Stephen Schwartz lived for the past eighteen months in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo working as a freelance journalist and consultant on press-freedom issues, labor reform and interreligious affairs. His latest book, Intellectuals and Assassins, was just published by Anthem Press in Britain.
While Stephen Schwartz does a good job of tearing apart the Venona book by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, he praises the Venona book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr ["A Tale of Two Venonas," Jan. 8/15]. But neither book questions the accuracy of the decryptions. All the authors take for granted that the National Security Agency has published a true decryption of the Soviet cables. This assumption is quite remarkable in view of the past history of the NSA, which has not given scholars the opportunity to check the decryptions' accuracy.
The NSA's identification of the individuals with cover names is another questionable area. For example: The cover names Antenna and Liberal, which the NSA said identified Julius Rosenberg, were initially assigned to one Joseph Weichbrod, and it was only after David Greenglass, Julius's brother-in-law, was arrested, that the NSA said, Oops, we made a slight mistake. Strangely, I, a bona fide convicted spy, could not be found anywhere among the hundreds of identified spies, but this was not for lack of their trying.
In a very candid May 13, 1950, memo, which the FBI never thought would see the light of day, it writes of Venona: "The fragmentary nature of the messages themselves, the assumptions made by the cryptographers, in breaking the messages themselves, 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." One would never know this from the way all the authors write about the decrypted Venona cables.
The important question of why the NSA brought the FBI into the project must be examined. Certainly the FBI did not have decryption expertise beyond that of the NSA. The FBI's role was to try to match their files against "the fragmentary nature of the messages." And as an example of their expertise in this game one need look no further than the Weichbrod case cited above. I have tried to obtain some decryptions relating to my case that were available before the FBI entered the arena, but without success. A half-century later the NSA maintains that allowing me to see these files would expose their decryption methods.
It is the fundamental questions relating to the NSA's decryptions that seem to be off-limits to those who write about Venona.
To flog one untrustworthy book about Venona with another, as Stephen Schwartz did, raises doubts about his entire discussion. Of course the Herbert Romerstein book, given its authorship, is not credible. But Schwartz's chosen weapon against it, a book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, has likewise failed the test of probity and accuracy.
Consider, for example, how Haynes and Klehr treat the cases of three New Dealers: Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. Currie, a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Harvard, was the first professional economist to serve in the White House. Haynes and Klehr use Venona decrypts of Soviet World War II cablegrams to traduce Currie as a spy for the Soviet Union. In the process, Haynes and Klehr get their facts wrong, withhold relevant facts and weigh evidence from one side only. They suggest that Currie tried to kill the Venona project before it revealed Soviet cable traffic, but they withhold the facts that expose their claim as incredible, if not absurd. They falsely assert that Currie fled the United States and renounced his citizenship, when actually he returned to Colombia on a two-year contract to advise the government on implementing the recommendations of a World Bank mission, married a Colombian and was unable to renew his passport because he was residing mainly in Colombia (a basis for nonrenewal for a naturalized US citizen at that time). For more, see Roger Sandilands, "Guilt by Association? Lauchlin Currie's Alleged Involvement with Washington Economists in Soviet Espionage," History of Political Economy (Fall 2000).
Harry Dexter White was an assistant secretary of the Treasury under FDR and Truman. In 1941, when Russia was hard pressed on its western front against Nazi Germany, KGB Gen. Vitaly Pavlov met White for lunch in a Washington restaurant to ask for increased US pressure on Japan to deter it from attacking Russia's Far Eastern borders. Recounting the event in Operation Snow (1995-96), Pavlov describes White as a patriotic American and "never one of our agents." Haynes and Klehr characterize White's meeting with Pavlov (whose first name they get wrong) as "clandestine" and, based on dozens of Venona documents they misconstrue out of context, name White "A Most Highly Placed Spy." For further details, see James Boughton, "The Case Against Harry Dexter White: Still Not Proven," forthcoming in History of Political Economy (Summer 2001).
As for Alger Hiss, Haynes and Klehr assert that Venona confirms his guilt because he was "Ales," the cover name of a spy described in a Venona cablegram. Facts that virtually preclude such an identity (among others, that Ales was a military-intelligence group leader and obtained only military information, whereas Hiss was charged with acting alone and obtaining only nonmilitary State Department information) Haynes and Klehr simply ignore. They also assert that Alger's brother Donald spied with him, but they do not disclose that even Alger's accuser, Whittaker Chambers, denied that Donald was a spy, nor is there a shred of evidence that he was. For more in point, see my article "Venona and Alger Hiss" in Intelligence and National Security (Autumn 2000) and on the website of British Universities Film & Video Council, www.bufvc.ac.uk, under "publications" and "viewfinder."
