Martel affair

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The Martel affair, sometimes known as the Sapphire affair, was a spy scandal that took place in France in early 1962. It involved information provided by former high-ranking member of the KGB, Anatoliy Golitsyn, who defected to the United States in December 1961. Golitsyn stated that the Soviets had agents placed throughout French military intelligence and even within Charles de Gaulle's cabinet. He claimed that these agents had access to any NATO document on demand.

The news so alarmed President Kennedy that he sent a courier to hand deliver a message to Charles de Gaulle outlining the situation. Over the spring and summer of 1962, a team of French counter-intelligence officers interrogated Golitsyn for weeks. As his identity was closely guarded by the US, the French assigned him the code-name "Martel". Their interrogations overcame their initial suspicion that he was a CIA double-agent and they returned to France with grave warnings about the state of French security.

French-US relations were strained at this time due to de Gaulle's policy of "Politics of Grandeur", and in return, de Gaulle was highly skeptical of the US's motives. Believing the story to be a fabrication, French intelligence was very deliberate in their investigations, and no action had been taken by late 1962. This was to the amazement of the US establishment, who began to take measures to exclude France from the NATO reporting chain. This led to NATO becoming largely non-functional for a year. Ultimately there was a three-year breakdown in US-French intelligence sharing.

The story only became public some years later when the former French intelligence liaison at the French embassy in Washington, Philippe Thyraud de Vosjoli, reported the story in an exposé in Life magazine in 1968. A friend of de Vosjoli, Leon Uris, used a highly fictionalized version of the Martel affair as the basis for the novel (and movie) Topaz.[1]

Anatoliy Golitsyn[edit]

In 1961, Anatoliy Golitsyn, a Major in the KGB, was assigned to the Helsinki embassy under the name "Ivan Klimov". On 15 December he defected to the US along with his wife and daughter by riding the train to the Swedish border. Golitsyn's defection so alarmed the KGB that orders were sent out to cancel all meetings with field agents for fear they would be identified.[2]

Golitsyn was flown to the US and interviewed by David Murphy, head of the CIA's Soviet Russia Division. After some time, Golitsyn began making increasing demands of the US and complaining about his treatment. Considering him to be unreliable, Murphy passed him on to James Jesus Angleton, the director of counter-intelligence.[3] Golitsyn's description of a turncoat within the CIA, known only as "Sasha", led Angleton to embark on a multi-year manhunt and accuse many members of the CIA of being the spy. The entire affair remains highly controversial to this day.[4]

Golitsyn's information ultimately led to the identification or confirmation of Soviet spies throughout the western world, including Kim Philby, Donald Duart Maclean[failed verification], Guy Burgess[failed verification], double agent Aleksander Kopatzky[failed verification], and many others. He also claimed that their contacts had so infiltrated NATO that they were able to produce any secret document within a few days. So much information had been received that the KGB used NATO's own document numbers to catalog them.[1] He could not identify the NATO mole directly, but did know that he spoke French.[5] He also suggested there was a widespread network of KGB spies within various members of the French military and government offices.[6][7]

Kennedy's letter[edit]

Kennedy was alarmed by the implications of a French spy within NATO. Unable to trust any official communications network, he took the unusual route of hand-writing a personal letter to de Gaulle and having it delivered directly to him by a courier. After outlining the worrying information, the letter went on to offer de Gaulle direct access to the agent by members of the French security services.[8]

The letter arrived at a time when US-French relations were at a low point. In the post-war period both the US and UK had set up spy networks headquartered in Paris with the explicit aim of spying on the Soviets, but with the secondary role of keeping an eye on French political developments. The French were well aware of these networks, but tolerated them through the 1950s. However, de Gaulle's policy of "Politics of Grandeur" demanded that France be able to keep its secrets, and he began a policy of attempting to break down these networks. He ordered the SDECE to begin these efforts in January 1962.[9]

De Gaulle expected there would be some sort of reprisal on the part of the CIA, and this went so far as him coming to believe that the US might be behind the Organisation armée secrète (OAS). It was while all of this was taking place that Kennedy's letter arrived. This led the French to believe that the entire affair might be a CIA-led effort to discredit and shake up the French services. Nevertheless, a personal letter from President to President could not be ignored.[9]

French interrogations[edit]

De Gaulle responded by placing Jean-Louis de Rougemont in charge of determining whether Martel was really a Soviet defector. De Rougemont was the director of the Second Division of the National Defense staff which had the task of coordinating the various intelligence services. He also had deep personal contacts with his counterparts in the US establishment. He flew to Washington in the spring of 1962 to meet with his contacts and was granted three or four days of personal interviews with Golitsyn, whose identity at that time was a highly guarded secret and he was referred to only as "Martel". Initially believing him to be a US-created ruse, the meetings convinced de Rougemont otherwise.[8]

