Hiss in VENONA: The Continuing Controversy

Of all the historical and political controversies unleashed by the release of the VENONA decrypts nearly a decade ago, none has proved as enduring or vexing as that surrounding Alger Hiss, the U.S. State Department official and reputed Soviet spy. The oft-cited message in question – 1822, Washington to Moscow, dated 30 March 1945 – refers to a well-placed American agent codenamed ALES. For most who have reviewed the evidence, message 1822 looks like a good fit for Alger Hiss. It needs to be stated that this VENONA message does not refer to Hiss beyond question; and the best evidence for Hiss’s secret Soviet ties comes from other sources. Nevertheless, since the release of message 1822, which provides interesting detail about ALES, the case for Hiss’s espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union looks significantly stronger than the case against.

          That said, Hiss’s defenders in the media and academia have consistently protested his innocence: as he did himself until his death. For them, message 1822 proves little, if anything, and may not refer to Hiss at all. The strongest rhetorical argument against VENONA, in this and other cases, has been that the public has seen only finished translations. What about the original Russian? In the case of ALES in particular, scholars and polemicists have spent the last decade quarreling over words – ones which they have not seen in the original language.

          This paper will not attempt to resolve the ALES/Hiss issue – one suspects that this controversy will linger. Rather, it is my purpose today to explain and, I hope, resolve the cryptolinguistic controversies surrounding the Hiss-in-VENONA case, and thereby shed light on a heretofore hidden aspect of cryptologic history.

          It is important to note at the outset my own credentials and biases. I am a professor of strategy at the Naval War College. Until recently, however, I was an NSA analyst myself. I spent the better part of a decade with the Agency as an intelligence and language analyst, counterintelligence officer, and last as a historian. I can therefore claim some authority when discussing the cryptolinguistic issues at hand. However, today I speak for myself as a scholar, not for NSA.

          What I will show you today – for the first time – is the original, Russian version of message 1822. Those among you who wish, in your deepest heart, to be language analysts: This is your chance. It needs to be noted, however, that I cannot show you a “finished” version of the release, but in Russian, since that does not – and never did – exist. In recent decades, NSA practice has been to first transcribe foreign materials, then translate them into English, leaving an intermediate step to assist analysis. However, in the late 1940s, the process was less refined, and early VENONA messages such as 1822 went from worksheet to finished (i.e. English) version directly.

          The text you will see today is taken from the handwritten Russian found on the original cryptanalytic worksheets for message 1822, written down nearly six decades ago. I was assisted in this effort by the lead Slavicist on the faculty of NSA’s National Cryptologic School, who provided expert linguistic help (her Russian being flawless while mine is a bit out of practice): I can, and will, attest to this text’s authenticity and accuracy in all respects. We have rendered them exactly as they are on the worksheets. In some cases, analysts left the proper grammatical endings off adjectives and the like – a sensible short-cut since they were doing this only for themselves. Additionally, this was, in effect, “code-book Russian,” a relatively ungainly mélange used by Soviet message-writers (and American code-breakers). Nevertheless, the meaning of the Russian is never in doubt. Without delay or added drama, here is the message:

WASHINGTON to MOSCOW # 1822  30 March 1945

В дополнение нашей телеграмме № 28 в результате беседы «[пя]» с (предлог)  «Алесом» выяснилось:

1.  Алес с(пр.) 1935 года беспрерывно работает с(пр.) соседями

2.  Уже несколько лет он является руководителем небольш... группы стажёров соседей, главн... образом из числа своих родственников

3.  Группа и(с.) сам Алес работает/ют над добыванием только военн... информации материалы по «банку», -- соседей, якобы, интересуют очень мало и(с.) он даёт их не регулярно

4.  Все последн...годы, Алес работает/ют с(предлог)   «Полем повторяем/ю Полем», котор... также изредка встречается и(с.) с друг... членами группы

5.  Недавно Aлес и(союз) вся его группа были награждены советск... орденами

6.  После ялтинской конференции уже в Москве, с(пр)   Алесом якобы связался один очень ответственн... советск... работник.  (Алес дал понять, что это был товарищ Вышинский) и(союз) по поручению военн...соседей передал ему их благодарность и проч...

Вадим

First, I would like to provide an updated, more colloquial translation of 1822:

Addendum to our telegram no.28 as a result of a conversation of “PYa” with ALES, it turns out:

1. ALES has been continuously working with the neighbors since 1935.

2. For a few years now he has been the director of a small group of probationers of the neighbors, for the most part drawn from his relatives.

3. The group and ALES himself are working on obtaining only military information, materials about “the Bank” – the neighbors allegedly are not very interested and he doesn’t pass it regularly.

4. In recent years, ALES has been working with POL’ repeat POL’ who also meets with other members of the group on occasion.

5. Recently ALES and his whole group were awarded Soviet medals.

6. After the Yalta conference, back in Moscow, one very high-ranking Soviet worker allegedly had contact with ALES (ALES implied that it was Comrade Vyshinskii) and at the request of the military neighbors he conveyed to him their thanks, etc.

Vadim

Let’s examine this line by line in the interest of resolving cryptolinguistic controversies and anomalies. First, the opening line:

В дополнение нашей телеграмме № 28 в результате беседы «[пя]» с (предлог)  «Алесом» выяснилось:

This is relatively straightforward – the Russian is neat and orderly – but one anomaly is the reference to “PYa,” meaning a garble. Later work by NSA codebreakers, principally Meredith Gardner, determined that this was actually “A.” – a presumed reference to Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov, the top NKVD illegal in the United States in the period. But this wasn’t known, or noted, on the original worksheet.

