'Venona' rekindles spy debate Cold War era: Though the Cold War has passed, decoded Soviet cables have intensified the long-running debate on whether the Soviet Union employed American citizens as spies.


Even though the Cold War has come and gone, its chill winds still blow around some of the era's spy cases: Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union; Morton Sobell, their co-conspirator, who went to jail for 18 years; and Alger Hiss, the State Department official accused of passing secret diplomatic papers to Communist contacts.

Fueled by a half-century of books, television re-enactments and academic conferences, the prosecution and defense have, in a sense, never stopped presenting their arguments. And since July 1995, there has been a new star witness, decoded Soviet cables from the 1940s, collectively called "Venona."

Venona has intensified a long-running debate: Did the Soviet Union employ American citizens in an insidious spy network? Or did the political right in the United States whip up a groundless anti-Communist campaign to stifle the American left?

Critics of Venona ask whether the cables were partly manufactured by the United States. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. says that Venona is "largely gossip, rumor and speculation." But others see the Venona cables, released by the National Security Agency, as clear evidence against people long accused of aiding the Soviets -- a catalog of names, cover-names, meeting places and payments.

"Venona should remove any remaining reasonable doubt," says John E. Haynes, a Library of Congress historian and author of "The Secret World of American Communism." The decoded messages, Haynes and others say, document a Soviet spy network that stretched from the American Communist Party into the federal government, including the White House.

The U.S. was intercepting and decoding Venona messages. That code-breaking success was considered too secret to disclose during the spy trials -- or for the next three decades. The FBI studied the intercepts for possible suspects until 1980.

The surviving defendants find the release of the 2,900 Venona documents at best incomplete, and the FBI analysis shoddy. In some cases, only portions of retrieved messages were decoded -- sentence fragments punctuated with the word "unrecoverable." These critics question how the government matched the cover-names to suspected spies and collaborators.

"One doesn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to raise questions," says Victor Navasky, publisher and editorial director of the Nation, which has come to the defense of Hiss over the years. "Given the darker side of their record, how can we be sure?"

Some questions center on the spy known by the cover-name "RELE/SERB."

A decoding from July 1994 refers to this spy photographing materials with a camera supplied by an accomplice. The FBI believed the man behind the cover-name was "possibly Morton Sobell."

But an earlier decoded message reports that RELE cannot be appointed a "group leader" because the spy "has an artificial leg." Sobell did not have an artificial leg.

At a conference on Venona this month at the National War College in Washington, Sobell himself addressed the issue, while still maintaining his innocence of passing information to Julius Rosenberg on 35 mm film.

"Upon what did they base their initial notion, that RELE was Morton Sobell?" he asked. "It would be both informative and interesting to learn how the decrypters made their 'mistake.' "

"It's not an error; it's a temporary I.D.," said Robert Louis Benson, a National Security Agency historian, during a break in the conference.

Venona messages helped lead the FBI to David Greenglass (cover-name CALIBRE). Greenglass confessed and implicated his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, who appears in the documents only as ANTENNA/LIBERAL. Some central figures appeared in the documents under their own names.

But Marshall Perlin, the lawyer who defended the Rosenbergs in court, isn't convinced by the Venona releases. Where are the original Russian messages? he asks. Where are the FBI working documents? Some of the Venona releases bear markings from 1976. Could they be "retroactively re-created documents" based 1950s testimony from government witnesses?

"We still don't have most, if not all, of the original documents," Perlin says. "All of it isn't quite here."

The Venona transcripts also raised, once again, the case of Alger Hiss, the former State Department official accused of passing information to the Soviets.

He was convicted of perjury but continues to maintain his innocence.

A Venona message from March 30, 1945, includes mention of a spy with the cover-name ALES. It identifies ALES as someone who has sought military information since the mid-1930s and whose accomplices include his relatives. Next to ALES in the footnotes, a notation by U.S. officials states: "Probably Alger Hiss."

"ALES could not have been Alger Hiss," says John Lowenthal, a lawyer and filmmaker who made a 1980 documentary, "The Trials of Alger Hiss," and who says that Hiss worked alone. He also cites another Venona message, dated Sept. 28, 1943. The Soviet message refers to an official "from the State Department by the name of Hiss."

"It's apparent from that document that the GRU [Soviet military intelligence] never heard of Hiss," Lowenthal says. "My question and my plea is: Who wrote the FBI footnotes in these documents?"

But even among the most skeptical critics, the Venona messages have some merit.

Michael Meeropol is one of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's sons. He was 10 years old when they were executed. He spent the subsequent decades proclaiming their innocence. But even he has modified some of his views: "I used to be absolutely positive; now I'm agnostic."

He and his brother, Robert, said in five-page statement on Venona that, given the information provided so far by the Venona messages, "there is no way anyone can rule out the possibility that there is some truth in them."

Meeropol has called for the release of more documents, as has Walter Schneir, a writer who argues that the Rosenbergs' guilt was never proved. He calls Venona "half a loaf" and has urged Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who chairs the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, to open more classified files.

But the stewards of Venona oppose releasing more materials, citing that innocent people who are still alive could be hurt and -- despite the passage of more than 40 years -- that intelligence sources and methods need protection.

Moynihan has vowed to press for declassifying more documents -- which would add more briefs for the prosecution and the defense.

Pub Date: 10/20/96

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