The Blog


12:00 AM, Apr 15, 1996 • By HARVEY KLEHR and JOHN EARL HAYNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Venona shows that Victor Perlo was not only a spy but the head of a network of concealed Communists. His group had informants in the War Production Board, the Treasury Department, the Senate Committee on War Mobilization, and the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA). One message from the Soviets" New York consulate to NKVD headquarters described how Perlo was to make periodic trips to New York to drop off documents collected by his network. He provided information on America's first operational jet fighter, plans for the production of military equipment, and internal government estimates of postwar U.S. economic prospects.

Today, Perlo is an open and prominent member of what is left of the U.S. Communist party. He was never indicted for his spying, though he was forced from his job in the Treasury Department. He portrays himself, and has been portrayed by others, as an innocent victim of anti-Communist paranoia. His accusers, on the other hand -- particularly Elizabeth Bentley -- have been portrayed as liars. A few years ago, the Left's leading journal, the Nation, published an article by its editor, Victor Navasky, referring to Perlo not as a Communist or a spy but as a "New Deal economist."

Harry Magdoff was a spy who worked with Perlo when the two were on the staff of the War Production Board. Magdoff, according to Venona, shared the duty of ferrying materials to New York. He was fingered by Bentley as a fellow spy. He pleaded the Fifth and was never indicted, but he did lose his job with the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee. Like Perlo, he had been a secret member of the Communist party. At some point, he quietly left and became an editor of Monthly Review, a Marxist journal that, while independent of the party, admired Soviet communism. Magdoff has never admitted involvement with Soviet intelligence. He, too, has been portrayed as a victim of an anti-Communist witch hunt. He remains an editor at Monthly Review.

Donald Niven Wheeler was another member of the Perlo network, burrowed in the Office of Strategic Services. Venona reveals that Wheeler supplied the Soviets with information on the British intelligence service. Moscow must have been pleased with his work, for it ordered Wheeler to prepare a report on the OSS's own counterintelligence branch. After he was named by Bentley, Wheeler refused to testify. He was never indicted. In the ensuing decades, he has ridiculed the notion that he had any links whatever to Soviet intelligence. The Venona documents prove that he was just what Bentley said he was. He lives in retirement after a career as an economics professor at American and Canadian colleges.

Joel Barr worked in the laboratories of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. In 1942, the army discovered his Communist connections and discharged him. But the wartime need for electrical engineers was great, and Barr quickly landed a job at Western Electric Company working on advanced military radar systems. After the war, he worked for Sperry Gyroscope, again on military radar. His background caught up with him, however, and he lost his security clearance, and his job, in 1947.

Barr was living in Paris in 1950 when the press announced that the FBI had arrested David Greenglass, the brother-in-law of Barr's old associate Julius Rosenberg. Bart promptly disappeared from his apartment. He left behind his clothing, his newly purchased motorcycle, and all of his other belongings. Decades later, he surfaced in the Soviet Union under a new name, working as a senior engineer on military electronics. He now maintains residences in New York and St. Petersburg and promotes the sale of electrical processes developed in Russia. He has steadfastly denied involvement in espionage and attributes his disappearance in 1950 to the poisonous atmosphere of the McCarthy era. Venona confirms that Barr was no victim.

And Theodore Hall, the Harvard physics whiz? When the government approached him about joining a secret project, he confided in his roommate, Saville Sax, a fellow Communist, who promptly contacted high officials in the party. Anatoly Yakovlev, an NKVD officer operating with diplomatic status, interviewed Sax, and then sent a covert agent, Sergei Kurnakov, to meet Hall. (Kurnakov was a Russian immigrant who wrote for the Communist Daily Worker.) Kurnakov secured Hall's cooperation and arranged for the young physicist to deliver reports to a courier.

That courier was Leontine Cohen, an American Communist who became a career Soviet spy. She and her husband Morris were later imprisoned in Britain as part of a Soviet network that penetrated the British admiralty. They served about five years before the KGB exchanged them for a British agent in Soviet hands. The Cohens retired on Soviet pensions in Moscow, where they both died.