Venona decrypts and Soviet Penetration of the OSS

Capture Capture
List of Americans working as Soviet agents identified by Bentley. Left, Venona decrypt (1944), partially redacted by NSA on release in 1995. Right, FBI summary of Bentley statement identifying 27 individuals in US government (1948). [NB: these are not necessarily the same list of names, however note “Wheeler” in the Venona, and Halperin, Tenney and Lee. All worked for OSS].

During the war, the US’s nominal ally, the Soviet Union, transmitted secret messages between Moscow and its agents in other countries around the world, especially the US. These messages, which were at first thought to contain only trade or diplomatic information, were encrypted using a supposedly unbreakable one-time pad. But beginning in 1946 the US began to resolve the messages. In a project that came to be known by the codename “Venona,” run by the NSA which was only formally disbanded in 1980, more and more of the messages were solved and exploited. Gradually it became clear the Soviets were running cadres of secret agents, illegals, and spies operating under cover.

Ultimately, using evidence from Venona and from agents who turned themselves in to the FBI (notably Elizabeth Bentley) that the Soviet Union had American agents working in the US government, including the OSS.

The Venona decryptions, which were formally declassified only in the mid-1990s (thanks in part to Senator Patrick Moynihan), are now available online at both the NSA and in a searchable index and concordance form at the Wilson Center.  The Wilson Center additionally contains the “Vassiliev notebooks” in the original Russian and in English translation. These notebooks, which were compiled by Alexander Vassiliev when he was given unprecedented access to the KGB archives in the 1990s, represent an unusual insight into Moscow’s own records. Some of them match up with the (often incompletely exploited) Venona messages.

In addition to the message encryption, the Soviets used cover names (cryptonyms) for their agents, making it difficult to identify the true person being referred to. To assist with this the FBI (and later the CIA) were read in to the Venona program. Perhaps most notoriously, the American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were identified through Venona. Additionally, one of the most important agents the Soviets had, Elizabeth Bentley, became disaffected when Moscow felt the need for more direct control of her network, and turned double agent.

Bentley went to the FBI in August 1945 and revealed that the OSS was penetrated by Soviet agents. (This was not a new accusation; during the latter days of the OSS a number of newspaper articles by Walter Trohan accused the OSS of this and of being an internal police organization or “Gestapo.” The source of Trohan’s material was long thought to be J. Edgar Hoover who had no desire to see a post-war OSS, but Thomas F. Troy, the CIA historian has made the case it was Harry Hopkins–Roosevelt’s closest advisor! Additionally, the “Park Report” which was delivered to President Truman the day after Roosevelt’s death, accused the OSS of lax security and used overlapping language to the Trohan pieces.) Many did not believe Bentley, but the Venona/Vassiliev materials have shown that those OSS people she named were indeed Soviet agents.

In particular, Bentley identified the following OSS personnel:

Helen B. Tenney
Codename: "Muse"
[misspelled as "Tenny" in NARA OSS personnel database]
OSS R&A Iberian branch

Joseph J. Julius
Codename: "Ostorozhnyj" ["Cautious"]
OSS R&A, Far East Division, Civilian Economics

Donald Wheeler
Codename: "Izra"
OSS Editorial Board, R&A

Maurice Halperin
Codename: "Zayats" ["Hare"] and "Stowaway"
OSS R&A, Chief, Latin American Division

Duncan C. Lee
Codename: "Koch"
OSS Executive Assistant to Director Donovan

Two things are notable from this list. First it was the OSS Research and Analysis (R&A) branch that largely housed the Soviet moles, and second in the case of Lee they managed to penetrate quite high into the organization.

One thing to bear in mind here is the question of what materials did this group pass on to Bentley and thence to the Soviets? Was it high-grade material? How frequent was it? And was any of it damaging to US interests? As the McCarthy hearings demonstrate, it can be all too easy to equate Communist sympathy with traitor

(Hayden B. Peake, who has written extensively about Venona, has details about all the figures above, apart from Tenney. See his “OSS and Venona Decrypts” Intelligence and National Security, 12(3), pp. 14-34, 1997. Tenney was only identified as “Muse” from the Vassiliev notebooks in 1998.)

As an example, here is information entered into the record during Congressional hearings in 1948 (the Dies Committee, the precursor to the McCarthy “Un-American Activities” hearings in the early 1950s). This information relates to Maurice Halperin:



As Division Chief you can see that Halperin directed a fairly large section of about 50 people including “political scientists, economists, geographers, historians and anthropologists.” (Halperin died in 1995.)

Here is the declassified (originally marked “Secret”) organization chart showing Halperin at the OSS working under Preston E. “Jimmy” James:


Given that these were R&A personnel it is interesting to examine what they did there, who they worked with, and ultimately get a sense of what information they passed to the Soviets. Their positions were obviously less sensitive than those working on the Manhattan Project, which was also penetrated (think Klaus Fuchs). Nevertheless we are talking about penetration of an intelligence agency and these individuals’ own positions did not necessarily limit the information to which they had access. Those who have written about Venona and Halperin have made differing assessments of his impact. One source credits him with passing significant documents to the Soviets, including cables, while another treats him as a fairly minor source. (Halperin denied charges he was a spy all his life.)

