Venona's secrets NSA intercepts: Broken KGB code traffic shows Soviets had a massive U.S. spy network.

March 10, 1996

THE ORIGINS OF the Cold War have long been in scholarly dispute. Revisionists argue American right-wingers were responsible for the collapse of the World War II alliance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They claim Stalin was keen on continuing cooperation and could have been trusted.

The recent declassification of deciphered Soviet spy cables from the U.S. during the latter part of World War II discredits that view. While claiming to be allies, Stalin's operatives were busy infiltrating to the highest levels of American government. They stole nuclear secrets, blueprints for aircraft under development and wanted to know what U.S. reaction would be to the Sovietization of Eastern Europe.

The National Security Agency's Venona documents prove beyond any doubt that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were guilty as charged. They also give new credibility to the confessions of Elizabeth T. Bentley, the American Communist Party official whose testimony unmasking Soviet activities were hotly debated among U.S. leftists in the 1950s.

As to Alger Hiss, the Baltimore-born foreign policy expert and diplomat, whose conviction for perjury became another cause celebre of the left, things still remain murky. Venona cables detail the work of a spy who could be Mr. Hiss but also could be someone else.

This points to the basic weakness of the Venona material. While there cannot be any question of the authenticity of the deciphered traffic, identities of the code-named persons in the cables often are analysts' guesswork. In some cases the guesses seem to be on the mark. In others, serious questions remain.

Take the matter of Walter Lippman. Venona analysts suspect a spy source identified both as "Bumblebee" and "Imperialist" might be the pre-eminent 1940s columnist. This is possible, but having two code names in the same time period for a single source would be unusual.

The Venona material is fascinating reading. But in many cases only Moscow knows the agents' real identity. And Moscow isn't talking.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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