Walter & Miriam Schneir

“Cables Coming in from the Cold,” by Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir (The Nation, August 21, 1995) 

Nearly four years ago, soon after the initial public release by the National Security Agency (NSA) of its long-secret Venona archive–decoded Soviet intelligence messages transmitted by telegraphic cable to and from Moscow during World War II – we predicted in these pages that “historians of the Cold War will be examining these documents…for a long time.” We should have added, “and arguing about their implications.” Today that argument, which is essentially over the history of the McCarthy era, is well underway in various media.

Thus The New York Times reported last fall in a major “Week in Review” piece titled “Witching Hour: Rethinking McCarthyism, if Not McCarthy,” that the release of the Venona archive “has unleashed a flood of scholarship” and engendered a growing controversy among Cold War historians of the left and right. Several days afterward, a lead editorial in that newspaper, “Revisionist McCarthyism,” cautioned, “Beware the rehabilitation of Joseph McCarthy. Armed with audacity and new archival information, a number of American scholars would like to rewrite the historical verdict on Senator McCarthy and McCarthyism.” Time magazine, on the other hand, weighed in recently, asking, “Was McCarthy on the right track?”, a piece in which it observed that Venona “demonstrates beyond argument that the Soviet penetration into American life, government, science and industry…was deep, thorough and hostile.” And William F. Buckley has seized the moment for a novel, “The Redhunter,” based on the life of his longtime hero, McCarthy.

The latest contender is John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr’s “Venona,” a wide-ranging survey of the Venona project and Soviet espionage in the United States during the 30s and 40s. Haynes and Klehr, who concluded in several previous books that the American Communist Party lacked any redeeming features, here set themselves a far broader objective: to demonstrate that the information derived from Venona “may change the way we think about 20th-century American history.” The evident enthusiasm with which Haynes and Klehr approach this endeavor may account for their frequent exaggerations and excursions into the Never-Never Land of pop history. Thus they speculate that by enabling the Soviet Union to produce an atomic bomb sooner than was otherwise possible, the spies may have caused the Korean War and “the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians.”

The authors also claim that by early 1947 the Venona decrypts were an important influence on the Truman Administration, leading the President that year to institute the loyalty program and create the Central Intelligence Agency. But they offer no shred of proof for this sweeping assertion, and newly available evidence, cited in “Secrecy” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, strongly suggests that Truman was kept in the dark about the Venona project. Again without citing any source, they describe dramatically how U.S. fliers during the Korean War were imperiled by superior Soviet MIG-15 jet fighters built with know-how provided to the KGB by William Perl, a U.S. aeronautical engineer. However, the MIG-15 did not utilize espionage technology, according to US Air Force historian Dr. Richard Hallion, though it did benefit from an important foreign contribution: a Rolls-Royce Nene high-performance jet engine sold to the Soviets by the British.

None of this alters the fact that Venona is an important and fascinating archive well worth studying. Taken as a whole, the archive reveals much. No reasonable person who examines all the relevant documents can doubt, for example, that in World War II Washington, some employees of government agencies were passing information that went to the Russians, that the American Communist Party provided recruits for Soviet intelligence work, or that Venona yielded clues that put investigators on the trail of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Julius Rosenberg and others. It is when the decrypted messages are studied individually that problems arise. The question is not one of authenticity; the authors argue convincingly that the documents are not forgeries. The difficulties, rather, are related to accuracy. Is Venona a reliable source? The answer, in a nutshell, is yes and no.

Haynes and Klehr would disagree. Although they pay lip service to the idea that the Venona documents might have weaknesses as historical sources, they fail to enumerate any, and starting from the first chapter, they vouch for the archive’s complete trustworthiness. They confidently describe the messages as “hard evidence” and “incontestable,” and assert that because of their “inherent reliability” they “provide a touchstone for judging the credibility of other sources.” Given this ringing endorsement, one is naturally curious why such “hard evidence” was never used in court or, until recently, made available to the press and public. The answer given by the authors is a tired old story: that the NSA did not want the Russians to know the extent of its success. Like all cover stories, of course, this one hides an uncomfortable truth, as revealed in a recently released 1956 FBI report. Its emergence was a fluke. Senator Moynihan recounts in “Secrecy” that after he complained to FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Bureau’s stonewalling on Congressional requests for Venona material, Freeh ordered his “personal staff to sweep the basement” and soon turned over a batch of FBI reports on Venona, including the 1956 one. Declassified without fanfare earlier this year (because of the FBI’s mistaken belief that it had been “referenced” in Moynihan’s book), the formerly top-secret report has gone unnoticed, this being, we believe, its first public airing.

