Secret Soviet telegram released by NSA revives case against Hiss Historians say message is important, but doesn't prove official was a spy

March 06, 1996|By Tom Bowman and Scott Shane | Tom Bowman and Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

A secret Soviet message released yesterday strengthens the case that Alger Hiss, whose loyalty has been fiercely debated for five decades, was a spy while serving as a top State Department official.

The 1945 KGB telegram identifies a high-level State Department official who accompanied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Yalta Conference as an agent code-named "Ales."

A federal government footnote to the telegram, made public by the National Security Agency, identifies "Ales" as "probably Alger Hiss."

The message states that "Ales" passed on military information ,, and was personally thanked by Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vyshinsky when the agent arrived in Moscow after the Yalta Conference. TC If NSA's surmise is correct, the telegram would show that Mr. Hiss -- initially accused of spying during the 1930s -- continued to work for the Soviets through World War II, in Yalta and during preparations for the United Nations organizing conference in San Francisco, where he served as secretary-general.

Historians said yesterday that the telegram is an important clue to the Hiss mystery but does not prove his guilt. A Baltimore native and 1926 graduate of the Johns Hopkins University, Mr. Hiss, 91, has steadfastly maintained his innocence since he was first identified as a Soviet agent in 1948 by confessed spy Whittaker Chambers.

Allen Weinstein, author of the book "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," one of the most detailed studies of the case, said that dates, locations and other details in the telegram make it a "logical conclusion" that "Ales" was Mr. Hiss. For example, the telegram says "Ales" began spying for Soviet military intelligence in 1935 -- as Chambers testified about Alger Hiss.

"This is certainly an important piece of evidence," Mr. Weinstein said. But he added, "It would be too much to claim that because this piece of paper comes out, it settles the matter. It's a piece of the mosaic."

Mr. Hiss' son, Tony, after speaking with his father yesterday about the memo, rejected any connection between "Ales" and his father.

"The document released today on the face of it self-evidently does not refer to Alger Hiss," Tony Hiss said. "There's really nothing here. So what is the basis for some unidentified NSA functionary saying that the 'Ales' in the memo 'is probably Alger Hiss'?"

Tony Hiss said the references to "Ales" turning over military information and receiving the personal thanks of the Soviet deputy foreign minister bore no resemblance to the charges made by Whittaker Chambers. His father did have official contacts with Vyshinsky, who was a delegate to Yalta and the U.N. conference, he said.

Son's account differs

Alger Hiss did travel to Moscow after Yalta, but for other reasons, his son said. "Checking the facts would have revealed that my father's one interest during his one night in Moscow was to see the new subway system and find out if it was fancy as everyone said," Tony Hiss said. "It turned out it was."

However, author Sam Tanenhaus, who is writing a biography of Whittaker Chambers, said the telegram's references to "military information" may support a connection to Alger Hiss.

A State Department investigator questioned Mr. Hiss in 1946 about security lapses in his office and found numerous top-secret reports on U.S. troop movements in the Far East, Communist insurgency in Greece and aid to Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, he said.

He said that Chambers would not have been aware of such activities, as he stopped working for Soviet intelligence in 1938. "I think the memo is very important," said Mr. Tanenhaus. "The important revelation is Hiss continued in espionage long after Chambers."

After two trials, Mr. Hiss was convicted of perjury in 1950 for lying about his ties to Mr. Chambers, since the statute of %J limitations had run out on spying. He served 44 months in prison.

The case became an icon of the Cold War and brought fame to Mr. Hiss' chief nemesis on the House Un-American Activities Committee, a young California congressman named Richard M. Nixon.

500 pages declassified

The "Ales" telegram is among 500 pages of newly declassified documents released yesterday in the latest installment from NSA's vaunted "Venona project," which involved scores of government code-breakers working on intercepted Soviet messages in cramped barracks in Arlington, Va., during and after World War II.

The Venona messages released yesterday also name another top government official as a Soviet spy. NSA analysts concluded that the agent, code-named "Jurist," was Assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White.

Mr. White vehemently denied being a Communist or spying during a 1948 grand jury hearing and later before a packed hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Two days after his testimony, he died of a heart attack.

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