LINK: The Greatest Intelligence Disaster in U.S. History

Cryptologic history seldom focuses on spies and penetrations by foreign intelligence services. The accounts and individuals are unattractive, even sordid, with none of the glory of cracking codes with war-winning results. Traitors are by their nature distasteful. Because intelligence agencies naturally avoid advertising their counterintelligence failures, the public rarely hears full accounts of penetrations; the real story, with comprehensive damage assessments, emerges decades after, if ever.

This is unfortunate for scholars, as cryptologic penetrations are the most dangerous kind of compromise, with far-reaching historical implications; the loss of high-grade cryptographic information can have devastating consequences for national security, as can spy-induced changes in exploitable enemy cryptosystems. NSA's history includes several such penetrations by foreign, especially Soviet, intelligence: the stories of Jack Dunlap (“NSA's playboy spy” who committed suicide in 1963 when his Soviet ties were discovered) and Ron Pelton (who did major damage to highly sensitive programs in the 1980s) are known, if not as well known as they ought to be, and the defection of Martin and Mitchell in 1960 lingers in distant memory. John Walker, while not an NSA affiliate, did enormous damage to U.S. Navy communications security for decades at the height of the Cold War.

Yet the worst espionage case in NSA' s history — indeed, the most damaging penetration in the history of American intelligence, as this paper will demonstrate — remains essentially unknown to the public. For nearly 50 years NSA and the U.S. Government were unwilling to comment publicly on this case, leaving a black hole for historians. Indeed, until recently this sensational case was barely known to NSA insiders. The name of William Weisband hardly ranks in the hall of the infamous. He has appeared in only a handful of publications, usually only in passing, and never with an explanation of the devastation he wrought on U.S. intelligence at the onset of the Cold War. Yet Weisband did greater damage to America's national security than Dunlap or Pelton, more than latter-day traitors such as Rick Ames of the CIA or Bob Hanssen of the FBI.

Our story begins where the case opened for American cryptology, on 12 April 1950. On that fateful Wednesday, Brigadier General Carter Clarke, chief of the Army Security Agency (ASA) – the U.S. Army's cryptologic service, headquartered at Arlington Hall in Northern Virginia – received an old friend, Wes Reynolds, the longtime FBI liaison to the Army G-2. Yet there were few pleasantries between them, and the mood was somber, for Reynolds came to deliver some shocking news: a Soviet mole was at work inside Arlington Hall, in the ranks of the recently established Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). The name of the culprit, William Weisband, was known to Clarke, for the Soviet agent had been an Army SIGINT officer during the Second World War, and had been working as a civilian — first with ASA, then with AFSA — since 1946.

In truth, General Clarke had been expecting such a revelation for two years, since the U.S. SIGINT system began suddenly and unexpectedly losing access to high-level Soviet military and civil communications, encrypted traffic that codebreakers had fought long and hard to get into; to Clarke and other senior officers, it reeked of a mole, it was too disastrous a loss to be mere coincidence. But no evidence had been forthcoming.

Not until 10 April 1950, when an American named Jones Orin York told the FBI a disturbing tale. York, who had been a KGB agent since the mid-1930s — he appears in VENONA as IGLA (NEEDLE) — while working in the aircraft industry on the West Coast, informed the FBI that his KGB handler circa 1941-42 was one Bill Weisband, who had helped York buy a camera for photographing classified documents of interest to the KGB. York met Weisband in 1941 in Los Angeles; in what seems a near-parody of espionage tradecraft, Weisband identified himself by presenting a torn half of a photo of Shirley Temple — York had the other half. Until Weisband was inducted into the U.S. Army in September 1942, he met York on a regular basis to collect items off the KGB's “shopping list” that York had photographed, mainly aircraft specifications and information on armaments, radar, and electronics. The two met in popular Hollywood bars, including the Gardens of Allah, the reputed den of immorality owned by the fallen 20s film star and Russian emigre Allah Nazimova. During the year they were in contact, Weisband paid York between $1,200 and $2,000.

Upon learning this, the FBI and AFSA moved fast. (Ironically, the day York was interviewed by the FBI, 10 April, was the date of Weisband’s last meeting with the KGB; he received almost $1,700 in cash.) Three days after General Clarke learned the news, FBI agents met with AFSA security chief Colonel Clearfield Wade and the cryptologic pioneer Frank Rowlett, an AFSA senior official. Rowlett filled in details of Weisband’s professional life. He was a wartime junior officer in the Army Signal Corps; Weisband worked in the Mediterranean under Colonel Harold Hayes (a top Army SIGINT official and chief of ASA before Clarke), and reported to Arlington Hall in 1944 when Hayes did. Weisband worked as a Russian linguist — it was his native language — and had access to the most secret programs at “the Hall.”

