for Cryptologic History Symposium, 27 October 2005
Hiss in VENONA: The Continuing
John R. Schindler
Of all the historical and political controversies
unleashed by the release of the VENONA decrypts nearly a decade ago, none has
proved as enduring or vexing as that surrounding Alger Hiss, the U.S. State
Department official and reputed Soviet spy. The oft-cited message in question –
1822, Washington to Moscow, dated 30 March 1945 – refers to a well-placed
American agent codenamed ALES. For most who have reviewed the evidence, message
1822 looks like a good fit for Alger Hiss. It needs to be stated that this
VENONA message does not refer to Hiss beyond question; and the best evidence
for Hiss’s secret Soviet ties comes from other sources. Nevertheless, since the
release of message 1822, which provides interesting detail about ALES, the case
for Hiss’s espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union looks significantly stronger
than the case against.
said, Hiss’s defenders in the media and academia have consistently protested
his innocence: as he did himself until his death. For them, message 1822 proves
little, if anything, and may not refer to Hiss at all. The strongest rhetorical
argument against VENONA, in this and other cases, has been that the public has
seen only finished translations. What about the original Russian? In the case
of ALES in particular, scholars and polemicists have spent the last decade
quarreling over words – ones which they have not seen in the original language.
paper will not attempt to resolve the ALES/Hiss issue – one suspects that this
controversy will linger. Rather, it is my purpose today to explain and, I hope,
resolve the cryptolinguistic controversies surrounding the Hiss-in-VENONA case,
and thereby shed light on a heretofore hidden aspect of cryptologic history.
important to note at the outset my own credentials and biases. I am a professor
of strategy at the Naval War College. Until recently, however, I was an NSA
analyst myself. I spent the better part of a decade with the Agency as an
intelligence and language analyst, counterintelligence officer, and last as a
historian. I can therefore claim some authority when discussing the
cryptolinguistic issues at hand. However, today I speak for myself as a
scholar, not for NSA.
I will show you today – for the first time – is the original, Russian version
of message 1822. Those among you who wish, in your deepest heart, to be
language analysts: This is your chance. It needs to be noted, however, that I
cannot show you a “finished” version of the release, but in Russian, since that
does not – and never did – exist. In recent decades, NSA practice has been to
first transcribe foreign materials, then translate them into English, leaving
an intermediate step to assist analysis. However, in the late 1940s, the
process was less refined, and early VENONA messages such as 1822 went from
worksheet to finished (i.e. English) version directly.
text you will see today is taken from the handwritten Russian found on the
original cryptanalytic worksheets for message 1822, written down nearly six
decades ago. I was assisted in this effort by the lead Slavicist on the faculty
of NSA’s National Cryptologic School, who provided expert linguistic help (her
Russian being flawless while mine is a bit out of practice): I can, and will,
attest to this text’s authenticity and accuracy in all respects. We have
rendered them exactly as they are on the worksheets. In some cases, analysts
left the proper grammatical endings off adjectives and the like – a sensible
short-cut since they were doing this only for themselves. Additionally, this
was, in effect, “code-book Russian,” a relatively ungainly mélange used by
Soviet message-writers (and American code-breakers). Nevertheless, the meaning
of the Russian is never in doubt. Without delay or added drama, here is the
WASHINGTON to MOSCOW # 1822 30 March 1945
В дополнение нашей телеграмме № 28 в результате беседы «[пя]» с (предлог) «Алесом» выяснилось:
с(пр.) 1935 года
и(с.) сам Алес
мало и(с.) он
даёт их не
работает/ют с(предлог) «Полем
и(с.) с друг... членами
уже в Москве,
что это был
First, I would like to provide an updated, more
colloquial translation of 1822:
Addendum to our telegram no.28 as a result of a
conversation of “PYa” with ALES, it turns out:
1. ALES has been continuously working with the
neighbors since 1935.
2. For a few years now he has been the director of a
small group of probationers of the neighbors, for the most part drawn from his
3. The group and ALES himself are working on
obtaining only military information, materials about “the Bank” – the neighbors
allegedly are not very interested and he doesn’t pass it regularly.
4. In recent years, ALES has been working with POL’
repeat POL’ who also meets with other members of the group on occasion.
5. Recently ALES and his whole group were awarded
6. After the Yalta conference, back in Moscow, one
very high-ranking Soviet worker allegedly had contact with ALES (ALES implied
that it was Comrade Vyshinskii) and at the request of the military neighbors he
conveyed to him their thanks, etc.
Let’s examine this line by
line in the interest of resolving cryptolinguistic controversies and anomalies.
First, the opening line:
28 в результате
беседы «[пя]» с
This is relatively straightforward – the Russian is
neat and orderly – but one anomaly is the reference to “PYa,” meaning a garble.
