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••• The International Writers Magazine: A riposte to Bob Latona

Stiffed Indeed
• Nigel West
Towards the end of April 1964 a slightly disheveled, disorientated middle-aged man stumbled through RAF Northolt after his arrival from Berlin where he had been exchanged in a spy-swap for the former KGB illegal resident in London, Konon Molody, who had been arrested in January 1961.

The Man from Odessa

The businessman released from a Soviet labour camp was Greville Wynne, a figure portrayed in the media, and in British government protests, as an innocent engineer who had been incarcerated while attending a trade fair in Budapest in November 1962. In reality, Wynne had spent eighteen months acting as a courier for Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, a well-connected senior GRU officer and one of the most important spies of the Cold War.

Despite a nervous breakdown, a divorce from his wife and estrangement from his son, Wynne initially played along with Whitehall’s pretence that he had been the innocent victim of Soviet persecution, but when he learned that the CIA, which had run Penkovsky jointly with its British SIS colleagues, intended to release a propaganda version of the case entitled The Penkovsky Papers, he abandoned all discretion and, with help from his brother-in-law John Gilbert, produced his account, The Man from Moscow in December 1967.

Much to Whitehall’s irritation, for Wynne’s book undermined everything ministers previously had said to protect SIS’s asset, The Man from Moscow turned the author into a minor celebrity and encouraged him a few years later to take a second bite of the cherry with The Man from Odessa, for which another ghost, Bob Latona, was recruited.

Both books enjoyed some success, but Wynne himself descended into an alcoholic decline, and became increasingly aggressive when anyone challenged the veracity of his biographies. In 1988 he was infuriated by an observation made by me in The Friends, a factual postwar history of SIS operations, about his second book, which had been published seven years earlier, in which he claimed to have played a vital role in the in the defection of a GRU major named Sergei Kuznov in 1959. In fact, no such person ever existed. He also claimed to have accompanied Penkovsky on a secret mission to Washington where they had met President Kennedy. In reality. All that had happened was that Wynne had succumbed to what might be termed ‘post-usefulness syndrome’, a craving for attention, especially from the media.

Outraged by this denigration, Wynne issued libel proceedings, supported by an affidavit in which he insisted that The Man from Odessa had been an accurate recollection of his clandestine roles in Kuznov’s exfiltration and in Penkovsky’s reception at the White House.

At this point I was confronted with two choices: retract the offending remarks and apologise to Wynne, thereby endorsing his falsehoods, or I could enter a defence of justification and, in the limited time allowed by British High Court defamation proceedings, seek to disprove his assertions. I chose the latter course, but this strategy has been criticized by Latona who might have been an important witness, based on what he has written about the litigation.

In a lengthy article, Stiffed by a Spy, published online by, Latona argues that Wynne was a brave patriot who deserved not to be taken entirely seriously. However, when faced with a writ for damages, there is not much room for sentiment, and in pleading justification, the truth is the gold standard. This was a test that Wynne as plaintiff failed at the first hurdle when he filed an affidavit which contained, in the second line, a bare-faced lie. Having achieved his name and date of birth entirely accurately, he then claimed to have ended the war with the British Army rank of major, a commission that would require an entry in the official Army List. This, of course, was a gross breach of the principle of ‘clean hands’ which requires anyone bringing a legal action in the High Court to stick to the truth in all matters, because Wynne had never received a commission.

Latona seeks to excuse Wynne’s “prickliness and vanity” and appears to believe some of his inventions, such as his purported service in “the Supply Corps, Corps of Engineers and Signal Corps’, although that no such units have ever existed in the British Army. Actually, Latona acknowledges that while drafting the manuscript he would “stumble over an obvious discrepancy or some bit that sounded faintly dodgy”, but instead of challenging Wynne, he simply “shut up and kept on writing”.

In a particularly lame attempt to defend Wynne, Latona suggests that he may have played “a shell game concealing what the Official Secrets Act might consider inconvenient truths” but of course that criminal statute cannot be deployed to defend a fabrication. The insistence that Wynne had been “constrained from revealing the truth” and had therefore received a “license to lie” is patent nonsense. To submit that Wynne might have risked prosecution if he had disclosed authentic details of his participation in the Kuznov exfiltration, or his visit to the Kennedy White House, is rather far-fetched. So too is Latona’s explanation for one of the major discrepancies in his book which contained a detailed description of Kuznov’s alleged escape from the Soviet Union on the Uzbekistan, when that ship was not even built!

