Norman Rees, Mild-Mannered Russian Spy Next Door in Southbury, Conn.

In 1942, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies in the fight against Germany in World War II. Norman Rees, an engineer who specialized in petroleum, began sympathizing with the communist cause and started helping the Russians. For the next 30 years he never stopped.

norman rees

Seminole oil field, Oklahoma (Library of Congress)

Rees was an oil company engineer who developed a patent in his time working for Mobil Oil — now ExxonMobil. All the while, however, the Sicilian-born Rees secretly helped the Russians develop their domestic oil industry.

Russia’s oil reserves in the Caucasus were one of the main reasons Hitler invaded the country in 1941. But Russia lagged other countries in exploiting the oil. One analyst said that Rees was the single most important figure in the development of the Russian oil industry between 1945 and 1960.

Rees provided the Russians with designs for petroleum processing plants and equipment. His biggest contribution to the Russian: He shared a technology that greatly improves the yield of gasoline from crude oil.

The grateful Russian nation awarded Rees a medal for his activities and granted him a pension, in addition to some $30,000  for his help. The United States, however, no longer having an alliance with the USSR after the conclusion of World War II, viewed Rees as an enemy spy.

Double Agent

Norman Rees

In 1971, the FBI approached Rees. The engineer lived in Connecticut and was partially retired, though he remained active as a consultant. The agency had learned of his spying activities. The FBI did not want to arrest him. Instead, the agency wanted to use Rees as a double agent. For the next four years, Rees would keep up his contacts with the Russian government. Now, however, the FBI tailed him to all his meetings, using them to identify Russian operatives in the United States.

Late in 1975, two reporters for the Dallas Times Herald newspaper learned of Rees’ activities. They confronted him, and Rees admitted his spying to them. He had long ago come to regret his activities. “Looking back on it now, it’s enough to make me sick,” he said.

The reporters pressed Rees about whether he had ever helped Julius and Ethel Rosenberg pass nuclear secrets to the Russians. He took a polygraph, but it was not conclusive.

In February of 1976, Norman Rees told the newspaper he would kill himself if the paper published its story. When it did publish, he shot himself at the house in Southbury, Conn., where he had retired. His family was astonished when the story emerged, and the incident prompted a debate about the proper role of the media.

Norman Rees’ neighbors were shocked that the quiet, unassuming businessman was actually a double agent.

This story was updated in 2019.

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