While recently shopping at Costco in Arlington, Va., I ran into a book-signing by W.E.B. Griffin and William E. Butterworth IV, promoting their just-published novel, The Double Agents. Griffin is one of several pen names of William Edward Butterworth III, a famous and much-lauded author of some 36 books, mostly military novels, including several best-sellers. (Full disclosure: His son and co-author is a graduate of the National Journalism Center, where I was once an editor, and the younger Butterworth has assisted the center over the years.)
After some small talk, I noted that the dust-jacket blurb on the new book referred to the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services), precursor of the CIA.
“I hope there’s something in here about Duncan Lee,” I said.
“No,” replied Griffin, “It’s about ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan,” referring to Maj. Gen. William Joseph Donovan, founder and head of the OSS.
“You know,” I ventured, “Donovan’s assistant, Duncan Lee, actually was a double agent for the Soviet Union.”
“‘Wild Bill’ Donovan’s assistant was a Soviet agent?” asked Griffin slowly, cocking an eyebrow at me in total disbelief. “Now that’s a story I can’t believe.” Next, he clearly figured, I’d be telling him black helicopter tales.
According to his website, Griffin is (among other things) a member of the Special Operations Association, the Order of St. George of the U.S. Armor Association and the Order of St. Andrew of the U.S. Army Aviation Association. He has received awards from the U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondents Association and the VFW, has honorary doctorates from Norwich University and Troy University and has been a graduation dinner speaker at West Point. He is also co-founder of the William E. Colby Seminar on Intelligence, Military and Diplomatic Affairs.
The Double Agents is the sixth book in Griffin’s “Men at War” series, each of which deals exclusively with the OSS. His novels, we are informed by his site, are “known for their historical accuracy.”
How could such a credentialed expert be so ill-informed about the most highly placed double agent the Soviets had in the OSS? Beats me, but the evidence against Lee is overwhelming. Moreover, the OSS was riddled with other important Communists, as now available FBI files, congressional investigations and the Venona intercepts of Communist cable traffic to Moscow make abundantly clear.
Lt. Col. Duncan Chaplin Lee was confidential assistant to Gen. Donovan from 1942-46. While serving in that capacity, according to Soviet courier Elizabeth Bentley, Lee furnished her with information on “anti-Soviet work by OSS” and other topics of interest to Moscow. As Bentley told the FBI when she defected in 1945, she transferred this information to her Soviet handlers.
In her August 1948 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA), Bentley expanded on these statements — under oath. She informed members that she personally knew Lee to be a Communist, “brought him Communist Party literature” and “collected his dues.”
He, in turn, furnished her “various types of information,” which she then turned over to Soviet agents, including, in Bentley’s words, details on “whether the OSS had spotted any of our people [meaning U.S. Communists]” in Donovan’s outfit.
Bentley added that Lee passed on other data that would prove useful to the Soviets.
As the Germans were retreating from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Bentley reported Lee as saying that various groups were working with the OSS to keep the Soviet troops out of their countries — knowledge that the Soviets would have been eager to secure. She insisted that Donovan’s key aide also told her that “something very secret was going on” at Oak Ridge, Tenn., an apparent reference to the Manhattan Project.
Bentley, whose credibility was repeatedly vouched for by the FBI, presumably sent along these pieces of critical information to her Soviet handlers as well.
Bentley was not the only one to tag Lee. In a footnote to one 1943 Venona decrypt, Arlington Hall cryptographers identify Lee as the Soviet double-agent operating inside OSS under the cover name “Koch.”
Another 1944 decrypt confirms that Lee tipped off Bentley about Donovan’s sending him on a secret mission to China that would become a topic of controversy after the fall of that country to communism.
Lee told HCUA that Bentley had lied about him but acknowledged the two had met socially several times while he was an OSS officer. He had also met her with Mary Price (a Soviet agent in the office of columnist Walter Lippmann) and veteran NKVD “handler” Jacob Golos. He had not the slightest idea, Lee said, that he was meeting with actual Communists. True, Bentley’s views did appear “extreme,” “communistic” and “pro-Soviet,” but he never looked upon her as a “suspicious person,” which would have required him to report her to his superiors.
Lee’s testimony elicited from one HCUA member, Rep. John McDowell (R.-Penn.), the comment that, for the first time “since the conspiracy of Aaron Burr, a high officer of the Army has been accused publicly of the violation of the Articles of War, [for] which he must certainly realize the penalties and the punishment.”
The sad truth, however, is that Lee was just one of many identified Soviet agents in the OSS. Others, as we now know from numerous impeccable sources, included Maurice Halperin, Carl Marzani, Franz Neumann, Helen Tenney, Julius and Bella Joseph and Lee’s Oxford classmate, Donald Niven Wheeler.