The Nation, November 10, 1984
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. Because
typewriter evidence was at the heart of the Alger Hiss case,
we asked William A. Reuben, author of "Footnote on an
Historic Case: In re Alger Hiss," to explain how this
startling development relates to the critical cold war case.
Evidence in recently released F.B.I. files shows that the
Bureau has for many years had the ability to commit forgery
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.
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.
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
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?
seemed incredible to many when Hiss first made his charge
must now be given credence.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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."
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.. . . it 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."
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'
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?"
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.
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."
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
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.
to The Woodstock Typewriter