Hiss case secrets a thing of the past

Testimony: Questions surrounding the Hiss-Chambers affair may finally be put to rest with the order to release grand jury transcripts.

May 14, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

A federal judge in Manhattan ordered yesterday the release of secret transcripts from the grand jury investigations a half-century ago that led to a perjury indictment against Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking State Department official accused in 1948 of spying for the Soviet Union.

U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure ruled that about 3,500 pages of secret testimony be released by the National Archives to a consortium of historians who sued for access to them.

The historians' petition was supported by both sides of the continuing controversy over whether Hiss was guilty of spying. The Justice Department opposed the petition, because of federal rules protecting grand jury secrecy.

"This is probably the first time in history that federal grand jury records have been released on the basis of their historicity," said Cold War historian Bruce Craig, who had sought the transcripts' release for 2 1/2 years.

In his ruling, Leisure said, "Access to such information inevitably enhances the accuracy of history and undermines the false conspiracy theories and revisionism that tend to arise when information remains secret."

"Disclosure can only, in the long run, build confidence in our government by affirming that it is open, in all respects, to scrutiny by the people," he said.

The judge declined to release a portion of the requested documents that related to the FBI's investigation of the case.

The Justice Department had made no decision late yesterday on whether to appeal the order. An appeal would delay any release of documents at least until the appeal was resolved.

In a statement issued yesterday, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York said federal rules on grand jury secrecy "prohibited the courts from creating exceptions to secrecy. In our view, it is up to Congress, if it chooses, to create the exceptions to grand jury secrecy for historical purposes."

The lawsuit was filed in December by the American Historical Association, the American Society of Legal History, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Archivists.

The historians were represented by the Public Citizen Litigation Group, a Ralph Nader organization based in Washington that has worked for 10 years for the release of historically important grand jury records.

"This is the first major ruling upholding the right of historians to gain access to a host of valuable grand jury records," said attorney David C. Vladeck, who argued the case on Wednesday. The precedent could lead to similar suits and the release of other historic grand jury records.

Hiss was the central figure in a sensational case, with deep Maryland roots, that launched Richard M. Nixon's national political career and set the stage for the country's anti-communist fervor.

A Baltimore native with degrees from the Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, Hiss was accused by Whittaker Chambers, then a Time magazine editor and confessed former Communist courier.

Chambers led the FBI to a hollowed-out pumpkin on a Carroll County farm and removed microfilm of documents he said he had received from Hiss.

Hiss was indicted for perjury by the first of two federal grand juries that investigated the case from 1947 to 1950. He was convicted and jailed for 44 months. He spent years trying to prove his innocence, including an unsuccessful effort to have the grand jury testimony released.

Hiss drew the sympathy of liberals, who disliked Nixon and the anti-communist paranoia symbolized by Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Republican Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. Conservatives sided with Chambers and felt Hiss got his due.

The case can still generate heated debate, although most Cold War historians have concluded that Hiss was guilty of Soviet espionage.

Hiss died in 1996 at the age of 92. Chambers died on his farm north of Westminster in 1961.

William F. Buckley Jr., editor-at-large of the National Review, supported the historians' petition. A friend of Chambers in the 1950s, Buckley said yesterday it was "inconceivable" that the new information would show a "miscarriage of justice" in the Hiss case.

However, "historical curiosity on the subject should be appeased," he said. "There is a continuing curiosity."

Cornell University historian Walter F. LaFeber -- who believes Hiss was a member of the Communist Party, but remains unconvinced that he passed government secrets to Chambers -- applauded the court decision.

"The more material we get, the better it is for everybody," said LaFeber, who specializes in Cold War history. "The more material we have, the less inferences we have to make."

Chambers biographer Sam Tanenhaus called the ruling "an impressive decision. What the judge highlights is the historical significance. To me this is one more confirmation that these debates have become history and should be discussed as history."

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