Haynes and Klehr did not originate the practice of misconstruing Venona documents to support faulty conclusions. The practice was begun by the FBI after it joined the Venona team in 1948, and it was subsequently used on countless targets. In the early 1960s, for instance, Venona documents helped convince the CIA's own Venona head man and mole-hunter, James Jesus Angleton, that former governor of New York and ambassador to Russia Averell Harriman was a Soviet agent. Haynes and Klehr merely jumped on the bandwagon thirty years later.
If Schwartz had applied the same critical faculties to the book by Haynes and Klehr that he brought to bear on Romerstein, he would have discovered that both books are thoroughly unreliable.
My review did not address the guilt of Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White or Alger Hiss, aside from saying that the Venona evidence on the last person could not be dismissed. The evidence to which I referred drew a parallel between the movements of Hiss and the agent Ales in Russia.
I am much less interested in the fates of these three bourgeois careerists than I am in those of such dissident revolutionists as Ignacy Porecki-Reiss, Andreu Nin and Leon Trotsky. I have never understood the moral compass of certain US intellectuals who consider the sufferings of White and Hiss, or of the heirs of Currie, to be more compellingly tragic than the assassination of Reiss, the death by torture of Nin or the smashing of Trotsky's brain by an ice ax.
Indeed, there is evidence that the infiltration of Soviet agents into the highest levels of the US government involved something much worse than mere spying; rather, an intent to manipulate the US authorities in support of these terror operations. We see a possible example of this in the interest of Hiss, while at State, in the Robinson-Rubens case.
Lowenthal refers to "the practice of misconstruing Venona documents to support faulty conclusions.... subsequently used on countless targets." I have no idea who the "countless targets" might be, but I know and can sustain the following points on the basis of unchallengeable documentation, witnesses of the time and fully established memoirs by such persons as the Russo-Belgian writer Victor Serge, the Trotskyists Pierre Naville and Gerard Rosenthal, my co-author, the Catalan historian Víctor Alba, and others:
(1) Mark Zborowski, the NKVD mole who infiltrated the Trotskyist movement and murdered Trotsky's son Leon Sedov, while also facilitating the murders of Ignacy Porecki-Reiss, Andreu Nin, Kurt Landau, Erwin Wolf, Hans Freund ("Moulin") and Rudolf Klement, was identified and brought to partial justice in the United States on the basis of Venona.
(2) The related unmasking of the infamous Sobolevicius brothers, Jack Soble and Robert Soblen/Roman Well, who had penetrated the Trotskyist movement before Zborowski, was made possible by Venona.
(3) The positive identification of Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río as the assassin of Trotsky, first made by Víctor Alba (then working as a crime reporter for the Mexican daily Excelsior) was confirmed by Venona.
(4) The extensive infiltration of the US Trotskyist movement by such agents of the Stalinist secret police as Floyd Miller was first revealed in Venona.
(5) The NKVD employment of Spanish Stalinists like Victori Salà, a key figure in the attempted frameup of the POUM, while they were in exile in Mexico during World War II, was exposed by Venona.
(6) The recruitment of US maritime workers--seamen and longshoremen--as Soviet spies is documented in Venona.
(7) The manipulation of important Yugoslav politicians by the Soviet secret police during World War II was disclosed through Venona.
(8) The suspicions of the Moscow secret police center regarding a lead agent, Otto Katz, resulting in his public trial and execution with several others in Prague after World War II, may be traced in Venona.
I independently researched these cases before I'd even heard of the existence of Venona. In addition, all of them involve numerous additional people who figure in Venona. Venona merely corroborated evidence I had amassed and thoroughly analyzed on my own. Using these cases as controls, I have little or no doubt about the decryption and analysis put forward by the National Security Agency and by Klehr and Haynes. I am the first to admit the apparent irony that investigation of these matters was in most cases of virtually no importance to the vital interests of the US government.
If book publishing were subject to truth-in-labeling laws--a concept we should all abominate--Herbert Romerstein would be in serious trouble.
First, this book presents itself as jointly written by Romerstein, a veteran federal investigator of Soviet activities in the United States, and the late New York Post editorial-page editor Eric Breindel. But I could find no evidence whatever of textual input by Breindel in this volume, which appears two and a half years after he died. Love him or hate him (and I am fairly certain most Nation readers fall in the latter category), Breindel was a working journalist who knew how to write. However, this production is so leaden, prosaic and perfunctory it is hard to imagine a professional scribe having had anything to do with it. It reads like a printout of several government reports, strung together.