The message’s first item is also clear:

1.  Алес с(пр.) 1935 года беспрерывно работает с(пр.) соседями

There is ALES at the beginning. As a linguistic note, the analysts regularly put “predlog” in the text wherever there was a preposition, to assist cryptolinguistic analysis and avoid confusion. Neighbors (соседями) is of course a reference to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff, the famed GRU – i.e. military intelligence, which actually ran ALES.

          The second item, the source of much controversy, has some analytic short-cuts but is likewise clear:

2.  Уже несколько лет он является руководителем небольш... группы стажёров соседей, главн... образом из числа своих родственников

Note the lack of adjectival endings (which does not affect meaning of analysis). Of interest to us, however, is the mention of ALES’s role as “director of a small group of probationers of the neighbors” – that is GRU spy-recruits – “for the most part drawn from his relatives.” Here the Russian is clear: образом из числа своих родственников refers to “relatives” in the literal sense.

          The third item in the message has one short-cut ending but is clear in its meaning:

3.  Группа и(с.) сам Алес работает/ют над добыванием только военн... информации материалы по «банку», -- соседей, якобы, интересуют очень мало и(с.) он даёт их не регулярно

Noteworthy is the discussion of what ALES is passing to GRU – military information and materials about “the Bank” (i.e. the U.S. State Department) – and GRU’s relative lack of interest in this. The two references to “s” in parentheses mean “soyuz” i.e. conjunction: another analytic help for the VENONA team.

          Item four has two adjectival ending short-cuts but, like the other points in the message, is clear and ungarbled:

4.  Все последн...годы, Алес работает/ют с(предлог)   «Полем повторяем/ю Полем», котор... также изредка встречается и(с.) с друг... членами группы

The covername POL’ (i.e. PAUL) was unknown then, but was later identified as Nathan Silvermaster, head of another ring of Soviet agents.

          The fifth item, with one adjectival short-cut, is very clear in its elaboration of Soviet medals recently awarded to ALES and his whole group:

5.  Недавно Aлес и(союз) вся его группа были награждены советск... орденами

          The sixth and final item in the message is the longest and most detailed; it includes three adjectival short-cuts, but is admirably clear in meaning:

6.  После ялтинской конференции уже в Москве, с(пр)   Алесом якобы связался один очень ответственн... советск... работник.  (Алес дал понять, что это был товарищ Вышинский) и(союз) по поручению военн...соседей передал ему их благодарность и проч...

Given the controversy surrounding ALES’s travel to Moscow, and meeting with a very high-ranking Soviet official, it bears noting that the original Russian leaves no doubt that ALES met with this person in Moscow after Yalta, and that it was ALES who implied that he met with Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinskii. Also interesting is the explanation that ALES conveyed the thanks of GRU to the minister.

          Lastly, Vadim is the covername for Anatolii Borisovich Gromov, the NKVD’s rezident in Washington in March 1945, the message’s sender.

          I have no doubt that Alger Hiss’s status vis-à-vis Soviet intelligence will remain the topic of debate in scholarly and journalistic circles; agendas and opinions seem too deeply entrenched to hope otherwise. Nevertheless, I hope that this paper has served to illuminate what message 1822 actually said – and did not say. Access to the original Russian – what critics of VENONA have pined for – reveals that there are no mysteries or catches in the ALES message: it is a rather straightforward NKVD cable, one of thousands sent from residencies to the Center in Moscow during the Second World War. It is of interest today because it discusses a well-placed American agent of the Soviet Union.

          I will conclude by noting that the identification of ALES as Alger Hiss, made by the U.S. Government more than a half-century ago, seems exceptionally solid based on the evidence now available; message 1822 is only one piece of that evidence, yet a compelling one.

          Over the past decade, objections have been raised about possible linguistic anomalies or discrepancies in VENONA message 1822.  The document revealed today, however, closes these debates. The original Russian text of that message leaves no doubt that ALES was a long-term, productive and well-placed GRU agent who employed members of his family in the espionage network he ran for Moscow. ALES had recently visited Moscow, after the Yalta conference, and discussed his secret work for GRU, at least implicitly, with a top Soviet official, whom ALES implied was Foreign Minister Vyshinskii. If this does not describe Alger Hiss, I challenge scholars to come up with a more plausible candidate for ALES. The burden of proof must now rest with those who wish to establish that the agent described in message 1822 is not Alger Hiss.

          My intent here has been to shed light on an important topic, albeit one hidden from full view until today.  I hope that by doing so, we can move the debate out of the shadows, away from conjecture and polemic and onto the firmer historical ground of facts and documents.

          I wish to thank NSA, particularly the Center for Cryptologic History, for the opportunity to present this paper. In particular, permit me to thank Dr. David Hatch and Col. Bill Williams, whose staff work made the release of the Russian text of message 1822 possible today. Lou Benson, the godfather of VENONA studies, deserves credit too for ensuring this presentation was possible today. No less, I wish to thank the National Cryptologic School for linguistic assistance. And last of all, thank you for listening today.

  [I presented this paper at NSA’s Cryptologic History Symposium on 27 October 2005.]