Venona Ten Years Later: Lessons for Today

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Mr. Usdin, senior editor, BioCentury Publications, is the author of forthcoming book Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied For Stalin and Founded The Soviet Silicon Valley, Yale University Press).

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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.

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Arnold Shcherban - 8/7/2005

We all heard a hell of a lot about the American communists
as Russian spies in 40s and 50s. But in virtually all infamous cases of Russian espionage in this country in 60s, 70s, and 80s amounted to the greatest damage to the security and defense of the US the spies were Americans
of non-communist, not even Left ideology. They all did
it either for MONEY, or on some other apolitical reasons.

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005


For Venona 1822

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005

You missed my correction.

Venona 1822's passage regarding Moscow is awkwardly written and the NSA has not released the original Russian language version; only with the original can we resolve bad translations. In my correction, I stated that it could be read, quite legitimately, to say that Vyshinski went on to Moscow and Ales only confirmed that it was Vyshinski who went to Moscow after Yalta. You and others believe this particular Venona message is the smoking gun in terms of Hiss because it says Ales went to Moscow, but this is not clear. We do know that Hiss went to Moscow as the Secretary of State's assistant, but this doesn't make him a spy; it shows Hiss doing his State Department job.

Just look it (and I note that when you quoted it you edited out commas):

“6. After the Yalta Conference, when he had gone on to Moscow, a Soviet personage in a very responsible position (ALES gave to understand that it was Comrade Vyshinski) allegedly got in touch with Ales and at the behest of the military NEIGHBORS passed on to him their gratitude and so on.”

First, keep in mind that Venona 1822 is a listing of what the Soviet Washington station chief, Gromov, “ascertained” after a “chat” with Ales. It can legitimately be read to state that “a Soviet personage in a very responsible position” had gone on to Moscow after Yalta. Look at where the parentheses are positioned---after the phrase about the Soviet personage. The parenthetical note states that Ales believes this “personage” to be Vyshinski. Then after the parentheses, it is clear that Vyshinsky “got in touch with Ales” to thank him. (Got in touch doesn’t necessarily mean “meet,” and I think the inference leans more towards not meeting.) Finally, the “when he had gone on to Moscow” seems to qualify “Soviet personage” not Ales.

Additionally, the Venona message also does not say that Ales was given the award in Moscow. The messages begins: "...chat with ALES the following was ascertained." The fifth point reads: "Recently ALES and his whole group were awarded Soviet decorations." The sixth point mentions "to Moscow." In other words, point five does not say the award was given in Moscow, just that they were “awarded” a decoration and “recently.” Saying Ales/Hiss received the award in Moscow is inexact and speculation.

The fact of the matter is we still do not know who Ales is. And I see enough discrepancies to call into doubt the claims by some that Hiss is Ales.

Here is an image of Venona 1822, irrespective of the editorial with it.

Bill Heuisler - 7/23/2005

Mr. Charles,
This must be my last post on this matter. Our arguments are becoming repetitive. We've already covered the KGB-GRU overlap and the fact that information coming from State and the Navy Department was of military value. We've covered Chamber's reasons for delay and for hiding the papers. Opinions differ. A jury convicted.

Your last post, however showed some confusion on your part. Apparently you don't know who Vishinsky is and, contrary to your post, the wording of Venona note #1822 was quite clear. The last para of Venona note #1822 reads:

"After the Yalta Conference when he had gone on to Moscow a Soviet personage in a very responsible position (Ales gave to understand that it was Comrade Vishinskij) allegedly got in touch with Ales and at the behest of the military neighbors passed on to him their gratitude."

ALES went to Moscow where he was personally congratulated by Andrei Vishinsky.Vishinsky was Stalin's prosecutor in the purge trials. Vishinsky lived in Moscow and the fact he gave the award shows how important the awardee was.

Not many Americans went to Yalta with Roosevelt and then only four went on on to Moscow. Others in the party with Stettinus and Hiss were underlings, so the importance of the greeter points to a high level American spy. Who else but Hiss would deserve a visit from a Stalin intimate like Vishinsky?

