New Evidence Surfaces (1990s)

Unexpected discoveries were made in the 1990s and important documents came to light that continued to be debated well into the 21st century – though none amounted to the kind of definitive disclosures some had hoped might be a consequence of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Alger Hiss himself, in the last year of his life, pressed post-Communist Russian authorities to release any information they might have about the charges against him, and a search was made on his behalf (it exonerated him but is still contested). More than a quarter century later, full archival openness – both in Russia and the U.S. – remains a goal, not a reality.

For a while in the 1990s, some Soviet-era Russian files were partially declassified; often, however, they made public only just enough information to fuel new scholarly arguments rather than settle old ones. In too many cases these same archives were later re-sealed. This was the period when the idea of the so-called “second Hiss case” emerged – with some Hiss detractors now convinced that certain archival fragments could be interpreted to indicate that Hiss had had World War II contacts with Soviet intelligence, not just a 1930s association with them, as Whittaker Chambers had alleged.

The principal archival legacy of the first post-Cold War decade consists of several massive exceptions to this piecemeal, dribs-and-drabs approach: three officially sanctioned releases, one Russian and two American, so large-scale they might almost be mistaken for document dumps. All of them are controversial, and each still awaits full investigation:

♦         Alexander Vassiliev, a young Russian journalist and KGB officer, created the Vassiliev Notebooks, eight notebooks in which he copied extracts from a huge number of KGB documents.

♦         Beginning in 1995, the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency released about 3,000 “Venona Cables,” previously secret translations of intercepted Soviet World War II-era cable traffic originally transmitted in code.

♦       Although grand juries conduct their business in private, in 1999 a federal judge made public 4,800 pages of testimony collected by two Hiss case grand juries, citing their “historical significance.”