On February 1, 1956, Alan H. Belmont, the FBI’s number-three man, distributed to the inner circle of the Bureau’s leadership the only known government analysis ever prepared on the reliability of the Venona decrypts. Belmont’s purpose was to consider the possibility of using the decoded Venona material as prosecutorial evidence in court.

At the time, the FBI was no newcomer to the Venona project. For eight years the Bureau had been working hand in glove with the NSA and its predecessor organization, the Army Security Agency, as a full partner in the complex decoding process. Belmont compared the Venona messages to teletypes sent from FBI field offices to headquarters, and said that more detailed reports from the KGB “were undoubtedly being sent…in the diplomatic pouch.” The first messages to be partially decoded were full of gaps and unintelligible. The Army then turned to the FBI, believing that “the Bureau by studying the messages and conducting investigations would be able to develop information which would assist the Army cryptographers in reading additional unrecovered portions of the messages.”

Although Belmont offered a number of reasons for not using Venona messages as judicial evidence – including a wish to keep the Soviets from learning “the degree of success the U.S. had in breaking their codes” – the principal reasons were twofold: The decrypted material might not meet the standards for evidence set by US law, and, even if it did, it suffered from certain deficiencies that might limit its usefulness as proof.

In the first place, we do not know if the deciphered messages would be admitted into evidence…. The defense attorney would immediately move that the messages be excluded, based on the hearsay evidence rule. He would probably claim that…the contents of the messages were purely hearsay as it related to the defendants.

Belmont made it clear that apart from the legal hurdle of the hearsay evidence rule, the successful use of the messages in a court of law to prove guilt would be difficult. The evidence had inherent weaknesses:

The messages [deleted] furnishes the Bureau are, for the most part, very fragmentary and full of gaps. Some parts of the messages can never be recovered again because during the actual intercept the complete message was not obtained. Other portions can be recovered only through the skill of the cryptographers and with the Bureau’s assistance. Frequently, through an examination of the messages and from a review of Bureau files, the Bureau can offer suspects for individuals involved.

Belmont was frank with his colleagues:

It must be realized that the [deleted] cryptographers make certain assumptions as to meanings when deciphering these messages and thereafter the proper translations of Russian idioms can become a problem. It is for such reasons that [deleted] has indicated that almost anything included in a translation of one of these deciphered messages may in the future be radically revised.

Another very important factor to be considered when discussing the accuracy of these deciphered messages is the extensive use of cover names noted in this traffic. Once an individual was considered for recruitment as an agent by the Soviets, sufficient background data on him was sent to headquarters in Moscow. Thereafter, he was given a cover name and his true name was not mentioned again. This makes positive identifications most difficult since we seldom receive the initial message which states that agent “so and so” (true name) will henceforth be known as “____” (cover name). Also, cover names were changed rather frequently and the cover name “Henry” might apply to two different individuals, depending upon the date it was used….

Belmont was forthrightly skeptical in the assessment to his colleagues: “All of the above factors make difficult a correct reading of the messages and point up the tentative nature of many identifications.”

Belmont offered a dramatic example of “the tentative nature of many identifications.” Among the first messages given the FBI “was one concerning an individual with the cover name ‘Antenna.’ The message was dated 5/5/44 and it set forth information indicating that ‘Antenna’ was 25 years of age, a ‘fellow countryman’ (member of CP, USA), lived in ‘Tyre’ (New York), took a course at Cooper Union in 1940, [and] worked in the Signal Corp. at Ft. Monmouth.” From another message referring to “Antenna” the FBI had also learned that his wife’s name was Ethel. Belmont continued: “We made a tentative identification of ‘Antenna’ as Joseph Weichbrod since the background of Weichbrod corresponded with the information known about ‘Antenna.’ Weichbrod was about the right age, had a Communist background, lived in NYC, attended Cooper Union in 1939, worked at the Signal Corps, Ft. Monmouth, and his wife’s name was Ethel. He was a good suspect for ‘Antenna’ until sometime later when we definitely established through investigation that ‘Antenna’ was Julius Rosenberg.”

The Venona documents were reworked over and over again between about 1946 and 1980, when the decoding project finally shut down. Although Belmont did not mention it, the “5/5/44” document underwent still another radical permutation. In its final version, the sender asks permission to recruit one Alfred Sarant, “a lead of ‘Antenna.'” The message now contains considerable added information: Sarant is Greek, a U.S. citizen, was discharged from Ft. Monmouth for past union activity, has been working for two years at Western Electric, and lives apart from his family.