The biography AFSA provided, based on Weisband’s personnel forms, told the story of an immigrant born in 1908 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Russian Jewish parents, who resided in several European countries before coming to the U.S. in 1929 (or 1925: sources conflicted). He attended the RCA radio school in New York City circa 1936-38 and, for a brief period, UCLA. Before being inducted into the Army, Weisband worked as an auditor and manager for several hotels in New York and Los Angeles. He was a polyglot, speaking French, Italian, Arabic, German, and Spanish, in addition to English and Russian. He had recently married a fellow AFSA employee; his parents and both brothers were dead. Weisband’s resume was diverse and difficult to categorize. His work in cryptology, for seven years from 1943 to 1950, was his longest period of employment in any field.

In early May 1950, FBI agents interviewed Bill Weisband; he denied committing espionage or removing classified material from Arlington Hall or being a member of the Communist Party. He did, however, admit to a gambling problem that cost him $25,000 of his inheritance. On 12 May, Weisband and his wife Mabel were suspended from AFSA — permanently, as it turned out. AFSA said nothing about the case in public, and little in private either. The leadership of America’s SIGINT system simply wanted the case, with its awful implications, to go away. Co-workers were not told of the suspicion of espionage surrounding Weisband, whom most considered a jovial if somewhat ineffectual intelligence worker. Even Weisband’s supervisor was told no details of the case, only to avoid all contact with him in the future.

While AFSA attempted to quietly assess what had happened, the FBI commenced a full-field investigation, dispatching agents across the country to interviews with dozens of persons who had known Bill Weisband. Many of the accounts were disturbing:

• a former girlfriend, who was close to Weisband from 1938-41 in Los Angeles, recalled that Weisband told her he was engaged in “secret work,” for which he was well paid, and that he was a courier for “some unnamed organization”; she accompanied him on several dead-drops, secret operations to pick up or drop off material; Weisband had revealed his romantic relationship with her to his superiors, who were displeased, but he did not tell them he had told her secrets, since Weisband explained he would be killed if “they” knew he had taken her into his confidence.

• a wartime commanding officer of Weisband’s recalled he had been an excellent subordinate, doing good work in cryptography while liaising with the Free French; Weisband’s CO stated he had the impression that Weisband had inherited money and a family jewelry business.

• interviews with Weisband’s co-workers at Arlington Hall revealed that Weisband had the habit of regularly visiting work areas outside his area of responsibility; that Weisband appeared to have a close personal as well as professional relationship with Colonel Hayes, who arranged to have him assigned to the Hall; that Weisband was always willing to work odd hours, was assigned to the Russian problem by early 1945, and that every few weeks he visited New York City and would bring back jewelry that he sold at Arlington Hall.

The FBI showed photographs of Weisband to several former Soviet agents and Communist Party officials, but none recognized him. Later, two noteworthy ex-KGB agents would inform the Bureau that they remembered Weisband as part of the apparat in the mid-1930s in the U.S. and Europe.

The FBI investigation also revealed the intriguing case of an illegal immigrant from Russia, with whom Weisband was arrested on 1 November 1938 in New York. The mystery man's identity was never determined; the Bureau believed he was a KGB illegal. Weisband told a strange story that the two met by chance and decided to live together. He and Weisband rented a New York apartment, yet did not pay their rent though they seemed to be flush with cash; their landlady called the police over non-payment of rent. The unidentified Russian, who was in the U.S. illegally, was released from custody on grounds of insanity and disappeared. Subsequent investigation revealed that he was also a member of the secret Soviet apparat in the U.S. in the 1930s, but U.S. and Canadian authorities lost all trace of him after his November 1938 arrest.

On 12 July 1950, Weisband appeared before a federal grand jury in Los Angeles that was looking into Communist activities and Soviet espionage on the West Coast. The grand jury instructed Weisband to return in a week, but he did not. He was arrested on 16 August 1950 for contempt of court; on 21 November of that year, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. He served his sentence at the Federal Labor Camp, McNeill Island, Washington. Weisband was never charged with, and never admitted to espionage. He returned to the Washington, DC, area and lived in Northern Virginia until his death from a heart attack in 1967. The case received minimal press attention, as AFSA wished.

Behind the scenes, however, the investigation continued, quietly. Extensive information emerged placing Weisband in an important role in the KGB's espionage network in the U.S. from the mid-1930s-on. Several persons linked Weisband with known KGB agents. He was clearly a valued source charged with running agent networks himself. His penetration of the most secret element of American intelligence, the codebreaking program aimed at the Soviet Union, appears remarkable.

