FBI Typewriter Forgery

“Forgery by Typewriter,” by Gil Green (The Nation, November 10, 1984)

In papers he received as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request, Gil Green, an official of the Communist Party, recently found documentation that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was in the business of forgery by typewriter. Below, Green sets forth his discovery and tells how he came upon it. We follow Green’s article with a commentary by William A. Reuben, author of Footnote on an Historic Case: In re Alger Hiss, who explains how the FBI files Green received throw light on the typewriter evidence at the heart of the Hiss case.

Evidence in recently released F.B.I. files shows that the Bureau has for many years had the ability to commit forgery by typewriter.

In 1978, when I began writing an autobiographical account of the McCarthy years, I applied under the Freedom of Information Act for all F.B.I. files relating to me. I had been convicted in 1949, along with ten other Communist leaders, in the first of the fourteen Smith Act trials. When the Supreme Court upheld our convictions, in June 1951, I went “underground.” Five years later, I surrendered and served five and a half years of an eight-year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Eventually, with the help of Prof. Edward Greer of Northeastern University, I obtained some 20,000 pages from the F.B.I., a tiny fraction of the files indexed in my name. Sanitized though they were, they disclosed many of the Bureau’s cruel and unlawful activities. One particularly sordid example stands out: a high-priority plot to frame a Communist leader by accusing him of being an F.B.I. informer.

In late 1959, F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover and the New York Special Agent in Charge (S.A.C.) corresponded about which Communist Party leaders would be most vulnerable to a frame-up. Hoover urged caution, “so as it insures success and avoids embarrassment to the Bureau.” On February 15, 1960, the New York S.A.C. asked Hoover for advice “as to the capabilities of the [F.B.I.] Laboratory in this matter.” Four days later Hoover replied that Washington would first need “adequate handwriting specimens . . . [and] a great deal of information concerning [name deleted] such as whether or not he uses a typewriter on a regular basis or uses longhand in his correspondence.” The Bureau chief explained that

…in order to simulate two pages in the handwriting of an ordinary individual, it would take approximately 24 hours’ continuous work. Therefore, the briefer the material to be simulated, the quicker it can be done…. To alter a typewriter to match a known model would require a large amount of typewriter specimens and weeks of laboratory work. It is not felt that this technique of altering a typewriter should be considered in this connection.

When I read this letter, I remembered that in 1964, William Albertson, a New York State C.P. leader, had been expelled from the party as an F.B.I. informer on the basis of a two-page letter that reported to the F.B.I. on a recent meeting, and appeared to be in his handwriting. The Party’s secretariat, which had obtained the letter under unusual circumstances, had it examined by experts, who said the handwriting was Albertson’s. I wondered if Albertson had been the victim of an F.B.I. forgery.

Rereading Hoover’s letter, I also recalled that Alger Hiss had been unable to substantiate his charge that he had been a victim of forgery by typewriter. Here, from J. Edgar Hoover himself, was confirmation that, as far back as 1959, the F.B.I. had a technique for producing such a forgery. Hoover’s matter-of-fact discussion suggests that forgery by typewriter was by then an established procedure. Was it available at the time of Hiss’s perjury trial in 1950?

What seemed incredible to many when Hiss first made his charge must now be given credence.

— Gil Green

New Development

When the Supreme Court refused, in October 1983, to review Alger Hiss’s petition for a writ of error coram nobis of his 1950 conviction on perjury charges, one of the most significant political trials in American history had finally come to an end. But the documents released to Gil Green – showing that under J. Edgar Hoover the Federal Bureau of Investigation had the ability and the willingness to commit forgery by typewriter – raise disturbing questions.

The key evidence against Hiss, everyone familiar with the case agrees, was sixty-five pages of typewritten copies of State Department documents and cables dated in the first four months of 1938. Those copies were said to have been typed on a Woodstock typewriter that Hiss and his wife, Priscilla, had owned in the 1930s. The typing was supposedly done in Hiss’s home in Washington by Priscilla Hiss, and the copies turned over to Whittaker Chambers for delivery to Soviet agents.

