An aggressive Soviet spy network penetrated a key strategy meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II and tried to recruit friends of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, according to decoded Soviet messages released yesterday by the National Security Agency.
NSA declassified 250 messages sent between Moscow and the Soviet spy headquarters in New York in 1942 and 1943.
They confirm that a number of wartime American intelligence agents were secretly working for the Kremlin.
The messages from the so-called "Venona" project document the tireless efforts of Soviet leader Josef Stalin to recruit agents across the United States and Mexico.
The cables mention dozens of people as potential sources, from rank-and-file engineers working on sensitive radar projects and journalists for Time and the Christian Science Monitor all the way up to the inner circles of the Roosevelt administration.
The information they collected ranged from details of bomber and fighter plane production to internal disputes in the Roosevelt administration.
The cables also give a glimpse of Soviet secret police chief Lavrenti P. Beria's recruitment, payment and management of his global network of spies, including a warning sent to Soviet agents around the world against "talkativeness."
"They show the thoroughness of the work of Soviet espionage," said David Kahn, the leading American historian of codes and code breaking and currently historian in residence at NSA's National Cryptologic Museum.
"They were spying on us in every way they could," said Cecil Phillips, 70, of Silver Spring, a veteran NSA code breaker who played a key role in cracking the Venona messages.
Mr. Phillips and John Haynes, author of "The Secret World of American Communism," said the voluminous translated cables
should help historians revise the history of the Cold War and settle many of its disputed episodes.
A message dated May 29, 1943, to Moscow from the NKVD unit in New York, whose agents worked under the cover of the Soviet consulate, trade mission and TASS news agency, includes a report from a high-level American agent code-named simply "19."
"19 reports that KAPITAN [the code name for President Roosevelt] and KABAN [or Wild Boar, the code name for Churchill] during conversations in the COUNTRY [code name for U.S.] invited 19 to join them," says the cable.
Later, it gives details of discussions between the two wartime leaders on prospects for opening a second front in the war in Europe.
Like most cables, it contains many passages that could not be decrypted, leaving tantalizing gaps.
But from the timing, NSA historians concluded that the still-unidentified "19" was a high-level agent who had penetrated Roosevelt's inner circle and attended at least part of the two-week conference in Washington and Williamsburg, Va., code-named Trident, a major strategy meeting.
'Processing' first lady
Another, sketchier message dated a few days earlier speaks of attempting to use Gertrude Pratt, later Gertrude Pratt Lash, "for the processing of KAPITAN's wife," or Eleanor Roosevelt.
The message is ambiguous but implies that Soviet agents were planning approaches to Mrs. Pratt and other friends of the first lady, possibly to get inside information or to influence U.S. policy.
There is no evidence that they were successful in any attempt to recruit Mrs. Pratt or even that Soviet agents spoke with her.
According to "Eleanor and Franklin," a book about the Roosevelts written by her husband, Joseph Lash, Mrs. Pratt was repulsed by the Communist show trials of the 1930s and questioned whether communism and democracy could ever exist side by side.
Attempts to contact Gertrude Pratt Lash at her home in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., yesterday were unsuccessful.
Spies among the spies
The decrypted messages also point to Soviet spies within the OSS, Office Strategic Services, the wartime predecessor of the CIA.
A May 26, 1943, message says that KOCH, the code name for Duncan C. Lee, a top aide to OSS chief William Donovan, reported on the Trident conference. "We discussed with KOCH the question of his removing documents for photographing," said the document. Mr. Lee, who was later investigated by Congress, denied any involvement and eventually left the country.
Another American spy listed among the messages is Elizabeth T. Bentley, who later confessed to her role and helped unmask other American spies in the 1950s. Her code name was GOOD GIRL.
The 250 messages are the second of a series of planned releases of the cables intercepted between 1942 and 1946 and decoded and analyzed over many years under the American code name Venona.
The release of the first 49 Venona messages in July drew national attention in part because they provided strong evidence that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were indeed Soviet spies.
The remaining 1,800 messages are scheduled for release in four more batches during 1996.
Yesterday the NSA also released the documents on the Internet. The address is http://www.nsa.gov:8080/.
Code breakers at NSA and its predecessor, the Army Signal Intelligence Service, worked for years in cramped barracks behind a former girl's school in Arlington, Va., using only pencils and paper to crack the codes.
The New York-Moscow cables released yesterday were cracked only in 1953, mainly through the efforts of the late NSA code breaker Samuel P. Chew, Mr. Phillips said.
Mr. Chew "had enormous powers of concentration," he said. "He sometimes wouldn't look up for two or three hours at a time."
L Here is a glossary of the code names that Soviet spies used:
KAPITAN (Captain): President Franklin D. Roosevelt
KABAN (Wild Boar): British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
BOATSWAIN: Vice President Henry Wallace
HELMSMAN: Earl Browder, chairman of Communist Party USA
GOOD GIRL: Elizabeth Bentley, American Communist who worked for the Soviet Union and later testified against fellow Communists
BANK: U.S. Department of State
PLANT: Soviet consulate in New York City
TRUST: Soviet Embassy in Washington
ISLAND: Great Britain
COMPETITORS: Members of non-Soviet intelligence organizations