Three Gentlemen of Venona

Three Gentlemen of Venona


Three Gentlemen of Venona

San Francisco

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,, 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.


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