Further, it offers very little that is new about the Venona program, a US-run interception and decryption of some 2,900 secret Soviet communications originally transmitted in the 1940s. Nearly everything important to be said about this phenomenon, from an anti-Soviet perspective, was published in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, a meticulous and detailed examination by the historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, issued by Yale University Press in 1999 [see Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, "Cables Coming in From the Cold," July 5, 1999].
This is not to say there is nothing new or interesting in this book. In addition to Venona, Romerstein has trolled through other US files, as well as the "MASK" decryptions, Soviet communications captured by the British intelligence before World War II, and he has dipped into Soviet and East German archives, although in a haphazard way. But because Romerstein's approach is only thorough in certain instances, he leaves some useful items hanging, unelucidated.
One of these involves the disappearance, in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, of Mark Rein, son of the exiled Russian Menshevik Rafail Abramovich. Rein was associated with Scandinavian social democracy when he vanished in wartime Catalonia. His case is one of a short list of unsolved atrocities alleged against the Soviet secret police on Spanish Republican territory. According to Romerstein, Rein may have been betrayed to Stalin's agents by a German leftist named Paul Hagen. A footnote discloses that sources on the Rein affair may be found in the German Communist Party Archives. (Hagen is discussed in a recent work that, although self-published, is written to a high standard and is of considerable interest, Wilhelm Reich and the Cold War, by Jim Martin. For information, see flatlandbooks.com.)
But Romerstein handles this revelation--which, although significant, has very little to do with Venona--in a sloppy and incomplete way because such episodes, and indeed, Venona itself, are not what really interests him. Romerstein is a man of obsessions, and his obsessions are familiar to Nation readers. The main example in this book involves his crusade to incriminate the journalist I.F. Stone as a Soviet spy.
Romerstein has previously been burned by this topic [see D.D. Guttenplan, "Izzy an Agent?" August 3/10, 1992; Romerstein's letter in response and Guttenplan's "Stone Unturned," September 28, 1992; and Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir's "Stone Miscast," November 4, 1996]. But caution and precision are not his touchstones, as his argument on Stone exemplifies.
As shown in the Venona messages, Stone rebuffed Soviet attempts to enlist him, although one Soviet report states that the journalist "would not be averse to having a supplementary income." However, there is no evidence that any money ever changed hands or that Stone was alluding to anything other than, for example, Soviet translation and publication of his work by the news agency TASS, which was the cover under which some agents in New York worked. Haynes and Klehr dealt with Stone's appearance in these messages with laudable objectivity, declaring, "There is no evidence in Venona that Stone ever was recruited by the KGB."
Yet Romerstein seems determined to smear Stone whether or not he can prove his charges. According to him, an NKVD "business" relationship with Stone "worked out" when at the end of 1944 "a group of journalists, including Stone, provided [Soviet spy Vladimir] Pravdin with information" about US military plans in fighting the Germans. At the end of the paragraph, Romerstein breezily admits that the journalists in the group, aside from Stone, were not spies and did not know that Pravdin was a spy. Nor is there any indication the information they transmitted was secret.
Thus, there was nothing questionable about these American journalists briefing a Soviet colleague. Still, according to Romerstein, because "Stone knew full well" that Pravdin was a spy, the incident was "evidence that Stone was indeed a Soviet agent." But given that so many top Soviet representatives in America were spies, and that a considerable number of intelligent people knew this or took it for granted, what difference did it make?
The remainder of Romerstein's summary case against Stone consists of some garbled gossip by Russian retired spy Oleg Kalugin, which Kalugin himself disclaimed, followed by an absurdly convoluted and arbitrary argument. Romerstein points out that Soviet agents referred to Stone by the code alias "Blin," the Russian word for pancake, from which the word "blintz" is derived. He then notes that in 1951 Stone complained in a column that he would not be surprised to be accused in the anti-Communist press of having been "smuggled in from Pinsk in a carton of blintzes." To Romerstein, this is not only a dead giveaway, it is the clincher.
He writes, "Intelligence tradecraft requires that agents not know their codenames, but as Venona revealed, in a number of cases it seems some did." He continues, apparently on no evidence whatever, "Stone was one of them. His inside joke was odd. You might talk about smuggling something from Russia in a vodka bottle or caviar jar or some other normal Soviet export, but blintzes?" Well, Izzy Stone was diminutive, but he wouldn't have fit in either a bottle of booze or a can of caviar.
All this goes far beyond stretching the truth in the interest of ideology. One could say that when inquisitors like Romerstein are reduced to deconstructing wisecracks, Marx's famous transition from tragedy to farce has come into full effect. But the overall enterprise pursued by Romerstein remains both historically meretricious and socially evil, in that it obstructs meaningful debate on meaningful issues, of which the activities of Soviet secret agents in the West is certainly one.