Later work by NSA codebreakers, principally Meredith Gardner, determined that
this was actually “A.” – a presumed reference to Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov,
the top NKVD illegal in the United States in the period. But this wasn’t known,
or noted, on the original worksheet.
The message’s first item is
с(пр.) 1935 года
There is ALES at the beginning. As a linguistic
note, the analysts regularly put “predlog”
in the text wherever there was a preposition, to assist cryptolinguistic
analysis and avoid confusion. Neighbors (соседями) is of course a reference
to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff, the famed GRU
– i.e. military intelligence, which actually ran ALES.
second item, the source of much controversy, has some analytic short-cuts but
is likewise clear:
Note the lack of adjectival endings (which does not
affect meaning of analysis). Of interest to us, however, is the mention of
ALES’s role as “director of a small group of probationers of the neighbors” –
that is GRU spy-recruits – “for the most part drawn from his relatives.” Here
the Russian is clear: образом из числа своих родственников refers to “relatives” in
the literal sense.
third item in the message has one short-cut ending but is clear in its meaning:
и(с.) сам Алес
мало и(с.) он
даёт их не
Noteworthy is the discussion of what ALES is passing
to GRU – military information and materials about “the Bank” (i.e. the U.S.
State Department) – and GRU’s relative lack of interest in this. The two
references to “s” in parentheses mean “soyuz”
i.e. conjunction: another analytic help for the VENONA team.
four has two adjectival ending short-cuts but, like the other points in the
message, is clear and ungarbled:
работает/ют с(предлог) «Полем
и(с.) с друг...
The covername POL’ (i.e. PAUL) was unknown then, but
was later identified as Nathan Silvermaster, head of another ring of Soviet
fifth item, with one adjectival short-cut, is very clear in its elaboration of
Soviet medals recently awarded to ALES and his whole group:
The sixth and final item in the message is the longest and most
detailed; it includes three adjectival short-cuts, but is admirably clear in
уже в Москве,
что это был
Given the controversy surrounding ALES’s travel to
Moscow, and meeting with a very high-ranking Soviet official, it bears noting
that the original Russian leaves no doubt that ALES met with this person in
Moscow after Yalta, and that it was ALES who implied that he met with Soviet
Foreign Minister Vyshinskii. Also interesting is the explanation that ALES
conveyed the thanks of GRU to the minister.
Vadim is the covername for Anatolii Borisovich Gromov, the NKVD’s rezident in Washington in March 1945,
the message’s sender.
have no doubt that Alger Hiss’s status vis-à-vis Soviet intelligence will
remain the topic of debate in scholarly and journalistic circles; agendas and
opinions seem too deeply entrenched to hope otherwise. Nevertheless, I hope
that this paper has served to illuminate what message 1822 actually said – and
did not say. Access to the original Russian – what critics of VENONA have pined
for – reveals that there are no mysteries or catches in the ALES message: it is
a rather straightforward NKVD cable, one of thousands sent from residencies to
the Center in Moscow during the Second World War. It is of interest today
because it discusses a well-placed American agent of the Soviet Union.
will conclude by noting that the identification of ALES as Alger Hiss, made by
the U.S. Government more than a half-century ago, seems exceptionally solid
based on the evidence now available; message 1822 is only one piece of that
evidence, yet a compelling one.
the past decade, objections have been raised about possible linguistic
anomalies or discrepancies in VENONA message 1822. The document revealed today, however, closes these debates. The
original Russian text of that message leaves no doubt that ALES was a
long-term, productive and well-placed GRU agent who employed members of his
family in the espionage network he ran for Moscow. ALES had recently visited
Moscow, after the Yalta conference, and discussed his secret work for GRU, at
least implicitly, with a top Soviet official, whom ALES implied was Foreign
Minister Vyshinskii. If this does not describe Alger Hiss, I challenge scholars
to come up with a more plausible candidate for ALES. The burden of proof must
now rest with those who wish to establish that the agent described in message
1822 is not Alger Hiss.
intent here has been to shed light on an important topic, albeit one hidden
from full view until today. I hope that
by doing so, we can move the debate out of the shadows, away from conjecture
and polemic and onto the firmer historical ground of facts and documents.
wish to thank NSA, particularly the Center for Cryptologic History, for the
opportunity to present this paper. In particular, permit me to thank Dr. David
Hatch and Col. Bill Williams, whose staff work made the release of the Russian
text of message 1822 possible today. Lou Benson, the godfather of VENONA
studies, deserves credit too for ensuring this presentation was possible today.
No less, I wish to thank the National Cryptologic School for linguistic
assistance. And last of all, thank you for listening today.
Dr. John R. Schindler is associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College in
Newport, RI. Until recently he served with the National Security Agency as an
intelligence analyst, counterintelligence officer, and historian. A Ph.D. in
history (McMaster, 1995), Professor Schindler has published widely on
intelligence, strategy, and military history.