In fact, it was a by-product of a personnel security program that, by today's standards, appears slipshod. Weisband falsified several important aspects of his biography to the U.S. Army and AFSA, but these lies did not emerge until long after the damage was done, in some cases decades later. Of greatest significance, Weisband was not born in Egypt, as he claimed, but in Russia.

Moreover, Weisband's behavior on the job should have led to doubts about his conduct, and perhaps his loyalties, but did not. Co-workers recalled that his habit of entering restricted areas, places he should not have been, was well honed. He spent a great deal of time pacing around, “like a floor-walker in a department store.” Although Weisband was not part of the VENONA project, he learned about it by peeking over the shoulder of famed code-breaker Meredith Gardner, who was extracting the list of Western atomic scientists from a KGB message dated December 1944. (KGB officer Yuri Modin later confirmed that Weisband passed this knowledge to the KGB; hence Moscow knew about VENONA several years before even President Truman was informed of the highly compartmented program.) Weisband's disconcerting habit of sometimes referring to the Russians as “we” caused less stir than seems warranted with hindsight.

Several co-workers remembered that Weisband appeared to have both gambling and drinking difficulties; nevertheless, he was a popular fellow with ASA and AFSA higher-ups and was generous with cash, lavishing it on parties for his friends. None asked how Weisband, a rather low-ranking person, could afford this. Weisband's professional reputation was modest; a Russian language expert, he served as a nebulous subject matter expert assisting several programs, though his grammatical ability was considered limited by some expert linguists. He was pleasant but “no intellectual,” one co-worker recalled. Another, who became a very high-ranking NSA official and knew Weisband well in the 1940s as both a soldier and a civilian, recalled that his onetime acquaintance was a hail-fellow-well-met sort, not a serious person; as he put it: “a mountebank...a head-waiter type.”

American cryptology simply wanted the Weisband case to go away. That the U.S. Government was involved in codebreaking was itself a secret none wanted revealed to the public. Far worse would be the revelation that the KGB placed a reliable, longtime agent in the middle of the highest-priority U.S. intelligence operation. The dawn of the Cold War found America's budding Intelligence Community in a bad state. There was precious little information available about the Soviet colossus: very little photographic or radar intelligence, no real human intelligence to speak of. America's political and military leadership, watching the Iron Curtin descend on Europe, feared, rightly, that they might be at war at any time with an enemy about whom Washington knew very little.

By mid-1948, however, there were at least some remarkable SIGINT successes to even the odds. Over a three-year period, American codebreakers, with British help, had made impressive progress against encrypted, high-level Soviet military and civilian communications. This restricted program was to be Washington's ace-in-the-hole against Moscow, in effect a “second ULTRA” to even the odds in the Cold War. And then it all disappeared.

In hoary NSA legend, this was the infamous “Black Friday.” Popular, if whispered telling in the halls of Arlington Hall and later Fort Meade had it that this was the sudden loss of all encrypted Soviet communications, a day that changed the world. The essence was true, even if the timing was incorrect: there was no “Black Friday” or any other day. Rather, the loss was gradual, over months beginning in mid-1948; eventually all five Top Secret systems “went dark” in cryptologic parlance. But the loss was real, and total. This was the greatest intelligence disaster in U.S. history, unprecedented in its scope and impact. It lingers as one of the great might-have-beens of twentieth century history.

The pain of losing the “second ULTRA” was felt terribly in June 1950, when the Cold War turned hot and North Korea invaded South Korea. There had been no strategic warning of the invasion, no SIGINT to give Washington inside information about Communist movements and intentions. For generals and admirals who only five years earlier were used to a daily diet of ULTRA intelligence to know the enemy's moves, the contrast was shocking and disturbing. While seven divisions' worth of soldiers and Marines were shipped to Korea to stave the Red tide – almost 50,000 Americans would die in defense of South Korea – Washington reacted to the intelligence debacle. To ensure that, in future, policymakers would have proper strategic warning, that there would be no more Pearl Harbors, better intelligence was needed urgently. The result was the Brownell Committee, which advocated the establishment of a truly unified cryptologic service, one that could crack enemy codes, behind a proper security program. Thus was born the National Security Agency in November 1952.

Decades would pass before Weisband's precise role in the loss of the “second UL TRA” would become clear. That he was involved was obvious; he was the only known Soviet agent inside American cryptology during the 1945-50 period. Weisband’s culpability was never in doubt, though hard evidence was scarce.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, KGB archives would reveal that Weisband had been recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1934 (how is unclear) and had been a productive agent and agent-handler for many years. He appears to have received training in the USSR, which would explain several “missing periods” in his official resume. He was reactivated in early 1945, and regularly passed information from inside Arlington Hall to the KGB, compromising America's most treasured intelligence jewels.

