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Venona and the Russian Files

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rise in the early 1990s of non-Communist governments in Russia and Eastern Europe has held out the bright promise that, as the Cold War fades into memory, countries on both sides of the old Iron Curtain might begin to open their Cold War-era files. Release of long-secret information, many have hoped, could illuminate or resolve still-controversial issues, such as the Hiss case.

Unfortunately, more than a decade later, at the dawn of the 21st Century, that promise remains, for the most part, only a promise: Full archival openness - both in Russia and the U.S. - continues to be a goal rather than a reality. Some information has been declassified, leading to a rush of recent books, some scholarly, some popular and dramatic, about Cold War disputes. Many government archives, however, after offering only glimpses into their contents, have again been re-sealed.

Some scholars have already concluded that it may take another generation or more before historians have anything close to free access to the full range of Soviet, American, and other Cold War files. The situation is unlikely to improve without sustained public pressure in both the U.S. and Europe. (Click here for information about how you can help move this process forward.)

What is the present state of Cold War scholarship? How much has been learned, and how much remains murky? In particular, what, if anything, has been discovered about Alger Hiss or Whittaker Chambers or the Hiss case? In the early 1990s, Alger Hiss, who in the 1970s had with partial success sued the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act for access to FBI and State Department files about his case, himself pressed the post-Communist Russian authorities to release any information they might have that would shed light on his situation.

Frustratingly, in both Russia and the U.S. only small amounts of previously unknown information that may relate to Alger Hiss - some of it tantalizing or ambiguous - have at this point been made public. Several senior Russian officials or former officials have, for instance, prepared statements or issued written comments. The U.S. National Security Agency has released two World War II-era cables that it thinks may refer to Alger Hiss. The few scraps of newly available information continue to be hotly debated. According to Hiss detractors, the case against Hiss has been considerably tightened; they suggest that it can now be shown that Hiss continued spying for the Russians throughout World War II, years after Whittaker Chambers had turned against the Communist Party. For others, there are now new reasons for believing in Alger Hiss's innocence. The search for the truth continues.

Interpreting the Venona Documents and Information From the Russian Files

  • At the height of the Cold War, the National Security Agency decoded Soviet intelligence messages transmitted by telegraphic cable to and from Moscow during World War II. Those who for years have supported Whittaker Chambers' charges think that one of the recently-released Venona cables proves Hiss was indeed a Soviet spy code-named "ALES." Hiss Case student, filmmaker, and former law professor John Lowenthal examines this charge in light of what else is known about the Hiss case. Click here to read Lowenthal's article (or here to download the pdf), which appeared in Intelligence and National Security, a British scholarly quarterly. Lowenthal and publisher Frank Cass & Co. were sued for libel by Alexander Vassiliev, Allen Weinstein's co-author of "The Haunted Wood." To read about this suit (which ended in a verdict favoring the defense), including a fascinating summation by the judge of the questions surrounding the naming of Hiss as "ALES," click here.

  • Some Venona analysts say the Venona transcripts indicate that Alger Hiss as "Ales" received a commendation for his espionage from the Soviet Union while visiting Moscow during the Yalta conference. After examining Hiss's schedule during the conference, historian Bruce Craig writes that the charges against Hiss are unfounded.

  • Victor Navasky offers a critical analysis of both the Venona releases and alleged Noel Field statements about Alger Hiss. Click here to read Navasky's article from The Nation.

  • Miriam and Walter Schneir explain the history behind the Venona files. Click here for their account.
  • In 1995 and 1996, the National Security Administration released to the public English language translations of 2,900 decrypted intelligence cables between Moscow and its outposts in the United States and other countries during World War II. None of these released cables was accompanied by the decrypted Russian language text that NSA translators had worked from. Under the circumstances - as historians were quick to note - it was impossible for independent observers to verify the accuracy of any of the released translations.

In February 2004, Dr. Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History, a Washington, D.C. non-profit that serves as a national voice for historians, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to declassify the Russian language text for one of the most controversial translations, Venona Washington to Moscow No. 1822, a March 30, 1945 cable that discusses "ALES," a Russian agent the NSA had in the mid-1990s announced was "probably" Alger Hiss. The NSA denied Craig's request, saying that its Russian transcription of 1822 was an integral part of a decoder's worksheet, release of which would cause "exceptionally grave damage to national security."

On October 27, 2005, however, at the biannual NSA-sponsored "Symposium on Cryptologic History," a clean, typed copy of the Russian text of Venona No. 1822 made from the decoder's original worksheet (and omitting any annotations that might have pointed to the actual decoding process) was made public, as part of a speech by Dr. John Schindler, a former NSA officer now at the Naval War College.

That Russian text is presented here, along with a fresh, annotated translation of Venona No. 1822 by Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya, a Moscow based Cold War historian who is a long-time student of the Hiss case. To see the retranslation, click here.

  • In 2002, Alexander Vassiliev, the co-author with Allen Weinstein of "The Haunted Wood," sued John Lowenthal for libel in London over an article Lowenthal had written for Intelligence and National Security. The article accused the two of shoddy research when they claimed that the Venona releases proved that Alger Hiss was a spy.

To make his case, Vassiliev brought to court a number of KGB documents which were then called a "jury bundle." After Lowenthal died in 2004, his brother, David, found this jury bundle among his papers. One of the first documents in the jury bundle to attract attention was a list put together by Anatoly Gorsky, a Soviet official formerly in the United States, of Americans he said had been Russian agents between the years 1938 and 1945.

