the two scrambled up a gangplank and boarded a cross-Channel ferry bound for Saint-Malo, France, the start of a journey that would take them in short order to Switzerland, Prague, and then Moscow. They would never return.
Maclean had escaped in the nick of time. For a while, VENONA intercepts had raised suspicion that the Soviets had a highly placed spy, code-named Homer, in the British embassy in Washington. Not long after Philby’s dinner party, an intercept decoded at Arlington Hall pointed to the likelihood that Homer was Maclean, who had been stationed in Washington from 1944 to 1948.
Getting wind that Maclean was in danger, Philby had sent Burgess to Britain with an urgent warning for Maclean that he needed to escape to Russia. But Philby had not expected that Burgess would run too—a development that left Philby dangerously exposed.
Maclean’s disappearance raised grave alarms in London and Washington. It was not very long before Burgess’s involvement with the escape led to curiosity about Philby’s role in all this, particularly in the mind of Harvey. The dinner party incident earlier that year had “fixed the relationship of Philby and Burgess with outraged clarity in his mind,” author David Martin wrote in Wilderness of Mirrors.
Harvey’s opinion of Philby “had thoroughly eroded” by now, Helms said. Harvey pored over everything that was known about Philby’s life and career, working through the facts in his analytic mind. As he sat stuck in traffic one morning on the way to work, the pieces suddenly clicked: Philby’s embrace of left-wing ideology as a young student; a cryptic warning in 1940 from a Soviet defector about a British spy who matched Philby’s biography; an aborted defection in Istanbul in 1945 of a KGB officer, whom Philby had been in a position to betray; and now the flight of Maclean and Burgess. Not only was Philby one of the few people in a position to know the suspicions about Maclean, but he was a close friend of Burgess. On June 13, 1951, Harvey sent his findings to the CIA director, Walter Bedell Smith. Harvey’s memo was a tour de force laying out the case that Philby was a Soviet spy. Angleton submitted his own memo a few days later, with far more equivocation. Smith was persuaded, and soon afterwards sent a chilly letter to Stewart Menzies, or “C,” as the head of SIS was known, presenting the memos and insisting that Philby be removed as liaison in Washington.
Philby had already been summoned back to London for questioning by MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency roughly equivalent to the FBI, which had its own growing suspicions. Given the case against him, Philby had little choice but to resign. But the evidence was not clear-cut enough to arrest him without a confession, leaving him on the periphery of SIS with a cloud of suspicion over his head.
Philby later learned that Smith’s demand had been based largely on Harvey’s memo, which, he fumed, was a “cheap trick” and a “retrospective exercise in spite” for the dinner party debacle. What annoyed Philby the most was the realization that his treachery, which had fooled the best minds of Western intelligence for more than a decade, had been discovered by Bill Harvey, “of all people!”
Now Bill Harvey, of all people, was headed to Berlin. Even at the highest levels of the CIA, very few people knew the real reason for the assignment: Harvey would oversee the development, construction, and operation of a long tunnel into East Berlin to tap into Soviet military communication lines.
From the book BETRAYAL IN BERLIN: The True Story of the Cold War’s Most Audacious Espionage Operation by Steve Vogel. Copyright © 2019 by Steve Vogel. From Custom House, a line of books from William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.