Atomic Spies

I just watched a NOVA episode called Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies about the betrayal of our A-bomb secrets to the Soviets in the period immediately following WWII. The reason it was on NOVA instead of the History Channel was that it involved a classic case of code breaking by a top-secret project called Venona. The project was made public in 1995 after the breakup of the Soviet Union led to declassification of some of their KGB records.

In the 1940s, the Soviets (and presumably the US) were using a potentially unbreakable cipher called a one-time pad in which the random numbers used to encode the message are used only once. Venona was able to break the code because some Soviets did not follow procedures and used some pads more than once. This allowed code-breakers to find duplicate entries and eventually identify words in the messages.

There were hundreds of Soviet spies working in various government offices in the forties, and many of them were named in the documents intercepted by Venona. This would seem to vindicate Senator Joe McCarthy (D. Wis.) whose “witch hunts” against suspected communists in the 50s has become legendary. However, McCarthy, who apparently knew nothing of the Venona project, uncovered very few real communists while besmirching the names of scores of innocent people. Nonetheless, Venona at least partially justifies McCarthy’s paranoia. Venona did identify a few spies early on, including the Rosenbergs, who were executed in 1953, and scientists at the Los Alamos nuclear facility. Only the Rosenbergs paid for their crime, the others escaping prosecution at least partly to protect the secrecy of the decoding breakthrough.

Possibly the biggest spy who got away was Ted Hall, a physics prodigy who committed his first act of espionage when he was 19. I think it could be said that this was the act of a person of high intelligence but poor judgment. He died in 1999 without fully admitting his espionage.

In 1948, another spy, who had infiltrated Venona, tipped off the Russians that their code had been broken, and from then on they corrected the mistakes that had allowed earlier messages to be compromised. The National Security Agency, instead of making the Venona project and its findings public at that time, kept them secret for another 5 decades. Why? Good question.

My thoughts on the issue are that secrecy in a free society is no virtue. While there are legitimate reasons for keeping government information secret, such as national security, I believe these circumstances are rare, and even then do not serve democracy well. Through the years, numerous people, including their descendants, have asserted the innocence of the Rosenbergs, but Venona proves that this conclusion is untenable. In addition, we now know that other spies got off scot-free or with minimal punishment. The McCarthy hearings in the early 50s were dismissed as the rantings of a drunken demagogue, and maybe they were, but we now know that McCarthy’s worst fears were in fact true. Our government was replete with Soviet spies at many levels, dating back to the time when they were our allies. Who knows how revealing this fact earlier might have changed the cold war?

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