De Rougemont made his report directly to Étienne Burin des Roziers, the Secretary-General of the Élysée. Des Roziers organized a meeting with the heads of the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage (SDECE) and Direction de la Securite du Territoire (DST), responsible for external and internal security. They had been aware of rumors that a high-ranking defector was in CIA hands; des Roziers told them that the defector was real, that he was as important as the rumors suggested, and that his information about French security demanded an immediate in-depth debriefing by counter-intelligence experts.[8]

A mission was quickly arranged and arrived in Washington in May.[3] Liaising with the French intelligence attaché, de Vosjoli, a safe house was provided for the team. De Vosjoli was upset to learn that previous meetings had taken place without his involvement and that the letter from Kennedy to de Gaulle, being non-specific, had impugned the entire French establishment. He too initially believed that Martel might be a double-agent with the mission of upsetting French-US relations. The team's reports, which he forwarded to Paris, quickly convinced him otherwise.[8]

In one particularly telling series of questions, the French officers attempted to trap Martel. Since he claimed that he had personally seen a number of NATO reports in Moscow, the team provided him with a range of documents, some real and some fake. Martel was only able to identify a small number of these as ones he had personally seen, but he unerringly identified those that were real while every one of the fake documents he stated he had not seen. This was an extremely worrying development. He then went on to provide a complete description of the organization and working of the SDECE, including details of a reorganization that took place in secret in 1958.[10]

When pressed for details on the identities of agents, Martel was able to provide only details of their operations and general descriptions. He had only seen their reports, and was not involved in their actual operations, but he was aware in general terms of what positions they held. Returning to France after two weeks of interrogations, the team pored over the interviews and attempted to identify the various details. They returned to Washington again to confirm their suspicions with Martel, who was able to eliminate many of their guesses while suggesting others did match the details he knew. This led to the identification of widespread networks within the Ministry of the Interior, Defense and Foreign Affairs, a member of de Gaulle's cabinet, an entire network of twelve agents known as "Sapphire" operating within the SDECE,[11] and a second network within the SDECE specifically tasks with passing on US nuclear secrets.[10]

Increasing suspicion[edit]

It was this last item that led to intense distrust of the information within French intelligence. Martel claimed that the nuclear network was being created by the KGB in 1959. However, there was such an effort taking place, but it had been created by the French starting in 1960. The plan was started by Louis Joxe, who de Gaulle had tasked with building the force de frappe, France's nuclear efforts. Joxe had concluded that France could not make a modern force on its own and needed to steal US designs. This led the SDECE to believe that the CIA had become aware of these plans and planted the story with Martel in order to scare the French so they would not carry them out.[9] As one official put it:

We could never be sure whether it was Martel talking or the CIA. We accepted that there was a French spy in NATO. We decided to track him down. But none of our men got more than vague hints from Martel that there was anyone beyond this man. All the talk of someone in high places came via the CIA.

I assure you, that although we treated that information with some circumspection — because of our suspicions of the CIA, you see — we made every effort to find such a man. But we were never given any specific leads.[9]

US agents sat in on the French debriefing meetings, which led to a curious effect that further strained relations. As the French team attempted to confirm or deny any particular name as one that Martel had heard of the US became highly suspicious of that person. As the team tried many names, it appeared to the US that the entire French government was involved.[10] This was minor compared to the anger over the news that the French were apparently setting up a nuclear intelligence team.[5]

General Paul Jacquier, recently appointed as head of the SDECE, arrived in Washington on 5 October 1962. His mission was to inform the US that France would be expanding the SDECE to a worldwide organization that would operated against both East and West.[9] But by this time the British services had arrested John Vassall, and were in the process of rounding up many of the other agents alluded to by Martel. The French, on the other hand, had done nothing. At a formal dinner in Jacquier's honor, the US made it clear their patience was at an end and they expected action soon. One agent went so far as to state to Jacquier that "Your service is infiltrated. We know that you are not at fault, because you are new in your job and new at this business. But you must take the right measures."[12]

Major effects, little action[edit]

The NATO alliance was already strained in the early 1960s after an effort to form a multinational naval nuclear agreement ended in acrimonious debate. It was into this environment that the Martel affair exploded. By the autumn of 1962 the Martel affair had largely ended the flow of information with NATO, with only the most basic information needed to keep the organization running being exchanged.[7]

This led to the first suggestions outside France that Martel might be a double-agent. Critics pointed out that Martel's leads were generally for agents that had been in place for many years and were now well past their prime in terms of having access to useful information. Yet that information was responsible for the near collapse of NATO.[7]

However, as the full weight of the information worked its way through various countries' intelligence apparatus', the conclusion that he was telling the truth became unavoidable. Among the military alone, John Vassall of the UK Admiralty, Swedish Defense Ministry official Stig Wennerström, Canadian economist (working at NATO) Hugh Hambleton,[3] German Federal Intelligence Service operative Heinz Felfe, and US Army Sergeant (working at the National Security Agency) Jack Dunlap were all exposed as a result of Martel's reports.[7]

