Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Venona Men

From Commentary:
More than 30 years have passed since the former FBI agent Robert Lamphere detail-ed his key role in uncovering major Soviet espionage networks in The FBI-KGB War. That book provided the first detailed (but truncated) account of the Venona Project, the most successful American counterintelligence operation of the Cold War. Hidden from historians and the public for decades, Venona provided the key leads that resulted in the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Judith Coplon in the United States and Klaus Fuchs in Great Britain by making it possible for FBI agents to read thousands of high-level Soviet communications. Venona also exposed hundreds of other Soviet spies, most of whom could not be prosecuted since independent evidence was lacking and it was thought inexpedient to reveal Venona in court.

Nearly a decade would pass until the FBI and NSA began to release the actual Venona transcripts in 1995. In the years since, a number of books (including several co-authored by me) have analyzed the Venona revelations, while others have mined Communist International files and the KGB archives. Virtually all the major mysteries about Soviet espionage in the United States have been resolved by these once-secret documents. In addition to confirming the guilt of the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and virtually every other person accused of spying in the 1940s by the ex-spies Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, these books have exposed several important and previously unknown agents such as Theodore Hall, Russell McNutt, and I.F. Stone. Indeed, the only accused spy who turns out to have been innocent (although he was a secret Communist almost up until the day he took charge of developing an atomic bomb) was J. Robert Oppenheimer.

A handful of espionage deniers, centered around the Nation magazine, continue to argue, against all evidence and logic, that Alger Hiss is still innocent. The Rosenberg children continue to distort their mother’s role in espionage. And some hard-core McCarthyites still demonize Oppenheimer. But in truth, the bloody battle over who spied is over.

Lamphere’s book emphasized his collaboration with the Army cryptographer Meredith Gardner in the hard work of unraveling the spy rings using the Venona cables. Employing those 1986 recollections as a template, the Vanity Fair contributor Howard Blum has now given us In the Enemy’s House, an overly dramatized but largely accurate account of the friendship between the outgoing, hard-driving, atypical G-man Lamphere and the shy, scholarly, soft-spoken Gardner as they worked together to find and prosecute those Americans who had betrayed their nation. (Read more.)

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