Venona, Decoding Soviet Espionage in America

by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan persuaded the American intelligence community to declassify the Venona Project in 1995, which was more than forty years after the Soviets learned that the project had uncovered their massive espionage penetration of every sensitive department of the United States government.    The project began because Colonel Carter Clark did not trust Joseph Stalin.  In February 1943 he ordered the Signal Intelligence Service, the Army’s elite code breakers, to attempt to decode cables between Soviet diplomats in the United States and Moscow.  The cables were virtually impossible to decode as long as they were sent using a complex two-part ciphering system.  However, about 1700 cables, or a bit over one percent of the total were sent in which the “one time pad” had been reused, and that allowed at least partial decoding.  “The deciphered cables of the Venona Project identify 349 citizens, immigrants, and permanent residents of the United States who had had a covert relationship with Soviet intelligence agencies.”  About 200 were never identified except by code name, which means that those people remained in their government and military positions unimpeded in their activities.

The Soviets learned about the Venona project from a high level official in the Roosevelt administration within a year and a half of its origin.  Ironically, the first cables weren’t successfully decoded until 1946, which was after the Soviets learned of Venona and had corrected the mistake of reusing the one time pads.

The depth of penetration of the United States government and military is astonishing and disturbing.  Lauchlin Currie was an administrative assistant to President Roosevelt and a Soviet spy, so one can only speculate how often Stalin learned about Roosevelt’s thoughts and plans.  Harry Gold had a long history of industrial espionage for the Soviets, and he was placed in the Manhattan project where an extensive spy ring code-named “Enormoz” by the Soviets was able to provide Stalin with the plans and materials to build and test an atomic bomb years before his scientists could have accomplished that feat on their own.   Other spies successfully provided the Soviets with aviation-related technical information such as design details for the Bell P-39 fighter, and radio control technology.  The Soviets had reports about the plans to camouflage the D-Day invasion and the plans for the actual invasion days before it occurred.  I think it is safe to say that we should consider that Stalin had classified information on just about every subject he thought would be useful.

The book concludes with the assessment that, “By the late 1940s, the evidence provided by Venona and other sources of the massiveness and intense hostility of the Soviet espionage attack caused American counterintelligence professionals and high-level American policy making officials to conclude that Stalin was carrying out a covert assault on the United States.  The Soviet espionage offense, in their minds, indicated that the Cold War was not a state of affairs that had begun after World War II, but a guerrilla action that Stalin had secretly started years earlier.  They were right.”

The book has appendices listing the 349 agents mentioned earlier, a listing of 139 additional agents identified by sources other than Venona, thirty-three foreign agents in the U.S., twenty-four Americans targeted to be spies with no evidence the recruitment was successful, and biographical sketches of leading KGB officers involved in Soviet espionage in the United States.

In summary, the book is a lengthy compilation of research by the authors about the Venona Project and their other research of Russian files following the end of the Cold War.  I wouldn’t call it exciting reading, but it is definitely chilling and disturbing reading.

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