Ann Hagedorn Tells Story of How Soviet Sleeper Agent George Koval Successfully Spied on America

George Koval was an ideal spy, in part because he was born and raised in Iowa. He was also already part of typical American culture.

The story of George Koval is like something out of “The Americans.” Koval was a deeply embedded Soviet spy, living and working in the United States. And no one ever suspected it.

He was an ideal spy, in part because he was born and raised in Iowa.

Journalist Ann Hagedorn wrote about Koval’s atomic espionage in “Sleeper Agent: The Atomic Spy in America Who Got Away.” And she spoke with Inside Edition Digital to tell Koval’s story. 

“You’re going to have to make a decision to commit to this life or to get out. It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always end well,” Hagedorn said about George Koval.

“George Koval is a fascinating Soviet spy,” she adds. “Partly because he's Red Army military-trained intelligence officer, and because he was born and raised in Iowa."

Koval was a Soviet spy living and working in the United States. He was born in Sioux City on Christmas Day of 1913 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents.

The 1920s and '30s saw a spike in anti-Semitism in the U.S., with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist campaigns. The Kovals wanted out, Ann explained, and decided to return to Russia.

“They left in 1932 to return to the Soviet Union because the new Russia after the Russian revolution had made anti-Semitism illegal," Hagedorn said. "And then was welcoming Jews to come to what was called the Jewish Autonomous Region.

"So, what happened between their coming to America to escape anti-Semitism and then returning to the Soviet Union in 1932 to hopefully, in their mind, bringing their three children was to escape anti-Semitism and to participate in the Communist ideal of ending world oppression," she continued.

Koval studied chemistry at a Russian institute. Eventually, he was recruited by Soviet intelligence. And while his family members would never return to the U.S., Koval did as a sleeper agent.

“A sleeper agent just is a spy who blends into the target country,” Hagedorn said. “But what's very interesting is the immense training that goes into creating a sleeper agent.”

Hagedorn said that for Koval, the training period was probably less than usual because he was already part of typical American culture.

“He loved baseball. He was a skilled shortstop. He could reel off the history and stats of every big-league pitcher. He played Bridge," she said. "He was a reader. He read poetry. He read Walt Whitman, Longfellow. He could actually recite poems from those poets, American poets. And he was quite the ladies' man. He obviously blended in quite well. He just fit into the American culture.”

And so he did when he returned to the U.S. in 1940. He took science classes at Columbia University and played his role to the hilt.

“He didn't mingle with members of the Communist Party USA," Hagedorn said. “He didn't mingle with people who believed as he did in some of the Communist ideals. He joined, he belonged to a bowling league. He belonged to an honorary fraternity for electrical engineers.”

Koval later enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was able to test into a special technical program. And that led to his being posted at two of the important research centers for the Manhattan Project: America’s atomic bomb program. There he worked as a health physicist.

This gave him access and allowed him to know what was happening at these highly secretive sites, Hagedorn said. 

“And health physicists had to learn the basic chemical properties of all the radioactive materials they were monitoring," she said. “Think about that. They were asked to be present whenever repair work was done on any equipment at any of the plants. And no shipment could leave Oak Ridge or Dayton without the approval of the health physicists.

“He had access to all offices and labs in Oak Ridge. He even had a jeep," she continued. "So, here he was, a U.S. Army Corporal who had been trained as a spy in the Soviet Union. He was a Red Army Intelligence Officer. And he had all of this access.”

Hagedorn said Koval relayed intelligence back to the Soviet Union that changed the course of the Cold War.

“Koval sent information about polonium, the fuel, the essential fuel for the trigger of the atomic bomb. He sent a lot of details about radiation safety," she said. "And toward the end of the research in the building of the atomic bomb, the Soviet's atomic bomb, that became more crucial than ever because they didn't want to lose any of the experts and the scientists who were, at that point, in those closing maybe eight to 10 to 12 months of building the Soviet atomic bomb.”

This quickened the development of the Soviet atomic bomb. Because while America had to experiment and go through a process of elimination to get it right, what Koval sent to the Soviet Union quickened their development of an atomic bomb, she said.

“Their first atomic bomb, their big test was in August of 1949. And that was very quick,” Hagedorn pointed out. “Fifty percent of what the Soviets knew about the atomic bomb came from espionage.”

In the end, Koval was never detected. He fled the U.S. in 1948, returning to his family in the Soviet Union. His identity as a Soviet spy was only discovered in 1954. By then, he had secured a teaching job at an institute near Moscow. 

He died there in 2006, at the age of 92.

“The year after he passed away, about a year-and-a-half after he passed away, Vladimir Putin gave him a posthumous award called The Hero of the Federation, a very high-level award,” Hagedorn said.

And according to Hagedorn, towards the end of his life, a colleague asked Koval if he had any regrets about what he had done.

“He told Arnold he had no regrets,” she said. “No regrets.”

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