He carried out one murder with his own hands, planned at least one more, speaks with repellent offhandedness about still other assassinations. He is capable of warmth, though -- for his old boss, Lavrenti Beria, and for Beria's boss, Joseph Stalin; he still admires both even while acknowledging their "criminal activities." None of which by itself discredits Pavel Sudoplatov's sensational tales of Soviet espionage; in fact his closeness to Beria, Stalin's last secret-police chief (1938-53), whom he served as a spy master, put him in a position to know. But Sudoplatov's most stunning charge -- that world-renowned physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr and Leo Szilard knowingly funneled U.S. atom-bomb secrets to Moscow during the World War II era -- has been assailed by critics right and left, scientists and historians, American and Russian. They cite enough errors, inconsistencies and implausibilities to make a troubling case.
At issue is a single chapter, excerpted in the April 25 issue of TIME, of the book Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness -- A Soviet Spymaster. Though Sudoplatov and his son Anatoli are listed as the authors, the book was actually put together by American journalists Jerrold Schecter, a former Moscow bureau chief for TIME, and his wife Leona, from 20 hours of taped interviews with Sudoplatov, together with his official writings for KGB archives and other documents gathered by his son. The spymaster, however, now 86, read and signed the written Russian-language version of the disputed chapter. In it he asserts that Oppenheimer and the other physicists passed atomic secrets to people they knew to be Soviet moles, out of a desire to help the U.S.S.R., then an American ally, defeat Hitler, and because they believed widespread knowledge of the secrets of nuclear-bomb making would contribute to world peace. Sudoplatov alleges that Oppenheimer, Fermi and Szilard would leave secret papers available in laboratories, including the one in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was developed, knowing the moles would find and copy them.
That the Soviets did penetrate the Los Alamos laboratory and learn many valuable secrets that hastened the development of their own atom bomb is incontrovertible. But the allegation that physicists who are still idols in the world scientific community cooperated with the espionage network? "Gumshoe braggadocio," fumes Richard Rhodes, author of a 1986 Pulitzer- prizewinning book on the making of the A-bomb. Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb and a fervent anticommunist, scoffs at the idea that Fermi would ever have cooperated with the Soviets, because Fermi "clearly opposed the Stalinist nightmare."
In Moscow the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service -- a successor to the agency that Beria once headed and Sudoplatov worked for -- put out a rare public disclaimer. Sudoplatov's "allegations ((about)) Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Robert Oppenheimer," it said, "do not correspond to reality." Oleg Tsarev of the same agency, an in-house expert on atomic spying, says, "Having seen the summary file ((on nuclear espionage)), I can tell you there are no such names as Sudoplatov mentions in it." He makes one tiny exception: "One of our sources had a discussion with someone who knew Oppenheimer in 1945." But the report about the conversation was thirdhand and maddeningly vague, and nothing came of it.