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More than 60 years have passed since the end of World War II, and only now is some once-secret information from that conflict coming to light. It is not often that revelations from another time can change the way historians review the recent past, altering posterity’s way of thinking on certain players in the global conflict and finally answering questions that have been debated for half a century. One of those disclosures is the “Venona” files.

The Venona files were first brought to light in July 1995, in a release from the National Security Agency (NSA), the code-breaking unit of U.S. intelligence located in Fort Meade, Md. They were ordered declassified by the congressional Commission on Government Secrecy. The release of the Venona intercepts answered many questions regarding the immense Soviet penetration of the U.S. government during and after WWII and, more important, resolved the roles played by some major participants in the Cold War, including Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

On February 1, 1943, a top-secret group called the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the modern-day NSA, began a lengthy undercover project to intercept and analyze Soviet diplomatic traffic. That undertaking, code-named “Venona,” was the brainchild of Colonel Carter Clarke, the chief of the U.S. Army’s Special Branch, a sub-department of the War Department’s Military Intelligence Division.

In 1943 Clarke had picked up signals that a possible German-Soviet peace deal was in the works, and he wanted to find out if what he had heard had any merit. Clarke ordered his small code-breaking unit to read all Soviet diplomatic messages being sent from the United States to Moscow. Operating in utmost secrecy from their headquarters in Arlington Hall, in what was then an out-of-the-way Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., the code-breakers worked on thousands of pages of correspondence intercepted from Soviet missions around the world, picked up via copies of cable traffic being sent over the wires. Through harrowing months of trial and error, the analysts were able to crack the Soviet code. What they found was not information leading to a separate peace treaty, but a large-scale, well-organized Soviet espionage penetration of the highest levels of the U.S. government.

The Soviet official entrusted with the overall handling of those messages from 1943 to 1946 was Lt. Gen. Pavel Fitin, the head of the First Chief Directorate (the foreign intelligence branch of the KGB, or State Security Committee), in Moscow. Fitin ran five different espionage branches in the United States. The first operated through commercial ties, such as the AMTORG Trading Co., which was active from the 1920s to the end of the 1930s. Behind its commercial facade, AMTORG was a covert means of obtaining intelligence on American industrial ventures and all information coming from the U.S. LendLease Program to the Soviet Union. Fitin also oversaw the use of Soviet diplomats as intelligence agents, direct relations with KGB (general intelligence) headquarters in Moscow, the joint Soviet military intelligence (GRU) and Red Army general staff intelligence directorate and the GRU-Soviet naval intelligence staff.

By the time Venona analysts were able to make considerable headway into Soviet communications, the war had ended. What they did learn in the early 1950s, however, was that the Soviet Union had penetrated the top-secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M., where U.S. scientists had been developing the atomic bomb.

Messages originating from the GRU and KGB translated by the analysts in Arlington Hall provided the names of spies working directly for the Manhattan Project, including British scientist Klaus Fuchs; David Greenglass, a U.S. Army soldier and courier located in Los Alamos; his wife and co-conspirator Ruth Greenglass; Harry Gold, a key intermediary in the transporting of secret Manhattan Project materials to the KGB in New York; and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, given the code names “Liberal” and “Antenna” in the Venona files.

The man in charge of espionage within the Manhattan Project was KGB officer Leonid Kvasnikov. Code-named “Anton” in the Venona files, Kvasnikov worked undercover at the AMTORG Trading Co., but his main job was to handle the information coming out of Los Alamos.

The information culled via Venona regarding the Rosenbergs is noteworthy. The intercepts clearly showed the significant role Julius Rosenberg played in recruiting a large number of scientists in the private sector to steal commercial as well as industrial secrets. It also revealed the indisputable fact that Rosenberg served as a prime conduit between the couriers in Los Alamos and the KGB in New York. The Venona files further show that Ethel Rosenberg, while aware of her husband’s spying activities, played only a minor role in the overall theft of atomic secrets. If the information in the Venona files had been made available to the court during the Rosenbergs’ trial, it might have mitigated Ethel’s eventual death sentence.

The last year of WWII was also pivotal as far as data emanating from Venona was concerned. In 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a code clerk working in the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Canada, defected with hundreds of classified documents. Gouzenko told the startled Canadians that the Soviets had a mole inside their intelligence system. He also named numerous top-level U.S. officials who were stealing national secrets for the Soviets. Among them were Harry Dexter White, an assistant to the secretary of the U.S. Treasury and a confidant of President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Laughlin Currie, a friend and top-level adviser to the president in the White House; and Alger Hiss, a State Department official who was accused of espionage by Whittaker Chambers, a one-time staff writer for Time-Life magazines. The Hiss-Chambers case exploded into an anti-Communist orgy of recrimination and accusations that launched the career of hitherto-unknown California Congressman Richard Milhous Nixon.

Venona analysts were able to match the cover names that originated from the Soviet cables to real people and places. For example, “Kapitan” was President Roosevelt, “Enormoz” was the Manhattan Project, “The Bank” was the U.S. Department of State and “Arsenal” was the U.S. War Department.

