Spying by a little-known Russian linguist from Fairfax, Va., crippled the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering efforts for two years in the late 1940s, according to a report the agency declassified yesterday, which called the activity "perhaps the most significant intelligence loss in U.S. history."
In documents highlighted throughout the 20-page report, the NSA showed how the spy's treachery begins to explain the longstanding mystery of why the United States was caught unprepared for North Korea's 1950 invasion into South Korea.
Written by two NSA officials, the report charges that employee William Weisband alerted the Soviets to extensive U.S. eavesdropping in 1948. The result was a complete blackout of information from the communist bloc for more than two years.
"In rapid succession, every one of [the] cipher systems went dark," the report says. "This dreary situation continued up to the Korean War, denying American policymakers access to vital decrypts in this critical period."
The report is part of a series of documents that will be declassified this year as part of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 through 1953, killing more than 33,000 American soldiers, and ended much as it started - in a stalemate along the 38th parallel.
Weisband never charged
Yesterday's release also is significant in that it addresses long-held criticism that the agency - then the Armed Forces Security Agency - botched the war by first failing to predict the invasion, and secondly by not anticipating China's entrance into the war less than six months later.
"This report answers several significant questions," said NSA's historian, David A. Hatch, who authored the report. "Up until now, there has been a great lack of knowledge surrounding some of these events ... and this should help sharpen [the public's] understanding."
Weisband has escaped the public flogging that made the Rosenbergs a household name because he was never charged with espionage. The son of Russian immigrants, Weisband joined the intelligence community during World War II and accepted a position as a Russian linguist after the war.
That position gave him access to this country's strategy of intercepting messages from the Soviet armed forces, police and industry, which he then passed on to the KGB, with whom he had worked since 1934.
In 1950, the FBI uncovered information alleging his spying activities as early as the 1940s, but the Armed Forces Security Agency did not want to bring him to trial when he refused to cooperate.
John Earl Haynes, a 20th century political historian at the Library of Congress, was one of the first people outside the agency to stumble across Weisband's name two years ago when sorting through post-World War II documents the agency declassified in 1996.
"He was a major figure, but has never had any kind of public profile because they never tried him," Haynes said. "He refused to show up in court [for a grand jury hearing]. The evidence was thoroughly convincing to those who saw it, but it could not have been brought to trial without revealing too many secrets."
He spent a year in prison for failing to appear before the grand jury and then returned home to Fairfax. He worked odd jobs in different offices until his death in 1967. NSA officials said yesterday recent documents pulled from Soviet archives reconfirm his extensive involvement.
For 50 years, history has always blamed then Secretary of State Dean Acheson for creating an opening for the Korean People's Army to march into South Korea when he stood before the Washington, D.C., Press Club and announced that Korea was not in America's line of defense.
However, it is more likely that the Soviets and communist North Korea gleaned from Weisband and several other spies the United States' disinterest in Korea as well as the lack of nearby intelligence and military strength long before Acheson ever took the stage, NSA officials said yesterday.
Korea not high priority
While the report outlines many of the significant contributions cryptology made to the war effort, it is also noted that at the beginning of the war, the agency was plagued by budget cuts, reorganization efforts and the lack of Korean linguists. It took the agency almost a year to fully gain control of its mission.
At the start of the war, Korea was listed as the 15th priority on the administration's "second list," far behind countries such as Russia, China and even Japan. At the time North Korea moved south, only two people were assigned to intercept internal North Korean messages.
The agency had in its possession 200 messages when the invasion began, but none of those messages had yet been "processed" or decoded. Still there were two "hints" that something big might be coming.
According to the report, the agency noticed there was a "great increase" in Soviet spying on South Korea and decoded a message that talked about "large shipments of bandages and medicines" traveling from the U.S.S.R. to North Korea in February.
"These two actions made sense only in hindsight," Hatch, the historian, writes.
Given Weisband's treachery, the report acknowledges criticism over the agency's failure to predict the war may be well-founded.
But it takes issue with long-held condemnation that the agency left the country in the lurch when China came to North Korea's aid.
According to documents in the report, the agency reported as early as July 1950 that the Chinese were moving troops close to the border. Cryptologists intercepted messages in September and October from China's foreign minister warning neutral nations of the impending attack.
"It is true that we did not have a single order in our hands saying China will attack on this day," Hatch said. "But there was a great deal of other intelligence information in the administration's possession that makes it all the more difficult to understand the actions of military authorities that send our troops into North Korea, knowing what they should have known about China's readiness."
By the time the war ended, the security agency had 87 cryptologists working on Korea and an additional 156 employees focusing on China.
While the report says that "supply shortages, outmoded gear, a lack of linguists and difficulty determining good intercept sites," hampered the agency's initial efforts, by 1953 the intelligence efforts provided American troops with significant advantages.
Intelligence gave troops advance warning of attacks along the 38th parallel and North Korean bombing raids of United Nations-held islands.
The report notes that Chinese messages were intercepted and this intelligence accurately predicted the date, time and location of the first wave of attacks on "Hill 395," one of the most strategic points in Central Korea.
"Standard history could not say how good the intelligence really was," Hatch writes.