Eric Alterman

In “I Spy With One Little Eye” (The Nation, April 29, 1996), journalist Eric Alterman examined the level of scholarship of some of those saying that released Soviet files and Venona decrypts automatically corroborate the espionage charges leveled in the 1940s against Alger Hiss and others. 

Here we go again. New York Post editor Eric Breindel, writing in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, insists that the recent release by the National Security Agency of an encrypted document sent by a Soviet spy in Washington to his superiors in Moscow on March 30, 1945, constitutes “the smoking gun in the Hiss case,” proving “beyond doubt” that Hiss “was still a Soviet agent in 1945.”

Since I am writing in what Breindel [who died after this article was written] preemptively calls “America’s leading forum for Alger Hiss apologia,” one could be forgiven for expecting yet another plea for justice for Hiss. Sorry. I take no position on guilt or innocence (in truth, I still can’t make up my mind). Today’s lesson deals instead with a disturbing nexus of scholarship, journalism and Cold War fanaticism that, based on either a careless or a deliberately malicious reading of declassified national security documents, threatens our ability ever to make sense of the past half-century of our history.

The drill has become a familiar one: Hitherto secret documents or ex-spy confessions, often backed up by a major publishing campaign, reveal that so-and-so was a spy all along. Journalists trumpet the charge, calling on “respected” academics to either endorse or debunk the charges. Depending on the usually predictable political orientation of the academic in question, a person’s reputation is either destroyed or merely damaged. The story then goes away until the next batch of documents appears or the next spy gets religion. Recently, a new twist has been added, by the willingness of far-right foundations to finance research that they can be assured will hew to their ideological line. Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh recently received “generous support” from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation, among others, to write a book on the controversial case of Amerasia magazine, whose publisher and contributors were arrested as spies in 1945; a grand jury refused to indict four of the six, and two paid fines on minor charges. Lo and behold, the authors declare the accused spies guilty as charged.

The latest cycle began back in 1990 with a book co-written by KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, and Christopher Andrew, a respected British intelligence historian, titled KGB: The Inside Story. Though he did not endorse the charge himself, Gordievsky argued, in Andrew’s words, that as a young agent he had been reliably informed by many important Soviet intelligence officials that Harry Hopkins, FDR’s most trusted adviser, had been a Soviet “agent of major significance.”

Time trumpeted the charges in a much-publicized excerpt but, owing to both the unbelievability of the charges and the authors’ unwillingness to stand by them, they did not cause much of a stir. Most reviewers were decidedly unimpressed with the work. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. scored Time for publishing the excerpt and said “the whole Hopkins passage smells of sensationalism on the part of the book’s authors.” The great military historian Sir Michael Howard noted that nothing in the book was likely to surprise Western intelligence services, though “there is probably much that they know not to be true.” The only reputations to suffer significant damage were those of Time and Andrew. (Being a KGB defector, Gordievsky did not have much to lose, reputation-wise.)

The first truly innocent victim of the new nexus was the late I. F. Stone. Portrayed as a willing KGB agent in 1992 by the extremist publication Human Events, Stone’s posthumous reputation took a beating in the “anything-possible” objective media. Finally, the only named KGB source, Oleg Kalugin, admitted that all Stone had done was eat lunch a few times with a man he did not know was working for the KGB. Izzy even paid for his own sandwiches. The groundless charges, however, continued. For instance, Washington Post columnist and CNN host Robert Novak continued to insist that Stone had been a KGB stooge long after the charges had been disproved. Is Novak a deliberate liar or just an unconscionably careless reporter? Do his employers even care?

A third mini-explosion occurred in 1994, when Little, Brown published Special Tasks, the alleged memoirs of a KGB “spymaster,” purportedly written by the aged spy Pavel Sudoplatov; his son, Anatoli Sudoplatov; and two alleged journalists, Jerrold and Leona Schecter. Among the most amazing of many amazing claims was the authors’ insistence that atomic scientists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, George Gamow and Niels Bohr were all Soviet spies. Bohr, said the authors, had given secret information on the manufacture of the atomic bomb to a young Russian physicist named Y. P. Terletsky in 1945. Like the Gordievsky book, the charges were trumpeted uncritically in a Time excerpt. “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” gave them a further push with a breathless special segment over twenty minutes long.