If you have another name in mind, please give it, otherwise thank you for an interesting discussion.
Bill Heuisler

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005

Correction: I mis-wrote the second paragraph. I meant to say: Some have argued that it was Vyshinksi that Venona 1822 describes as going to Moscow and that Ales only confirmed it was him. It depends on how one reads the Venona decrypt because it is so badly written and that is because we don't have access to the original Russian language version. We can only rely on the NSA's clearly awkward translation.

Sorry for the goof.

Andrew D. Todd - 7/23/2005

Let us take it for granted that Alger Hiss is guilty as charged. What then? Communism has been dead as an ideology for thirty or forty years. I have in front of me a copy of Evergreen Review from 1973, in which Dotson Rader writes of a Soviet official poet:

"Poets have their uses. Yevtushenko's tragedy is that he has not the courage to resist... he belongs in a room exchanging polite banter with Dick Nixon." (p. 125)

(Dotson Rader, Yevgeny Yevtushenko: The Cold Warrior as Poet, Evergreen Review, #96, Spring 1973, pp. 124-136)

The American left were already in the process of deciding that the Soviet dissidents, people like Amalrik, the Medvedevs, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, etc. were the good guys, not the Soviet state.

It is the neoconservatives who still believe that ideology justifies everything. I would argue that someone like Karl Rove is the true heir of Alger Hiss-- the believer in machtpolitic, and "the ends justify the means." Look at some back issues of a real left-wing magazine, say, The Progressive, and you find very little support for undemocratic foreign countries which are not actually under occupation or siege by American troops. On the contrary, you find something about Salman Rushdie; something about a woman who got a Nobel Peace Prize for trying to organize a nonviolent civil rights movement in Iran, and who is being persecuted by the Iranian authorities; something about another woman trying to do the same thing in Kenya, with the same results, etc. It is the neoconservatives who get into the position of making excuses for a foreign country which is, um, "democracy-challenged." Would Karl Rove knowingly pass critical defense information to Saudi Arabia, and ultimately to Al Quada, which would result in American troops getting killed, if by so doing, he could advance the short-term interests of the Republican Party? What do you think, based on present form?

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005

Correction: I mis-wrote the second paragraph. I meant to say: Some have argued that it was Vyshinksi that Venona 1822 describes as going to Moscow and that Ales only confirmed it was him. It depends on how one reads the Venona decrypt because it is so badly written and that is because we don't have access to the original Russian language version. We can only rely on the NSA's clearly awkward translation.

Sorry for the goof.

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005

1) I’ve already shown you how the identification of Ales as Hiss is still in dispute and not conclusive, yet you are now saying that it is definitive that Ales is Hiss. Let me reiterate. Venona 1822 say: “After the Yalta Conference, when he had gone to Moscow, a Soviet personage in a very responsible position (ALES gave it to understand that it was Comrade Vyshinski) allegedly got in touch with ALES and at the behest of the Military NEIGHBORS [GRU] passed on to him their gratitude and so on.” Thus, you claim Ales is Hiss. But Ales can’t be Hiss. Why? Because the very same Venona decrypt says Ales worked with GRU “continuously since 1935" and obtained “military information only.” That is totally inconsistent with Hiss’s State Department responsibilities after 1936 (and in 1935 he was at Justice). The documents Chambers turned over that were allegedly from Hiss in 1938 reported trade and diplomatic information only. You are only speculating that Ales was Hiss.

As for another possibility for Ales, some have suggested he could have been Vyshinsky; but the fact of the matter is that because of the bad state of the Venona sentence in question, we don’t know! Yet you claim to know and that is based on speculation.
Gordievsky’s only sources about Hiss in his book were secondary ones. He had no special knowledge of Hiss.

