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“The Third Man” is the title of a classic film noir set in post-World War II Vienna starring Joseph Cotten. “The Fourth Spy” could very well be the name of the next Cold War thriller heading to the big screen.
It has long been known that three employees of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos leaked information that allowed Russia to quickly catch up after the U.S. detonated the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity site near Alamogordo.
Now, two historians have brought to light the name of a fourth spy who worked at Los Alamos and witnessed that historic explosion in southern New Mexico. His espionage work for the Russians had remained hidden for 70 years.
Harvey Klehr, a former history professor at Emory University in Atlanta, and John Earl Haynes, a former historian for the Library of Congress who lives in Santa Fe, discovered the story of Oscar Seborer using declassified FBI files and archival material from the KGB, the former Soviet intelligence agency.
Klehr and Haynes, who have written books separately and together about American communism and Soviet spycraft, tell the tale of Seborer, who worked at Los Alamos from 1944-46, in the September 2019 issue of “Studies in Intelligence,” the house publication of the CIA.
Seborer joins the roll of Los Alamos spies who passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union that also includes Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass and Theodore Hall. Fuchs, a physicist, and Greenglass, a machinist, were both arrested in the early 1950s, not long after the Soviet Union detonated an atomic device in Central Asia that was almost a carbon copy of the one that had exploded four years earlier in New Mexico.
Hall, the youngest physicist working at Los Alamos, was not publicly identified until 1995. He had moved to England by then and wasn’t prosecuted for his espionage.
According to the recent article by Klehr and Haynes headlined “On the Trail of a Fourth Soviet Spy at Los Alamos,” material about a group of Soviet moles living in the U.S. was uncovered from a deep dive into KGB archives. Three of the operatives in this so-called Relative’s Group were brothers who were codenamed Relative, Godfather and Godsend.
After perusing thousands of pages of declassified FBI documents, Klehr and Haynes found the names of three brothers named Seborer in the reports of FBI informants who had infiltrated the Communist Party of the United States. Suddenly, it became clear that Max Seborer was Relative, Stuart Seborer was Godfather and Oscar was Godsend.
The revelations about the Seborer brothers are contained in reports filed by two brothers, Morris and Jack Childs, who were FBI informants inside the Communist Party USA from 1952-80. Their work for the FBI was codenamed Operation SOLO.
Declassified FBI files on Operation SOLO are short on detail about Oscar Seborer’s spying for the Soviets.
However, they reveal that an American communist party member named Isidore “Gibby” Needleman told a Soviet informant, referring to Oscar: “He handed over to them the formula for the ‘A’ bomb.”
In an interview, Haynes called that claim a “vast exaggeration.” He said none of the Los Alamos employees who passed information to the Soviets had the complete formula for the atomic bomb.
None of the four spies at Los Alamos knew one another, Haynes said, because the KGB believed it was better if agents operated independently.
Haynes and Klehr hope that more files released in the future under the Freedom of Information Act will reveal more about Oscar’s time at Los Alamos and the FBI’s probe of his work there. “Exactly what information Oscar had access to is what we don’t know,” Haynes said.
Although the claim that Oscar “handed over to them the formula for the ‘A bomb” is inflated, thousands of pages of KGB archival files made public in 2009 make it clear that Godsend, the code name for Oscar in the Relative’s Group, played a role in the Soviet Union’s development of a nuclear bomb.
Files found by Klehr and Haynes single out Godsend as having been at Los Alamos and provided information on “Enormous,” the KGB’s term for the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb project.
According to the Klehr/Haynes article, Oscar Seborer was born in New York City in 1921 to a family of Polish immigrants who came to the United States in stages. Abraham and Jennie Seborer left Poland with their eldest son, Max, born in 1903, and moved to Great Britain, where another son, Noah, was born in 1905.
The family immigrated to the United States around 1910. It was here that another son, Stuart (originally known as Solomon), came along in 1918. He was followed by the family’s only daughter, Rose, who was born in 1919. Oscar, the youngest, rounded out the Seborer family two years later.
Although neither of the Seborer parents had more than a sixth-grade education, all four sons went to college.
Oscar first began college in New York before transferring to Ohio State, where he studied electrical engineering before joining the U.S. Army in October 1942. The Army assigned him to a unit that trained soldiers to fill specialist posts in the Manhattan Project. He first worked at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, where another national lab worked on the nuclear weapons mission, before being transferred to Los Alamos.
According to Klehr and Haynes, when Oscar witnessed the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity site, he was part of a unit monitoring seismological effects.
After World War II ended, Oscar applied for a civilian job at Los Alamos on May 28, 1947, but withdrew his application just a month later. He went back to college and resumed his engineering studies at the University of Michigan, where he received a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1948.
His next stop was the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Sound Laboratory in New London, Connecticut. This was where his problems with the U.S. government began. In August 1949, his commanding officer recommended that Oscar be relieved from his research job because he was a security risk, a decision later overturned by a Loyalty Review Board.
Despite the doubts about his loyalty, Oscar was transferred to the Navy’s Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C. However, he resigned his position on June 1, 1951, after an officer who knew him in New London reported him as a security risk.
Stuart Seborer, who won a Silver Star as a U.S. Army Captain during World War II, was also having trouble with U.S. security agencies because of his alleged ties to the Communist Party during his college days. In 1950, Stuart was denied a security clearance that would have allowed him to work at the State Department.
Oddly enough, neither Stuart nor Oscar Seborer were demonstrative supporters of communism the way their sister and brothers were. Stuart had been a member of a communist-dominated group in his days at City College of New York, then a hotbed of communist activity. However, the journal article says, “No one could remember him.”
However, unlike their siblings, Oscar and Stuart both worked for the U.S. government and faced heightened scrutiny about their political leanings during the Cold War.
There are no references in the article to Oscar’s participation in the Communist Party. “Oscar had no overt Communist ties prior to defecting to the Soviet Union,” Haynes said in an interview.
As fears about espionage grew in the wake of the Soviet atomic bomb detonation and arrests were made, Oscar and Stuart Seborer decided to leave the United States. Also making the trip were Stuart’s wife, Miriam, and Miriam’s mother Anna Zeitlin.
The family booked their tickets in February 1951. They departed from New York on the SS Liberté, bound for Le Havre, France, on July 3. The voyage came just three months after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (sister of Los Alamos spy David Greenglass) were sentenced to death in a high-profile espionage case that captured the world’s attention.
The foursome first lived in East Germany, but then moved to Moscow, where they adopted the family name Smith. The Seborer brothers remained in Moscow, but Miriam came back to the U.S. with her son and mother in 1969 after being divorced from Stuart.
Klehr and Haynes haven’t been able to learn much about what the Seborer brothers did in Moscow, other than that Oscar did engineering research and Stuart did scientific translations.
Also supporting the theory that Oscar passed important information to the Soviets is the government’s decision to award him the Order of the Red Star in 1964, Haynes said.
After Oscar Seborer died on April 23, 2015, in Moscow, his funeral was attended by a representative of the FSB, the Russian internal security service, Klehr and Haynes noted in their article. His brother Stuart was at the funeral in a wheelchair.
When a friend of Klehr and Haynes who was visiting Russia tried to contact Stuart Seborer at phone and apartment numbers listed for “Stuart Smith,” no one answered the phone or the doorbell.
“A friend (of the brothers) explained that ‘both brothers are communists – they maintained their convictions and language.’ And both lived to see the cause for which they had betrayed their native land disintegrate,” Klehr and Haynes conclude.