Review by Joseph T Major of

VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr

(Yale University Press; 1999; ISBN 0-300-07771-8; $30.00) and

VENONA: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War by "Nigel West" [Rupert Allason] (HarperCollins; 1999; ISBN 0-00-257000-9; 19.99)

In the written history of the world there is not so much as a glimpse behind the heavy curtains that enshroud the background of secret diplomacy. The background? The Black Chamber. The Cryptographic Bureau, where specialists pore over cipher telegrams of foreign governments . . .

It is my aim to unfold in a simple dispassionate way the intimate details of a secret organization that I fostered for the American government; an organization which, at its height of power, employed one hundred and sixty-five men and women. I created the bureau and directed its mysterious activities, until, at the end of twelve years, a new Secretary of State ordered the door of the Black Chamber closed and bolted.

In a period of twelve years, this Secretary was the first diplomatist who, though well aware that all great powers have their Black Chambers, had the courage - or was it naïveté? - to announce that diplomatic correspondence must be inviolate, thus renouncing the secret practices of the American Cryptographic Bureau. Now that the Black Chamber has been destroyed there is no valid reason for witholding its secrets.

- Herbert O. Yardley, The American Black Chamber, p. xvii

Yet Arlington Hall began its penetration of Soviet ciphers under the Secretaryship of Henry L. Stimson, the same person who had ordered the doors of the American Black Chamber closed and bolted.


This morning, and I am now writing of February, 1931, I was informed by a friend just back from Washington that the committee investigating Soviet activities had one thousand Soviet code messages which had been turned over to "Government experts" to decipher, but they couldn't be solved by these experts.

- Herbert O. Yardley, The American Black Chamber, p. 217

Yale University Press has been providing valuable intellectual ammunition to historians - a certain kind of historian, anyhow - in their Annals of Communism series. In this latest volley, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, from the dynamic duo of Haynes (Library of Congress Political Historian) and Klehr (Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University), authors of The Secret World of American Communism, with thanks to cryptography, the cryptic redes of "premature anti-Communists" are shown to have been sooth.

Haynes and Klehr begin by pulling back Yardley's "heavy curtains" to unfold the intimate details of the American Security Agency, later the Signal Intelligence Service and now known as the National Security Agency. "The Venona Project began because Carter Clarke did not trust Joseph Stalin," they say [p. 8] In 1943, Colonel Clarke was afraid of a Soviet separate peace, and hoped to get warning from Soviet code messages. By the time their system was broken, that threat was gone - but another was revealed, a far more crucial one.

Decrypted VENONA messages list 349 individuals in America who had contact with Soviet espionage. Less than half of these people have been identified [see pp. 340-370], and the proportion of unbroken messages is large. Given these additional considerations, the stringent security measures put in place in the late forties suddenly become understandable, if not acceptable.

Chapter Two of this book, "Breaking the Code" [pp. 23-56], describes those means. As in the days of the American Black Chamber, the source for this work was "the cipher telegrams of foreign governments". Towards the end of his book [The American Black Chamber, pp. 243-4], Yardley discusses a means by which cipher messages can be made unbreakable and from the context he is discussing either the Hagelin machine or a similar one - the basis of the German "unbreakable" Engima cipher. The deciphering of German Enigma messages was made possible in part by errors in technique and usage.

The real unbreakable cipher is the "one-time pad" - a table of random numbers used to encipher numeric equivalents of words (in this case, code numbers for words) by adding the numbers in the pad to the numbers of the message. Without the original pad, the decipherer is unable to reconstruct the original message, since he has no way to determine what numbers have been added. What made the VENONA decryptions possible was an error of technique and usage - pressed by lack of resources, the NKVD cipher directorate made multiple copies of the sheets for one-time pads.

Using the serial numbers on the NKVD and Soviet trade agency messages - each pad ended up being used for two different organizations - the ASA was able to strip off that superencipherment. Reconstructing the code groups was still to be done, but that is an existing skill; see The American Black Chamber for examples.