2) I’m afraid the “didn’t tell anyone” he left the party excuse is pretty weak and doesn’t even make sense. Chambers said he left the party in 1937/ Jan-Feb 1938 in his 1939 meeting with Berle; a 1940 meeting with writer Malcolm Cowley; a 1942 FBI interview; a 1945 interview with State Department security; August 1948 HUAC testimony, and the list goes on. Clearly, Chambers was not afraid of being murdered between 1939 and 1948. (The only thing he decided in 1939 after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was to expose Soviet spying.) Your defense of Chambers’s varying testimony carries no water.

3) There you go again! There are ample contradictions to call into question whether it is definitive that Hiss actually gave Chambers the microfilm: Chambers’ changing dates of leaving the communist party and dates of the documents. This is not all and I am not going to recount all of the problems with the Hiss perjury conviction. (There are plenty others who have done that.) Suffice it to say, it is not the definitive thing that you think it is.

Bill Heuisler - 7/23/2005

Mr. Charles,
1)My conclusion about Hiss espionage at Yalta comes from Venona 1822. 1822 says ALES visited Moscow after the 1945 Yalta Conference. Hiss was at Yalta as adviser to Sec. State Stettinius. We know he travelled with Stettinius to Moscow after Yalta. Since you doubt Hiss was referenced in 1822 receiving an award from Vishinsky, who else, pray tell was on that trip who could've matched the specific circumstance of 1822? Who else had been in a position to do anything worthy of an award? There were four or five others. Can you name another person on the trip who fits?

Have you forgotten Hiss was also IDed as ALES in 1988 by Oleg Gordievsky, a ranking KGB agent, defected in 1985? Gordievsky wrote, "a handful of the most important agents were run individually. Among them was Alger Hiss code-named ALES" He was also the "outer" of Ishak Abdulovich Akhmerov. This reference to Hiss as ALES was many years before VENONA. Have you an excuse for Oleg?

2) You wrote, "if Chambers left the party in late 1937 or Jan-Feb 1938, how could he produce State Department documents from Hiss dated 1 April 1938?" Easy. Chambers testifies he left the party in 37 or 38, but that he didn't decide to tell anyone or do anything until the Nazi Soviet Pact in August of 39. Remember how Chambers mentions often he was afraid of being murdered? Recall how he said the '39 Nazi Soviet Pact made him act?

3) Whether the documents were transmitted to Russia has no bearing on Hiss's intent. The central facts are that Hiss had a unique access to those documents and that he passed them in various modes (including microfilm) designed to conceal his acts. You have access and intent to hide his act. Then you have the cover-up lies. Why would Hiss microfilm documents and give them to another in any case and under any circumstances?

Before you call my information innuendo and speculation, please answer my five questions about facts.
Bill Heuisler

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005

Typo corrstion: "If Chambers had broken from the Communists in late 1937 or Jan-Feb 1938—as he claimed before coming up with microfilm—he could not have received all the documents from Hiss."

Douglas Charles - 7/23/2005

If, as you claim, you have experience reading documents critically, this begs the question as to why you refuse to do so regarding the Hiss matter? The Hiss episode is chock full of discrepancies that you seem to dismiss or ignore offhand. Why?

For example, you claim: "Hiss was transmitting information to the Soviets during the Yalta Conference - during WWII." But you don't know this. You have no proof of this other than speculation.

And when confronted with all the ambiguities and discrepancies of the Hiss episode, you fall back on his perjury conviction as if it was sacrosanct, yet Hiss was only convicted of perjury at his second trial (the first of 1949 being hung). Moreover, the perjury case is rife with discrepancies that raise many questions that you totally ignore.

For example, Chambers repeatedly altered his testimony as to when he defected from the Communist party. *Until* he produced the microfilmed State Department documents in Dec. 1948, Chamber claimed to have left the party in late 1937. Before HUAC, Chambers variously claimed to have left the party in late 1937 and in Jan-Feb 1938. Then, in Hiss’s two trials, he claimed to have left the party on 15 April 1938!

This begs the question: if Chambers left the party in late 1937 or Jan-Feb 1938, how could he produce State Department documents from Hiss dated 1 April 1938? Isn’t it convenient that Chambers changes his story when he suddenly offers up microfilm?