The sixty-five pages – which surfaced in 1948, more than ten years after the alleged espionage had ceased – were the only corroboratory evidence ever produced for Chambers’s story that he and Hiss had spied together for the Soviet Union during the 1930s.* And Chambers was the government’s only witness against Hiss in his trial for perjury. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Murphy spelled out their importance to the government’s case in his summation:

I told you in the beginning that the facts would be proved by the immutable documents, and there, ladies and gentlemen, are the documents. They do not change. They are there and have been there for 11 or 12 years…. They cannot be altered. They are immutable…. Take them with you to the jury room…. What do they prove? Ladies and gentlemen, it proves treason, and that is the traitor.

Only Ramos C. Feehan, an F.B.I. document examiner, corroborated Chambers’s claim that the copies were genuine. Feehan said that after comparing Chambers’s papers, referred to as the Baltimore exhibits, with “standards” conceded to have been typed on the Woodstock when it was in the Hisses’ possession, he had concluded that “the same machine was used to type [the] Baltimore Exhibits . . . that was used to type the standards.” Although Feehan had based his opinion on a comparison of only ten characters and did not identify Priscilla Hiss as the typist, he was not cross-examined by the defense. (The defense offered evidence that the Hisses had given away the Woodstock prior to the dates on Chambers’s papers.)

Just before he was sentenced, Alger Hiss briefly reasserted his innocence and added, “I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.”

Two and a half years later, after Hiss had begun serving his five-year prison sentence, his new counsel, the late Chester T. Lane, moved for a retrial. Lane said he had new evidence proving “a technique of forgery by typewriter exists which was not known about at the time of the trial,” that the Baltimore exhibits “are an ingenious set of forgeries” and that “the typewriter in evidence at the trials is a fake machine…. [I]t can only have been planted on the defense by or on behalf of Whittaker Chambers as part of his plot for the false incrimination of Alger Hiss.”

The government ridiculed Lane’s motion as “frivolous” and “absurd.” In 1978, when Hiss filed the coram nobis petition, it took the same position. Hiss’s petition was in large measure based on the claim that the typewriter could not possibly have been the original Hiss machine, and that this had been established by the F.B.I’s own investigation. According to the government’s argument, set forth by U.S. Attorney Robert B. Fiske Jr., that contention was “Hiss’s fanciful theory.” Fiske asked, “If Exhibit UUU was fabricated for the purposes of the libel action or the criminal prosecution, who built it and why?”

The courts have consistently accepted the government’s argument that forgery by typewriter is a fantasy, and Hiss – rebuffed eight times by the higher courts in his thirty-five-year attempt to establish his innocence – has never been able to get a hearing on this issue.

Many scholars have also dismissed the forgery-by-typewriter argument. Allen Weinstein, author of Perjury, accepted in many quarters as the definitive work establishing Hiss’s guilt, approvingly quotes Feehan’s recent statement that “forgery by typewriter is impossible,” and that the typewriter in the case “not only could not have been forged, but was not as far as I know.”

Hoover’s 1960 memorandum casts considerable doubt on that assertion, however. The case of Alger Hiss may legally be closed, but the F.B.I. director’s admission that the Bureau had the capacity to commit such a forgery, and the implication that it had in the past utilized the technique, suggest that the prediction Hiss made on his sentencing day may yet come true.

— William A. Reuben

*Chambers also produced four small notes in Hiss’s handwriting on scratch-pad paper and two strips of microfilm of original State Department documents. Although the handwritten notes and the microfilm were melodramatic, they were legally insignificant. The notes could have been easily stolen out of someone’s wastebasket, and the microfilms were of documents that had been distributed to some 150 people in the State Department, leaving only Chambers’s word to prove that he had obtained them from Hiss.