Examines Spy Proof
The Nation, April 29, 1996
Spy With One Little Eye
we go again. New York Post editor Eric Breindel, writing
in The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal,
insists that the recent release by the National Security
Agency of an encrypted document sent by a Soviet spy in Washington
to his superiors in Moscow on March 30, 1945, constitutes
"the smoking gun in the Hiss case," proving "beyond
doubt" that Hiss "was still a Soviet agent in 1945."
I am writing in what Breindel [who has died since this article
was written] preemptively calls "America's leading forum
for Alger Hiss apologia," one could be forgiven for expecting
yet another plea for justice for Hiss. Sorry. I take no position
on guilt or innocence (in truth, I still can't make up my
mind). Today's lesson deals instead with a disturbing nexus
of scholarship, journalism and Cold War fanaticism that, based
on either a careless or a deliberately malicious reading of
declassified national security documents, threatens our ability
ever to make sense of the past half-century of our history.
drill has become a familiar one: Hitherto secret documents
or ex-spy confessions, often backed up by a major publishing
campaign, reveal that so-and-so was a spy all along. Journalists
trumpet the charge, calling on "respected" academics
to either endorse or debunk the charges. Depending on the
usually predictable political orientation of the academic
in question, a person's reputation is either destroyed or
merely damaged. The story then goes away until the next batch
of documents appears or the next spy gets religion. Recently,
a new twist has been added, by the willingness of far-right
foundations to finance research that they
can be assured will hew to their ideological line. Harvey
Klehr and Ronald Radosh recently received "generous support"
from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the Smith
Richardson Foundation, among others, to write a book on the
controversial case of Amerasia magazine, whose publisher
and contributors were arrested as spies in 1945; a grand jury
refused to indict four of the six, and two paid fines on minor
charges. Lo and behold, the authors declare the accused spies
guilty as charged.
latest cycle began back in 1990 with a book co-written by
KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky, and Christopher Andrew, a respected
British intelligence historian, titled KGB: The Inside
Story. Though he did not endorse the charge himself, Gordievsky
argued, in Andrew's words, that as a young agent he had been
reliably informed by many important Soviet intelligence officials
that Harry Hopkins, FDR's most trusted adviser, had been a
Soviet "agent of major significance."
trumpeted the charges in a much-publicized excerpt but, owing
to both the unbelievability of the charges and the authors'
unwillingness to stand by them, they did not cause much of
a stir. Most reviewers were decidedly unimpressed with the
work. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. scored Time for publishing
the excerpt and said "the whole Hopkins passage smells
of sensationalism on the part of the book's authors."
The great military historian Sir Michael Howard noted that
nothing in the book was likely to surprise Western intelligence
services, though "there is probably much that they know
not to be true." The only reputations to suffer significant
damage were those of Time and Andrew. (Being a KGB
defector, Gordievsky did not have much to lose, reputation-wise.)
first truly innocent victim of the new nexus was the late
I.F. Stone. Portrayed as a willing KGB agent in 1992 by the
extremist publication Human Events, Stone's posthumous
reputation took a beating in the "anything-possible"
objective media. Finally, the only named KGB source, Oleg
Kalugin, admitted that all Stone had done was eat lunch a
few times with a man he did not know was working for the KGB.
Izzy even paid for his own sandwiches. The groundless charges,
however, continued. For instance, Washington Post columnist
and CNN host Robert Novak continued to insist that Stone had
been a KGB stooge long after the charges had been disproved.
Is Novak a deliberate liar or just an unconscionably careless
reporter? Do his employers even care?
third mini-explosion occurred in 1994, when Little, Brown
published "Special Tasks," the alleged memoirs of
a KGB "spymaster," purportedly written by the aged
spy Pavel Sudoplatov; his son, Anatoli Sudoplatov; and two
alleged journalists, Jerrold and Leona Schecter. Among the
most amazing of many amazing claims was the authors' insistence
that atomic scientists J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi,
Leo Szilard, George Gamow and Niels Bohr were all Soviet spies.
Bohr, said the authors, had given secret information on the
manufacture of the atomic bomb to a young Russian physicist
named Y.P. Terletsky in 1945. Like the Gordievsky book, the
charges were trumpeted uncritically in a Time excerpt.