And the code names. For obvious reasons, it was necessary to refer to agents, sources, targets, and the like by something other than their real names. This entailed a shift from mathemtician to detective, to discover the names that lay behind HOMER and STANLEY, ALES and LIBERAL, and so on. The choice of some of these code names betrayed a certain attitude among the chekists. For example, Trotskyists were POLECATS and Zionists were RATS, while members of the Communist Party were FELLOWCOUNTRYMEN. Indeed, one can see a very particular attitude at work when noting that Guy Burgess was MÄDCHEN "girl".

A few new revelations appear from these messages. Oleg Kalugin sparked a row by discussing I. F. Stone's secret discussions with the KGB [see The First Directorate, Oleg Kalugin and Fen Montagine (1994), p. 74]. Now, it seems that Stone had been meeting with chekists back when Kalugin was first spying on the girl in the next cradle. The NKGB had targeted him for recruitment back in 1944. His response to them had shown concern that he might "attract the attention of the FBI" [p. 248], which hints that he knew that this was not an ordinary talk with a friendly journalist from the land where the future works. Could there be more on agent PANCAKE in other telegrams?

The bulk of this book is given over to the long progression of betrayers, a rounding-up of the usual suspects. The Communist Party USA and its leader and disbander Earl Browder, the Golos-Bentley networks, the Ware Group, the atom-bomb spies, and the hunt for Trotsky the arch-POLECAT are all discussed in familiar detail.

As for one of the usual suspects: Damning evidence highlights the perfidy of Agent ALES. Haynes and Klehr present conclusive evidence that the March 30, 1945 VENONA cable about ALES cannot refer to anyone but Hiss [pp. 171-2], for ALES had gone to Moscow briefly after the Yalta conference. Four men went to Moscow briefly after the Yalta conference; Secretary of State Edward Stettinus, his press aide Wilder Foote, the director of the State Department's Office of European Affairs H. Freeman Matthews - and Alger Hiss.

And speaking of the friend of ALES, Whittaker Chambers (Agent KARL) was always concerned about enemies at Time. This book lists three writers for Time who were Soviet agents: Richard Lauterbach (Agent PA) and John Scott (Agent IVANOV), correspondents to the Soviet Union, and a supervisor of foreign correspondents, Stephen Laird [pp. 236-8]. Small wonder that Chambers was suspicious.

Similarly, the complex unraveling of the atom-bomb spy networks, that vast left-wing conspiracy that saved Academician Kurchatov so much effort in running down dead ends, is described here. The thread that led through LIBERAL, CHARL'Z, MLAD, STAR, and the yet undefinitely identified FOGEL/PERS, and other such mystery men and women is explicated in its painful detail. It becomes obvious why MLAD (Teddy Hall) and STAR (Saville Sax) were not further investigated; the only evidence against them was from VENONA.

And speaking of a conspiracy so immense: One point that Haynes and Klehr make emphatically was that Joseph McCarthy had no access to VENONA, knew nothing of VENONA, and made accusations that were utterly contradicted by VENONA. They are of the opinion that he would have been incapable of keeping it to himself, and since he didn't make any astounding revelations about this, it follows that he didn't know.

But for nearly fifty years, the government sat on the proof. It is hard to comprehend that those in possession of the hidden secrets showing that the Cold War had been started by the Soviets, had been started before the Second World War, were so willing to let this ultimate justification of their proof be hidden. One of the first advocates of the declassification of VENONA was someone who might not be considered so ordinary in calling for declassification of anything: James Angleton [p. 5].

There is a certain USAn-centric mentality about the book. The discussion of VENONA in the introduction implies that only hints of it were known prior to the official declassification on July 11, 1995. Yet in 1979 Peter Wright wrote about the VENONA material (Spycatcher, pp. 179-188) in much the same vein as Haynes and Klehr in this book. References to such codebreaking date back as far as 1970, in David C. Martin's Wilderness of Mirrors.

By 1988, as seen in John Costello's Mask of Treachery, the existence and most of the contents of VENONA were apparently common knowledge. Yet the NSA kept on pretending otherwise.

