Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

CIA Opens Up on How It Broke Soviet Spy Code

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

CIA Opens Up on How It Broke Soviet Spy Code

Article excerpt

The American intelligence establishment has unveiled one of its oldest secrets: how a small team of code-breakers found the first clues that the Soviet Union sought to steal the blueprints for the atomic bomb of World War II.

Using nothing but brain power - no computers, no stolen skeleton keys - the cryptographers slowly cracked what was thought to be an unbreakable code. They painstakingly turned pure gibberished into powerful evidence of a Soviet spy ring whose ranks including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

In a ceremony at CIA headquarters, a few surviving members of the project, code-named Venona, gathered recently to make the first publication of secret Soviet communiques intercepted by American intelligence.

The code-breakers, now in their 70s and 80s, appeared elated that their secret was finally out.

Such moments were rare, said Cecil Phillips, an Army cryptanalyst in the war. "You spend your whole life not saying anything," said Phillips, 71.

He said that he has experienced perhaps a dozen elating days in more than four decades of appallingly tedious code cracking. The first was in 1944, when he made the first significant breakthrough with the Venona material.

In the Soviet code, Washington was Carthage, New York was Tyre, San Francisco was Babylon, all fallen cities of long-faded empires. The Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb was Enormous.

And among the agents listed by their cover identities was one named Liberal - identified in the cables as Julius Rosenberg, who with his wife, Ethel, was executed for espionage in 1953. The Venona material was never introduced as evidence at their trial; the National Security Agency forbade exposing its existence.

David Kahn, the leading American historian of crytography, said, "Without saying whether or not they should have been executed, without saying whether or not they should have been executed, without saying whether or not there was enough evidence to convict them in a court of law, the Venona intercepts show without a doubt that the Rosenbergs spied for the Soviet Union against the United States. …

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