The Magazine

Redhanded

Venona comes to PBS.

Feb 4, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 20 • By RONALD RADOSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

ON TUESDAY, February 5, PBS will air "Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies," a documentary by the award-winning NOVA science unit. The program is a breakthrough for both PBS and NOVA, for it moves beyond its avowed subject of code-breaking to the impact that code-breaking had on our understanding of Soviet espionage in the 1940s and 1950s.

The project called "Venona"--the name of the top-secret wartime effort to break Soviet codes sent from the KGB's Moscow center to its American agents--has been explained by John Haynes and Harvey Klehr in their definitive 1999 account, "Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America." The Venona decrypts show that the USSR, ostensibly an ally of the United States in the war against Nazi Germany, carried out a giant espionage operation against the United States. Its agents worked in the State Department, the Treasury, and even the White House. As Klehr puts it when he appears in the NOVA documentary, "There is not a single government agency that was not infiltrated."

More, the Venona decrypts revealed that the American Communist party was deeply implicated in that Soviet espionage, with the full knowledge and cooperation of some of its top leaders. Robert Lamphere, the FBI agent in charge of counterintelligence and its liaison with the Venona code-breakers, makes the point as sharply as possible: "The American Communist party was involved in espionage at the highest level."

Or rather, the revelation of Venona ought to have made all this clear. But, by and large, Venona received little attention from the mass media, and a good section of the American left continues to question it. Despite the historical consensus of almost all observers that Alger Hiss's guilt has now been proved, Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of the Nation, and others deny the identification of Hiss with the figure called "Ales" in the Moscow telegrams. In 1995, when the National Security Administration began to declassify Venona, the first of the decrypts to be released proved beyond doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a major Soviet agent and his wife Ethel was his accomplice. But the Rosenbergs' children, Robert and Michael Meeropol, argue the possibility that the Venona files are entirely fraudulent.

Now, for the first time, the importance of what Venona reveals is presented to a mass audience, and the scientific accuracy of the code-breakers' painstaking work is both explained and honored by the NOVA team. Befitting a science program, this NOVA episode begins by informing viewers about the secret wartime project carried out at Virginia's Arlington Hall. We are shown--with an on-camera explanation by expert Stephen Budiansky--how the Soviets formed their code with a nearly unbreakable one-time-pad cipher. Our code-breakers were able to begin to decipher the transmissions only after wartime pressures led the KGB to become sloppy, and to reuse old code books for new messages.

The late Meredith Gardner explains how he used their most important mistake to pore laboriously over thousands of codes, thereby recovering the meaning of individual words and phrases. Gardner tells us of William Weisband, an Army intelligence agent assigned as a liaison consultant to Venona, who watched as Gardner broke a 1944 code about the scientists working at the Manhattan Project (an American project that the Soviets had obviously obtained information about). Weisband, it turns out, was himself a KGB agent who informed the Soviets that the United States was breaking its secret codes. By 1948, as former NSA employee Lou Benson puts it, "the Soviet codes went dark," and the Americans could not break the new transmissions.

The heart of the NOVA presentation is the key role of Theodore Alvin Hall in atomic espionage. Hall was identified in Venona, but since the code-breaking's existence had to be kept secret and could not be used in court, Hall was able to walk free. He stood firm under intense FBI interrogation and refused to admit his role as a Soviet spy. He simply walked out of a second session with the FBI and eventually left the United States for the safe haven of Britain, where he had a distinguished scientific career until his death last year.

Hall has always had his defenders. But "Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies" includes an interview, conducted with Hall shortly before his death, in which he admits for the first time that he had indeed given major atomic-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union while an Army officer at the Manhattan Project. Indeed, Hall told a KGB agent in 1944, as Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev revealed in their book, "The Haunted Wood," that "there is no country except for the Soviet Union which could be entrusted with such a terrible thing" as the atomic bomb.

Viewers are also shown a large portion of the interview NOVA conducted with Hall's wife, Joan, who makes it clear that as far as she is concerned, Hall did nothing wrong, since he thought that the Soviet Union was a good society and "he was afraid the United States might become a very reactionary power." Her husband, she insists, "wasn't a spy...wasn't an agent." He was simply a "scientist with a conscience who shared knowledge with the Soviets."

"Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies" suggests that the information passed to the Soviets by Ethel and Julius Rosenberg was of limited importance compared to what they obtained from Hall and later from Klaus Fuchs. The program includes a short portion of an interview in which Michael Meeropol says that if Venona is accurate--something he still cannot acknowledge--then the United States arrested only "a small-fry spy."

A more accurate way to put it would be, as Harvey Klehr points out, that Julius Rosenberg gave the Soviets major military information. Nevertheless, that information was nowhere near what Hall and Fuchs turned over to the KGB. If Venona had been known at the time, the prosecution at the Rosenbergs' trial would not have been able falsely to accuse them of having given key atomic secrets to the Soviets--nor would Judge Irving Kaufman have been as likely to hand down the dual death sentence that made them major Communist martyrs.

"Secrets, Lies and Atomic Spies" concludes with the words of the NSA's Lou Benson, who says that the Venona project and its eventual compromising by the Soviets was an "intelligence failure never equaled or surpassed in the history of U.S. intelligence." But during the window of opportunity that existed before the Soviets changed their codes, the United States was able to gain access to top-secret communications, which proved conclusively that the Soviet Union had targeted the United States and infiltrated our government's top ranks. It also was able to identify a good many of its agents.

Writing in the 1960s, Rebecca West pleaded that if treason was to be ended, public opinion had to make it clear that "treachery is a sordid and undignified form of crime." We must, she argued, "abandon all sentimentality in our views of the traitor, and recognize him as a thief and a liar." That's what the revelation of the Venona decrypts ought to have done in recent years--and what the new PBS special will help further.

Ronald Radosh is the author of Commies: A Journey through the "Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left" and, with Joyce Milton, of "The Rosenberg File."