"The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" gave them a further
push with a breathless special segment over twenty minutes
for those concerned, the book was all smoke and no fire. As
the intelligence expert Thomas Powers pointed out, "Special
Tasks" was wholly lacking in "establishing
and supporting details." Where such details were offered,
notes Powers, they were "irrelevant, misleading, or blatantly
wrong." In the case of Bohr and Terletsky, for instance,
the authors' account was flatly contradicted by Terletsky
shortly before his death. By the time genuine historians were
done with the book, next to nothing remained. Time
ran a short follow-up and "MacNeil/Lehrer," to its
credit, ran a second segment on the book, in which the authors
were forced to defend themselves against competent historians.
But "Special Tasks" remains in print, its falsehoods
it is U.S. intelligence releases that have been making news.
After classifying its intercepts as top secret for decades
and refusing all scholars' entreaties for access, the National
Security Agency called a press conference in July 1995 to
announce the release of forty-nine intercepts, dubbed the
Venona papers, that dealt with the case of the Rosenbergs.
Sanho Tree, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy
Studies, had applied for these same documents under the Freedom
of Information Act in 1993 but was informed that they were
properly classified as top secret. Tree received the documents
by Federal Express just hours before the press conference
began. Apparently, the NSA decided it would endanger national
security if an IPS scholar saw the material before it had
a chance to invite favored journalists to a screening, complete
with fancy booklets and brochures.
first batch of transcripts convinced many (including me) that
Julius Rosenberg was indeed a spy. Even committed Rosenberg
partisans Walter and Miriam Schneir were convinced [see The
Nation, "Cryptic Answers," August 14/21, 1995].
But Ronald Radosh, transformed from obscure New Left historian
to well-funded, right-wing hatchetman during the Reagan era,
crowed that the documents proved "the Rosenbergs were
not only Communists" but "were recruited right out
of the party for Soviet espionage." Radosh, however,
only proved once again his ability to read into documents
what he wished to believe in the first place. The intercepts
did nothing to prove Ethel's espionage involvement or mitigate
the accusation that the government executed an innocent woman
in a failed attempt to extract a confession from her husband.
(Radosh and Joyce Milton, his coauthor of "The Rosenberg
File," had contended that "it seems almost certain
that [Ethel] acted as an accessory.") Nor did the intercepts
prove that Julius operated a spy ring on the order necessary
to have carried out the plot for which he was executed, though
this may have been the case.
major news of the second batch of Venona releases dealt with
Alger Hiss, long the period's most fascinating case. The definitive
examination is generally considered to be Allen Weinstein's
"Perjury," and Weinstein is most often the
scholar whom journalists choose to consult. The product of
prodigious research, "Perjury" received the liberal/leftist
seal of approval from Irving Howe and Garry Wills, among the
most honorable and fair-minded scholars this country has produced.
Yet serious scholars, among them the publisher of this magazine,
have discovered important discrepancies in Weinstein's use
of sources that he has never been able to explain. One of
his sources sued him for libel and won a published retraction
from The New Republic (which published Weinstein's
defense) and, according to New York magazine,
a "substantial five-figure sum" in settlement. Weinstein
has repeatedly promised during the past decade and a half
to allow inspection of his notes, but he has refused all requests,
going so far as to turn scholars away from his door when they
arrived for ap-pointed interviews (see Jon Wiener, "Compromised
Positions," Lingua Franca, January/February 1993).
went on to become an informal adviser to Russian President
Boris Yeltsin, and his mantle has been inherited by Eric Breindel.
Breindel is not a scholar by any definition of the term. He
has never written a book, or any significant historical study
in a professionally refereed publication, as far as I am aware.
