It was a night in early November during the infancy of the Cold War when the anti-communist dissidents were hustled through a garden and across a gully to a vehicle on a dark, deserted road in Budapest. They hid in four large crates for their perilous journey.
Four roadblocks stood between them and freedom.
What Zoltan Pfeiffer, a top political figure opposed to Soviet occupation, his wife and 5-year-old daughter did not know as they were whisked out of Hungary in 1947 was that their driver, James McCargar, was a covert agent for one of America’s most secretive espionage agencies, known simply as the Pond.
Created during World War II as a purely U.S. operation free of the perceived taint of European allies, the Pond existed for 13 years and was shrouded in secrecy for more than 50 years. It used sources that ranged from Nazi officials to Stalinists and, at one point, a French serial killer.
It operated under the cover of multinational corporations, including American Express, Chase National Bank and Philips, the Dutch-based electronic giant. One of its top agents was a female American journalist.
Now the world can finally get a deeper look at the long-hidden roots of American espionage as tens of thousands of once-secret documents found in locked safes and filing cabinets in a barn near Culpeper, Va., in 2001 have finally become public after a long security review by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The papers, which the Pond’s leader tried to keep secret long after the organization was dissolved, were placed in the National Archives in College Park, Md., in 2008 but only opened to the public in April. Those records plus documents obtained by The Associated Press in the past two years from the FBI, CIA and other agencies under the Freedom of Information Act portray a sophisticated organization obsessed with secrecy that operated a network of 40 chief agents and more than 600 sources in 32 countries. The AP has also interviewed former officials, family members, historians and archivists.
The Pond, designed to be relatively small and operate out of the limelight, appeared to score some definite successes, but rivals questioned its sources and ultimately, it became discredited because its pugnacious leader was too cozy with Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other radical anti-communists. …