He had all-American cover - born in Iowa, college in Manhattan, army buddies with whom he played baseball.
George Koval also had a secret. He was a top Soviet spy, code named Delmar, trained by Stalin's ruthless bureau of military intelligence.
Atomic spies are old stuff. But historians say Koval, who died last year in Moscow and whose name is just coming to light publicly, appears to have been one of the most important spies of the 20th century.
On Nov. 2, the Kremlin startled Western scholars by announcing that President Vladimir Putin had posthumously given the highest Russian award to a Soviet agent who in World War II penetrated the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb.
The announcement hailed Koval as "the only Soviet intelligence officer" to infiltrate the project's secret plants, saying his work "helped speed up considerably the time it took for the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb of its own."
Since then, historians, scientists, federal officials and old friends of Koval's have raced to tell his story - the athlete, the guy everyone liked, the genius at technical studies. American intelligence agencies have known of his betrayal at least since the early 1950s, when investigators interviewed his fellow scientists and swore them to secrecy.
The spy's success hinged on an unusual family history of migration from Russia to Iowa and re-immigration to the Soviet Union. That gave him a strong commitment to communism, relaxed familiarity with American mores and no foreign accent.
"He was very friendly, compassionate and very smart," said Arnold Kramish, a retired physicist who studied with Koval at City College of New York and later worked with him on the bomb project. "He never did homework."
Stewart Bloom, a senior physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who also studied with Koval, called him a regular guy.
"He played baseball and played it well," usually as shortstop, Bloom recalled. "He didn't have a Russian accent. He spoke fluent English, American English. His credentials were perfect."
Over the years, scholars and federal agents have identified a half-dozen individuals who spied on the bomb project for the Russians, especially at Los Alamos in New Mexico. All were "walk-ins" - spies by impulse and sympathetic leaning rather than training.
By contrast, Koval was a mole groomed in Russia by the feared GRU, the Soviet agency for military intelligence. Moreover, he gained wide access to America's atomic plants - a feat unknown for any other Soviet spy.
Historians say Putin may have cited Koval's accomplishments as a way to rekindle Russian pride. As shown by a New York Public Library database, the announcement has prompted detailed reports in the Russian press about Koval and his clandestine feats.
"It's very exciting to get this kind of break," said John Earl Haynes, a Library of Congress historian and an authority on atomic spying. "We know very little about GRU operations in the United States."
The story of how Koval became a spy centers on his family, who came from Russia and decided to return.
He was born in 1913 in Sioux City, Iowa, which had a large Jewish community and a half-dozen synagogues. In 1932, during the Great Depression, his family emigrated to Birobidzhan, a Siberian city that Stalin promoted as a secular Jewish homeland.
Henry Srebrnik, a Canadian historian at the University of Prince Edward Island who is studying the Kovals for a project on American Jewish Communists, said the family belonged to a popular front organization, as did most American Jews who emigrated to Birobidzhan.
The organization, he said, was ICOR, a Yiddish acronym for the Association for Jewish Colonization in the Soviet Union. He added that Koval's father presided over its Sioux City branch as secretary.
By 1934, Koval was in Moscow, excelling in difficult studies at the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology. Upon graduating with honors, he was recruited and trained by the GRU and was sent back to the United States for nearly a decade of scientific espionage, from roughly 1940 to 1948.
How he communicated with his controllers is unknown, as is what specifically he gave the Russians in terms of atomic secrets. However, it is clear that Moscow mastered the atom very quickly compared with all subsequent nuclear powers.
In the United States under a false name, Koval initially gathered information about new toxins that might find use in chemical arms.
Then his GRU controllers took a gamble and had him work under his own name. Koval was drafted into the U.S. Army, and by chance found himself moving toward the bomb project, then in its infancy.
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