‘Beautiful Blond Spy Queen’
FINGERED FORMER PM AS SOURCE
OF ‘TOP-LEVEL’ BRITISH INFORMATION
BY JACK AUBRY, THE OTTAWA CITIZEN, OCTOBER 4, 1998
Secret FBI files
as Soviet agent
NFB DIRECTOR CITED AS LINK TO PEARSON
AT DAWN OF COLD WAR
Just call him Comrade Lester B. Pearson.
Was the former prime minister a Communist sympathizer who was part of a Canadian wartime espionage ring for the Russians? That’s what it says in the massive FBI file on him.
American security officials, especially FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, were very suspicious of the Nobel Peace Prize winner during the 1950s and 1960s. It all had to do with Mr. Pearson’s friendship with a couple of members of that subversive agency, the National Film Board of Canada.
The often-comic, error-filled file contains hundreds of documents. It was released to the Citizen under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and it reveals the FBI’s suspicions began in 1951, after a former Soviet espionage courier, Elizabeth Bentley, who one writer called the ‘Beautiful Blond Spy Queen,’ told the bureau she received information from Mr. Pearson through a Canadian intermediary in Washington.
With the Cold War at its peak, the FBI was interested in any link to the Soviets. The bureau re-interviewed Mr. Bentley about her Pearson contact, which occurred between 1943 and 1944 when he was the first secretary of the Canadian embassy in Washington.
Ms. Bentley said she obtained information “on top-level British policy and political matters” from a Canadian working for the film board in Washington. She said the information from the Canadian contact came from conversations he had had with his friend Mr. Pearson.
See FBI on page A2.
FBI: ‘Pearson either knew …
or was stupid’
Continued from page A1
Ms. Bentley told the FBI that although she never met him, she “got the impression that Pearson was a left winger” and she also believed that he was sympathetic to the loyalist cause in the Spanish civil war.
The author of a 1953 book called Out of Bondage, Ms. Bentley said she knew that Mr. Pearson was also a friend of the late John Grierson, the head of the film board who was also suspected of being a Communist.
On whether Mr. Pearson knew his information was being fed to Ms. Bentley, the FBI file says: “She was of the opinion that Pearson either knew that the information made available by him was being given to an unauthorized person or that he was simply stupid.”
In February 1953, when newspapers began reporting that Mr. Pearson, by then Canada’s external affairs minister, was a top candidate to become the secretary-general of the United Nations, memos began flying from the FBI.
The U.S. State Department and Department of Justice were told about Ms. Bentley and Mr. Pearson.
The file shows “certain New York reporters” were asking about Mr. Pearson and Ms. Bentley. Mr. Hoover sent memos to the attorney general and John Ford, the director of the office of security in the U.S. State Department, briefing them about the allegations “since there could conceivably be adverse publicity concerning Mr. Pearson.”
The story never became public. But when it came time for the vote on the top UN post, the U.S. withheld its support of Mr. Pearson. They explained their move was strategic, intended to fool the Russians from believing Mr. Pearson was an American puppet.
Mr. Pearson won the vote but the Russians vetoed his appointment. Eventually the Swede Dag Hammarskjold was the compromise winner.
Later that fall, the matter came up again when the Canadian government was resisting requests from a U.S. committee to re-interview Igor Gouzenko, the former clerk in the Russian Embassy at Ottawa who had exposed an espionage ring in 1946 that included a Canadian MP.
On Nov. 23, 1953, the Toronto Star reported that Mr. Pearson was on the verge of being named by the U.S. Internal Security Committee as a suspect in a Communist spy ring during the Second World War.
It quoted Mr. Pearson saying the Canadian government was being “blackmailed” to gain access to Mr. Gouzenko.
He also commented on Ms. Bentley’s accusation that he had participated in a spy ring: “I need only say that in so far as it refers to the Department of External Affairs or myself, it is false to the point of absurdity.
After helping the committee’s request to speak to Mr. Gouzenko, Mr. Pearson was never called before the committee.
Mr. Pearson’s comments clearly irked the FBI. In a heavily blacked out memo, one agent wrote that “Pearson is confused.” Mr. Hoover also wrote in a memo that Pearson’s comments were “annoying.”
In his memoirs, Mr. Pearson defends the alleged Canadian intermediary between him and Ms. Bentley. He says the man became a prominent Quebec citizen “of unimpeachable loyalty and considerable achievement” after Mr. Pearson managed to keep his name out of the newspapers.
“He certainly was not an agent of any kind,” wrote Mr. Pearson.
“I have no doubt that he talked about me, saying he had seen me at the Embassy and that I had said that the Russians were going to break through in the Ukraine, or some such thing. The committee really thought they had got hold of something.”
The FBI continued keeping an eye on the minister.
A subsequent memo in the file said that in 1945, a person who was the subject of a pending internal security investigation had listed Mr. Pearson as a reference when applying for a relief job with the UN.
