Many Saw “Secret” Papers

An investigative report by the United Press, “Many Saw ‘Secret’ Papers, State Aides Say,” ran in The Washington Post on December 20, 1948.

The secret diplomatic documents which the former State Department officer, Alger Hiss, is accused of handing to a Communist spy ring, were accessible to dozens of persons, both inside and out of Government, it was revealed yesterday.

This information was obtained from Government officials whose past or present duties involve the handling of highly confidential Government material. For obvious reasons their identities cannot be disclosed.

They were asked individually a series of questions on just how closely guarded were the secret documents just released by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and which resulted in the indictment of Hiss on perjury charges.

There was agreement on these points, based on practices prevailing during 1937-1938, the period of the “leaks,” and until the outbreak of World War II, or later:

  1. It was, and still may be, common practice for persons with access to secret information to take such data to their homes for study, with the attendant risk of improper use or loss by theft. (One official said frankly that he once admonished his wife to keep away from the desk in his study.)
  2. “Secrets,” such as those contained in the Hiss-Chambers “Pumpkin Papers,” were, on occasion, made available to non-Government persons. These people included a limited number of authors, historians, research workers and one-time officials writing their memoirs.
  3. From the outset of World War II, State Department classified information was made available to other departments, such as War and Navy; to war agencies such as the Lend-Lease Administration; and to interdepartmental committees.
  4. Former department officials, including those on the lower levels, have been known to leave the Government service armed with copies or abstracts of classified information for use in qualifying for advanced academic degrees, writings on international economic or political problems, or for other purposes. And there have been reported cases of persons who took copious notes from secret documents simply because they “kept a diary.”
  5. A once common practice was the “briefing” of classified documents by junior officials for transmittal to their superiors. These jottings were not unlike some of the material released by the House committee, including hand notations allegedly in Hiss’s handwriting.