Unfortunately for those concerned, the book was all smoke and no fire. As the intelligence expert Thomas Powers pointed out, Special Tasks was wholly lacking in “establishing and supporting details.” Where such details were offered, notes Powers, they were “irrelevant, misleading, or blatantly wrong.” In the case of Bohr and Terletsky, for instance, the authors’ account was flatly contradicted by Terletsky shortly before his death. By the time genuine historians were done with the book, next to nothing remained. Time ran a short follow-up and “MacNeil/Lehrer,” to its credit, ran a second segment on the book, in which the authors were forced to defend themselves against competent historians. But Special Tasks remains in print, its falsehoods uncorrected.

Recently, it is U.S. intelligence releases that have been making news. After classifying its intercepts as top secret for decades and refusing all scholars’ entreaties for access, the National Security Agency called a press conference in July 1995 to announce the release of forty-nine intercepts, dubbed the Venona papers, that dealt with the case of the Rosenbergs. Sanho Tree, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, had applied for these same documents under the Freedom of Information Act in 1993 but was informed that they were properly classified as top secret. Tree received the documents by Federal Express just hours before the press conference began. Apparently, the NSA decided it would endanger national security if an IPS scholar saw the material before it had a chance to invite favored journalists to a screening, complete with fancy booklets and brochures.

This first batch of transcripts convinced many (including me) that Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy. Even committed Rosenberg partisans Walter and Miriam Schneir were convinced [see The Nation, “Cryptic Answers,” August 14/21, 1995]. But Ronald Radosh, transformed from obscure New Left historian to well-funded, right-wing hatchetman during the Reagan era, crowed that the documents proved “the Rosenbergs were not only Communists” but “were recruited right out of the party for Soviet espionage.” Radosh, however, only proved once again his ability to read into documents what he wished to believe in the first place. The intercepts did nothing to prove Ethel’s espionage involvement or mitigate the accusation that the government executed an innocent woman in a failed attempt to extract a confession from her husband. (Radosh and Joyce Milton, his coauthor of The Rosenberg File, had contended that “it seems almost certain that [Ethel] acted as an accessory.”) Nor did the intercepts prove that Julius operated a spy ring on the order necessary to have carried out the plot for which he was executed, though this may have been the case.

The major news of the second batch of Venona releases dealt with Alger Hiss, long the period’s most fascinating case. The definitive examination is generally considered to be Allen Weinstein’s Perjury, and Weinstein is most often the scholar whom journalists choose to consult. The product of prodigious research, Perjury received the liberal/leftist seal of approval from Irving Howe and Garry Wills, among the most honorable and fair-minded scholars this country has produced. Yet serious scholars, among them the publisher of this magazine, have discovered important discrepancies in Weinstein’s use of sources that he has never been able to explain. One of his sources sued him for libel and won a published retraction from The New Republic (which published Weinstein’s defense) and, according to New York magazine, a “substantial five-figure sum” in settlement. Weinstein has repeatedly promised during the past decade and a half to allow inspection of his notes, but he has refused all requests, going so far as to turn scholars away from his door when they arrived for ap-pointed interviews (see Jon Wiener, “Compromised Positions,” Lingua Franca, January/February 1993).

Weinstein went on to become an informal adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and his mantle has been inherited by Eric Breindel. Breindel is not a scholar by any definition of the term. He has never written a book, or any significant historical study in a professionally refereed publication, as far as I am aware. He is paid to express Rupert Murdoch’s opinions, and his work demonstrates all the scrupulousness that such an association might imply. He also freelances for Marty Peretz and Norman Podhoretz on matters related to Alger Hiss.