One of the top analysts at Arlington Hall in 1946, when a steady stream of Venona files was being translated, was Meredith Gardner, a former language teacher at the University of Akron, Ohio. During WWII he had worked in the Army Security Agency, concentrating on German and Japanese problems. After the war he joined the Venona team and spent the next 27 years cracking Soviet codes. Gardner was able to decipher messages going between KGB headquarters in Moscow and the Soviet consulate in New York. Among the important information Gardner learned was that the KGB had spies operating in Latin America, and that the KGB had many discussions about the 1944 U.S. presidential election. From 1947 to 1952, Arlington Hall analysts deciphered intercepted KGB communications between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1953 the team was immensely aided in its task when it managed to get a copy of a half-burned Soviet code book relating to that message traffic. That vital document was obtained through a roundabout route involving the Nazis, the Finns, the Soviets and finally the Americans. Another Arlington Hall examiner, Lieutenant Oliver Kirby, discovered relevant coded material in the German town of Schleswig.

As the Venona team made slow but steady progress, it informed the Federal Bureau of Investigation of its accomplishments. In October 1948, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover appointed special agent Robert Lamphere to assist the codebreakers at Arlington Hall and serve as their conduit to the bureau. Lamphere’s expertise had come from his previous work in the FBI’s espionage squad in New York after WWII. He was subsequently promoted to Washington headquarters, where he was given a management position.

In 1949 Lamphere began working with the new representative of British counterintelligence, or MI-6, to the United States, Harold “Kim” Philby. Unknown to Lamphere, Philby had been a Soviet mole since the late 1930s, when he joined the famous Cambridge spy ring. During the war he had been one of the top people in British intelligence. Given access to the Venona material by the FBI, Philby promptly warned a fellow mole, Donald MacLean, that Venona had implicated him as a spy and to get out of the United States without delay. Philby’s double-dealing would continue to go unnoticed until he fled to the Soviet Union in 1963.

One of the ironies of the Venona project was the fact that while Kim Philby, Britain’s most notorious turncoat, knew what was happening at Arlington Hall, American President Harry Truman did not. Truman was given that information only in his regular intelligence briefings from the Justice Department and the FBI. Even the Central Intelligence Agency was not brought into the fold until 1952, and did not receive all deciphered messages until 1953. This stranglehold on the Venona materials was intended to prevent the possibility of a leak that would have alerted the Soviets to the American breakthrough.

Even before Philby gained access to Venona, however, the Russians had learned through other means that the Americans had been reading their wartime messages. One source was William Weisband, a U.S. Army officer who worked for the Signals Security Agency and was privy to the Venona files. In another ironic twist, the materials coming from the Venona files unmasked Weisband. Messages concerning a person with the code name “Link” stated that this man had undergone language training with the Army in 1943, and was soon to be posted to Italy. That description fit Weisband to a T. In 1950 Weisband was interviewed by the FBI concerning his exposure by Venona, but he denied being a Soviet spy.

Once aware of it, the Soviets monitored the Venona project from their diplomatic offices in New York, Washington and San Francisco. In 1942 and 1943, General Vassili Zubilin (real name Zarubin), the chief KGB official in New York, played a major role in the Soviet espionage apparatus in the United States. Another important agent was Fitin, who received the majority of Venona messages from his First Chief Directorate headquarters in Moscow.

The Soviet New York residency was responsible for secret operations in Washington and sent all written material from Washington to Moscow. In 1945 the KGB’s Washington office took a more active role in the dissemination of Venona’s secrets, and Zubilin moved there from New York. The Arlington Hall analysts were able to translate almost 50 percent of the KGB’s messages to Moscow in 1944, but they only managed to decode 11⁄2 percent of the messages going from Washington to Moscow in 1945.

Although the Venona project was eventually compromised, the files it produced shed new light on a number of important events. One centered on a Soviet plan to forcibly free Ramon Mercader, the Spanish assassin who murdered former Red Army leader turned political refugee Leon Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940. More than 500 messages concerning the Trotsky affair were sent between Moscow and its embassy and other contacts in Mexico City. In the end the rescue attempt failed, and Mercader remained in prison.

In 1944 KGB agents from San Francisco hunted down a number of deserters from a Soviet ship. Some of those sailors were killed or sent back to imprisonment in Russia. One report concerned Elizabeth Kuznetsova, who deserted her ship in Portland, Ore., on February 9, 1944. “On 4 November this year the traitor to the motherland KUZNETSOVA was shipped to Vladivostok on the tanker Belgorod,” the message said. “Details to follow in supplement.”

The Venona intercept program ceased operations in October 1980 because of the age of the materials being worked on. At that time, more than 3,000 letters from the Soviet Union to its personnel in the United States had been read. As time goes on, more intelligence in the Venona files is being released, giving 21st-century historians a better behind-the-scenes look at one of the previous century’s most turbulent times—the Cold War.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.