BOOKS: Secrets, Lies and Russia's Atomic Spies Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War by Nigel West HarperCollins Pounds 19.99 Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr Yale Pounds 19.95 the Official History of the Security Service 1908-1945 by John Curry the Public Record Office Pounds 50

By Crossland, John | The Independent (London, England), July 11, 1999 | Go to article overview
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BOOKS: Secrets, Lies and Russia's Atomic Spies Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War by Nigel West HarperCollins Pounds 19.99 Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr Yale Pounds 19.95 the Official History of the Security Service 1908-1945 by John Curry the Public Record Office Pounds 50


Crossland, John, The Independent (London, England)


W hen the news broke 50 years ago in September that the Russians had exploded their first atomic bomb, the American Intelligence services were not as traumatised as might be expected. They already knew from the most brilliant decoding coup of the Cold War that their country's nuclear secrets had long since been betrayed.

Furthermore they were on the track of the most dangerous atom spy, then known to them only under his cover name of "Charles", but whom within six months they and MI5 would unmask as Klaus Fuchs, a German emigre physicist whose infiltration into the heart of the Manhattan project had given Moscow all it needed to detonate a nuclear device.

What could not be revealed at the trials of either Fuchs or his courier and spy "middlemen", Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was that they had been trapped by Operation Venona, a painstaking exercise in decryption which, while not laying bare all the secrets of the Soviet codes, did identify more than 300 Americans as actual or potential traitors - and not a few Britons, as Nigel West reveals. Venona was "live" for only a short period in the war and immediate post- war period but produced results for many years afterwards despite having been betrayed to the Russians by Kim Philby. It was wound up in 1980, by which time the trail had grown too cold, but its secret was zealously guarded - even from President Truman - for more than 40 years until in 1995 the CIA gave the green light for its release. The clinching argument Haynes and Klehr used with the CIA was that they had been given privileged access to top-secret Russian files which proved for the first time the extent to which the Communist Party of the United States had betrayed their country. The 3,000 telegraphic cables through which Soviet spies and fellow- travellers in the United States kept their masters in Moscow informed on the nuclear programme, conventional weapons development and diplomatic traffic completed the circuit in the two historians' researches - now digested into the clearest account we are likely to get of the immediate post-war world as it passed under the shadow of the bomb. The release of the files at an American seminar, which British Intelligence experts were forbidden to attend, was bound to start a publishing race and Nigel West's book suffers in comparison from an over- stuffing of the minutiae of espionage links - Venona telegrams are often cryptic enough - and a rather stodgy style. Which is a pity as by naming names in the fellow-travelling British Establishment he will have won himself fresh kudos as a first-rate espionage sleuth. Startlingly, he names the leading Cambridge geneticist, Professor J B S Haldane, and Ivor Montagu, son of Lord Swaythling, as NKVD sources on British weapons development during the war, but claims that even when decoders identified them as "Intelligensia" and "Nobility" in the 1960s, MI5 declined to prefer any charges to preserve the programme's secret. Montagu, West reveals, headed a spy ring, known to Moscow Control as "X Group". He says, "hitherto completely unsuspected, this spy ring operated in London undetected and it was not until GCHQ (the British Code and Cypher HQ) began reading the GRU (Russian military Intelligence) traffic in the mid-1960s that the breathtaking scale of the organisation, and the social status of its membership, was understood." The two books complement each other, West often filling out the British side of a transatlantic Intelligence operation.

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BOOKS: Secrets, Lies and Russia's Atomic Spies Venona: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War by Nigel West HarperCollins Pounds 19.99 Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr Yale Pounds 19.95 the Official History of the Security Service 1908-1945 by John Curry the Public Record Office Pounds 50
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