The next memo in his file, dated April, 1957, would confirm any suspicions Mr. Pearson ever had that “big brother” was listening. An FBI agent reports that he had been told a story about a visit the Canadian politician made to NBC studios in New York a few years beforehand.
“He was so violently uncomplimentary about the U.S. that one of the engineers threw the switch and started recording his comments prior to his broadcast,” the memo says.
The agent says that a check was being made to see if the tapes were still in existence because it would put Mr. Pearson “in his proper light.”
Mr. Pearson was again of great interest to the FBI in 1957 when his friend Herbert Norman, the Canadian ambassador to Egypt, was the target of allegations that he was a Soviet agent and a member of the Communist party.
After the matter hit the press, Mr. Norman killed himself. In his memoirs, Mr. Pearson called the days following Mr. Norman’s death the low point of his public career.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pearson’s FBI file shows Mr. Hoover asking for yet another “complete summary of all we have on Norman and Pearson.” Part of the response was that there are 700 references to Mr. Norman in their files and 475 to Mr. Pearson at the time.
A Washington Post editorial is mentioned in the file which stated that Mr. Pearson was “too good a statesman to lambaste the U.S. over Norman” and that it was next to impossible to convince anyone in Canada that he was a Communist.
In 1962, when Mr. Pearson visited the U.S. for a world food forum, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requested a full briefing on the Canadian opposition leader. A five-page memo repeating the Bentley and Norman affairs was sent by the FBI to the department.
In 1963, after Mr. Pearson was first elected prime minister of Canada, the FBI whipped off a letter to Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. attorney general.
The “Dear Bob” letter starts: “The election of Lester Pearson prompts this letter which I must send to you because of the important security evidence involved.”
Three passages are blacked out, but in one uncensored part it says: “Pearson was heavily involved in the Herbert Norman case. Norman was the Canadian ambassador who was identified by excellent witnesses as a Communist.”
The name of the letter’s author is also blacked out.
A 1968 memo at the end of Mr. Pearson’s file refers to information given by Mr. Gouzenko entitled “Memorandum: Trudeau a potential Canadian Castro.”
It also states 17 years after the fact that the FBI still stood behind Mr. Bentley.
“Personally, I believe that Elizabeth Bentley was telling the truth. (Mr. Hoover), as a matter of fact, confirmed the validity and authenticity of her testimony. He said that on no occasion (and she gave several names) had she proven to be telling lies,” the FBI official writes.
The file is a showcase of American arrogance and ignorance towards Canadian affairs.
On several occasions, they refer to their subject as “Michael Pearson.” His full name was Lester Bowles Pearson but he was nicknamed “Mike.”
‘The nutmeg Mata Hari’
In 1945, Elizabeth Bentley, a KGB agent who also ran a network of spies and served as a sometime courier, went to the FBI to describe Soviet espionage in the United States and her part in it as courier and agent handler. It was an event that would help propel an anti-communist campaign under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
She gave a 90-page statement, in which she named many names — people in positions of trust who, she told the FBI, were secretly supplying information to the KGB. Among the allegations she made was that it was through her that senior U.S. officials informed Russia of the date for D-Day.
However, she brought no documentary proof, and no prosecutions resulted directly from her accusations.
Over the years, however, she testified frequently before Congress — occasionally posing for photographs with anti-communist politicians convinced she was an enormous catch — and also published a book about her espionage career, Out of Bondage.
Ms. Bentley was a controversial figure and there were many who discounted her confessions and accusations.
On July 13, 1948, Ms. Bentley made her most famous comment while testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, also known as the “Hearings on Proposed Legislation to Curb and Control the Communist Party” or simply the McCarthy hearings.
In response to a question from future U.S. president Richard Nixon, Ms. Bentley noted “that the mistake people make, when you look at communism, is that you take it as intellectual process. It is not; it is almost a religion.”
Ms. Bentley’s testimony had been widely anticipated in the United States, with the New York World Telegram dubbing her “the Beautiful Blond Spy queen,” while famed columnist A.J. Liebling took to calling her “the nutmeg Mata Hari.”
A history of the McCarthy hearings, The Committee, concluded that “she did not quite live up to the expectations aroused” by the newspapers.
“But her story of being a courier during World War II between Washington officials and Soviet intelligence operatives in New York was exciting enough on its own account,” the book noted.
She had fallen in love with Soviet agent Jacob Golos, whom “she invested with the aura that certain types of teenagers save for uncles and professors of English,” historian Walter Goodman observed. “Her judgment of the quality and importance of the information that passed through her hands was extremely faulty”.
He concludes: “He concludes: “The political conspiracy in which (Golos) involved her became far grander than there is any reason to believe it actually was; an official needed only to be spoken of favourably by one of the conspirators for him to become part of the conspiracy.”
To Lester B. Pearson, she was “that deranged woman” whose mentioning of his name in testimony would dog him for several years among American officials suspicious of his ideological leanings.
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