Nearly 60 years ago, Alger Hiss, a former high official in the U.S. State Department, was convicted of perjury and sentenced to prison on the grounds that he had lied about his role in a Soviet spy ring prior to World War II. The Hiss case became the most controversial spy story of the Cold War--and for good reason. As the distinguished historian Walter LaFeber once observed, "It was the Hiss trial, among other [events] that triggered the McCarthy era." For many conservatives, the Hiss case confirmed the specter of Soviet infiltration at the highest levels of American government. The case also catapulted an obscure California congressman, Richard M. Nixon, onto the national scene. Nixon championed the allegations against Hiss and in 1950 was elected to the U.S. Senate, largely based on the notoriety he had acquired from the case.
Although Hiss insisted on his innocence until his death in 1996, many Cold War historians, and perhaps most notably Allen Weinstein in his 1978 book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, have firmly concluded that Hiss was part of a clandestine Communist cell from 1935 onward and that he passed information to the Soviet Union from late 1936 until early 1938 through an underground Communist courier named Whittaker Chambers. Most historians have conceded the argument to Weinstein (who is today the Archivist of the United States). They have done so, however, not because the evidence against Hiss is clear and definitive, but because the evidence box--filled as it is with a morass of circumstantial detail--leaves them the easy option of finding him guilty of some form of espionage activity during his murky relationship with Chambers.
To a few skeptics, however, this muddled spy case will remain an open question until the Russian archives disgorge incontrovertible proof that Hiss was or was not a conscious agent. Despite continuing claims that the documents U.S. researchers obtained from the Russian archives in the early- to mid-1990s represent, in the words of scholars John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, a "massive documentation of the guilt" of Alger Hiss, not a single document with his name or that of his accuser Whittaker Chambers has ever been produced from the publicly accessible Russian archives. To be sure, there are a few references to Alger Hiss in Soviet-era documents that have been leaked to Weinstein and his Russian co-author, Alexander Vassiliev. But in their book The Haunted Wood, Weinstein and Vassiliev leave the impression that Hiss is repeatedly mentioned in Soviet-era documents. Their narrative of Hiss's espionage in the 1930s is heavily referenced to Weinstein's own Perjury. And when they quote from three 1945 KGB documents describing a Soviet source at the State Department, they substitute Hiss's name in brackets for "Ales," the cover name for an American working for the Soviets. They do the same thing when quoting from a Soviet intelligence cable dated March 30, 1945, decrypted and released by the U.S. government under the National Security Agency's VENONA program. Weinstein and Vassiliev did get exclusive access to a crop of documents from the KGB archive. But the references to Hiss in those documents boil down to only five pages from a single SVR (the successor agency to the KGB) file.
We do not propose to address the larger question of whether Hiss was guilty or innocent of espionage, but rather to explore whether he fits the profile of the Soviet asset hidden behind the cover name Ales (pronounced A-les). Historians of the craft of intelligence recognize the peril of assigning identities to code names more than 50 years after their use. It is difficult at best to translate from one language and culture to another, particularly when dealing with partially decrypted documents. Other imponderables include the ambiguities surrounding witting and unwitting sources and, most obviously, the incentives for intelligence officers to exaggerate the value of both their information and their sources.
All of this is to say that we are aware that, like others before us, we tread on thin ice. Still, we have found evidence to suggest that Hiss could not have been Ales. Moreover, an alternative candidate exists.
THE VENONA PUZZLE
Until the mid-1990s, Weinstein and other historians accepted Chambers's assertions that Hiss's associations with the Soviets were confined to the period of 1936-38. But when the NSA declassified the VENONA documents in the mid-1990s, students of the case claimed that Hiss continued his presumed espionage into the World War II years. The documents are a collection of intercepted and fragmentary decrypted cables between Moscow and its overseas intelligence outposts (most prominently New York and Washington, D.C.) that produced hundreds of cryptonyms for agents, assets, or contacts of Soviet intelligence. They also included many names of unsuspecting Americans whom Soviet intelligence operatives discussed, targeted, or merely mentioned. Hiss's name turned up in this second group.
