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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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A reader faced with Venona's incomplete, disjointed messages can easily arrive at a badly skewed impression. For example, State Department employee Laurence Duggan is mentioned with cover names in nine Venona cables. Haynes and Klehr infer from these, not unreasonably, that Duggan was cooperating fully with Soviet espionage in the forties. However, Allen Weinstein, who had access to fuller and more detailed messages from KGB files in Moscow, titled a chapter in his recent book The Haunted Wood (written with Alexander Vassiliev) "The Reluctant Laurence Duggan." Weinstein describes how during the late thirties Duggan repeatedly and fervently expressed doubts about the Moscow purge trials to his Soviet contacts and requested a pause in their meetings. Evaluating Duggan's usefulness to the Soviets in the forties, Weinstein says: "In the end, occasional tidbits of State Department information was the most the Soviet operative gained from his rare meetings with Duggan during this period."

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.

Similarly, US Treasury official Frank Coe is depicted in the Haynes-Klehr book as an active and committed member of "the Silvermaster group," an information-gathering network of government workers in Washington coordinated by a fellow federal employee, Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. The authors' conclusion is consistent with the contents of a Venona message from late 1944, which reported that extensive information had been received from Coe on British-US Lend-Lease negotiations. But once again, excerpts from the Moscow files published in Weinstein's book put a different light on the situation. Weinstein writes that Coe believed the data he was supplying went to the US Communist Party, not the KGB. Coe complained frequently to his handlers that his undercover work was hindering his career, and by the fall of 1945 Silvermaster was grumbling to the Russians that Coe was "hiding from him." Several reviewers of The Haunted Wood have criticized Weinstein for not having disclosed as yet certain vital details about the Moscow archive [see Ellen Schrecker, "The Spies Who Loved Us?" May 24]. It is hoped that he will do so soon. But assuming for now that he has presented his material fairly and accurately, the book's sampling of documents from Moscow KGB files is obviously of unique importance.

Haynes and Klehr assert that Venona confirms evidence from numerous other sources, especially the testimony of KGB-affiliated defectors, like Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, and the contents of FBI files. The authors conclude: "Venona fits, and fits very well, with this other evidence." Their claim is true only in part, for they tend to paint with a broad brush, ignoring fine points and lumping everything together with no thought given to ambiguity or nuance. Thus, when parts of Bentley's story are shown to be consistent with Venona, they are prepared to declare without any qualification that "Elizabeth Bentley had told the truth." They overlook the fact that the decoders of Venona used names and incidents from the FBI files to help make identifications and fill gaps--the very names and incidents that were often supplied in the first place by Chambers and Bentley. Are we dealing here with circular reasoning, a dog chasing its own tail? And if so, to what extent? Perhaps detailed, specific information about the history of the decoding of individual Venona documents--including the FBI's input--would provide answers. But the NSA, despite promises to release such data, has not done so.

As one reads Haynes and Klehr's Venona, one gradually perceives that the book has two motifs. The first is a straightforward account of the NSA's decoding program; the second could aptly be titled "a conspiracy so immense." In developing the second theme, the authors are given to overstatement: In the very first lines of their book they assert that the Venona archive consists of "nearly three thousand" cables sent "between Soviet spies in the United States and their superiors in Moscow." The actual figure is about half that number. They pile on decades of espionage stories, many of them connected to Venona peripherally or not at all, in support of a stunningly simplistic historical theory about the origins of the cold war witch hunt: When about 200 cover names decoded by Venona could not be identified, a "security nightmare" was created that required a hunt "by hundreds of security officers for many years and subjected thousands of individuals to investigation."

Finally, the enormity of Soviet espionage is graphically underscored in several appendixes. The largest, Appendix A, titled "Source Venona: Americans and U.S. Residents Who Had Covert Relationships with Soviet Intelligence Agencies," is said to contain the true names or cover names of 349 people mentioned in Venona messages. Serving as judge and lord high executioner, Haynes and Klehr assemble a mixed bag for their Appendix A, ranging from those who made substantial contributions to Soviet espionage to many scores of men and women whose alleged connections with KGB spying were so vague, trivial or irrelevant as to indicate that the list is heavily padded. For example, Norman Chandler Bursler, a Justice Department employee, was named by Bentley as a member of the Silvermaster group. The only Venona message that mentions him says he provided Silvermaster with information about an Austrian financier in the United States, and it refers to Bursler by his true name, with no cover name. Nevertheless, Haynes and Klehr consign Bursler to their A list. The authors' avidity for names is also demonstrated by their inclusion of the screenwriter Walter Bernstein here. Bernstein is mentioned by his real name in a single Venona message from 1944, which states that he has "promised to write a report on his trip." The trip was a daring journalistic foray into German-occupied Yugoslavia to interview Tito for Yank magazine. Though Bernstein has declared that he never wrote any report for Soviet intelligence, he, too, is listed as someone who had a "covert relationship" with the KGB.

Appendix B, titled "Americans and U.S. Residents Who Had Covert Relationships with Soviet Intelligence Agencies but Were Not Identified in the Venona Cables," has 139 names. Among the cases decided by judges Haynes and Klehr are those of three government employees accused by Bentley: William Remington, Sol Leshinsky and William Henry Taylor. Remington denied any guilt but was convicted of perjury and murdered in prison. As for Leshinsky, Bentley said he never handed over any documents to her. Taylor, who never met Bentley, protested his complete innocence and fought desperately to clear his name; his last years were an ordeal of unending interrogations by FBI agents, Congressional committees, federal grand juries and loyalty boards. Haynes and Klehr sentence all three of the men to their B list.

Oh, yes, after a C list of foreigners, there is also a D list of "Americans and U.S. Residents Targeted as Potential Sources by Soviet Intelligence Agencies." We confess to a personal interest: A dear friend of ours, an author now deceased, is on the D list. While writing speeches for New Deal leaders he was eyed covetously by KGB recruiters, without his knowledge. He would have hated being on this list, with its reek of innuendo. But at least, named alongside Joseph Barnes, I.F. Stone and J. Robert Oppenheimer, he is in good company.

Cold war McCarthyism fed on names; its inquisitors were census-takers of subversion. In place of the presumption of innocence, its legal principles were guilt by association and group culpability. Its public discourse was coarsened by the blurring of subtle differences. Its explanations for vast and complex events were naive, fantastic and unsubstantiated. Haynes and Klehr would seem to be among those scholars who the New York Times said "would like to rewrite the historical verdict on...McCarthyism." In their book they aver, without spelling out what they mean, that our understanding of McCarthyism has been "seriously distorted" because we did not know about the Venona messages. Certainly the Venona archive does provide a narrow window for studying the activities of those American communists who worked for Soviet intelligence. But it is ironic and unseemly that Venona, a book that purports to cast new light on McCarthyism, should itself partake of some of the worst characteristics of that sorry period.

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