Soviets planned raid to free Trotsky's killer, NSA says Spy cables from '40s tell of aborted plan to free assassin from Mexico jail

July 18, 1996|By Scott Shane and Tom Bowman | Scott Shane and Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

The Soviet Union considered launching a commando operation in 1943 to spring the assassin of Leon Trotsky from a Mexican jail, according to declassified cables released yesterday the National Security Agency.

The Soviet spy cables, deciphered after years of painstaking work by U.S. code breakers, also resolve an old Cold War controversy involving Amerasia magazine, whose staff was the target of an FBI probe and congressional hearings into suspected Communist influence in the 1940s. The cables prove that at least one Amerasia staff member, Joseph Bernstein, was in fact reporting to Moscow under a code name.

The 800 pages of cables between Soviet spies in Moscow, New York, Washington, San Francisco and Mexico City are the fourth batch of the so-called Venona messages to be released by NSA. Venona was the name for NSA's decoding of Soviet cables intercepted between 1942 and 1946, which NSA continued to work on until 1980.

Venona cables released over the past year have shed light on some of the most bitterly debated chapters of the Cold War: establishing the guilt of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg; strengthening the case that State Department official Alger Hiss worked for Soviet intelligence; and showing Soviet spies sought to recruit friends of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The latest batch contains no revelations on that scale, but they add details to Venona's portrait of a Soviet intelligence program in the 1940s of striking reach.

"This shows the size of the Soviet espionage attack during World War II," said John Haynes, co-author of "The Secret World of American Communism."

The cables offer the first evidence of plans for a combat operation to free Ramon Mercader, the Spanish Communist who fatally wounded Trotsky with a mountaineering ax in his Mexico City home in 1940, presumably on orders from the Kremlin.

It was the second attempt by agents of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to eliminate his old enemy. Trotsky had escaped death in ** an earlier machine-gun attack.

Mercader was arrested at the scene, but he carried false Canadian documents identifying him as "Frank Jacson" and his true identity was not known for years.

In one cable, Soviet spies in Mexico City sent their boss, Lavrenty Beria, an urgent request for $20,000 to finance an attempt to free Mercader.

"The surgical operation is planned by the doctors to take place in four days' time," says the message of Dec. 23, 1943, using oblique language to further obscure what was already disguised by a cipher system the Soviets considered unbreakable.

Apparently the plan was abandoned after one of its principals was discredited as a thief.

The case of Amerasia, a twice-monthly journal of current Asian affairs, began after a U.S. raid on its offices in 1945 found hundreds of classified documents on U.S.-China policy and other matters. The failure of the criminal investigation that followed to produce convictions later was alleged by Sen. Joseph McCarthy and others to be the result of a cover-up.

Amerasia staff member Bernstein is cited repeatedly in reports sent from the Soviet military intelligence office in Washington to Moscow, showing that he was supplying information on topics vTC from Chiang Kai-shek's military strategy to U.S. State Department personnel changes. One cable even informed Moscow that he would be on vacation for two weeks.

Ronald Radosh, co-author of a recent book on the Amerasia case, said yesterday the Venona cables are the first clear proof that suspicions of Bernstein were on target. "There's been no corroboration that Bernstein was indeed an agent," he said.

San Francisco messages included intriguing details of Soviet spying, including one message that laments how hard it is for Soviet women to pass as Americans.

"This is because of their stockings, their berets , their handbags and their untidiness," the cable says.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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