Bentley, Elizabeth

(1908–1963)
   Bentley, a Columbia University graduate and longtime Soviet agent, became one of the most controversial witnesses of Soviet espionage in the United States. For more than a decade, Bentley served as a courier and agent for the NKVD in New York. She had a torrid love affair with the Soviet case officer, Joseph Golos, which ended with his death in 1943. Bentley was highly valued by senior Soviet intelligence officers serving in America, and was given the code name “Umnitsa” (Clever Girl). Among the agents she helped run was Duncan Lee, an official of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In 1945 she found the rezidentura distancing itself from her, and she was informed that her role as a principal agent would be taken over by a Soviet intelligence officer. Whether she was angered by this arbitrary decision, depressed over the loss of her lover, or afraid of being caught, she decided to defect. In November 1945, she approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in New York City, informed them of her role as a Soviet agent, and prepared a 112-page affidavit detailing her life as a Soviet agent.
   In 1948 Bentley testified before the U.S. Congress in public hearings, naming a number of prominent officials as Soviet agents, including Alger Hiss, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Harry Dexter White, and OSS official Duncan Lee. An FBI agent commenting on the value of her report noted that before she arrived, “we had files, here, there, and everywhere,” but her reporting “pulled it all together.” For the first time, the FBI understood the complexity of Soviet espionage in the United States.
   Bentley was widely disliked for her willingness to testify at trials and grand juries. She retired to teach at a girls’ reform school. She died of cancer made worse by heavy drinking. Her testimony and autobiography were widely discredited by revisionist historians for more than 30 years. However, NKVD cables intercepted by the United States in the Venona program indicate that she was an important source and that most of her testimony was accurate.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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