Judith Coplon
Soviet Spy
Cold War Era

From Spy Book, The Encyclopedia of Espionage

U.S. Department of Justice employee who spied for the Soviet Union.

Coplon, born in Brooklyn, NY, studied Russian at Barnard College. After graduation she began her career as a Justice Department employee in 1943 in New York City, transferring in 1945 to the department's Washington headquarters. There she worked in the foreign agents registration section. In that seemingly innocuous job she gleaned a great deal of information, because FBI reports were often included in files of registered foreign agents -- including those the FBI suspected of being Soviet operatives.

In 1948, when the FBI first suspected that she was a courier for a Soviet spy ring, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wanted her simply fired as a security risk. But counterintelligence officials recommended that she be kept on and closely watched. Hoover, who was not comfortable with espionage work, finally agreed. Coplon was placed under surveillance and her phone was tapped. On her frequent journeys between Washington and New York she was observed handing over documents to her Soviet contact, Valentin Gubitchev, a former Soviet intelligence officer whose cover was an employee of the United Nations.

The FBI prepared a fake secret memo signed by Hoover and passed it under Coplon's unsuspecting eyes. She had it in her handbag, along with other FBI documents, in New York City in March 1949 when agents arrested her and Gubitchev. The Soviets' claim of diplomatic immunity for Gubitchev was unsuccessful because although he had entered the United States as a member of the Soviet delegation to the UN, he had subsequently become an employee of the UN Secretariat. The job shift lost him his immunity.

Coplon, tried for theft of government documents and attempted theft of national defense documents, was convicted, as was Gubitchev. he was deported, in a deal engineered by the State Department. Coplon's conviction was set aside by an appeals judge on two legal issues: Records of the wiretap should have been shown to her defense attorney, and her arrest should have been made with a warrant. Congress soon passed a law authorizing warrantless arrest in espionage cases.

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