The Venona Cables

Venona was the code name for a partially successful and for many years top-secret U.S. counterintelligence operation begun in the middle of World War II by a forerunner of the National Security Agency and greatly expanded during the early years of the Cold War. Its aim was to intercept, decipher, and translate coded messages between Moscow headquarters and Soviet intelligence stations in a number of countries around the world. By the late 1940s, U.S. cryptographers had broken the cipher the Soviets had used during the war, and began translating cables from that period. Many years later, beginning in 1995, about 3,000 of these cables were made public in English (and are now posted on the NSA website).

As an important historical resource, the Venona cables nevertheless have a number of frustrating features: many of the 3,000 cables exist only as fragments or as isolated phrases (and 3,000, though an impressive number, is only a minute fraction of the million or so cables the Soviets were sending and receiving during the years of the Venona program, which only ended in 1980). There is also no way of checking the accuracy of the released translations, since the original Russian texts are still classified.

The extent to which the Venona cables throw any new light on the Hiss case is still hotly debated. As the Venona analysts themselves acknowledged (in an essay, VENONA Historical Monograph #4), “We especially feel the loss to history in the record of the GRU in Washington [meaning Soviet military intelligence, the branch of Soviet intelligence with which, according to Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss had cooperated]. Of the several thousand Washington messages from 1941-1945, only about fifty were decrypted, in spite of the best efforts of the U.S. and the U.K.” And of these fifty, only a single cable has an unidentified pseudonym (“ALES”) that some – although not, ultimately, the F.B.I. – have suggested could have been Alger Hiss. Hiss case student, filmmaker, and former law professor John Lowenthal examined this charge at length in a scholarly British quarterly. (That article is followed here by an appreciation of Lowenthal’s life.) The American historian Bruce Craig also offers a brief commentary on the possibility of ALES-as-Hiss. The American journalists Walter and Miriam Schneir (who also wrote extensively about the Rosenberg case) then present their own analysis of the value of the Venona cables. Another journalist, Eric Alterman, writes about the pitfalls inherent in evaluating evidence from released Russian files. Finally, we give a retranslation of the ALES cable itself (to date the only Venona cable whose underlying Russian text has been made public).