In 1942, the United States and the Soviet Union allied in the fight against Germany during 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.
He was born Nuncio Ruisi in Sicily around 1906. Little is known about his early life. He married and had a son named John. He became an engineer, with an expertise in metallurgy, piping and holding tanks for oil under pressure. By 1942, Rees worked for an oil consulting firm called M.W. Kellogg, then in New York City. A fellow employee asked him to help the Russians, and he agreed.
He then went to work for for Mobil Oil — now ExxonMobil. In 1956, he received credit for a co-patent on a gas lift, a kind of pump in which the injection of gas creates bubbles that lift oil from the reservoir.
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.
Rees made his biggest contribution to the Russian oil industry in 1950, when he shared a technology that greatly improves the yield of gasoline from crude oil. He also provided the Russians with designs for petroleum processing plants and equipment.
One analyst said that Rees was the single most important figure in the development of the Russian oil industry between 1945 and 1960.
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.
In 1971, the FBI approached Rees. The engineer lived in a retirement community, Heritage Village, in Southbury, Conn., though he still did some consulting. A neighbor told the New York Times he always thought him a conservative who voted Republican.
The FBI had learned of his spying activities. The agency did not want to arrest him, but 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 with a .38 in his home. His wife heard the gunshot and found his body. His family was astonished when the story emerged, and the incident prompted a debate about the proper role of the media.
This story was updated in 2022.
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