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Cables Coming in From the Cold | The Nation

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Cables Coming in From the Cold

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At the time, the FBI was no newcomer to the Venona project. For eight years the bureau had been working hand in glove with the NSA and its predecessor organization, the Army Security Agency, as a full partner in the complex decoding process. Belmont compared the Venona messages to teletypes sent from FBI field offices to headquarters and said that more detailed reports from the KGB "were undoubtedly being sent...in the diplomatic pouch." The first messages to be partially decoded were full of gaps and unintelligible. The Army then turned to the FBI, believing that "the Bureau by studying the messages and conducting investigations would be able to develop information which would assist the Army cryptographers in reading additional unrecovered portions of the messages."

About the Author

Miriam Schneir
Miriam Schneir's most recent book is Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present (Vintage...
Walter Schneir
Walter Schneir is writing a political memoir that details investigations of the Rosenberg case in Prague and Moscow.

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There's good reason to be skeptical about the government's Venona releases and the claim that they are the final word on the cold-war espionage cases.

Also by the Author

There's good reason to be skeptical about the government's Venona releases and the claim that they are the final word on the cold-war espionage cases.

Although Belmont offered a number of reasons for not using Venona messages as judicial evidence--including a wish to keep the Soviets from learning "the degree of success the U.S. had in breaking their codes"--the principal reasons were twofold: The decrypted material might not meet the standards for evidence set by US law, and, even if it did, it suffered from certain deficiencies that might limit its usefulness as proof.

In the first place, we do not know if the deciphered messages would be admitted into evidence.... The defense attorney would immediately move that the messages be excluded, based on the hearsay evidence rule. He would probably claim that...the contents of the messages were purely hearsay as it related to the defendants.

Belmont made it clear that apart from the legal hurdle of the hearsay evidence rule, the successful use of the messages in a court of law to prove guilt would be difficult. The evidence had inherent weaknesses:

The messages [deleted] furnishes the Bureau are, for the most part, very fragmentary and full of gaps. Some parts of the messages can never be recovered again because during the actual intercept the complete message was not obtained. Other portions can be recovered only through the skill of the cryptographers and with the Bureau's assistance. Frequently, through an examination of the messages and from a review of Bureau files, the Bureau can offer suspects for individuals involved.

Belmont was frank with his colleagues:

It must be realized that the [deleted] cryptographers make certain assumptions as to meanings when deciphering these messages and thereafter the proper translations of Russian idioms can become a problem. It is for such reasons that [deleted] has indicated that almost anything included in a translation of one of these deciphered messages may in the future be radically revised.
     Another very important factor to be considered when discussing the accuracy of these deciphered messages is the extensive use of cover names noted in this traffic. Once an individual was considered for recruitment as an agent by the Soviets, sufficient background data on him was sent to headquarters in Moscow. Thereafter, he was given a cover name and his true name was not mentioned again. This makes positive identifications most difficult since we seldom receive the initial message which states that agent "so and so" (true name) will henceforth be known as "____" (cover name). Also, cover names were changed rather frequently and the cover name "Henry" might apply to two different individuals, depending upon the date it was used....

Belmont was forthrightly skeptical in the assessment to his colleagues: "All of the above factors make difficult a correct reading of the messages and point up the tentative nature of many identifications."

Belmont offered a dramatic example of "the tentative nature of many identifications." Among the first messages given the FBI "was one concerning an individual with the cover name 'Antenna.' The message was dated 5/5/44 and it set forth information indicating that 'Antenna' was 25 years of age, a 'fellow countryman' (member of CP, USA), lived in 'Tyre' (New York), took a course at Cooper Union in 1940, [and] worked in the Signal Corp. at Ft. Monmouth." From another message referring to "Antenna" the FBI had also learned that his wife's name was Ethel. Belmont continued: "We made a tentative identification of 'Antenna' as Joseph Weichbrod since the background of Weichbrod corresponded with the information known about 'Antenna.' Weichbrod was about the right age, had a Communist background, lived in NYC, attended Cooper Union in 1939, worked at the Signal Corps, Ft. Monmouth, and his wife's name was Ethel. He was a good suspect for 'Antenna' until sometime later when we definitely established through investigation that 'Antenna' was Julius Rosenberg."

The Venona documents were reworked over and over again between about 1946 and 1980, when the decoding project finally shut down. Although Belmont did not mention it, the "5/5/44" document underwent still another radical permutation. In its final version, the sender asks permission to recruit one Alfred Sarant "a lead of 'Antenna.'" The message now contains considerable added information: Sarant is Greek, a US citizen, was discharged from Ft. Monmouth for past union activity, has been working for two years at Western Electric and lives apart from his family.

Belmont, whose recommendation that the Venona messages not be used as evidence at trials was concurred in by his colleagues, summed up cogently:

Assuming that the messages could be introduced in evidence, we then have a question of identity. The fragmentary nature of the messages themselves, the assumptions made by the cryptographers in breaking the messages, and the questionable interpretations and translations involved, plus the extensive use of cover names for persons and places, make the problem of positive identification extremely difficult.... Reliance would have to be placed on the expert testimony of the cryptographers and it appears that the case would be entirely circumstantial.

In addition to the problems exposed by Belmont, a number of other characteristics of the Venona decrypts diminish their reliability. The KGB agents who composed the Venona messages were seldom the same people who had participated in the meetings being reported. In fact, there were sometimes three or four degrees of separation between an original source and the KGB report writer. Moreover, Russian espionage operatives who on occasion collected data directly from US sources often spoke imperfect English; their superiors, with more or less skill, had to render American idioms into Russian; and American cryptanalysts later translated decoded fragments of the messages back into English. Yet Haynes and Klehr present some cables as though they were virtual time machines enabling us to overhear long-past conversations precisely as they occurred. Thus, analyzing a 1944 message that recounts a meeting between journalist I.F. Stone and a KGB agent doubling as a correspondent for TASS, the Soviet news agency, the authors seem to regard it as a verbatim narrative of what actually transpired. They solemnly interpret each word and conclude that Stone was "flirting with the KGB." But the Venona messages are not like the old TV show You Are There, in which history was re-enacted before our eyes. They are history seen through a glass, darkly.

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