This is not all, all of the State Department documents that Chambers produced in 1948 were dated 1938 (the last one date 1 April 1938). If Chambers had broken from the Communists in late 1937 or Jan-Feb 1938—as he claimed before coming up with microfilm—he could not have received the documents from Hiss. Additionally, the microfilmed documents were stamped 14 January 1938 and the latest Hiss note was dated 11 March 1938. Again, Chambers’s constantly changing claims come into question. And let’s not forget that Chambers, himself, admitted that he never transmitted these documents to the Soviets—espionage?

Then you implicate Hiss simply because he knew Chambers. It does not follow that Hiss was a spy simply because he knew Chambers. You are offering up as evidence guilt by association.

Lastly, it is not my claim that Hiss transmitted military information only, that is what the Soviet's said Ales transmitted!. Weinstein and company say Ales is Hiss; yet the evidence doesn't fit to support that contention.

The Hiss case is full of holes, discrepancies, ambiguities, and many unclear things, yet you seem to think it has been confirmed that Hiss was an agent. How do you do this? You're still using nothing but innuendo and speculation.

Bill Heuisler - 7/23/2005

Mr. Charles,
Your concern for me is touching when you write, "sources must be read critically, a task you have clearly not mastered..." Thanks for your diagnosis, but I have over thirty years experience in the collection, analysis and presentation of evidence in civil and criminal cases.

One at a time. Hiss was transmitting information to the Soviets during the Yalta Conference - during WWII. His conviction of perjury during the Chambers cover-up was time truncated because of the papers involved, but a treason trial would not have been limited.

You wrote, "You have no proof. The Pumpkin Papers consist of sixty-five pages of retyped secret State Department documents, four pages in Hiss's own handwriting of copied State Department cables, and five rolls of developed and undeveloped 35 mm film. The film included fifty-eight frames, photos of State and Navy Department documents. State Department documents dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including U. S. intentions with respect to the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War, and Germany's takeover of Austria. Almost all were highly secret.

Your experience with evidence is obviously miniscule if you don't realize how the papers implicate Hiss. Papers available to very few except Hiss. Hiss's handwriting. Hiss's typewritten copies from the Woodstock. All in the Soviet agent's possession. And the agent? Hiss's denials of knowing Chambers in spite of having leased a house and given a car to him. The Catlett testimony and the Hiss's maid's testimony make it plain Hiss knew Chambers.

Hiss was deliberately transmitting papers, film and secret information to an agent. Military info only? The Navy Department, Spanish Civil War, German takeover. Do you mean he didn't send troop movements? Ridiculous.
The last paragraph of that Venona page you referenced spoke of an award after Yalta given to Ales. Hiss received an award in Moscow right after Yalta. Must have been for that non-military stuff FDR and Joe discussed.

And for you to write, "did they knowing give information or not? (We don’t know)" leads me to believe you are very naive or ideologically entangled. Did he know he was taking the documents home? Did he know it was against the law? Did he know he was writing those handwritten copies? Did he know he was giving papers to the guy he'd given the car to? Did he guess the guy was a Soviet agent?

Nah. He thought it was a scavenger hunt. Or he thought Chambers was an Explorer scout trying for a badge. Mr. Charles, do you realize how silly you're beginning to sound as you go through these excruciating mental and rhetorical gymnastics denying the obvious and defending the indefensible? You must begin to accept the truth, a task you have clearly not mastered because you are trying to change reality to fit preconceived conclusions.
Bill Heuisler

Douglas Charles - 7/22/2005

Hiss would not have been executed if convicted of spying. Spies are only executed if they spied during wartime (eg, Rosenberg), and Hiss's alleged spying occurred in the 1930s when the US was not at war.

And in the rest of your argument, you miss the point completely because you are convicting Hiss and others with nothing other than speculation and innuendo. You have no proof. For example, Bentley's statement that she heard Hiss was working with Glasser—that’s called hearsay and as evidence is very weak; moreover, there were two different Hisses! (Bentley also admitted that she knew little about Glasser’s ring.) Then you totally ignore the fact that Ales provided military info only, which Hiss couldn't have done in Justice or State. The point is that sources must be read critically, a task you have clearly not mastered because you are trying to fit evidence to your preconceived conclusions. Historians let the evidence lead them to conclusions that are supported by evidence and verifiable. Speculation is not acceptable for definitive statements.