One might also dismiss Romerstein as a McCarthyite, but that would be a mistake. Romerstein is not a McCarthy--that is, a hysteric lashing out at perceived enemies. He is something worse: a Stalinist who changed sides and joined the West, without changing his essential mindset. The fabrication of arguments like those presented against I.F. Stone, based on attempts to read nonexistent significance into trivial details, is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Soviet demonization of Trotskyists, Mensheviks, anarchists and other alleged counterrevolutionaries. Indeed, this method is typically visible in the hallucinated documents of the Moscow trials, in Chinese denunciations during the Cultural Revolution, in the interrogations practiced under Pol Pot in Cambodia, in American conspiracy literature and, in the KGB canon, in the writings of Herbert Romerstein.
Haynes and Klehr showed that Venona represents a documentary resource that historians of the twentieth-century left can ignore only at considerable risk. Venona materials interpreted as referring to the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss cannot be dismissed. More, the attempt by some historians to discredit the Venona communications as bragging and exaggeration by Soviet operatives runs up against a notable aspect of Soviet intelligence history. The Russian security organs, unlike the US and British agencies, underwent a series of purges in the late 1930s that can only be described as wholesale massacres.
The ferocity of these murderous campaigns impelled the most important defectors from Soviet service in the 1930s to flee their fellow agents or "go private," in the parlance of the secret police. These included Ignacy Porecki, a k a Reiss, murdered within three months of his break with Stalin in 1937, and Lev Lazarevich Feldbin, alias Aleksandr Orlov, who escaped to the United States and remained underground for more than a decade. The "renegacy" of Whittaker Chambers was driven by physical fear, at the height of the purges, that he would be kidnapped and taken to Moscow for execution. Other cases included that of the legendary Bolshevik diplomat and operative Fyodor Raskolnikov, who jumped, fell or was thrown from a window to his death in France soon after his break, and, of course, the well-known Samuel Ginsberg, or Walter Krivitsky.
Krivitsky, who had been a comrade of Reiss and Orlov, died in a Washington hotel room in 1941, allegedly a suicide. The case remains mysterious, and Haynes and Klehr employ great care in their comment on it: "There were some puzzling aspects to his death that suggested murder." But once again, Romerstein knows no hesitancy; he writes, offering no substantiation, "Krivitsky was murdered."
Given the fate of individuals like Reiss, emblematic of the thousands of agents purged and executed within Russia in the late 1930s, the suggestion that any Soviet operative would have engaged in false reporting, which would have excited fatal suspicions in the higher ranks, is untenable if not surrealistic.
However, there is a major lesson to be drawn from Venona that for political reasons has been somewhat underestimated by historians of both the right and the left. It involves the extraordinary energy Soviet agents all over the globe dedicated to the pursuit and persecution of dissident leftists, both Russian and foreign, American as well as Spanish, German and other.
The extent of these obsessions is revealed in Venona not only by messages describing infiltration and manipulation of the American Trotskyist movement but even more so by those attesting to Soviet surveillance of various political targets on Mexican soil. The long list of enemies is eloquently presented in a Venona communication from Moscow to Mexico City dated June 11, 1945, a few days before a massive victory parade scheduled in Moscow to celebrate the end of World War II. This communiqué, sent simultaneously to KGB stations in Algiers, Bogotá, Brussels, London, Montevideo, New York, Ottawa, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Washington and Zagreb, prohibits the issuance of visas to any nondiplomatic foreigner for a period of eleven days from June 15 to June 25.
The communiqué additionally demands special vigilance to make sure that none of the following elements might utilize the occasion of the victory celebration to infiltrate the Soviet Union "on terrorist missions": White Russian émigrés, nationalists (that is, Ukrainians or Armenians), Trotskyists, Zionists, priests, veterans of the "national legions" (presumably, foreign anti-Bolshevik forces during the Russian civil war), Mensheviks, Russian Constitutional Democrats and monarchists. A later message demands a survey and analysis of the presence in Mexico City (no doubt extremely marginal) of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Armenians, Georgians, mountain folk from the northern Caucasus, Central Asians and Balts who might have emigrated from the USSR. One can only add that the life of a northern Caucasian mountaineer, say a Chechen or Daghestani, in Mexico City in 1945, is a topic to which only literature, and that of a high imaginative order, could possibly do justice.