In a similar vein, Haynes and Klehr state that the code name FELLOWCOUNTRYMEN refers to "any CPUSA member" [p. 349]. To jump ahead to the next part, in his Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War, on page 366 "Nigel West" states that the code word FELLOWCOUNTRYMEN refers to members of the CPGB. We can conclude that it was a general term and that any Soviet spy boss anywhere could call on aid from FELLOWCOUNTRYMEN from the ranks of the local Communist Party.

It is understandable that there was serious concern about this penetration. The inflow of people into the new agencies of the New Deal and, more significantly, the wartime agencies, created an unparalleled opportunity to slip agents past security. When you consider that the OSS, for example, had at least fifteen Soviet spies in it, you can understand the nature of this concern. While there were witches, the witch-hunt, however, could have been done better. (An interesting parallel might be drawn with the "anti-Hun" and "anti-Bolshevik" sweeps of the Wilson era, which caught no German spies and few Communists, but did disrupt society, poison political dialogue, and create a climate of groundless mistrust. J. Edgar Hoover opposed the Palmer Raids, for example.)

In one field in particular, the serious concern was seriously justified. The value to the Soviet A-bomb project of knowing what not to do was immense - it saved them years of trial and error.

Not surprisingly, there has been an as forceful response, an as forceful denial. David Caute, last seen ferociously denying the revelations of The Secret World of American Communism, is one exemplar of this trend in which "Communists were depicted as innocent victims of an irrational and oppressive government." [p. 17]

But, some say - like the late William "The Client Is Obviously Guilty" Kunstler [p. 399] - that these messages were forged (by a vast right-wing conspiracy?). This is conspiratorial thinking at work, the desire to eradicate inconvenient evidence. Forgery on so vast a scale could not hold up, it would take, shall we say, a conspiracy so immense as to be incapable of keeping the secret, much less keeping all the little details right.

This is the latest stone to be piled on the burial cairn of the belief that American Communists were independent, democratic, ordinary political activists, that they were cruelly persecuted by a ruthless oppression that sought to ban independent thought. That this nonsense has become the established orthodoxy of progressive thought, the anti-anti-communists having routed the anti-communists, is a different story in itself.

. . Stalin's espionage offensive was also a significant factor contributing to the Cold War. By the late 1940s the evidence provided by Venona and other sources of the massiveness and intense hostility of the Soviet espionage attack caused American counterintelligence professionals and high-level American policy officials to conclude that Stalin was carrying out a covert assault on the United States. The Soviet espionage offensive, in their minds, indicated that the Cold War was not a state of affairs that had begun after World War II but a guerrilla action that Stalin had secretly started years earlier. They were right.

- Haynes and Klehr, Venona, p. 337 [emphasis added]


. . . those in power in England considered a Cipher Bureau of such tremendous importance that they placed an Admiral at its head. This man, Admiral [Sir Reginald "Blinker"] Hall, because of the information he obtained from the messages that his enormous bureau deciphered, stood next to [Prime Minister David] Lloyd George in power. The Foreign Office was extremely jealous of his position for it was almost wholly dependent on him for information revealing the secret political intrigues of foreign and neutral governments.

- Herbert O. Yardley, The American Black Chamber, pp. 139-140

In Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War, the British espionage expert Rupert "Nigel West" Allason has contributed a significant alternative perspective on the VENONA decrypts. For example:

The skeptic Martin Gardner has shown himself skeptical of the extra-scientific fellow-traveling activities of British physicist J. B. S. Haldane (see On The Wild Side, pp. 118-122). Another Gardner, Meredith, the man who cracked VENONA, had proof that Haldane was more than just a fellow-traveler; as Agent INTELLEGENSIA, Haldane gave information to the GRU on the scientific work he was doing for the British. Martin's angry cartoon showing Haldane with a hammer-and-sickle caste mark is now more appropriate.

This was one of the areas in which the British Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) and its successor the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the heirs to "Blinker" Hall's Room 40, did their share in breaking the messages, and how those messages revealed unpleasant things about more than just Americans.