Belmont, whose recommendation that the Venona messages not be used as evidence at trials was concurred in by his colleagues, summed up cogently:

Assuming that the messages could be introduced in evidence, we then have a question of identity. The fragmentary nature of the messages themselves, the assumptions made by the cryptographers in breaking the messages, and the questionable interpretations and translations involved, plus the extensive use of cover names for persons and places, make the problem of positive identification extremely difficult…. Reliance would have to be placed on the expert testimony of the cryptographers and it appears that the case would be entirely circumstantial.

In addition to the problems exposed by Belmont, a number of other characteristics of the Venona decrypts diminish their reliability. The KGB agents who composed the Venona messages were seldom the same people who had participated in the meetings being reported. In fact, there were sometimes three or four degrees of separation between an original source and the KGB report writer. Moreover, Russian espionage operatives who on occasion collected data directly from U.S. sources often spoke imperfect English; their superiors, with more or less skill, had to render American idioms into Russian; and American cryptanalysts later translated decoded fragments of the messages back into English. Yet Haynes and Klehr present some cables as though they were virtual time machines, enabling us to overhear long-past conversations precisely as they occurred. Thus, analyzing a 1944 message that recounts a meeting between journalist I.F. Stone and a KGB agent doubling as a correspondent for TASS, the Soviet news agency, the authors seem to regard it as a verbatim narrative of what actually transpired. They solemnly interpret each word and conclude that Stone was “flirting with the KGB.” But the Venona messages are not like the old TV show “You Are There,” in which history was re-enacted before our eyes. They are history seen through a glass, darkly.

The Venona messages are not like the old TV show “You Are There,” in which history was re-enacted before our eyes. They are history seen through a glass, darkly.

A reader faced with Venona’s incomplete, disjointed messages can easily arrive at a badly skewed impression. For example, State Department employee Laurence Duggan is mentioned with covernames in nine Venona cables. Haynes and Klehr infer from these, not unreasonably, that Duggan was cooperating fully with Soviet espionage in the 40s. However, Allen Weinstein, who had access to fuller and more detailed messages from KGB files in Moscow, titled a chapter in his recent book “The Haunted Wood” (written with Alexander Vassiliev), “The Reluctant Laurence Duggan.” Weinstein describes how during the late 30s, Duggan repeatedly and fervently expressed doubts about the Moscow purge trials to his Soviet contacts, and requested a pause in their meetings. Evaluating Duggan’s usefulness to the Soviets in the 30s, Weinstein says: “In the end, occasional tidbits of State Department information was the most the Soviet operative gained from his rare meetings with Duggan during this period.”

Similarly, U.S. Treasury official Frank Coe is depicted in the Haynes-Klehr book as an active and committed member of “the Silvermaster group,” an information-gathering network of government workers in Washington coordinated by a fellow federal employee, Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. The authors’ conclusion is consistent with the contents of a Venona message from late 1944, which reported that extensive information had been received from Coe on British-U.S. Lend-Lease negotiations. But once again, excerpts from the Moscow files published in Weinstein’s book put a different light on the situation. Weinstein writes that Coe believed the data he was supplying went to the U.S. Communist Party, not the KGB. Coe complained frequently to his handlers that his undercover work was hindering his career, and by the fall of 1945, Silvermaster was grumbling to the Russians that Coe was “hiding from him.” Several reviewers of “The Haunted Wood” have criticized Weinstein for not having disclosed as yet certain vital details about the Moscow archive [see Ellen Schrecker, “The Spies Who Loved Us?” The Nation, May 24, 1995]. It is hoped that he will do so soon. But assuming for now that he has presented his material fairly and accurately, the book’s sampling of documents from Moscow KGB files is obviously of unique importance.

Haynes and Klehr assert that Venona confirms evidence from numerous other sources, especially the testimony of KGB-affiliated defectors, like Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, and the contents of FBI files. The authors conclude: “Venona fits, and fits very well, with this other evidence.” Their claim is true only in part, for they tend to paint with a broad brush, ignoring fine points and lumping everything together with no thought given to ambiguity or nuance. Thus, when parts of Bentley’s story are shown to be consistent with Venona, they are prepared to declare without any qualification that “Elizabeth Bentley had told the truth.” They overlook the fact that the decoders of Venona used names and incidents from the FBI files to help make identifications and fill gaps – the very names and incidents that were often supplied in the first place by Chambers and Bentley. Are we dealing here with circular reasoning, a dog chasing its own tail? And if so, to what extent? Perhaps detailed, specific information about the history of the decoding of individual Venona documents – including the FBI’s input – would provide answers. But the NSA, despite promises to release such data, has not done so.

