In Spy vs. Spy by Ronald Kessler, who was the main spy? How do we know he was the main spy? What things set him apart? What mistakes do you think were made during the process of determining the...

In Spy vs. Spy by Ronald Kessler, who was the main spy? How do we know he was the main spy? What things set him apart?

What mistakes do you think were made during the process of determining the security competency of the main spy? Should the subject, or main spy, have been issued with a security clearance? What reasons would you give for your recommendation?


Expert Answers
Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main spy of Spy vs. Spy--which is a retrospective of a plethora of spies who were caught during the same period of time as that during which the main spy was identified, caught and traded--was introduced in the Introduction (thus if you skip reading the Introduction, you find yourself a bit swamped and awash).

With his mustache and fur-lined coat, Karl F. Koecher looked like a fox. His wife, Hana, wore a mik coat and high white mink hat. Blonde and sexy, with incredibly large blue eyes, she looked like a movie star. ... Koecher was a member of the Czechoslovakian Intelligence Service who had worked for the CIA from 1973 to 1977. Because of the shroud of secrecy surrounding his case, very little else was know about him. ... The CIA wanted it that way.

The main spy was Karl F. Koecher, and he developed a spy "legend" (life story applicable to past, present and future) revolving around a faked defection from Communist Czechoslovakia to democratic Austria. His wife Hana participated with Karl in the phony defection to the West and in Karl's spying activities, although she always maintained a secondary role as courier who left information and picked up information.

Karl Koecher is an educated, intelligent man. One of his failings was that, as a Czechoslovakian, he had a bit more arrogant pride in his academic accomplishments than might be present in an American with similar academic accomplishments. Since this pride was coupled with arrogance, his attitude was in part responsible for the way his spying activities were ultimately limited and eventually ended. This is not to say, though, that over his twenty-year espionage career with the CIA (as an employee, then later as a contract analyst) he did not expose very much, very important information that had very significant effects.

  • He gave the then Soviet Union details of "top secret" operations against Soviets and against allies.
  • He disclosed names of CIA operatives in the U.S. and abroad.
  • He gave them a list of operatives and diplomats who might be blackmailed, especially because of sexual activities, into acting as "double agents" who pass U.S. secrets to their Soviet handlers.
  • He exposed Aleksander D. Ogorodnik, who had defected to the U.S. and was "turned" so that he continued to be employed as a diplomat in Moscow yet acted as a U.S. asset, a "mole" in the Soviet government, who passed many important secrets to the U.S. After Koecher exposed him as a mole to the Soviets, Ogorodnik took a poison pill the CIA had loaded into his ink pen to use in the event of his capture. In a very dramatic moment, Ogorodnik told his Soviet captors that he would write his confession to being a mole but requested that he be allowed to use the pen from his own desk. The pen was brought to him. He liberated and swallowed the pill, dying within seconds.

How Do We Know Koecher Is the Main Spy?

There are three ways to tell that Koecher is the main spy.

  • Introduction.
  • Dates of all the other spy stories.
  • Looping events returning to Koecher.


Kessler opens the Introduction with Shcharansky, who was a very important Soviet dissident (protester against Soviet policy and Communism) imprisoned for nine years in Russia and for whom the U.S. had repeatedly tried to negotiate a release during that time. Shcharansky was not a spy, but he sets the framework of importance for the Soviet spy who will be introduced in the third paragraph and for whom Shcharansky was traded: Shcharansky went free in the West, while Koecher went free as a returned spy in the Soviet Union. Karl. F. Koecher is the first spy introduced and the spy to whom the Introduction is devoted. Therefore, Koecher is the main spy.

Dates of other spy stories.

Koecher was captured, detained for interviewing, then arrested after having made a partial confession in November of 1984 and, after being continually detained in prison, was traded for Shcharansky in 1986. As Kessler unfolds deeper insights into espionage activity in the U.S., each story, such as those of Pollard and Jefferies, has discovery, surveillance and arrest dates in between 1984 to 1987, showing a surprising correlation of activity--though with no connection between people, motives or events--with the dramatic climactic end of Koecher's spy career. Karl F. Koecher is the centrifugal point around which all the other spy stories Kessler reports revolve. Therefore, Koecher is the main spy.

Looping events returning to Kowcher.

As Kessler discusses the personalities and activities of other spies and of double agents (loyal U.S. citizens who agreed to act for the FBI as anti-U.S. spies giving planted intelligence to the Soviets for the purpose of exposing Soviet espionage), he returns again and again to how the discussion is relevant to the case of Koecher and Hana. Karl F. Koecher is the spy to whom Kessler repeatedly recalls the focus of his other spy accounts, and Koecher's story is the one the others are used to illustrate. Therefore, Koecher is the main spy.

What Things Set Koecher Apart from the Other Spies?