To the pure cryptological description given by Haynes and Klehr, "West" adds the additional covert-action dimension, describing how other spies obtained the codebooks that the codebreakers used. One was recovered by the Finns from the battlefield, and sold to the Allies as part of a complex deal. Other contributions came from "black-bag" jobs, the FBI doing what it pursued in others, breaking into Soviet consulates and photographing their secret materials, as they had done for (or to) the Axis powers before the war. "West" also clarifies the story of General Donovan and the NKVD codebook [pp. 33-4] that he had had given back to them.

The most significant part of this book is of a different sort. Klehr and Haynes share a perspective with most American thriller writers - they discount the rest of the world. To achieve a more useful understanding, therefore, it is necessary to obtain other perspectives. The Soviet offensive was not directed just against the Main Adversary, but against its Main Ally and other allies as well. Accordingly, "West" begins by pointing out that, for example, the GRU effort in London was more sustained and had more resources than that in Washington and the rest of the U.S. The GRU had several spy rings in Britain; they had nothing to do with the Cambridge Ring of Five or the other well-known espionage efforts. "Viktor Suvorov" describes the GRU as the ugly peasant who outwits the handsome prince of the KGB, and in spite of his natural bias against the mortal enemy of his old outfit he may have been thinking of such successes as these.

The GRU spies included such surprising figures as not only Haldane, but Ivor Montagu (Agent NOBILITY). Ivor's brother was Ewen Montagu, author of The Man Who Never Was and Beyond Top Secret Ultra, and stalwart of the Double-Cross System - a family of spies, if not all on the same side. Ivor's X-Group penetrated the Czech government, and recruited Allan Nunn May (Agent ALEK), one of the still-surviving atom-bomb spies.

A third signatory to the UKUSA intelligence-sharing agreement was involved. In 1948 the Director-General of MI5 himself, Sir Percy Sillitoe, went to Australia to brief the government on what had been revealed by VENONA of Soviet espionage there. The government decided to create a counterintelligence service, the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and the Circus sent an advisor from Whitehall. The fact that Sir Roger Hollis helped in the uncovering of several Australian spies should have been a point in his favor in the Fifth Man Hunt, where he was, thanks to Peter Wright (who, ironically, lived in Australia), a principal suspect.

Hollis and the ASIO had a lot to do, for Australia had been open country for the NKGB and GRU. Their method of operation was remarkably familiar. Agent CLAUDE, Communist Party of Australia Control Commission member Walter S. "Wally" Clayton, had been a talent-spotter for Soviet espionage in the way that HELMSMAN, Earl Browder, had been in the U.S., for example.

The Australians gave as well as got. Soviet defectors Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov were able to provide useful background material that filled out the details of the VENONA decrypts; the way in which messages were encrypted, the reason for the creation of the duplicate pads, even the way in which the random numbers were generated.

A frightening concern about the greater background of Soviet espionage during that period is that "The NSA calculated that less than one per cent of the total traffic had involved key reuse" [p. 119] and less than half of those had been found, much less decrypted.

It seems to have taken long enough to get to the Cambridge Ring of Five. While little enough of the VENONA material dealt with them, it should be noted that the references to Agent HOMER's personal life were the first clues to Donald Maclean's guilt. Similarly, his involvement in the defection of GRU code clerk Igor Gouzenko led to the suspicion of Kim Philby, Agent STANLEY. Other references enabled it to be guessed that Agent HICKS was Guy Burgess and Agent JOHNSON was Anthony Blunt. But other agents were active; references to agents codenamed DAN, LEAF, JACK, and ROSA imply a wider secret world of British Communism out there. The Crown Jewels by "West" and Oleg Tsarev (1998, 1999), published in the U.S. by Yale University Press, is helpful on this topic.

ENORMOZ, the Manhattan Project, was a prime target of Soviet espionage, as has been related in several recent works. The discussion in this book of MLAD (Theodore Hall), CHARL'Z (Klaus Fuchs), and LIBERAL (Julius Rosenberg) is useful in its context, but has been covered exhaustively in other places.

