Monday, May 11, 2015

T.A. Bisson - an Accomplice to Totalitarianism

Of the many Soviet spies to infiltrate the United States government, Thomas Arthur Bisson was one of the most sophisticated. Born in New York in 1900, he had a successful academic career and published books and articles, mainly about eastern Asia.

But Bisson’s espionage activities make him partly responsible for deaths in China and Europe.

As part of his academic cover, Bisson was employed by the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), ostensibly a think-tank studying the diplomatic relations between various east Asian nations, but in reality a communist front organization. In the IPR, Bisson was in contact with Owen Lattimore, another known Soviet agent.

Bisson also worked for two publications, Amerasia and China Today. An FBI investigation discovered that the offices of Amerasia held hundreds of stolen classified documents from various government agencies.

Writing for these, and other, periodicals, Bisson could implement Mao’s disinformation campaign in the U.S., attempting to create a public perception of the Chinese communists as “democratic,” e.g., in the IPR’s periodical Far Eastern Review.

During the 1930s and 1940s, China was in the midst of an internal conflict between Mao’s communists and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists. The Soviet Union was fully backing Mao, while the United States was giving only a half-hearted effort to the nationalists.

The role of Bisson and other Soviet operatives was to keep U.S. support for Chiang Kai-Shek to a minimum, and to undermine whatever support was given.

Evidence about Bisson’s activities comes, in part, from the Venona project, an undertaking by U.S. intelligence agencies to intercept and decrypt messages between various members of Soviet espionage network. Exploring the mountains of data gathered by the Venona project, historian Stan Evans writes:

So who was T.A. Bisson? Here is what Venona tells us, in a message from Soviet agents in New York back to Moscow Center:

Bisson handed over reams of information, including reports from not only the American military, but also from the British military. The numbers and locations of troops, internal discussions about negotiating with Maoists about locating U.S. airfields in China, and data about trade between Japan and China were among classified topics about which Bisson informed Moscow.

The Soviets were eager to get classified information from the Board of Economic Warfare, a government panel on which Bisson worked during the war. Evans quotes at length from the Soviet document.

Marquis [Soviet espionage agent Joseph Bernstein] has established friendly relations with T.A. Bisson (hereafter Arthur) … who has recently left BEW [Board of Economic Warfare]; he is now working in the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) and in the editorial office of Marquis’ periodical [Amerasia]. Arthur passed to Marquis … copies of four documents: (a) his own report for BEW with his views on working out a plan for shipment of American troops to China; (b) a report by the Chinese embassy in Washington to its government in China … (c) a brief report of April 1943 on a general evaluation of the forces on the sides of the Soviet-German front … (d) a report by the American consul in Vladivostok …

During the 1940s, during the war, Bisson reported to the GRU, a lesser-known Soviet intelligence agency. The more famous KGB was not founded until 1954. Joseph Bernstein worked for the GRU, and Bisson delivered information to Bernstein, which Bernstein then forwarded to Moscow.

According to the FBI, the Joseph Bernstein receiving this material was a self-identified Soviet spy who would play an equally sinister role in later cases of subversion.

After the war, Bisson left New York and his GRU contacts for a while, working in Japan for the U.S. military, “first with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, then as adviser to the Chief, Government Section, GHQ, SCAP” according to the Fogler Library at the University of Maine. Working with Douglas MacArthur, who had the title Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), Bisson once again had access to classified documents and forwarded them to the Soviets.

The narratives about Bisson, Bernstein, and Lattimore find their context in the larger setting of the Cold War era. The end of WWII, the Soviet acquisition of America’s secret atomic technology, and the Korean War shaped this time period. Stan Evans describes it:

The latter 1940s and early ’50s were a time of tense, explosive conflict, in the world at large and in the politics of our nation. Soviet expansionism in Europe, the battle for control of China, and the 1950 invasion of South Korea would shatter once-euphoric dreams of post-war cooperation with the Kremlin. American policy dealing with this rapidly changing scene was, to put it mildly, often confused, naive, slow to respond, and contradictory (reflecting a lot of intramural combat). Correlative to all this were such domestic scandals as the Amerasia case, the first exposés of atomic spying, the testimony of ex-Communists Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, and other such disclosures.

So Bisson was working both for Mao and for Stalin. Nudging U.S. policy in ways favorable for the Chinese communists and disclosing confidential national security documents to the Soviets, Bisson was double threat. Because not all the evidence was available at the time, U.S. intelligence officials didn’t have access to the Venona transcripts cited above. They knew that Bisson was a security risk, but they didn’t

didn’t know for sure how bad, as reflected in these transcripts. That secret would be locked up for fifty years, known only to the Kremlin and the keepers of Venona.

Bisson would continue to promote totalitarianism for years to come. He was still active during the Vietnam War.