Washington — Col. Rudolph Albert Herrmann of the KGB did not look like much a spy. Indeed, when exposed to the press by the FBI earlier this year, the onetime agent of the KGB (Committee for State Security) looked like a bit of a joke -- a small-time intermediary and a transmitter of messages to Moscow. It was difficult to know what he accomplished during his decade of secret activities in the United States.
But Colonel Herrmann is the product of a system that, while highly sophisticated in its use of computers, spy satellites, and code-breaking techniques, still places enormous stress on the deployment of human spies. In the case of this KGB colonel, who lived under the cover of an assumed name as a free-lance photographer near New York City, the real spying payoff might only have come in a time of crisis, many years after the Soviets planted him.
The Soviets apparently placed their greatest hopes in Colonel Hermann's 15 -year-old-son. He was being prepared by the KGB like a "baby mole," to enroll in an American college and study political science, with the aim of eventually seeking employment with the United States government.
In this game of planting spies inside an adversary government or society, the Soviets enjoy a huge advantage because of the relatively open nature of many nations in the West. And because the US is a nation of immigrants, the task of an intelligence officer such as Colonel Herrmann is made all the easier. His neighbors in Hartsdale, NY, saw nothing unusual in the man's accent or the fact that he and his family kept largely to themselves.
Colonel Hermmann was kept busy with coded radio message assignments that often included nothing more than the servicing of other Soviet agents. In June 1976, for example, he and his son traveled to Chicago to bury two containers holding instructions from Moscow for another intelligence operative.
The Soviet agent's most ludicrous-seeming assignment involved an attempt to get the United States to stop an Apollo manned space flight. Moscow headquarters sent him, by radio message, the text of an anonymous letter he was to send to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) alleging that a space vehicle had been damaged. Following instructions, Colonel Herrmann bought a used typewriter and typed the letter. He then traveled by a circuitous route to Atlanta and dropped the letter in a mailbox. When a NASA officer got the letter, he gave it quick glance and dropped it in a "crank letter" file. The flight went off on schedule.
In a sense, Colonel Herrmann was an up-to-date version of KGB Col. Rudolf Abel, a much more famous Soviet spy who was active three decades earlier. The full extent of Colonel Abel's efforts at spying were never known, but the FBI has no real evidence to show that he accomplished much
After several years in prison, Colonel Abel returned to Moscow as part of a "spy swap" for the downed American U-2 reconnaissance pilot Francis Gary Powers. Like Colonel Herrmann, his real importance might have come to light only in the midst of a crisis, when limitations placed on Soviet diplomats, for instance, might cause them to shift certain responsibilities to agents living inside American society.
Like Colonel Abel, Colonel Herrmann was an example of the careful, long-term planning in which the Soviets sometime seem to excell. Both men moved in slow stages toward the US, and then passing some time in Canada before taking on the big target -- the United States.
Colonel Herrmann was arrested, as the result of a blunder by his main KGB contact, and he agreed to cooperate with the FBI in order to avoid prosecution. He then went to work for the Americans as a double agent, reporting to them on his continuing KGB activities.
When the KGB showed signs of suspecting that Colonel Herrmann had been "doubled" and insisted that his son return to Moscow for advanced training, the FBI arranged for Herrmann and his family to drop out of sight.
Colonel Herrmann helped to provide information on a Canadian university professor who had been a Soviet spy for 30 years. An expert on oil economics and the transfer of high technology to third-world developing countries, Prof. Hugo Hambleton of Laval University had traveled on behalf of the KGB as far as Latin America and the Middle East.
In an interview with the Toronto Sunday Sun, Professor Hambleton -- who had agreed to tell everything he knew to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) -- said he made forays in the summer of 1979 into Israel and Saudi Arabia under the guise of studying economic conditions there. For two years, he was chief adviser for Canada's foreign programs for Haiti and Peru.
But the Soviets may have made one mistake with him that seems characteristics of some of their operations. They kept pushing for more from the professor. He was a "meticulous spy," said the Sunday Sun, keeping careful records of all his contacts and hiding places. The RCMP seized them all.
Another apparent KGB tendency, which other intelligence agencies have been known to share with it from time to time, has been to distort political intelligence from the field in order to give the masters at home what they want to hear. Some American officials think that Soviet intelligence -- perhaps military intelligence, rather than KGB -- probably presented a false picture of potential Afghan resistance prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
But a US official who once had a chance to see some confidential Soviet reporting on other subjects said it was relatively objective.
What seems incontestable is that the KGB is the world's largest and most formidable intelligence organization. Some people think its overseas operatives may outnumber the CIA by about four or five to one. But in many ways, it cannot be compared with the CIA, because in addition to its foreign intelligence function, it has the internal mission of policing the Soviet population.
It has become rare for the Soviets to succeed in finding ideological recruits overseas any more, so their task may in some ways be more difficult. But it is also clear that under the leadership of KGB chairman Yuri Andropov, the elite of the KGB at work in sensitive foreign posts have grown more sophisticated.
The modern man of the KGB, at least the one dealing with foreigners, is likely to be a master of languages and socially at ease. If he is working in Washington, D.C., it would not be surprising to find that he can discuss the latest trials and triumphs of the Washington Redskins football team.
Vladimir Sakharov, a KGB officer who defected to the United States after working in the Middle East, recently warned a gathering of Americans not to place too much reliance on satellites and computers. He said the Soviets felt most secure with human intelligence -- "the kind of thing you can feel and touch."
"The KGB will keep a man in a country for a long time -- to the point where he becomes a real expert," said a former CIA case officer, who added that he and a few of his colleagues had on occasion socialized with their Soviet opponents in a foreign capital.
He said that both sides pretended to be regular foreign service officers, and found without giving away secrets that they had a lot in common, including resentment of regular bureaucrats.