What is new is the speculation that the mysterious Agent PERS (also known as VOGEL), the object of much speculation, may have been German-British physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls. Similarly, the question of Robert Oppenheimer's complicity has more information from VENONA (including his code-name, BILL OF EXCHANGE), but unfortunately this information is insufficient to determine whether he was actually an agent, or merely a target for recruitment, or an unwitting source. All of these would have code names.

"West" lists some other agents in ENORMOZ, and uses VENONA material with other sources to draw up a more detailed portrait of the Soviet effort to penetrate ENORMOZ than has existed before, than in (say), H. Montgomery Hyde's The Atom Bomb Spies (1980).

And, or so he says, the security was so lax because ironically of the project's being so secret. The FBI learned about the Manhattan Project entirely by accident - from surveillance of Vasili Zubilin (Agent MAXIM; his real name was "Zarubin") for an entirely different reason! And, of course, Zubilin was under suspicion as an agent of foreign intelligence services - by the NKGB, of course. That's the usual ingratitude towards one so successful.

Another pattern that wasn't limited to the United States was intensive investigation of émigré organizations. Klehr and Haynes have covered this topic in detail in their works; "West" adds here the international touch, discussing the problem of the storm petrels, the Soviet defectors.

Having lost his temper in Alma-Ata [Almatsy], Robert Heinlein went to his room and "vividly recalled Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom." ["'PRAVDA' Means 'TRUTH'", Extended Universe, p. 411] Viktor Kravchenko was an officer on the Soviet Purchasing Commission who defected to the U.S. in 1944, after which he wrote I Chose Freedom, an exposé of Soviet police state tactics. The NKGB was not happy about this, and put one of their top agents, sociologist Mark Zborowski (Agent TULIP) on the task of getting to this GNAT (Kravchenko's appropriate VENONA code name). However, the swatting of this GNAT was to lead to an even greater publicity disaster. Yet Kravchenko was found dead in 1966, having shot himself. One wonders.

"West" has dissed William Stevenson's A Man Called 48100, er, A Man Called INTREPID (1976) as greater length in other books, but he points out here that "BSC [British Security Coordination] constructed an impressive security apparatus in the Americas and waged an espionage and propaganda offensive against the Axis enemy." [p. 216]. Small wonder, then, that others would show interest in it and its quiet Canadian station chief, Sir William Stephenson [in SIS terminology code-numbered "48" for his station, the U.S., plus "100" for his position, station chief, hence "48100"; INTREPID was the cable address of BSC].

The Soviet agent inside BSC was Cedric Belfrage (his covername was identified but not determined, so he is referred to as UCN/9 for "unidentifed cover name number 9" - there is a reference to a UCN/41 - a sinister thought, there), a journalist and CPGB member who had been recruited by Jacob Golos. Yet it was sloppiness by Golos that made UCN/9 break off spying for the Soviets.

Speaking of Golos, "West" provides further detail about his assistant, lover, heir, and betrayer, Elizabeth Bentley. Her cover name was UMNITSA, which is best translated as "CLEVER GIRL" - "MISS WISE", the translation given in The Haunted Wood, is in fact her own version. Her handler told her what her code name was, a serious violation of security and tradecraft. The VENONA messages show CLEVER GIRL as a big-time operator, handling agents in the OSS and other of the wartime agencies, and confirm her allegedly wild stories of espionage. (Not surprisingly, "Golos" was a pseudonym - it means "voice" - and his real name was Jacob Rasin.)

An explanation of why the FBI did not move against so many of the agents identified, or reveal the VENONA secret earlier, may be deduced from what happened when they did arrest someone based on VENONA evidence. Agent SIMA was in the Justice Department, and apparently a useful agent - SIMA could tip off suspected spies when they first came under investigation. After investigation, it was determined that SIMA was one Judith Coplon. She was arrested and tried, but her conviction was overturned because the FBI had to pretend that the initial source for suspecting her was a wiretap, which it turned out had been illegally obtained.

Revealing that the source was actually decoded messages was considered not worth the cost. And so the Coplon affair became a fiasco, and Teddy Hall could sleep at night again.

