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Venona Ten Years Later: Lessons for Today

Ten years ago, on July 11, 1995, the U.S. intelligence community held an extraordinary press conference at CIA headquarters to break the seal on one of the most closely held secrets of the Cold War. The world learned that, starting in 1946, American cryptologists had cracked Soviet codes and read portions of thousands of messages Soviet intelligence operatives sent each other during World War II. Most of the cables decrypted in a program that came to be known as Venona, one of numerous codenames used to cloak its existence, were sent or received by the Soviet head of foreign intelligence.

Just as the ability to read Stalin’s spymaster’s correspondence dramatically altered the course of the Cold War, public release of the cables a half-century later altered our understanding of the dynamics of the conflict between the USSR and the West. Coupled with revelations from Soviet bloc archives, release of data gathered in the Venona program led to dramatic reassessments of decades of history. The revelations reverberated worldwide as members of the British, Australian and, above all, American communist parties who had protested their innocence were exposed as spies and liars. Two generations of Americans for whom the innocence of Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss was an article of faith were compelled to reconsider their mockery of those who had warned about widespread Communist espionage.

Venona not only produced lessons about the past -- it also illuminated issues that governments and the public are grappling with today, including the risks and benefits of the disclosure of intelligence, the dangers of bureaucratic tunnel vision, and the ease with which ordinary people will commit crimes to advance Utopian ideologies.

Venona was made possible because in 1942--during the darkest days of the war in Russia, when everything, including skilled manpower, was in short supply--Soviet code clerks produced and distributed to agents around the globe thousands of duplicate copies of “one-time” pads used to encrypt communications. As is clear from the name, the code tables were supposed to be used only once, and if this simple precaution had been heeded, the encryption system would have been impenetrable. But with Germans at the gates of Stalingrad, punctilious adherence to apparently arcane security rules must have seemed an unaffordable luxury. The chances of the shortcut being detected must have seemed vanishingly small.

The Venona secrets were disclosed at the July 1995 press conference largely as a result of prodding from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who learned of the program when he headed the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. The story of how a combination of extraordinary luck and tremendous talent led a small team working at a former girls’ boarding school outside Washington, D.C. to detect and exploit the opportunity presented by the replicated one-time pads has been described in several books, notably Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes’s Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (Yale University Press, 2000).

That first batch of Venona decrypts released a decade ago included cables between Pavel Fitin, the Soviet head of foreign intelligence, and his officers in New York describing the espionage activities of an American engineer codenamed “Liberal” who worked for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. These cables were among the first that the Army Security Agency (ASA), which was later folded into the National Security Agency, partially decrypted and shared with the FBI. It took the FBI a couple of years to discover that Rosenberg was Liberal, and another four decades for the National Security Agency to share with the American public the documents that removed all doubt that he was a spy.

A 1956 internal memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover revealed three major reasons why the Bureau didn’t reveal its smoking-gun evidence during the Rosenbergs’ 1951 trial. There was a fear that disclosing the existence of the Venona program could help the Russians minimize the damage to its U.S. spy networks. Although Hoover didn’t know it at the time, this concern was largely unwarranted because Fitin and his colleagues already knew a great deal about the Venona program. A Soviet spy was standing over the shoulder of an ASA code breaker when he decrypted the first cable suggesting that the Kremlin’s agents had targeted the Manhattan project, and Kim Philby, a Soviet agent who penetrated the top ranks of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency, had been briefed on Venona.

The second reason for withholding the decrypted messages from prosecutors resonates today. There is a world of difference between actionable intelligence and information that meets judicial standards of evidence. The FBI was certain Venona would, even if admissible, be useless in court. It was unlikely, the Bureau felt, that partially decrypted messages of unproved origin, peppered with codenames and euphemisms, would be considered dispositive. If the prosecution were permitted to show decrypted cables to a jury, the defense could reasonably argue that messages the government had failed to decipher could exonerate their clients.

There were also political reasons to keep Venona under wraps, especially in the 1950s. Republicans were attacking Democrats for coddling Communists and playing down the Red threat, while the Truman White House accused the GOP of red baiting. Publicizing documentation of widespread Communist espionage would have plunged the FBI into the middle of a superheated partisan debate.

While the intelligence value of keeping Venona secret is debatable – there was some value to keeping the USSR in the dark about precisely which cables had been decrypted -- the benefits that could have accrued from publicizing it are undeniable. Keeping the cables under lock and key prevented Americans from examining the evidence and forming their own opinions about the role domestic Communists played in bolstering Stalin’s power.

In a commentary published ten days after Venona was made public, Moynihan suggested that releasing the documents in 1950 would have convinced the Left of the reality of communist espionage, thereby heading off both the excesses of McCarthyism as well as the anti-anticommunism that distorted American politics for four decades.

Looking at Venona another decade later, it is also clear that secrecy obscured some realities that could have led to a much-needed assessment of the FBI’s competence to detect threats to national security. Although Venona was one of America’s greatest counterintelligence triumphs, the project was important precisely because it illuminated an equally immense failure. It revealed that a handful of Russians developed hundreds of sources who spied on President Roosevelt; provided real-time reports on the Manhattan Project, probably shaving years from the USSR’s effort to eliminate America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons; and gave the Red Army blueprints for everything from America’s first jet fighter to its most sophisticated radar.

Virtually all of the spies had been members of or were closely associated with the Communist Party. Many, including Rosenberg, were able to continue spying for years after they first came to the FBI’s attention as security threats. Spies who were fired from government jobs as security threats easily found work in the private sector that afforded access to even more valuable information. No one connected the dots. Russia’s spies thrived in the U.S. during World War II largely because the FBI and Army failed to grasp the nature of the threat. Hoover and his subordinates thought of domestic communists primarily as sources of subversion, not as espionage agents.

Perhaps the longest-lasting impact of the release of the Venona documents has been to transform the debate over Communist espionage in the 1940s into one that is all too relevant today. The pertinent question is no longer whether Americans spied, but rather how highly educated, intelligent men and women failed to comprehend the true nature of Stalinist communism, and why they were willing to risk their lives and imperil the security of their families, neighbors and friends to commit crimes on behalf of a foreign power opposed to the basic tenets of modern society. Answers to similar questions, regarding educated Muslims with experience of life in Europe and the U.S. like those who led the 9-11 and Madrid attacks, are essential to constructing a defense against 21st century terrorism.