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Professor Burnham, Mafioso Costello, and Me

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By:Ralph de Toledano | April 12, 2018

Not long after the conviction of Alger Hiss, Professor James Burnham, Karl Hess, and I met in my apartment on Riverside Drive to discuss a matter that had concerned us for some time. Jim Burnham was then working on his book The Web of Subversion. Karl, like me, was a Newsweek editor, and he had when it was pertinent used the Press Section to illuminate some of the darker corners of the communist assault on our institutions. I had written two best-sellers— Seeds of Treason and Spies, Dupes, and Diplomats, the one dealing with the Hess Case and the other on the great Richard Sorge spy ring, whose ramifications extended from Germany and Japan to the American State Department.

We all had the background to ask the question: Why was it that the FBI and other intelligence agencies always discovered the identities of the leaders of the Soviet espionage apparat only after they had returned to Moscow? And what could be done about it? The revelations and disclosures of important witnesses like Whittaker Chambers dealt with past history, and what they reported, though of tremendous importance in reconstructing a sorry era, had only tangential current pertinence. Legal restraints tied the hands of the FBI. Could private citizens, acting like an anti-Soviet posse at their own risk, do something about it?

Mulling these questions over, we came up with a plan that perhaps had a chance at success. After discussion, we agreed that a process of "triangulation"—whereby counterintelligence agents who pick up a radio signal from different points can, by elementary trigonometry, locate the clandestine transmitter—might do the trick. In my years of covering what was known as the "subversive beat" and of talking at length with secret and public defectors from the apparat, I knew of those who worked on the outer fringes of Soviet espionage rings. If those people could be picked up and made to talk, we would step by step approach the center, turning over the tapes of our activities to the FBI and other agencies.

The details worked themselves out as Burnham, Hess, and I discussed the possibilities. The plan, we agreed, would require the purchase of a house in Greenwich Village, where strange comings and goings would cause no comment, a sound-proofed panel truck, and the services of a young doctor or medical student who could administer the dosage of sodium Pentothal that would loosen the tongues of our "subjects." The peripheral figures, forced into the panel truck, drugged slightly, and delivered to the Greenwich Village house, would be questioned, with a doctor in attendance to see that there was no over-dosage of Pentothal, and would lead us to the next and closer group. The converging lines of our information would take us where they met, in the person of the spymaster. It would have to be a quick operation, since our threat to each agent that we would announce his voluntary complicity should he report what had happened to him might still lead to eventual confession.

We estimated that the entire operation would cost no more than $50,000, which even in the 1950's was not that vast a sum of money. And Jim Burnham felt that he would have little trouble raising it from some of the men of wealth he knew who professed their undying devotion to the anticommunist cause and to the war on Soviet subversion. He was, as we should have known, mistaken. After a few weeks of trying to raise the money we needed, he had gotten only praise for the project and respect for putting his distinguished career and reputation at risk over so dangerous an operation. They themselves, they said, could not possibly get involved.

It was at this point that I recalled a small bit of recent Cold War history—one of the many episodes that never get into the history books. In 1948, the United States was fighting to stem the growth of Europe's communist parties. Key to Truman's policy was Italy, where the Christian Democrats were seriously threatened by one of the most powerful of these parties. To give aid, James Forrestal (who later died under mysterious circumstances) had organized Operation Brook Club—perhaps the most exclusive club in New York and so named because many secret meetings took place on its premises—to collect and funnel money to the Christian Democrats, who had been unable to match the resources of the Moscow-financed communists. Millions of dollars were transmitted to Italy through Cardinal Francis Spellman and the Catholic Church.

At a critical point, however, there was a sudden and immediate need for a strong financial infusion—I have been told that it ran to about $1 million—and Cardinal Spellman suggested that the most likely source would be Frank Costello, then one of the most powerful members of the mob. Costello was called in to the Powerhouse—the Cardinal's home and offices abutting St. Patrick's Cathedral, and according to the accounts I have heard, the conversation went like this:

Spellman: Frankie, do you believe in the free-enterprise system?

Costello: Of course.

Spellman: Are you a patriotic American?

Costello: Of course.

Spellman: And do you want to go to Heaven?

Costello: Of course.

"Then we need you to get us . . . " and Cardinal Spellman named the specified sum, to be turned over as quickly as possible. The funds were supplied forthwith, and presumably Frank Costello received his pass for the Pearly Gates. Fantastic as it seems, this story has been checked out, though it will probably be denied by the CIA, which was involved in Operation Brook Club.

Burnham, Hess, and I decided that perhaps Frank Costello might be willing to finance our nickel-and-dime operation, with the understanding that should the law crowd him too much, his participation might be considered an extenuating factor. We knew, as well, that the Mafia had little love for any political system that impinged on its scope and its operations. To approach Costello was certainly worth trying. Costello's lawyer, I knew, was George Wolfe, so we called him and made an appointment. At our first visit, we gave Wolfe a schematic account, with almost no particulars, of what we were hoping to achieve, and we hinted diplomatically at how Costello's help might also help him in the future. "You know, of course, that Mr. Costello is not a rich man," Wolfe said blandly. "But I'll talk to him. See me next week."

When we returned the following week, Wolfe told us that "Mr. Costello is interested and would like to know more of the details." But, he warned us again, "Mr. Costello is, as you know, not a rich man, and $50,000 is a lot of money." We suggested that he might have friends and elaborated on our plans. Again we were asked to return the following week. At the next meeting a much more expansive Mr. Wolfe assured us that "Mr. Costello" was very interested but wanted even more details. These we happily supplied, certain that he was ready to participate and to give us the money we needed.

But clearly, Frank Costello was not going to be taken in by what could be a scheme to relieve him of 50 grand. As we talked to George Wolfe, there was a knock on his office door and three of the biggest, most sinister-looking bruisers walked in. "We come to get de papers," one said, and for several minutes they carefully stared at us in what was surely an eyeball frisk. Then, having memorized our faces, they picked up a handful of papers from Wolfe's desk and departed. We got the message and left with the injunction to return the following week to get our final and, we were certain, affirmative answer.

But another kind of history was on the move. Between the time of our visit and the time we were to return, Estes Kefauver and the Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime set up shop in New York, sending out subpoenas to Frank Costello and other crime figures to appear at a series of sensational televised hearings. (Frank Costello refused to sit for the cameras, and he made investigatory history by allowing only his hands to be shown.) When we called Wolfe's office to confirm our appointment, it was "James who? Ralph who? Karl who?"—and most important, "Frank who?" The project was dead, and Jim Burnham never mentioned it again to either of us or, I believe, to anyone else.

Years later, Karl Hess and I blessed the Kefauver Committee. For on more serious thought, we realized that the "triangulation" could easily have blown up in our faces. Neither Kari nor I had much to lose, but it would have meant the destruction of James Burnham as a professor, a writer of important books, and a figure who in the realm of politics and ideas commanded great respect from most intellectuals, though not George Orwell. But even had our halfbaked scheme worked, we would have been the target of an enemy not to be underestimated, the KCB. Even my journalistic efforts at exposing Soviet espionage and subversion led in time to phone calls to my wife, threatening to kill me and our children. Even here there was irony, for when I applied for a permit to own and carry a gun, a New York sergeant of detectives said, "Nah. If somebody takes a shot at you, we'll let you have it."


This article was pulled from the October 1994 issue of Chronicles.

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