Russian official backs away from statement clearing Hiss

December 17, 1992|By New York Times News Service

The Russian official who was reported to have cleared Alge Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union has backed off the statement, saying that he was "not properly understood."

The official, Gen. Dmitry A. Volkogonov, a military historian who has been closely involved in studying various Soviet-era archives, said that at Mr. Hiss' request he had searched through KGB files for the 1930s and 1940s, and in them he found only one mention of Mr. Hiss, in a list of diplomats at the United Nations.

"I was not properly understood," he said in a recent interview. "The Ministry of Defense also has an intelligence service, which is totally different, and many documents have been destroyed. I only looked through what the KGB had. All I said was that I saw no evidence."

Responding to General Volkogonov's latest remarks, Mr. Hiss said yesterday, "If he and his associates haven't examined all the files, I hope they will examine the others, and they will show the same thing."

On Oct. 14, answering a query from Mr. Hiss, General Volkogonov wrote: "Mr. A. Hiss had never and nowhere been recruited as an agent of the intelligence services of the U.S.S.R. Not a single document, and a great amount of materials have been studied, substantiates the allegation."

That letter was taken by Mr. Hiss and his supporters as an exoneration.

In a celebrated case, a former communist named Whittaker Chambers asserted that Mr. Hiss had spied for the Soviet Union as a State Department official in the 1930s. Mr. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury.

Now 88, Mr. Hiss has insisted ever since his conviction in 1950 that he had never spied for the Soviet Union and that he was the victim of an anti-communist witchhunt.

General Volkogonov acknowledged that he was in no position to fully clear Mr. Hiss and that perhaps no one ever can.

"Hiss wrote that he was 88 and would like to die peacefully, that he wanted to prove that he was never a paid, contracted spy," General Volkogonov said. "What I saw gives no basis to claim a full clarification. There's no guarantee that it was not destroyed, that it was not in other channels.

"This was only my personal opinion as a historian," he said. "I never met him, and honestly I was a bit taken aback. His attorney, Lowenthal, pushed me hard to say things of which I was not fully convinced."

General Volkogonov evidently meant John Lowenthal, a historian and filmmaker who has long studied the Hiss case. It was Mr. Lowenthal who traveled to Moscow to meet with GeneralVolkogonov and receive the letter.

"But I did spend two days swallowing dust," General Volkogonov said, referring to the old KGB archives.

Mr. Lowenthal, who met with General Volkogonov several times on Mr. Hiss' behalf, indicated surprise at the general's remarks. He produced a fax from General Volkogonov, dated Sept. 25, saying that he had information from the intelligence services, and that "on the basis of a most careful analysis of the data, I can report to you that Alger Hiss was never an agent of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union."

Mr. Lowenthal said that during the general's visit to Washington last month, he told Mr. Lowenthal that he had also examined archives of the Military Intelligence and "there too, no traces of Alger Hiss have been found."

The general said he had also looked through the presidential archives, and while that work was not complete, "I have found no mention of Alger Hiss."

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