A KGB memo from 1948 regarding Weisband's work told much of the story:

For one year, a large amount of very valuable documentary material concerning the work of Americans on deciphering Soviet ciphers, intercepting and analyzing open radio-correspondence of Soviet institutions, was received from [Weisband]. From these materials, we came to know that, as result of this work, American intelligence managed to acquire important data concerning the stationing of the USSR 's armed forces, the productive capacity of various branches of industry, and work in the field of atomic energy in the USSR...On the basis of [Weisband's J materials, our state security organs carried out a number of defensive measures, resulting in the reduced efficiency of the American deciphering service. This has led to the considerable current reduction in the amount of deciphering and analysis by the Americans.

Indeed, the Soviets were acting so rapidly on his information from Arlington Hall that in July 1948 Weisband asked his KGB handler that Moscow refrain from changing ciphers with too much speed, lest he be exposed. Worried about a possible molehunt at Arlington Hall, Weisband asked the KGB to request asylum for him in the USSR; Moscow did not agree to the request until April 1950, at which point it was too late.

Weisband can be found in VENONA too, though this was not discovered until decades after. The three messages in question were not fully translated until long after Weisband was out of cryptologic access, and their import was not realized until the 1990s. Weisband was known to the KGB under the covername ZVENO (LINK).

The first message (KGB New York to Moscow, 23 June 1943):

THE LAST 4 WEEKS ZVENO HAS SPENT [1 group unrecovered] SCHOOL [4 groups unrecovered] .... INGTON, VIRGINIA WHERE HE UNDERWENT A COURSE OF INSTRUCTION IN ITALIAN. AT THE MOMENT HE HAS BEEN GIVEN LEAVE UNTIL THE 27th OF JUNE. [12 groups unrecovered] THE ISLAND. BY HIS CALCULATIONS HE WILL LEAVE THE COUNTRY IN THE FIRST HALF OF JULY AND WILL ARRIVE ON THE ISLAND AT THE END OF JULY. WE ARE SETTING UP THE FOLLOWING ARRANGEMENTS WITH ZVENO:

1. THE PASSWORD FOR [1 group unrecovered] CONTACT IN ANY PLACE IN RUSSIAN OR ENGLISH: OUR MAN “HULLO BILL. GREETINGS FROM GRIGORIJ.” HE: “[7 groups unrecovered] ON THE WEST COAST.”

2. STARTING FROM 24 JULY ZVENO WILL WAIT FOR OUR MAN IN LONDON THE [1 group unrecovered] AT THE ENTRANCE TO LEICESTER GALLERIES, LEICESTER SQUARE AND ON WEDNESDAYS ON THE EAST CORNER OF ORCHARD AND WIGMORE [41 groups unrecovered]

Analysis of Weisband’s Army records reveals that he underwent training in Italian at Arlington Hall at the time cited in the message, and he traveled to “the island” (i.e. the United Kingdom) in July 1943, as the KGB reported.

The second message (KGB Message New York to Moscow, 30 August 1944) is no less interesting:

YOUR NUMBER 3640. THROUGH VOLUNTEER'S WIFE WE LEARNED FROM ZVENO'S BROTHER [12 groups unrecoverable]

Weisband's brother Mark, who died in 1947, was a salesman for the Harry Winston diamond firm in the period in question. VOLUNTEER's wife is Lona Cohen, half of the husband-and-wife team of star KGB illegals (Morris and Lona Cohen, as “Helen and Peter Kroger,” would be convicted of espionage in the UK in 1961). Lona worked for the Harry Winston family as a nanny during the period of the message, making it appear that Mark Weisband, who was known to have Communist connections, also was involved with the KGB.

The third message (KGB Message Moscow to New York, 16 Feb 1945), however, is the clincher:

ACCORDING TO A COMMUNICATION FROM THE NAVAL NEIGHBORS ZVENO WILL A WAIT A MEETING ON 24 FEBRUARY AT 9 O'CLOCK IN THE EVENING. THE PLACE AND PASSWORD [6 groups unrecovered]

“Naval neighbors” means the Naval component of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU). At first, this made no sense: Weisband was not known to have any connections to GRU; he was an agent of the KGB. However, deep digging revealed that a CIA official who had known Weisband recalled that Weisband informed him that, during his wartime service in the Mediterranean with Army cryptologic units, one of his functions was serving as an interpreter for a high-level Soviet Naval delegation. Naval GRU encountered Weisband, reactivated him, probably ran him briefly, then passed him back to his “rightful owners.”