Among the people included in the list were Alger Hiss and his brother, Donald.

A version of Gorsky's List caused an uproar when it was posted on the Internet in early 2005, with many claiming it provides important new evidence against Hiss. On its surface the list seemed devastating to Hiss’s claims of innocence, but is the list all it is purported to be? A careful retranslation and analysis of the list by Russian historian Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya, an expert in the history of espionage, raises many important questions about various aspects of the list's accuracy and sourcing. At the very least, her examination demonstrates that when it comes to Gorsky’s List there may be less than meets the eye.

Dr. Chervonnaya has subsequently given the same careful scrutiny to two other documents from the London jury bundle:

- the so-called "Perlo List," a second, shorter, but again problematical list of Americans said to have been Russian agents (this list also mentions both Alger and Donald Hiss and was compiled for Gorsky by Victor Perlo, a Marxist economist and New Deal official); and

- a previously unknown cable Gorsky sent to Moscow on March 5, 1945 that gives details about the Russian agent "Ales" but is not part of the Venona archive of intercepted Russian cables. The Gorsky cable was also posted on the Internet in 2005 and has itself caused a furor, since it offers new clues to "Ales"' identity. ("The Mystery of Ales," an essay co-authored by Kai Bird and Dr. Chervonnaya that examines this cable in depth, has been published by The American Scholar, and is available on-line at www.theamericanscholar.org)

All three "jury bundle" documents were available to Allen Weinstein when he was writing "The Haunted Wood," but none of them received a close examination or thorough presentation in that book, even though on the surface they seemed to strengthen the case against Alger Hiss. Click here to begin reading "Anatoly Gorsky’s Lessons, or In Search of a Path Through the Haunted Wood," Dr. Chervonnaya’s overview of and introduction to our special three-part presentation of the complete and annotated texts of these three 1940s KGB documents that more than half a century after they were written wound up as a jury bundle in a London courtroom.

Russians Say Hiss Was Not a Soviet Spy

In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the possibility that the new, post-Communist Russian regime might open up some of the Soviet intelligence files, former President Richard M. Nixon and the director of his presidential library, John H. Taylor, both wrote to the Russian historian General Dimitry Antonovich Volkogonov, who had become President Yeltsin's military advisor and the overseer of all the Soviet intelligence archives, to request the release of any Soviet files on the Hiss case. Nixon's and Taylor's letters to Volkogonov have not been made available to researchers.

In 1992, Alger Hiss made a similar request to Volkogonov, and also sent identical letters to several other Russian officials. In response to Hiss's request, Russian archivists and researchers reviewed their files, and in the fall of 1992 reported back - by letter, fax, or orally - that they had found no evidence that Alger Hiss had ever been a member of the Communist Party USA; and, similarly, that they had found no evidence that he had ever been an agent for the KGB, for the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), or for any other intelligence agency of the Soviet Union.

Such letters and reports came from:

  • the Archive of the Government of the Russian Federation (Roskomarchiv);
  • the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (successor agency to the KGB);
  • the Russian Ministry of Security;
  • the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
  • the Russian Center for the for the Preservation and Study of Documents of Modern History (which houses former Central Party and Comintern archives);
  • the Russian Ministry of Defense and State Military Archive.

To read General Volkogonov's October 14, 1992 written report about Alger Hiss, click here.

To read a previously unpublished interview with Volkogonov about Hiss, conducted in Washington, D.C. by John Lowenthal on November 11, 1992, after the written report had been issued click here.

Several high-ranking KGB veterans, including General Oleg Kalugin, a former chief of the foreign intelligence department, have also stated that Alger Hiss was not a Soviet spy. The published memoirs, excerpted here, of General-Lieutenant Vitaly Pavlov, who oversaw Soviet intelligence work in North America in the late 1930s and early 1940s, include comments about both Hiss and Harry Hopkins, one of President Roosevelt's principal advisors.

The State of Cold War Scholarship

  • Journalist Eric Alterman examines the level of scholarship of those who say that Soviet files corroborate the espionage charges leveled in the 1940s against Alger Hiss and others. Click here to read his article from The Nation.

  • In his appraisal of "The Secret World of American Communism," journalist and Hiss case expert William A. Reuben disputes claims that Soviet spies permeated the American Communist Party. Click here to read his review from Rights magazine.

  • Canadian Cold War historian, Amy Knight, argues that the new literature on Soviet espionage is often less revealing than it appears. Click here to read her article.

  • In "The End of the Journey: From Whittaker Chambers to George W. Bush," a 6,000-word essay that was the cover story in the July 2, 2007 issue of The New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a well-received biography of Whittaker Chambers, criticizes recent scholarship indicating that Alger Hiss could not have been ALES. In rebuttal, Jeff Kisseloff offers a detailed analysis of the numerous innaccuracies in Tanenhaus's essay. Click here to read Kisseloff's response.
Venona and the FBI: A Look at the Originals
  • To see the Venona document that refers to "ALES," click here. 

  • To see the Venona document that refers to a State Department official "by the name of Hiss," click here.

  • To see a 1950 FBI report about Venona that may have been the origin of the FBI's tentative identification of Alger Hiss as "ALES," click here.

  • Was the FBI convinced that Alger Hiss was "ALES"? To see a 1953 FBI investigative report indicating that the Bureau was still searching for evidence, click here. (This document was released to Alger Hiss in the 1970s but did not make sense to researchers until after the public release of the Venona papers.)

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