U.S. discloses it broke Soviet code in 1940s Declassified papers give new evidence against Rosenbergs

July 12, 1995|By Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews | Tom Bowman and Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Writers

LANGLEY, Va. -- The National Security Agency, the government's code-breaking agency, yesterday released dozens of secret Soviet messages decoded during the 1940s, including new evidence that convicted American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg worked to pass atomic bomb and other military secrets to the Soviet Union.

The 49 documents released yesterday at CIA headquarters reveal that the couple, executed for conspiring to commit espionage in 1953, received money from their Soviet contacts, photographed information and recruited others.

The decoded messages may bring an end to a long-running controversy about the Rosenbergs' activities. Family members and sympathizers for years have claimed the two were victims of anti-Communist hysteria and unfairly convicted.

Yesterday's disclosures, the first release of Cold War intercepts, were extraordinary because knowledge about codes is among the most tightly guarded secrets in the intelligence community.

But the nation's spy agencies are attempting to bring secrets of the past into the open. The CIA recently released satellite photographs that showed Soviet missiles and other weapons in the early 1960s.

The intelligence agencies are clearly highlighting their past successes while Congress is in the middle of budget negotiations. Some lawmakers have called for drastic cuts.

The cables released yesterday were among 2,200 documents produced from 1943-1946 by U.S. intelligence officers who intercepted Soviet diplomatic and KGB cables and cracked the codes.

The code breakers discovered that at least 200 agents were spying for the Soviets on targets ranging from the atomic bomb to U.S. jet aircraft to radar and rocket programs. Some of those agents were eventually prosecuted.

John M. Deutch, the director of central intelligence, said the code-breaking project -- dubbed "Venona" -- "helped U.S. law enforcement officials identify Soviet operatives and their agents in the United States and elsewhere. This is the stuff of spy novels."

The decrypted messages were never used in the trial of the Rosenbergs and other spies on the Soviet payroll, since they were considered too classified to be used in open court, said David Kahn, scholar in residence at NSA's National Cryptologic Museum and author of "The Codebreakers."

"It seems to me that the Venona intercepts show one thing beyond doubt, that the Rosenbergs spied for the Soviet Union against the United States," he said.

Ronald Radosh, author of "The Rosenberg File: The Search for rTC the Truth," said the documents offer "the first solid new evidence since the release of FBI papers" in the early 1980s, apart from "tidbits released by the former Soviet Union."

"This shows, as we suspected, that the ring was about much more than atomic espionage" and included attempts to gain information on many other U.S. military programs, said Mr. Radosh, who concluded from his own research that the Rosenbergs were guilty.

But Walter and Miriam Schneir, historians who argue that the case against the Rosenbergs was not proven, disagree. More study is going to be necessary to determine the nature of Julius Rosenberg's involvement, Mr. Schneir said last night, adding, "Nothing in these documents implicates Ethel as being part of any [spy] group."

The decrypted cables between New York and Moscow reveal some of the clandestine activities of several other spies, including Klaus Fuchs, code named REST, a German-born physicist who worked on the U.S. atomic bomb project. He was later arrested in London for espionage and admitted he spied for the Soviets.

Information derived from the Venona translations shows the KGB's extensive contacts with the American Communist Party and the espionage activities of its members. The Army Signals Intelligence Agency, NSA's predecessor, broke the Soviet cables 1943 and continued decoding them until 1946, when the Soviets learned their messages were being read and switched codes. "We don't know the source or the exact time of the compromise," said Vice Adm. John M. McConnell, NSA's director.

But the British spy Kim Philby years later admitted telling the Soviets of the Venona secret. He was posted to Washington in the late 1940s as the British liaison to the CIA. At times he stood smoking his pipe watching the American codebreakers decrypt the dispatches.

After its creation in 1952, NSA continued to try to exploit the information from the dispatches, finally stopping in 1980, officials said.

"People continued to work on Venona so long as the possibility remained that counterintelligence information might be developed that could reveal new agents or espionage activities that might still be active," said William P. Crowell, NSA's deputy director, who managed the project in the early 1960s.

The remaining material produced by the Venona code breakers will be unveiled in several batches during the next year, the first in September.

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