The Blog


12:00 AM, Apr 15, 1996 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
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THEODORE HALL WAS A PHYSICS PRODIGY at Harvard, graduating at age 19. The year was 1944. He was immediately scooped up by the Manhattan Project and sent to Los Alamos to work on the atomic bomb. But he was also a member of the Young Communist League and soon he was recruited by another organization: the Soviet intelligence service. While in New Mexico, he passed nuclear secrets to Stalin's government.

After the war ended, Hall left weapons-related research and eventually moved to Great Britain. His espionage was unknown to the public until February of this year, when the Washington Post reported the story on the front page. Hall, who is 76 and in poor health, told the press that he wanted no hubbub. He wanted only to finish out his life in peace.

While this may be understandable, peace should not come easily to Hall and others like him, who have been exposed at last by the American government's release of the "Venona files": deciphered World War II cables between Soviet intelligence officers in America and their superiors in Moscow. Although more than half of the 2,200 files will not be made available until later this year, the ones already public reveal a massive Soviet network devoted to spying on the United States, the Soviets' wartime ally.

Offcers of the NKVD -- predecessor to the KGB -- worked diligently to ferret out America's military, diplomatic, and technological secrets. Along with the names of NKVD professionals, the Venona messages contain cover-names for about 200 others who participated in espionage for the Soviet Union. Clues in the messages allowed American counterintelligence to identify about half of those spies. Most were American citizens (chiefly members of the Communist party), with a scattering of refugees from Europe.

The government in Washington decided early that Venona had to be kept secret, to prevent the Soviets from learning the extent of American success in cracking what Moscow believed to be an unbreakable cipher system. This meant that evidence from Venona could not be used in court. In a few cases, government authorities were able to develop enough independent evidence to bring criminal charges against spies found out through Venona. These spies include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Harry Gold, David Greenglass, Morton Sobell, William Perl, Alger Hiss, Judith Coplon, Mark Zborowski, Jack Soble, Robert Soblen, and Klaus Fuchs. Another spy identified in Venona, Elizabeth Bentley, turned herself in and testified fully. Several others, such as Alfred Stern and Jane Foster, were indicted but fled the country, escaping trial. These, however, were the exceptions. Scores of other spies were never prosecuted, thanks to the judgment that the secrecy of Venona outweighed individual justice.

But the Cold War is over and Venona is no longer secret. It is time for an accounting.

Most of those identified as Soviet spies have died, paying no legal penalty. Some (a minority) were accused during the "McCarthy era" of having been spies, and they either indignantly denied the charges or refused to answer them, citing the Fifth Amendment. While they often lost government jobs and were criticized in the press, they had the satisfaction of seeing their accusers denounced as "red-baiters" and "McCarthyites." The historical consensus was -- and to a large extent remains -- that accusations concerning internal security were part of a climate of fear, when America abandoned its most precious values. In this view, many devoted, loyal government employees were hounded out by baseless charges. Venona, however, demonstrates that a number of these "martyrs" did, indeed, betray the United States.

Three of the spies convicted are still alive: Morton Sobell, Alger Hiss, and Judith Coplon. (Coplon was convicted twice, but both convictions were reversed on technicalities. Had prosecutors been able to use the Venona documents -- in which she is frequently and clearly identified as a Soviet agent -- she would have been imprisoned. She is now running a trendy restaurant in New York.) There are others who were never tried and whose guilt at this point is indisputable. Among these living and unpunished spies are Victor Perlo, Harry Magdoff, Donald Niven Wheeler, Joel Barr, and the aforementioned Theodore Hall.