For those who follow the history of the Soviet Union spying in the United States, the Venona Papers no doubt has percolated to the top of your reading list. Venona confirmed the collaboration of a number of individuals with the Soviet Union and their intelligence apparatus. In July 1995, the CIA released the first group of the Venona translations to the public, and in 1996 at a conference on the papers, the remainder of the 2900 Soviet intelligence messages were shared.
In a joint NSA-CIA monograph published in August 1996, “Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957 Selected Documents and Messages,” the authors share how NSA, and its partners own the cryptologic side of the Venona story, but the “overall achievement is one of Intelligence Community cooperation. NSA and its US Army predecessor worked with FBI, CIA, the British, and allied services.”
What is Venona?
Venona is 2900 Soviet intelligence messages sent between 1940-1948. According to the aforementioned monograph, the “encipherment of these telegrams shared a common flaw that left them vulnerable to cryptanalysis. It was that flaw – rather than any commonality of dates, origins, or subject matter – that made the messages a unique and discrete body of documents.” That flaw we would later learn was that during the Second World War, the KGB’s cryptographic center printed duplicate keys on more than 35,000 pages. The Soviets would use this key from 1942-1948, when it is believed Kim Philby tipped off the Soviets of the key generation error.
Over 40 years were spent “deciphering the original texts and then puzzling their meanings.” The first decoding commenced on this day, 31 July 1946, almost seven years after the first collection of Soviet communications began in 1939 by the Army’s Signals Security Agency. The Venona project closed in 1980.
What did we learn from Venona?
The Soviet Union, an ally during the Second World War, was actively spying in the United States and beyond, and had penetrated some of the most sensitive areas of government. Among those whose collaboration with the Soviet Union which was confirmed by the Venona Papers include:
Justice Department analyst, code name “SIMA”, was recruited by the Soviets in 1944. She was identified in December 1948, the first person who was arrested (March 1949) based on a lead derived from Venona.
Identified in February 1949 and confirmed in May of 1951, as code name “HOMER”. McLean worked with the UK’s Foreign Office. He and his colleague Guy Burgess would soon flee to the Soviet Union (Philby would join them some years later).
British scientist within the Manhattan Project, code-named “CHARLES” and “REST”.
Identified by Fuchs during his interrogation by British authorities. Gold served as an intelligence courier.
An enlisted man posted to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during the war. Greenglass, code name “CALIBRE” would go on to implicate his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenburg.
Fought in Spain with KGB illegal Morris Cohen, and identified Jones Orin York – codename “NEEDLE” – York would identify William Weisband in April 1950 who worked in the Armed Forces Security Agency – Weisband was suspended from the Agency in May 1950.
Codename “LIBERAL” and “ANTENNA” – Rosenburg was a Soviet agent who collected technological and scientific secrets. Venona messages also identified Ethel Rosenburg and David Greenglass his brother-in-law.
Theodore Alvin Hall
Codename “YOUNGSTER”, was a Harvard physicist student.
Codename “ALES”, a State Department official.
Harry Dexter White
Codename “JURIST”, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury
Joseph Milton Bernstein
Codename “MARQUIS” who was a GRU agent associated with the Institute of Pacific Relations.
The Tenacity of Counterintelligence
While the Venona effort would identify numerous individuals, the fact that the lead or confirmation came from the effort was not used in prosecutions is ample evidence as to the sensitivity of the project. The FBI would build their prosecution cases separate from Venona..
The Venona Papers would also go on to serve as a fair warning that friends and allies may collaborate, yet will always look out for their own interests. Venona also serves as a prime example of counterintelligence tenacity.