Lastly, recognizing the difference between a source and a recruit is not parsing, it's critically important to this issue. If you don't understand this then you don't understand the significance of Venona, Soviet espionage, and our response to it. A recruit is a traitor; a source isn’t necessarily so and is a more ambiguous thing. The wording in Venona and other sources, for example, does not make it clear HOW these people were sources—did they knowing give information or not? (We don’t know)—but we do know that Soviet agents often got their information from social occasions. Further, Soviet handlers considered information available in our open society (where the same thing would not be so open in the USSR) as seemingly important intelligence when we would not have believed so.

Bill Heuisler - 7/22/2005

Mr. Charles,
Parsing the difference between a "recruit" and a "source" is a waste of time, unless you contend Hiss unknowingly gave copies of secrets typed on his typewriter to his courier who gave them to the FBI. May I remind you, Hiss was not charged with being a spy or an agent. He was convicted of perjury. Had he been convicted of spying, he would have been executed.

GRU or KGB? Information from Soviet sources and Venona indicates some of Chambers’ network were revived by the KGB in the early 1940s - White, Silverman and Glasser for example - while others resumed GRU connections. By then the KGB had displaced the GRU as chief Soviet espionage agency in the US, although the GRU retained a presence. To impose on this era the strict separation of KGB from GRU of the later Cold War is anachronistic.

As to Hiss being a conscious source, the defection of Elizabeth Bentley in 1945, as well as other defectors, compromised a large number of Americans who'd cooperated with Soviet espionage. The majority Bentley identified as Soviet sources were also directly identified as such in Venona. Bentley identified Harry White, George Silverman, and Harold Glasser as working with her networks during World War II. She also told the FBI that a member of her network, Glasser, had for a time worked for a network she said was run by a man named Hiss at State. Alger and Donald Hiss, worked for the State Department at the time in question.

Spy or source, perjury was what Alger Hiss couldn't get past. He lied about documents he had exclusive access to. He testified that typewritten copies of those papers were not passed to a Soviet agent or typed by him. The typewriter was found. The soviet agent handed the papers to the FBI. The typewriter was the same that had typed letters to various admissions offices (Bryn Mawr for instance) for the Hiss daughter.

Conscious or unconscious, he was not a stupid man, not a dupe. In either guise we must seek motive. Was he a careless, constant source or deliberately betraying his country? Either way, why defend him?
Bill Heuisler

Douglas Charles - 7/21/2005

Venona does not confirm that Hiss was a Soviet recruit.

In Weinstein's (& Vassiliev's) problematic book, _The Haunted Wood_, he claims that after consulting KGB files he could confirm Hiss's guilt as a Soviet recruit. But what is his only source on the Hiss-Chambers case? Weinstein's 1978 book _Perjury_, not KGB records! In a footnote, moreover, he explains his failure to provide KGB files documenting the Hiss-Chambers case because only KGB files were consulted and not GRU files (Chambers & Hiss were allegedly GRU agents) so he could not fully document the Hiss--Chambers case.

Weinstein then makes the fantastic statement that both Hiss and Harry Dexter White were assigned the same code name, Lawyer! We know, for a fact, that White's code name was Lawyer so why would KGB officers assign the same code name to two different recruits? (They wouldn't.) Weinstein tried to explain his contention by saying that Hiss was, indeed, A LAWYER by profession. Yet White, who we know was code-named LAWYER, was an economist! Weinstein, in other words, is not offering evidence but speculation.