Breindel’s claim to have discovered a “smoking gun” in the Venona documents is based on a cable sent to Moscow by the spy Anatoli Gromov about a talk he had with Ishak Akhmerov, whom Breindel identifies as “one of the most important Soviet agents ever to serve in the U.S.” (also Hopkins’ alleged controller). The March 30, 1945, cable identifies an agent named “Ales” who has been “obtaining military information.” Breindel makes much of the fact that, according to Gordievsky, Akhmerov had discussed Hiss and other U.S. agents he allegedly controlled when he first brought up Hopkins. Here’s the kicker: “Gordievsky – who did not have access to the Venona cables when he produced his memoir – reports without reservation that Alger Hiss’s Soviet codename was ‘Ales.’ In a 1989 essay, Thomas Powers likewise declares that Hiss was known to Moscow as ‘Ales.'”

Breindel might have had a case here, but for one unfortunate fact: Gordievsky’s source was Powers. (Perhaps unacquainted with the process of checking footnotes, Breindel apparently did not bother to look up the source for the claim regarding Hiss’s alleged code name.) When I called Powers to ask him where he heard the original story, he named a counterintelligence agent who had told him about it after seeing the very same Venona document. Powers said there was “no question that the agent was referring to the same document that was just released.” In other words, Breindel’s corroborative pieces of evidence turn out to be the same document he is alleging to corroborate. Some smoking gun.

Breindel notes that the NSA glossary “prepared for internal use” says Ales is “probably” Alger Hiss, and adds that Hiss apologists will make too much of that modifier. But the author should have leveled with his New Republic readers by noting that this “glossary” was written by an unknown NSA functionary and dated twenty-four years after the original cable, and is not supported by any corroborative evidence. NSA consultant David Kahn says that while the work of the code-breakers may be airtight, he would not vouch for the agents’ identifications.

Breindel continues that “almost everything in the message conforms to representations about Hiss made by previous sources, including Whittaker Chambers.” Again, not quite. Neither Chambers nor anyone else has previously asserted that Hiss was passing on military information (aside from extremely tangential material included in State Department documents). How would Hiss, a mid-level functionary at State, have been privy to secret military information in the first place? In The Wall Street Journal Breindel falsely identifies the telegram’s sender, Gromov, as “the KGB’s station chief in Washington.” In The New Republic, however, he correctly names him as “the NKVD’s station chief.” (The NKVD was the party security service that predated the KGB.) Either way, what was Hiss, whom Breindel now claims to have been working for Soviet military intelligence – the GRU – doing reporting to the civilians? The two services may have shared information on occasion at the very highest levels of the Soviet Politburo, according to noted Soviet intelligence historian Amy Knight, but they are hardly known for interservice cooperation.

The logical leaps necessary to substantiate Breindel’s argument are hardly more reassuring. Since, as Breindel insists, Hiss remained a spy through 1945, it is “no wonder Soviet diplomat Andrei Gromyko – in a rare manifestation of postwar Soviet-American cooperation – told his U.S. counterparts in the summer of 1945 that Moscow wouldn’t object to the appointment of Mr. Hiss as secretary-general of the U.N.’s founding conference.” I get it. The Soviets have this incredibly useful top-level spy passing them valued military information and decide, just for the fun of it, to put a red light on his head by publicly anointing him as the only Soviet-approved U.S. official in the diplomatic corps. This last argument, repeated in both The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal, is sloppy even by Murdochian standards.

Most incredible of all, Breindel goes Gordievsky one better by suggesting that Harry Hopkins was a Soviet agent while serving under FDR. Breindel’s evidence for this outlandish charge doesn’t even measure up to his kamikaze attack on Hiss. It seems rather churlish to take offense at the sight of desperate ex-KGB agents cashing in on their murderous pasts by “remembering” sensational charges for which U.S. publishers are willing to pony up major advances. After all, these guys lied for a living. But the spectacle of U.S. Cold Warriors rushing to endorse the unsupported braggadocio of the Evil Empire’s killer elite, rewrite history and destroy honorable reputations, is distasteful in the extreme. Until the media reject this new form of ideological hucksterism in favor of bona fide documentation of genuine espionage, our history will remain hostage to right-wing campaigns to smear and destroy. Such tactics display a contempt for history not exactly unknown in the now-defunct nation these men profess to detest.