That the majority of these "anti-Soviet elements," such as Trotskyists, Mensheviks, Constitutional Democrats and monarchists, were, at that time, politically and organizationally on the edge of extinction, and that they had little or no presence in Mexico, to say nothing of Bogotá or Montevideo, seems to have been irrelevant to the KGB bosses in Moscow. In any case, thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union had attempted to remain in Western Europe, and some must have escaped to the Western Hemisphere. Polish exiles in Mexico were followed and surveilled to gauge the utility of clandestine operations against them. Nevertheless, the apprehensions of Moscow regarding such minuscule groups must appear absurdly exaggerated. As an additional example, on February 21, 1945, Moscow commanded that the KGB in Mexico City report on "the reaction in Armenian circles," presumably in the capital, to a synod of the Armenian Orthodox Church that had been held in the monastery of Echmiadzin in Armenia.
The irrational character of KGB orders is especially obvious in the continued tracking of Natalya Ivanovna Sedova, the isolated and psychologically bereft widow of the murdered Trotsky. After the 1940 slaying, Sedova lived for twenty more years just outside Mexico City on Calle Viena in the little house (a narrow and somewhat claustrophobic space that's more like a stone cabin) that had been inhabited by the couple for a year and a half before the killing. Her circle was small. Apart from Trotskyist militants like the Mexican writer Manuel Fernández Grandizo (G. Munis) and other exiles like Victor Serge, Sedova received few visitors and none of influence in the outside world. Even so, the KGB maintained a rigorous scrutiny over her activities.
In general, few who have examined KGB history have grasped how crucial the harassment of dissident leftists was to its mission. For the pro-Washington faction, only treason to the Stars and Stripes is important; to their critics, it is replying to the accusation of lack of patriotism in the American Communist milieu. In addition, the perception of KGB assassins hunting down Trotskyists and social democrats clashes with the sentimental idea of "the family of the left."
Romerstein has grasped some of the irony of this situation, but he applies to it his usual sloppiness. He asserts that aside from Sedova and their son, Leon Sedov, who was murdered in Paris in 1938, "the rest of Trotsky's family, with the exception of his young grandson, had all been killed or forced to commit suicide in Stalin's USSR." This is inaccurate, as anyone knowledgeable about post-Gorbachev Russian journalism and historiography should know.
One of Trotsky's grandchildren, who lives in Mexico today under the name Esteban Volkov, but who was born Vsevolod and is also known as Seva, had a sister, Alexandra, who remained in Russia and died of cancer in 1988. They were children of Trotsky's elder daughter, Zinaida, who committed suicide in Berlin, not in Russia, after a nervous breakdown. But they also had two cousins, the offspring of Trotsky's other daughter, Nina, who succumbed to tuberculosis in 1928. None of this third generation are known to have "been killed or forced to commit suicide." Numerous similar gaffes appear in this book.
Trotskyists were "polecats" in the Venona code vocabulary. This was not the only example of such insults; Zionists were referred to as "rats." This is unpleasant enough; but once again Romerstein ups the ante. On the dust jacket and in the book's text and footnotes, it is asserted that "the code word 'Rats' was used by NKVD both for Jews, generally, and for the Zionists.... They considered all Jews 'Jewish nationalists,' i.e., Zionists, and even distrusted the small group of Jewish Communists."
Unfortunately for Romerstein, there is not a single example in Venona that I'm aware of--and I've reviewed much of the material for books and articles of my own--of the use of "rat" to refer to Jews in general. And regardless of how few Communists were Jewish in the longer run of history, the roster of KGB agents of Jewish origin speaking to one another in Venona is, sadly, pretty long. They include, among a great many others, Gen. Naum Eitingon, organizer of the attack on Trotsky ("Tom"); Grigory Kheifitz ("Kharon"), who was KGB "rezident" (local chief) in San Francisco; and one of the most assiduous and deadly of all Soviet spies, Mark Zborowski ("Tulip"). An accomplice in the murder of Ignacy Reiss, betrayer of Leon Sedov and co-conspirator in numerous other crimes, Zborowski reinvented himself in America as a medical anthropologist. It is difficult to imagine Moscow referring to any of these valuable assets as "rats," even though many of them were purged under Khrushchev and imprisoned after the elimination of their master, Lavrenti Beria.
Stalinism remains among the most horrifying features of the twentieth century. Millions of innocents were killed, and millions of idealists were used and destroyed--the original, honorable socialist and labor movements were often profoundly undermined and in certain cases wrecked. Some of the countries that lived under Stalinist regimes may not recover for generations. To distort and exploit this tragedy for any ideological goal, either leftist or rightist, is as distasteful as it is in the case of the Jewish Holocaust. Herbert Romerstein, like David Horowitz and others of their cohort, is, to recall a phrase from the 1960s, part of the problem, not part of the solution.