Weinstein also cites and offers quotes from other KGB records that cite Hiss BY NAME (not code name) which indicates that he was a source---a far cry from a recruit. (Recruits all had code names. Why would a Soviet recruit be named in a message?) What's Weinstein's explanation for Hiss not having a code name here? He lamely claims that KGB officers "did not know" or "forgot" Hiss' code name!! How would he possible know this? Unless he has a crystal ball and is in contact with the spirits of these KGB officers, he doesn't know. He’s speculating. Likewise, Hiss is cited BY NAME in Venona (28 Sept 1943); again, why would a recruit be named when all others have code names? Another Venona message of 30 march 1945, says Ales (i.e., Hiss according to Weinstein) was working for the Soviets since 1935 providing "military information only." Hiss worked in the Justice Dept in 1935 and would not have access to military information, and when he moved to State in 1936 he worked in trade & diplomatic matters only---not military. The same Venona message is very unclear as to whether Ales went to Moscow after Yalta or was just briefed.

Weinstein's last piece of "evidence" confirming Hiss's guilt (as Ales) is that he leaked State Department Far Eastern affairs documents in 1945. Yet Hiss had left the far Eastern Division in 1944.

In other words, there is not proof or confirmation that Alger Hiss was a Soviet recruit. A source used by Soviet spies? Yes. An agent? No evidence.

Bill Heuisler - 7/21/2005

Mr. Charles,
Don't listen to me, read Navasky.
Victor Navasky - no friend to the Right - writes at length in the Nation about Weinstein's "Perjury". He calls some footnoting into question and establishes that certain witnesses recant parts of their conversations (taped supposedly) with Weinstein. The problem? None of these witnesses are critical to the central question of the perjury. But Navasky says the book depends on these witnesses to provide weight to the other witnesses. If these witnesses recanted, then the others probably will too. But apparently none did.

His words on Venona contain an unconscious admission.
"Oh, yes. On the next page Weinstein expresses consternation over media neglect of a second Venona cable that mentions Hiss's name. This 1943 document is partial and says cryptically "2. The NEIGHBOR [i.e., military intelligence or GRU] has reported that [words unrecovered] from the State Department by the name of HISS...[end of recovered wording]."

"But if Hiss is mentioned by name, doesn't this argue that he isn't Ales, since under Venona rules agents were not supposed to be referred to by their real names?"

"My point here is not that Hiss was or wasn't Ales. To resolve that would require reconciling many other contradictory pieces of the puzzle, not to mention coming to terms with an archive that, if it is taken at face value, also enlists in the espionage brigades such worthy improbables as F.D.R. adviser Harry Hopkins, Monthly Review editor Harry Magdoff and I.F. Stone. Rather it is that unraveling all the mysteries of cold war skulduggery may take as long as the cold war itself, and it is at best a hazardous enterprise to attempt definitive readings of the tea leaves as soon as they are leaked, sold or selectively released by this or that intelligence source."

While trying to head off the Ales code-name, he forgets that having Hiss's name in the Venona papers - which are communications from US agents to Soviet intelligence - means Hiss was in the pipeline...and an agent. Second, he waffles on Ales altogether because he realizes that each geographic juxtaposition of code-name Ales and Alger Hiss (references to times, places and events) are nearly perfect. There's more. But the last sad little gasp is Navasky's statement that Venona can't be true because it implicates people like I F Stone and Harry Hopkins.
Like I said, pathetic.

Read the whole thing. Google the Nation and Navasky's review of Weinstein's Perjury. Don't know the date.
Bill Heuisler

Douglas Charles - 7/21/2005

There is not overwhelming evidence of Hiss' guilt, especially from Venona which is anything but conclusive. The question of Hiss' guilt cannot be confirmed until KGB and GRU files are opened and their lists of code names are revealed. People who are concluding guilt from the available records (Venona and other questionable books) are still merely speculating.

Frederick Thomas - 7/19/2005

The most attractive aspect of this fine summary is that it is neither of right nor left, but simply accurate..

Bill Heuisler - 7/18/2005

Mr. Usdin,
Thanks for a pointed, well-written article. It's hard to believe there are still (even on HNN) dupes who protest the Rosenbergs' and Alger Hiss's innocence in the face of such overwhelming (before and after the fact) evidence.
Waiting for your book.
Bill Heuisler