He is paid to express Rupert Murdoch's opinions, and his work
demonstrates all the scrupulousness that such an association
might imply. He also freelances for Marty Peretz and Norman
Podhoretz on matters related to Alger Hiss.
claim to have discovered a "smoking gun" in the
Venona documents is based on a cable sent to Moscow by the
spy Anatoli Gromov about a talk he had with Ishak Akhmerov,
whom Breindel identifies as "one of the most important
Soviet agents ever to serve in the U.S." (also Hopkins's
alleged controller). The March 30, 1945, cable identifies
an agent named "Ales" who has been "obtaining
military information." Breindel makes much of the fact
that, according to Gordievsky, Akhmerov had discussed Hiss
and other U.S. agents he allegedly controlled when he first
brought up Hopkins. Here's the kicker: "Gordievsky -
who did not have access to the Venona cables when he produced
his memoir - reports without reservation that Alger Hiss's
Soviet codename was 'Ales.' In a 1989 essay, Thomas Powers
likewise declares that Hiss was known to Moscow as 'Ales.'"
might have had a case here, but for one unfortunate fact:
Gordievsky's source was Powers. (Perhaps unacquainted with
the process of checking footnotes, Breindel apparently did
not bother to look up the source for the claim regarding Hiss's
alleged code name.) When I called Powers to ask him where
he heard the original story, he named a counterintelligence
agent who had told him about it after seeing the very same
Venona document. Powers said there was "no question that
the agent was referring to the same document that was just
released." In other words, Breindel's corroborative pieces
of evidence turn out to be the same document he is alleging
to corroborate. Some smoking gun.
notes that the NSA. glossary "prepared for internal use"
says Ales is "probably" Alger Hiss, and adds that
Hiss apologists will make too much of that modifier. But the
author should have leveled with his New Republic readers
by noting that this "glossary" was written by an
unknown NSA functionary and dated twenty-four years after
the original cable, and is not supported by any corroborative
evidence. NSA consultant David Kahn says that while the work
of the code-breakers may be airtight, he would not vouch for
the agents' identifications.
continues that "almost everything in the message conforms
to representations about Hiss made by previous sources, including
Whittaker Chambers." Again, not quite. Neither Chambers
nor anyone else has previously asserted that Hiss was passing
on military information (aside from extremely tangential material
included in State Department documents). How would Hiss, a
mid-level functionary at State, have been privy to secret
military information in the first place? In The Wall Street
Journal Breindel falsely identifies the telegram's sender,
Gromov, as "the KGB's station chief in Washington."
In The New Republic, however, he correctly names him
as "the NKVD's station chief." (The NKVD was the
party security service that predated the KGB.) Either way,
what was Hiss, whom Breindel now claims to have been working
for Soviet military intelligence - the GRU - doing reporting
to the civilians? The two services may have shared information
on occasion at the very highest levels of the Soviet Politburo,
according to noted Soviet intelligence historian Amy Knight,
but they are hardly known for interservice cooperation.
logical leaps necessary to substantiate Breindel's argument
are hardly more reassuring. Since, as Breindel insists, Hiss
remained a spy through 1945, it is "no wonder Soviet
diplomat Andrei Gromyko - in a rare manifestation of postwar
Soviet-American cooperation - told his U.S. counterparts in
the summer of 1945 that Moscow wouldn't object to the appointment
of Mr. Hiss as secretary-general of the U.N.'s founding conference."
I get it. The Soviets have this incredibly useful top-level
spy passing them valued military information and decide, just
for the fun of it, to put a red light on his head by publicly
anointing him as the only Soviet-approved U.S. official in
the diplomatic corps. This last argument, repeated in both
The New Republic and The Wall Street Journal,
is sloppy even by Murdochian standards.
incredible of all, Breindel goes Gordievsky one better by
suggesting that Harry Hopkins was a Soviet agent while serving
under FDR. Breindel's evidence for this outlandish charge
doesn't even measure up to his kamikaze attack on Hiss. It
seems rather churlish to take offense at the sight of desperate
ex-KGB agents cashing in on their murderous pasts by "remembering"
sensational charges for which U.S. publishers are willing
to pony up major advances. After all, these guys lied for
a living. But the spectacle of U.S. Cold Warriors rushing
to endorse the unsupported braggadocio of the Evil Empire's
killer elite, rewrite history and destroy honorable reputations,
is distasteful in the extreme. Until the media reject this
new form of ideological hucksterism in favor of bona fide
documentation of genuine espionage, our history will remain
hostage to right-wing campaigns to smear and destroy. Such
tactics display a contempt for history not exactly unknown
in the now-defunct nation these men profess to detest.
to Venona and the Russian Files