As one reads Haynes and Klehr’s “Venona,” one gradually perceives that the book has two motifs. The first is a straightforward account of the NSA’s decoding program; the second could aptly be titled “a conspiracy so immense.” In developing the second theme, the authors are given to overstatement: In the very first lines of their book, they assert that the Venona archive consists of “nearly three thousand” cables sent “between Soviet spies in the United States and their superiors in Moscow.” The actual figure is about half that number. They pile on decades of espionage stories, many of them connected to Venona peripherally or not at all, in support of a stunningly simplistic historical theory about the origins of the Cold War witch hunt: When about 200 cover names decoded by Venona could not be identified, a “security nightmare” was created that required a hunt “by hundreds of security officers for many years and subjected thousands of individuals to investigation.”

Finally, the enormity of Soviet espionage is graphically underscored in several appendixes. The largest, Appendix A, titled “Source Venona: Americans and U.S. Residents Who Had Covert Relationships with Soviet Intelligence Agencies,” is said to contain the true names or cover names of 349 people mentioned in Venona messages. Serving as judge and lord high executioner, Haynes and Klehr assemble a mixed bag for their Appendix A, ranging from those who made substantial contributions to Soviet espionage, to many scores of men and women whose alleged connections with KGB spying were so vague, trivial or irrelevant as to indicate that the list is heavily padded. For example, Norman Chandler Bursler, a Justice Department employee, was named by Bentley as a member of the Silvermaster group. The only Venona message that mentions him says he provided Silvermaster with information about an Austrian financier in the United States, and it refers to Bursler by his true name, with no cover name. Nevertheless, Haynes and Klehr consign Bursler to their A list. The authors’ avidity for names is also demonstrated by their inclusion of the screenwriter Walter Bernstein here. Bernstein is mentioned by his real name in a single Venona message from 1944, which states that he has “promised to write a report on his trip.” The trip was a daring journalistic foray into German-occupied Yugoslavia to interview Tito for Yank magazine. Though Bernstein has declared that he never wrote any report for Soviet intelligence, he, too, is listed as someone who had a “covert relationship” with the KGB.

Appendix B, titled “Americans and U.S. Residents Who Had Covert Relationships with Soviet Intelligence Agencies but Were Not Identified in the Venona Cables,” has 139 names. Among the cases decided by judges Haynes and Klehr are those of three government employees accused by Bentley: William Remington, Sol Leshinsky and William Henry Taylor. Remington denied any guilt but was convicted of perjury and murdered in prison. As for Leshinsky, Bentley said he never handed over any documents to her. Taylor, who never met Bentley, protested his complete innocence and fought desperately to clear his name; his last years were an ordeal of unending interrogations by FBI agents, Congressional committees, federal grand juries and loyalty boards. Haynes and Klehr sentence all three of the men to their B list.

Oh, yes, after a C list of foreigners, there is also a D list of “Americans and U.S. Residents Targeted as Potential Sources by Soviet Intelligence Agencies.” We confess to a personal interest: A dear friend of ours, an author now deceased, is on the D list. While writing speeches for New Deal leaders, he was eyed covetously by KGB recruiters, without his knowledge. He would have hated being on this list, with its reek of innuendo. But at least, named alongside Joseph Barnes, I.F. Stone and J. Robert Oppenheimer, he is in good company.

Cold War McCarthyism fed on names; its inquisitors were census-takers of subversion. In place of the presumption of innocence, its legal principles were guilt by association and group culpability. Its public discourse was coarsened by the blurring of subtle differences. Its explanations for vast and complex events were naive, fantastic and unsubstantiated. Haynes and Klehr would seem to be among those scholars who The New York Times said “would like to rewrite the historical verdict on…McCarthyism.” In their book they aver, without spelling out what they mean, that our understanding of McCarthyism has been “seriously distorted” because we did not know about the Venona messages. Certainly the Venona archive does provide a narrow window for studying the activities of those American communists who worked for Soviet intelligence. But it is ironic and unseemly that “Venona,” a book that purports to cast new light on McCarthyism, should itself partake of some of the worst characteristics of that sorry period.