The first thing that sets Koecher apart is that he had successfully established an "illegal legend" identity through which he stole U.S. secrets, handing them over to the Czech and Soviet governments, for twenty years (though different intelligence services, the Czech and Soviet intelligence agencies were inextricably linked). The second thing that sets him apart is that he was employed by, then a contract analyst for, the CIA for most of the years that he lived in the U.S. The third thing that sets him apart is that he was a foreign national, a citizen of Czechoslovakia, who applied for and was granted U.S. citizenship.

Other things that set him apart are that he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia while spying for the Czech and Soviet governments; he taught at U.S. universities while spying; though a Communist by philosophical orientation and national loyalty, he posed as being extremely anti-communist; he expressed opinions that were taken by most to mean he was anti-Semitic (anti-Jew) even though his father was Catholic and his mother was Jewish with strong family ties to Judaism (his grandparents lost their lives in the Holocaust); he maintained what is commonly thought of as a wild, immoral lifestyle that included "spouse swamping" at large, organized (not spontaneous) sex parties.

Security Competence Investigation of Koecher

One of the questions Kessler asked Koecher when he is interviewing him and Hana in Prague, Czechoslovakia, was about what mistakes the CIA made during his security clearance investigation. Koecher's answer was that, in his opinion, the CIA did nothing wrong and could have done nothing differently. There is room for debate on that opinion as we shall see. He further answers that he himself would have done nothing differently.

I asked if the CIA could have done a better job screening him. He called the lie-detector tests "useless" and bragged, "They couldn't have done anything better. I believe if I went back and started it over again, I would use the same ways."

However, if we disregard Koecher's narrow, self-aggrandizing perspective (a perspective that periodically prevented him from recognizing the true state of affairs) and focus on the full picture that emerges from Kessler's extensive interviews and research, we can say that the CIA could and ought to have done better on several important aspects of Koecher's security competence investigation, also know as security screening or clearance or as vetting. The important aspects are:

  • Polygraph checks
  • Background checks.
  • Lifestyle checks.

Polygraph checks. Despite Koecher's denunciation of polygraph tests as simplistic, of the three polygraph tests he took for either the CIA or, later, the FBI (he at one point attempted to become a double mole, spying for the CIA and the FBI), he flunked the latter two while "signs of deceit" were indicated in the first, although these signs were discounted by the polygraph expert. Had the original polygraph reading been more carefully attended to with more serious consideration given and had a new, preferably more in-depth, polygraph test been given, it is entirely possible that Koecher would not have succeeded in his plan to infiltrate the U.S. government as a mole.

Background check. Before applying to the CIA, Koecher made several successful applications to various university programs and teaching positions. When all his various applications are compared, there are discrepancies in his explanations for why he did not serve in the Czech military and for what academic degrees he had actually earned in Czechoslovakia. While not terribly significant in itself since the overall truths were accurate--he had not served in the military and he had several high post-graduate degrees or certificates of study--when combined with "signs of deceit" on a polygraph test, it ought to have been enough to trigger deeper investigation and more thorough vetting.

Lifestyle checks. Koecher's life displayed several extreme lifestyle characteristics that, had they been uncovered during his security screening, might have sent up red flags in and of themselves. First, he was reported by friends, academic colleagues, and those he had business dealings with to have a violent, explosive temper. The consistency of the reports expose an arrogant man who demanded deferential treatment and who was used to using emotional violence to exert his dominance. These are traits that run contrary to the expectation of requirements for a covert agent handling top secrets in the U.S. government.

Second, he was reported by colleagues and friends to have extremely vehement anti-communist sentiments, sentiments that brooked no discussion and demanded to be accepted without challenge. Some assert he consistently expressed a decided anti-Semite sentiment as well. The kind of vehemence he expressed again shows a characteristic that runs contrary to a role in the secret services of the U.S. government, which has multiple layers of hierarchy and regulations governing it, hierarchies and regulations that cannot be disregarded without serious consequences to secret operations and to individuals in the operations.

Third, the Koechers readily participated in the "swinging lifestyle" that they discovered in Washington D.C. and the D.C. environs of Virginia. They attended sex clubs established for the purpose of married couples engaging with multiple sex partners, and they attended nudist clubs noted for the same practices. Alcohol and drugs were parts of all these activities. Blackmail is one of the most common ways in the world of secret services used against an agent to "turn" and force them to betray their country and become a "double agent." Sexual activities are the most frequent fodder used for blackmail. Had these lifestyle activities been uncovered during the security competence investigation, and had it been weighed in light of "signs of deceit" and background discrepancies, it is conceivable that the CIA would have stopped Koecher in 1973.

Reasons for not Giving Security Clearance

All these taken together, polygraph discrepancies, background discrepancies, and dubious volatile lifestyle choices certainly provide reasons for not having given Koecher a security clearance (and for investigating him further for attempting to infiltrate the CIA for purposes of espionage). Had the CIA practiced greater caution (they later hired a man named Edward despite a drug problem that led him to spy for the Soviets and defect to the Soviet Union), they would not have hired Koecher and surely could not have given him top security clearance.

Read the study guide:
Spy Vs. Spy

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question
Additional Links