Three Gentlemen of Venona

By Morton, Sobell | The Nation, April 2, 2001 | Go to article overview

Three Gentlemen of Venona


Morton, Sobell, The Nation


San Francisco

* While Stephen Schwartz does a good job of tearing apart the Venona book by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, he praises the Venona book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr ["A Tale of Two Venonas," Jan. 8/15]. But neither book questions the accuracy of the decryptions. All the authors take for granted that the National Security Agency has published a true decryption of the Soviet cables. This assumption is quite remarkable in view of the past history of the NSA, which has not given scholars the opportunity to check the decryptions' accuracy.

The NSA's identification of the individuals with cover names is another questionable area. For example: The cover names Antenna and Liberal, which the NSA said identified Julius Rosenberg, were initially assigned to one Joseph Weichbrod, and it was only after David Greenglass, Julius's brother-in-law, was arrested, that the NSA said, Oops, we made a slight mistake. Strangely, I, a bona fide convicted spy, could not be found anywhere among the hundreds of identified spies, but this was not for lack of their trying.

In a very candid May 13, 1950, memo, which the FBI never thought would see the light of day, it writes of Venona: "The fragmentary nature of the messages themselves, the assumptions made by the cryptographers, in breaking the messages themselves, and the questionable interpretations and translations involved, plus the extensive use of cover names for persons and places, make the problem of positive identification extremely difficult." One would never know this from the way all the authors write about the decrypted Venona cables.

The important question of why the NSA brought the FBI into the project must be examined. Certainly the FBI did not have decryption expertise beyond that of the NSA. The FBI's role was to try to match their files against "the fragmentary nature of the messages." And as an example of their expertise in this game one need look no further than the Weichbrod case cited above. I have tried to obtain some decryptions relating to my case that were available before the FBI entered the arena, but without success. A half-century later the NSA maintains that allowing me to see these files would expose their decryption methods.

It is the fundamental questions relating to the NSA's decryptions that seem to be off-limits to those who write about Venona.

MORTON SOBELL

London

* To flog one untrustworthy book about Venona with another, as Stephen Schwartz did, raises doubts about his entire discussion. Of course the Herbert Romerstein book, given its authorship, is not credible. But Schwartz's chosen weapon against it, a book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, has likewise failed the test of probity and accuracy.

Consider, for example, how Haynes and Klehr treat the cases of three New Dealers: Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. Currie, a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Harvard, was the first professional economist to serve in the White House. Haynes and Klehr use Venona decrypts of Soviet World War II cablegrams to traduce Currie as a spy for the Soviet Union. In the process, Haynes and Klehr get their facts wrong, withhold relevant facts and weigh evidence from one side only. They suggest that Currie tried to kill the Venona project before it revealed Soviet cable traffic, but they withhold the facts that expose their claim as incredible, if not absurd. They falsely assert that Currie fled the United States and renounced his citizenship, when actually he returned to Colombia on a two-year contract to advise the government on implementing the recommendations of a World Bank mission, married a Colombian and was unable to renew his passport because he was residing mainly in Colombia (a basis for nonrenewal for a naturalized US citizen at that time). For more, see Roger Sandilands, "Guilt by Association? Lauchlin Currie's Alleged Involvement with Washington Economists in Soviet Espionage," History of Political Economy (Fall 2000).

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