Meanwhile, General Fitin (codename VICTOR) had relations on two levels with the OSS. Not only did he meet officially with General Donovan to pass on information, but he had agents inside there.

Again here we get into a confusion of terminology; Haynes and Klehr maintain that HUT (technically "IZBA") is the reference to the local counterintelligence service. "West" asserts that "HUT" meant the OSS, while the FBI was "KhATA", a sturdier kind of building found in Ukraine. Aside from this trifle, "West" shows in great detail how the penetration agents in HUT, and the agents of the two main spy rings, the Perlo and Silvermaster groups, delivered useful information to the Soviet Union in the period before their dissolutions.

In a postscript, "West" discusses some hints and penumbras, touching on the hidden dimensions of the careers of such people as Agent BLIN ["PANCAKE"], I. F. Stone [pp. 328-330].

This perspective granted by the observations of a devoted researcher throws a different light on these matters, creating a contrast that throws obscure features into sharp relief. With such differing references, many an obscure puzzle becomes easier to solve.

The work, nevertheless, was hugely rewarding, and not unlike a perpetual mystery, the cryptanalysts playing the role of detectives searching for concealed clues that might reveal a hitherto unsuspected Soviet spy or provide the proof needed to corner a known agent. It was possible for their work to have an impact far beyond the realm of espionage. Those privy to VENONA's secrets maintained their oaths of loyalty and discretion, even though the material they handled included items with politically profound political implications. If Richard Nixon had known that his early postwar allegations of widespread Communist penetration could be confirmed by just a handful of VENONA texts, his electoral chances and career would have been greatly improved years before he became President.

- "West", Venona, p. 327


To make the points again: the boogeyman was under the bed. There were spies in the White House and in the State Department. There were even spies at Time magazine.

Yet, the exposure of them was a victim of its own success. When the great fear of Soviet spies began, the spies themselves were gone; quit, fled, or otherwise rendered ineffective. Joseph McCarthy was doubly ignorant; he had no knowledge of Communism, and his frothings were aimed at, literally, nothing. He was more a benefactor to Communists than their enemy, for his efforts made anti-Communism shameful, and the anti-anti-Communists the supporters of freedom, even as they supported oppressors abroad and at home.

A historical study of the effects of the security agitation of World War I should have shown as much. The great Hun Fear of the War to End All War destroyed German-American culture - after that war, in the absence of "moderate" ethnic organizations, the Nazi ones attained their influence because there was a vacuum - disrupted ordinary society, and of course failed to uncover any German secret agents. All the hysteria over James Branch Cabell's extremely elliptical and symbolic sexual references in Jurgen (1920) let pass his parody of WWI American society in the sequence where Jurgen is in Hell.

But if the decision makers knew that McCarthy was a fool and the "martyrs" were guilty, why did they keep quiet? Oversecurity had a role. The VENONA deciphering was known to the Soviets as early as 1948; if not ZHORA, then STANLEY told them. Yet this was the closest of secrets until 1995; and even when journalists knew it as soon as 1978, the NSA still reflexively denied their great triumph. Note, too, that even the level of limited comprehension that we do have was not fully explicated back then.

As with the Hun Hunt, so with the "Great Fear" of the Communist hunt. The reaction made it possible to deny the guilt of the perpetrators named in the codes, to hail LIBERAL and his wife Ethel as martyrs and to popularize a book on what a great daddy ALES was.

Yet, ironically, the revelations given here confirm one of McCarthy's most alcohol-fired tropes: "[A] conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men." [quoted Haynes and Klehr, p. 17] And that its principals, far from receiving "the maledictions of all honest men", had once been considered to be "innocent victims of an irrational and oppressive American government" may reveal more about those doing that consideration than it does about the government they are considering.

Yet already the spin doctors are spin doctoring these results. A cautionary tale to those who hope from support from the progressive sectors of society; they'll use you and abandon you. These individuals, once noble martyrs to an oppressive government, have now become insignificant factors that no one ever cared about, now that the evidence beyond any reasonable doubt is in. Winston Smith and the rewriters at the Ministry of Truth are working double shifts.