In one such fragmentary GRU (Russian military intelligence) cable, it is reported that an NKGB (a forerunner of the KGB) operative mentioned an official "from the State Department by the name of HISS." Normally, these Russian-language cables use the Cyrillic alphabet, but here HISS is spelled out in the Latin alphabet, perhaps indicating that the name was unfamiliar to the sender.
Could a person openly named in such a message be an agent of that service at the time the message was written or at any previous time? Not according to Lt. Gen. Vitaly Pavlov, a former KGB foreign intelligence officer who had supervised intelligence operations focused on the United States from late in 1938. When interviewed in 2002, Pavlov firmly stated that no one openly named in the VENONA cables could have been an agent. Why was he so sure? "Had he ever been an agent, the service would have his code name in the system." Three years later, this opinion was upheld by another Russian intelligence professional, Maj. Gen. Julius Kobyakov. After reading one VENONA cable, Kobyakov told us that had Hiss been an agent, "it would be very unusual to put a true name in a cable: speaking about one of their assets, normally, they would use a code name."
This VENONA message openly using the name Hiss has been lost in a heated, decade-long discussion of yet another VENONA cable, 1822, sent from Washington to Moscow, originating from the NKGB intelligence station on the top floor of the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street. Dated March 30, 1945, the cable describes a Soviet agent who had the code name Ales. The NSA released its English translation of the cable in 1996 with a footnote saying that Ales was "probably" Alger Hiss.
According to FBI historian John E Fox, the identification of Ales as Alger Hiss in VENONA 1822 dates back to a May 15, 1950, FBI memorandum from Alan Belmont, head of the FBI espionage section. "It would appear likely," the 1950 memo surmised, "that this individual [Ales] is Alger Hiss in view of the fact that he was in the State Department and the information from Chambers indicated that his wife, Priscilla, was active in Soviet espionage and he also had a brother, Donald, in the State Department."
Those officials privy to the VENONA intercept seem to have conducted, at best, a cursory investigation of Ales's identity. Hiss, who was in the news for his perjury conviction, seemed to fill the bill. Even so, in the same May 15 memo, the FBI noted that "an attempt is being made by analysis of the available information to verify this identification." Even three years after Hiss's conviction in 1950, the FBI was still conducting interviews about Ales--suggesting that the bureau had doubts.
Yet almost half a century later, when the FBI's May 15 memo was released to a U.S. Senate commission, no mention was made of the bureau's initial and continuing doubts. Appendix A of what has become known as the Moynihan Commission Report said that "a Soviet cable of March 30, 1945, identified an agent, code-name ALES, as having attended the Yalta Conference of February 1945. He had then journeyed to Moscow where, according to the cable, he and his colleagues were 'awarded Soviet decorations.' This could only be Alger Hiss, Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Special Political Affairs; the other three State Department officials in the delegation from Yalta to Moscow are beyond suspicion."
Ever since, Ales's identity as Alger Hiss has become a mantra for longtime believers in Hiss's guilt. Today, NSA historian Robert L. Benson goes so far as to say that the word "probably" should be dropped in the NSA's tentative identification of Ales. In his view, there can no longer be any question that Hiss engaged in wartime spying on behalf of the Soviet Union and that he is the Ales described in VENONA 1822.
At first, this reasoning appears to be straightforward and logical. But a closer reading of VENONA 1822 raises numerous questions:
* The cable says that Ales had been working with the GRU since 1935; Chambers specifically said that Hiss had no GRU connections before 1937.
* The cable says that Ales was the leader of a small group "mainly consisting of his relatives." Hiss, his critics have assumed, was "working" with his wife, Priscilla, and his brother Donald--although no one has ever lodged any espionage allegations against Donald, and the FBI itself said charges that he was a member of the...