SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The Portland Spy Ring was notorious, legendary and dangerously successful. In 1961, British intelligence discovered spies stealing secrets from the highly classified submarine research center at Portland in the U.K. The events have wound up, one way or another, in plays and novels over the years. Now Trevor Barnes has plunged into newly declassified documents and several national archives to tell the true story, "Dead Doubles: The Extraordinary Worldwide Hunt For One Of The Cold War's Most Notorious Spy Rings."
Trevor Barnes joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
TREVOR BARNES: Pleasure.
SIMON: So many characters in this story - real people - with so many names and identities. Let's try and center the story on a few - the Krogers, charming middle-aged couple living in London, antiquarian book dealers. Except they weren't the Krogers at all, were they?
BARNES: They were not, indeed. They were Morris and Lona Cohen, who were two top deep-cover KGB spy illegals who had started spying for Moscow in the late 1930s, spied for them during the war and after World War II before splitting (ph) and disappearing suddenly in the summer of 1950 from New York City.
SIMON: And there they were, posing as, you know, antiquarian book dealers in London, in many ways very open about their political beliefs, weren't they?
BARNES: In London, they kept on very quiet, actually, Scott. I mean, they did not want to attract attention to themselves while they were trying to hide undercover in this sleepy northwest London suburb called Ruislip. And their real role in the spy ring was to act as radio and communications operators for the ringleader of the spy ring, who was pretending to be a Canadian businessman selling jukeboxes under the name of Gordon Lonsdale.
SIMON: The Cohens were his facilitators, in a sense, weren't they? They were his communications apparatus.
BARNES: Exactly right. Kroger himself was making sure he made friends in the antiquarian book selling world in London, going to auctions. He even played in their cricket matches all over. The story at the time was that he wielded the cricket bat like a baseball bat...
BARNES: ...And sort of whacked the ball in that sort of way. But they didn't hide their foreignness in any way at all. Their real role, as you say, was to be the communications operators, so they were collecting together secrets that were brought to them by Gordon Lonsdale, and then they would feeding them to Moscow either using their amazing, state-of-the-art radio transmitter or via things called microdots.
SIMON: Why have the figures of the Krogers, the Cohens and Gordon Lonsdale - how did they wind up becoming postage stamps in today's Russia? What does today's Russia see in them?
BARNES: In Vladimir Putin's modern Russia, spies are icons. It's not just the saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. It's also spies. Having worked in the KGB himself, Vladimir Putin has very, very close relations with the intelligence services. And as a result, there's been this long history of which simply Vladimir Putin's alleged domination (ph) of praising and making icons of spies. So when the role of the Cohens, Konon Molody was recognized in Russia, postage stamps were issued with their faces on. And this is particularly strange to, I think, us in the West.
SIMON: Except for movies, do we need spies anymore, or have they been superseded by hackers?
BARNES: No, I think we absolutely do need spies. And it's a dangerous world that we're living in. It's a very uncertain world. China has, I think, been underestimated by a lot of people over the past decade or two. They have an enormous spying operation, which is operating against the West in particular, focused on stealing our technological and other secrets.
And also, it's become apparent that a number of these nations are trying to undermine our electoral processes. It's, therefore, important that we know what the other states in the world which are interested in undermining the West in certain ways are up to.
And for that, it's useful to have spies in the sky - satellites. But it's also crucial to have spies who can assess intentions, what's going to happen in the future and work out a pretty good idea of what's going on around the world to enable our policymakers and politicians to make the best possible decisions in the interest of us, the people.
SIMON: Trevor Barnes - his book "Dead Doubles" - thanks so much for being with us.
BARNES: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.