Magazine article Insight on the News

Early Cold War Spies Exposed

Magazine article Insight on the News

Early Cold War Spies Exposed

Article excerpt

Declassified documents the espionage activities of `Liberal' Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

U.S. intelligence documents recently released show conclusively that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union during World War 11 as part of the U.S.S.R.'s effort to acquire information about the atom bomb. The Rosenbergs, convicted of wartime espionage and executed in 1953, were a rallying point for the American Left who claimed the couple were victims of the Cold War.

KGB espionage activities were uncovered by a code-breaking program called Venona, which intercepted and cracked Soviet diplomatic ciphers. The National Security Agency operation was launched in 1943 by a group of cryptologists, linguists and mathematicians who worked in Arlington, Va. "This is the stuff of spy novels," said CIA Director John Deutch at a ceremony at CIA headquarters in July honoring the code breakers. The 2,200 intercepted messages were studied for counterspy clues until 1980, officials said.

The Soviet messages, sent via telex from New York, Washington and San Francisco, were coded twice -- first by converting words and phrases into numbers and again through the use of a random coding system known as a "one-time pad," which uses code keys held by senders and receivers and is "theoretically impossible to break," according to William P. Crowell, the deputy NSA director who was part of the code-breaking effort. Soviet code clerks could not keep up with the volume of information and used some codes more than once, a fault that helped U.S. code breakers to decipher some messages.

Deutch joked that the intercepts showed, "much to my astonishment that the KGB had a sense of humor. They referred in the coded messages to San Francisco as "Babylon," New York as "Tyre" and Washington as "Carthage" -- "all ancient cities that came to ruin," noted the CIA director.

The declassified documents reveal extensive activities by the Rosenbergs and other Americans to recruit operatives for the KGB and photograph classified weapons plans. They also list code names for some 200 agents, many identified as members of the Communist Party U.S.A., including one American agent code-named "MLAD" who supplied the KGB with a list of locations at which atomic-weapons research was conducted.

But for those still arguing about the Rosenbergs, the documents offer new and seemingly irrefutable evidence of their complicity:

* Julius Rosenberg, identified in the documents by the code names "Antenna" and "Liberal," helped the KGB recruit electrical engineer Alfred Sarant, who later escaped to Russia. Rosenberg also sought information from school friend Max Elitcher, a government official developing warship guns. …

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