Soviet spying archives go on revealing treachery

The Argument

'The Sword and the Shield' and 'The Haunted Wood' offer strong affirmation of Hiss' -- and others' -- guilt.

November 14, 1999|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,Sun Staff

There still is no "smoking gun." But three years after Alger Hiss' death, the spy case against him keeps tightening.

A new document from KGB archives, combined with deciphered intercepts of World War II Soviet spy messages, go a long way toward proving that Hiss had been working for GRU, the Soviet military espionage agency, since 1935, as his accuser Whittaker Chambers charged.

The most remarkable new piece of evidence is cited in "The Haunted Wood," by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (Random House, 402 pages, $30). Found in KGB archives, it is a 1945 warning to Moscow that the FBI was tracking large-scale Soviet spying in the U.S. State Department.

Hundreds of secret documents had disappeared. Only three officials had access to those documents. "I hope it is not you," Secretary of State Edward Stettinius told Hiss, according to the KGB file.

Two things are striking about this warning: (1) It refers to a conversation with Stettinius whose original source could only have been Hiss; (2) Hiss' work with the Soviets was so important the message ended up in Moscow.

The case against Hiss has been solidifying ever since 1995, when the National Security Agency released decoded World War II cable traffic from the Soviet Union's U.S. operatives to Moscow. These Venona documents confirmed that Stalin's agents had thoroughly penetrated the government in Washington as well as weapons industries and research institutes.

"Never before had any state learned so many of its allies' secrets," concludes "The Sword and the Shield" by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (Basic Books, 700 pages, $32.50). "At Tehran and Yalta Stalin was probably better informed on the cards in the hands of the other negotiators than any statesman at any previous conference. Stalin knew contents of many highly classified British and American documents which Churchill and Roosevelt kept even from most of their cabinets."

A case in point was the U.S. code breakers' top-secret Venona project. Stalin knew of Americans' ability to decipher Soviet spy messages five years before either the president or the CIA.

Over the years, the great World War II and Cold War spy cases have been amply documented. Yet by relying on previously untapped sources, the Andrew/Mitrokhin and Weinstein books add important dimensions.

The massive work by Andrew, Britain's leading espionage scholar, is particularly compelling. It relays on data surreptiously assembled by Mitrokhin, a KGB archivist. When the British secret service whisked him away from the former Soviet Union in 1992, Mitrokhin brought with him six cases of copious notes. He unmasked dozens of Soviet agents around the world. Among them were a number of previously undiscovered Americans working for the Soviets in scientific and political fields, although their names are withheld.

In the end, the Soviets' success at recruitment mattered little. The crumbling communist superpower was not able to take full advantage of the scientific and technical secrets its agents collected. As for political intelligence, it repeatedly failed to correctly interpret what it ferreted.

In an ideal world, the Weinstein and Andrew/Mitrokhin books would be combined. Even though they contain some startling revelations, they mostly retell histories of celebrated spy cases. There is more to come: Andrew is working on a second volume that will deal with Soviet involvement in Afghanistan and Latin America.

Weinstein's focus is on Soviet espionage in America during the Stalin era. He is uniquely qualified to write about it: From 1994 to 1996, Weinstein was among a small number of Western and Russian scholars who were given access to previously secret KGB files in Moscow.

Weinstein has long been captivated by the Hiss case in particular, which he detailed in his 1978 book, "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case" (Knopf, 674 pages).

Weinstein pronounced Hiss guilty. The Venona intercepts, released several years later, strengthened his opinion because a KGB cable mentioned ALES, an agent in Washington since 1935 who had been decorated for his work by the Soviets.

A U.S. analyst said ALES was "probably" Hiss. The circumstances certainly seemed to suggest so because after attending the 1945 Yalta conference, where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill made a deal about post-war Europe, ALES had gone to Moscow. Only four American members of President Roosevelt's entourage had done that after the conference; Hiss was the only one ever accused of being a communist spy.

That's why the new evidence from the KGB archives is so important. It links Hiss more tightly to the World War II Soviet spy activity.

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