A defendant seeking to demonstrate to a libel jury that a book sold as accurate non-fiction is nothing more than a work of imagination has the task of fact-checking every statement, and the Uzbekistan blunder is a classic example of a slip-up that exposes a falsity. Caught red-handed, Latona suggests that the explanation is that the real name of the ship would “have been deleted in any manuscript submitted for vetting” asking, “wouldn’t he have taken the slight trouble of finding out the name of a vessel that really did cruise the Black Sea in 1959?” . The point is, of course, that neither Latona nor Wynne bothered to undertake that rather obvious research, and no amount of spurious excuses about security considerations can obfuscate the glaringly obvious.

Latona acknowledges that although he has become Wynne’s apologist, which is a curious position for him given that he was swindled out of part of his writing fee, I was “essentially right about the man”. His objection seems to be the “harsh colours” in which Wynne’s portrait was painted in The Friends, but this rather superficial complaint overlooks the gravity of the offence committed. Having conspired in what amounts to perpetrating a fraud on the book-buying public, he seems reluctant to condemn Wynne for compounding his mischief by threatening, or actually bringing, numerous legal actions, and he even resents the way his co-author was “found out” and “called to account for his misrepresentations”.

Latona’s version of Wynne’s litigation is also fundamentally flawed. He says that Penkovsky’s CIA handler, George Kisevalter, predicted that the plaintiff would win, and that the case was concluded with Wynne’s death in February 1990. Actually, Kisevalter and his director, Dick Helms, volunteered to give evidence for the defence, as did two senior SIS retirees (unrestrained by the Official Secrets Act) and by the time Wynne died he had conceded defeat and fled the field.

Latona boasts that “writing The Man from Odessa taught me how to quarry a narrative out of bulk oral history” and admits that he resigned himself to accepting Wynne’s lies and misrepresentations, and “had to surmise, invent, fabricate what might have been said” because “I wanted my money”. He says Wynne “wasn’t a particularly nice man, perhaps not even a very good man” and was not “a truthful witness to history”. So where does that leave his co-author? The irony is that Latona was bilked out of the £2.500 he was promised, yet seems strangely bothered that another potential victim of Wynne’s errant behavior should write about the experience.

It is now nearly thirty years since Wynne brought his ill-founded libel action, and much has been declassified by all the Cold War protagonists. There is still no sign of the elusive Major Kuznov, and the forensic analysis in Seven Spies Who Changed the World of the claims made by Wynne and Latona, which amounts to a compelling demolition, stands as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1991.

One might have imagined that, as Wynne’s collaborator, Latona would be a trifle sheepish, or certainly apologetic for having assisted in a literary swindle, but his attitude is that although he accepts his co-author’s conduct amounts to chicanery, I am to be blamed for defending the legal action, and assembling the evidence to expose Wynne’s mendacity. Specifically, he argues not that Kuznov really did exist, but only that he might have done, and refers to a book written by a former CIA officer, John Hart, who mentioned the existence of undeclared Soviet defectors. I knew Hart after he had retired, when his wife was a senior CIA officer based in London, and the relevant chapter in Seven Spies Who Changed the World investigated the possibility of Kuznov exhaustively, which Latona chooses to overlook. Put simply, Kuznov was a figment of Wynne’s imagination, and his co-author either knew that, or should have known it.

In much the same way Latona does not assert that Wynne was ever smuggled into the White House with Penkovsky, as he described in unconvincing detail, riddled with tell-tale flaws. Latona appears to concede that this was yet another fabrication, but says that the evidence for the non-event, acquired by the Kennedy Library which included the White House Secret Service log-sheets, could have been incomplete, given the president’s proclivity for bringing girlfriends into the building while his wife was absent. Maybe so, but the important issue, which Latona occasionally loses sight of, is that the entire episode is nonsense! It never happened, so why try and nit-pick at the evidence?

Latona’s article reveals a rather shocking mind-set of an individual who. motivated perhaps out of naïveté or the need for money (and he admits to both), embroidered a deceit and, when caught in the act, says that in other circumstances the tale might have been true. Even worse, Latona seems to have been willing to remain silent as a disinterested spectator when a miscarriage of justice appeared to him likely.

Wynne was not some loveable rogue or bar-room scoundrel who deserved a little generosity of spirit. We now know that he was indeed a fantasist incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction who peddled an entirely bogus tale of self-importance, and on the way short-changed his co-author. He was also an alcoholic bully who beat up his second wife Hermione. In the opinion of Joe Bulik, the CIA handler who expressed outrage when SIS’s courier insinuated himself back into the Penkovsky case in Moscow, Wynne’s recklessness imperiled the west’s best GRU source at a critical moment in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. Latona may opine that Wynne does not deserve such harsh treatment, but many readers will feel defrauded by both.

© Nigel West - October 7 2016

cold war
Nigel West’s new book in Cold War Counterfeit Spies.

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