France, on the other hand, did little with the information. The efforts to track down the NATO spy led to the only French public action on the Martel case. Georges Pâques was arrested on suspicion of spying on 23 September 1963, and ultimately admitted to spying for the Soviets since 1944. Pâques was one of France's most senior officials at NATO, and was naturally suspected as source of many of the papers Martel had seen. However, Pâques had only become active in NATO in 1962, so he could not be the source of earlier information seen by Martel. It is now believed that the French-speaking Hambleton was the actual source of these papers, but he was not uncovered until years later.[5]

A number of other possibilities were investigated, but no damning evidence was ever found. Among these was Louis Joxe, due to the possibility that his suggestion of spying on US nuclear secrets was in fact a Soviet plan he was carrying out. Diplomat George Gorse was also suspected, and then in a strange turn of events, both the deputy head of the SDECE, Léonard Hounay, and head of the DST, René Delsen, who had debriefed Martel in 1962. After another meeting with Martel in November, Hounay was quietly dismissed, but no other overt action was taken.[11] It is speculated that the critical political climate in France after the ending of the Algerian War led de Gaulle to bury the story for fears of a right-wing coup.[9]

Whether or not there was anyone highly placed is open to speculation. Golitsyn had told the US that there was a similar highly placed spy within the CIA he knew only by the code name "Sasha". This led Angleton on a multi-year, increasingly paranoid, mole hunt which ultimately proved fruitless. His hand-selected investigator, Clare Edward Petty, at one point concluded that it might be Angleton himself who was the spy, working in concert with Golitsyn who was a double agent. Aspersions were cast across the CIA and outside it and many people's careers were ruined when Angleton suggested they might be Sasha.[13]

de Vosjoli resigns[edit]

According to de Vosjoli's account, there are a number of sinister events that suggest the SDECE was as deeply penetrated as Martel suggested.[14]

In the early summer of 1962 de Vosjoli became aware of rumors of a Soviet buildup in Cuba, apparently of surface-to-air missiles. He flew to Havana in August where he began to receive reports that a new type of missile was also being seen, a much larger one. These included reports from a former French officer who was able to tell the difference between the two models. de Vosjoli passed this information on to the director of the CIA, John McCone, who thanked him for his efforts.[12]

Jacquier called de Vosjoli to Paris in December and made two demands, firstly that de Vosjoli turn over the names of all his contacts in Cuba, secondly that he start setting up a network within the US to spy on US nuclear technology. de Vosjoli was astounded; this was the one story that Martel told that appeared to have no basis in fact, and now he was being asked to set up just that network. However, the next day a reason was given; the French had learned that the US and UK had just arranged the Nassau Agreement that gave the UK access to US nuclear technology, and the French could no longer wait to set up their efforts.[14]

In February 1963, de Vosjoli forwarded a lengthy report from one of his Cuban contacts containing details of Soviet forces in Cuba. The SDECE demanded that de Vosjoli turn over the name of his contact, and he finally revealed it. The agent was soon arrested by the Cubans. de Vosjoli was advised that his name was also known to the Cubans and he should no longer visit.[15]

It was this series of events that led de Vosjoli to contact Hervé Alphand, the French ambassador to the U.S. Alphand contacted trusted members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and found that they were entirely unaware of the issue; the SDECE had not informed them of the Martel information. The SDECE immediately identified de Vosjoli as the source of the request, and informed him on 16 September that he was being replaced. de Vosjoli did not return to France,[15] and is considered to be the only example of a French intelligence officer defecting to the US.[1]

French inaction on the Martel case, combined with de Vosjoli's very public dismissal, eventually led to a complete breakdown in French-US intelligence sharing beginning in 1964. The issues were not entirely cleared up for three years, after which normal communications resumed.[citation needed]



  1. ^ a b c staff 1968, p. 31.
  2. ^ Mitrokhin, Vasili; Andrew, Christopher (2015). The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-196646-5.
  3. ^ a b c Richelson 1997, p. 287.
  4. ^ Mason 2014, The Sapphire Affair.
  5. ^ a b c Arboit 2007.
  6. ^ de Vosjoli 1968, pp. 33–34.
  7. ^ a b c d Barry 1968, p. 38.
  8. ^ a b c d de Vosjoli 1968, pp. 32.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Barry 1968, p. 39.
  10. ^ a b c de Vosjoli 1968, pp. 34.
  11. ^ a b Richelson 1997, p. 288.
  12. ^ a b de Vosjoli 1968, pp. 35.
  13. ^ "James Jesus Angleton". Spartacus Educational.
  14. ^ a b de Vosjoli 1968, pp. 36.
  15. ^ a b de Vosjoli 1968, pp. 37.


Further reading[edit]