The Grand Jury Minutes

Two grand juries heard Hiss case testimony: the first indicted Hiss on the last day of its existence (December 15, 1948). The second grand jury, impaneled December 16, 1948, continued to question Chambers and other Hiss case witnesses.

Release of the Hiss case grand jury minutes in 1999 was an extraordinary event in American legal history. Over the past two centuries, only a handful of federal grand jury transcripts have been made public – so reading this testimony (as made available in digitized form only on this website) is a rare glimpse into the usually sealed world of federal prosecutors. Release of these grand jury minutes (a total of about 4,800 pages) was also an extraordinary event in Hiss case studies, since it reopened two core questions – Alger Hiss’s and Whittaker Chambers’ truthfulness; and the fairness of the government proceedings against Hiss.

Several issues presented here come vividly to light: Whittaker Chambers was, for example, unable to identify the photographer he claimed to have worked with weekly in 1937 and 1938 (and, in addition, years after the Hiss case trials, he was also contradicted by a second man who he later said was the photographer). This is the story of Chambers and Felix; it has several parts and unfolds over six years.

Whittaker Chambers spelled out for the second Hiss case grand jury details of how he had worked with Alger Hiss to take documents from the State Department for transmission to the Soviet Union. At first, Chambers said, he had photographed these documents himself, at the Baltimore apartment of William and Anna Spiegel. But the Spiegels in their own grand jury testimony repeatedly contradicted Chambers. Because of grand jury secrecy, the defense never knew about what they had said, and therefore couldn’t confront Chambers when he repeated his same story at both Hiss case trials.

Congressman Richard M. Nixon (R-CA), Alger Hiss’s chief pursuer throughout the summer and fall of 1948, testified before the grand jury on December 13, 1948, and release of his testimony shows it to have been inappropriate, distorted, and a deliberate effort to manipulate the final indictment process. We analyze his testimony and place it in context, and also present annotated excerpts from it.