The date, February 1945, is interesting — a clear reference to Weisband's personal meeting with a KGB official to formally commence his reactivation — because in his recent memoirs, the noted KGB officer Aleksandr Feklisov (known to historians as the handler of the Rosenbergs), describes in detail his February 1945 meeting in New York with an important American agent, an Army officer working at Arlington Hall. This is obviously a reference to Weisband, though Feklisov is careful to obscure his identity by referring to him as RUPERT, not his actual covername, and blend his biography with that of another, still unidentified, Army cryptologic officer who apparently was also a KGB agent until 1945.

Bill Weisband was not the last Soviet penetration of American cryptology, but he was undoubtedly the worst. For the First Chief Directorate of the KGB, its foreign espionage arm, there was no higher-priority target on earth than NSA, which it referred to by the covername OMEGA. Throughout the Cold War, the KGB (and GRU) made regular efforts to break through NSA's security by recruiting American cryptologic personnel worldwide; regrettably, they encountered occasional success. Yet Moscow would never again find as valuable an agent as Weisband had been. The security of the most sensitive code-breaking secrets, which had been so successfully protected during the Second World War, had failed disastrously before the Cold War had barely begun.

The KGB would remember Weisband as one of the “old masters,” a star agent from the heyday of Soviet intelligence in America, when recruiting spies was easy on ethnic, political, or financial grounds — or sometimes all three, as Weisband seems to have been.

In 1967, the KGB attempted to recontact Weisband in a risky operation. The Center in Moscow wished to reward Weisband, now an old and unwell man, for his sterling service decades before. The KGB rezidentura in Washington dispatched its deputy chief out to the suburbs of Northern Virginia with a satchel filled with cash. The first visit by the KGB lieutenant colonel was unsuccessful: no one answered the door at the Weisband home. A couple of days later, he returned, yet did not encounter Bill Weisband. Instead, he learned that the “old master” had died of natural causes a week before. There ended the Weisband case.

Yet its historical importance lingers; indeed, only in the last few years, with access to Soviet records and a thorough reexamination of the long-forgotten case by NSA counterintelligence, has the real importance of Weisband become clear. His betrayal of the “second ULTRA” did catastrophic damage to U.S. intelligence at the onset of the Cold War, inflicting damage on American cryptology that would take years to repair. Only now is the extent of that damage apparent, and only now can it be shared with the public. The name of Bill Weisband, hardly known to even devoted students of espionage, deserves to rank among the names of spies who changed the course of world history.

Postscript: This paper, authored by Robert L. Benson and John R. Schindler (i.e., me), was presented at NSA’s Cryptologic History Symposium by me on 31 October 2003. At the time, Benson was NSA’s Technical Director for Counterintelligence, a position he held for many years, while I was an Agency senior intelligence analyst. We ran down leads in the Weisband case, untouched for decades, when I worked for Lou Benson, a legendary figure in IC circles, as part of NSA’s Counterintelligence Division, and this paper is the result of that combined effort. This paper remains the first, and last, official public statement by NSA on the details of the complex Weisband case. However, since 2003 NSA has declassified the fact that the “second ULTRA” which Weisband compromised to his Soviet handlers in 1948 was termed BOURBON by American and British SIGINT agencies. Also, this paper refers to the “KGB” as a catch-all term for Soviet civilian intelligence organs, which had numerous name changes until the familiar KGB label was assigned to them in 1954. Last, although NSA in 2013 endured the body blow of the defection of its contractor Edward Snowden to Moscow, after he stole more than a million classified documents from NSA Hawaii, based on publicly available evidence, Weisband remains the most damaging traitor in the annals of U.S. intelligence, given the enormous impact of his betrayal on the course of the Cold War.

Note on Sources: This paper is based on several UNCLASSIFIED sources:

1) Published Works:

Robert L. Benson and Michael Warner, VENONA: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957 (NSA/CIA, 1996)

Robert L. Benson, The Venona Story (NSA, 2001)

Aleksandr Feklisov, Za okeanom i na ostrove: Zapiski razvedchika (Moscow: DEM, 1994)

David Hatch and Robert L. Benson, The Korean War: The SIGINT Background (NSA, 2000)

Yuri Modin, My Five Cambridge Friends (London: Headline, 1994).

Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America - The Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999)

2) Unpublished Works:

Declassified/released FBI documentation pertaining to the case (released under FOIA in spring 2001).

Interviews with former U.S. and Soviet intelligence officers.