A list of suspected Communist Party members in the OSS was compiled by the OSS [which I’ve not yet seen] in September 1944, which apparently mentioned “Izra” (Wheeler) and “Zayats” (Halperin). Koch was directed by Moscow to obtain the list, which he apparently did. Moscow also directed “Myrna” (a Bentley codename) to cease contacts with the OSS for the time being, since things seemed to be hotting up.

The PDF at the top of this page was sent to “Viktor” in Moscow, ie., the KGB’s foreign intelligence chief (identified by the Wilson Center as Pavel Fitin) from “MAJ” (May), identified by the Wilson Center as Stepan Apresyan, Acting KBG Chief, New York City.

The list contains a list of people the OSS considered “Fellow Countrymen” (members of the CP). The NSA has redacted most of the names but you can see Douglas Wheeler (“Izra”) was indeed included.

Elizabeth Bentley is an interesting character. I must confess I had not previously heard of her, although there are actually two biographies of her and her own autobiography which she wrote in 1951. I’ve ordered these and will read them with interest. She was extremely well-placed, passing her information to her Soviet contact (whose name she did not know until later) and working with the Silvermaster and Perlo spy rings. The FBI has extensive files relating to her known as the “Silvermaster files” which are available here.

Here is the FBI’s compilation of her contacts, 27 names of people who worked in the US government (includes Halperin, Wheeler, Hiss, Lee, Ullman and Rosenberg [later executed for espionage along with his wife]).

Naming these names is obviously a sensitive matter. In many cases accusations have long been levelled that some of these people were victims of McCarthyism (eg., Hiss) and “show trials” (the Rosenbergs). As recently as a decade ago there were still those who denied that Hiss was a spy. Perhaps the example I’ve found most interesting in this regard is that of John Lowenthal, a lawyer who for over 55 years worked to show Hiss was innocent (Lowenthal worked in 1949-50 as a volunteer assistant for the Hiss defense). His brother is David Lowenthal, the well-known geographer/historian, who also apparently denies Hiss was a spy. John Lowenthal’s papers are available at NYU here.

In the case of Halperin, as I mentioned above, he has denied passing any classified information to Bentley, and says he knew her only briefly (according to a book published prior to the Venona releases). Yet according to Peake, “there are at least 18 Venona messages with information attributed to Maurice Halperin.” Kirschner, a colleague who knew him and wrote a book about him ultimately concludes that Bentley is the more credible.

I have scant information on Halperin in my OSS files at the moment, but they do confirm he was in the Latin American division, taking over from Preston E. James. (This may have been a typical OSS re-org., although Kirschner says that James was “involved in a rather messy extra-marital affair” which Donovan found out about and didn’t care for (Kirschner, p. 71). If so, James didn’t go far, he became Chief of the Europe-Africa Division, Topographic Section. Kirschner incorrectly says James had to leave the OSS).


My own take on this at this time is that it is possible to be a victim of McCarthyism (a pernicious and anti-American sentiment) and to be a Soviet “agent.” An agent being someone who knowingly responds to directions from another country for purposes of acquiring secret information.

This makes it sound quite clear. But is it? During the war, the Soviets were a US ally against Nazi Germany. What if you as a leftist or Communist passed information about Nazi activities to the Soviets as an anti-Fascist? Bentley and many of the others were never prosecuted or charged, and not just because it would reveal Venona: she publicly testified many times, beginning in 1948 in addition to her 1945 statements to the FBI.

Another question to consider is to what extent ideological/political biases act to drive one towards a favorite conclusion. There are plenty of people for whom the narrative of traitorous/naive individuals (mostly lefties) passing information to enemies comports with their worldview. This does not disqualify their research but requires the maintenance of a critical attitude to claims made. It also relates to the question of how history should be written–evidence-driven (eg., was Hiss a spy?) or hypothesis-driven (eg., Hiss was a spy).

The reason I come back to these issues is because they are the same ones at play in the case of Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning (or Chelsea Manning as she now asks us to call her). Snowden has been tagged as a “traitor” and by Dr. John Schindler, previously an NSA analyst and now at the Navy War College as a “defector.”

Their cases (especially Snowden’s) raise the issue of how much someone can be doing the bidding of another (even a “friendly” power which however may be conducting intelligence operations against the US). This bidding does not have to be deliberate, it could be inadvertent (which is why Schindler has made much of Snowden having his computer files “drained” by either Chinese or  Russian intelligence.

On the NSA revelations, many of our fears today about them stem from such historical experience of the abuse of power. We learn over and over again that unchecked (that is, without public transparency of some seriousness) powerful means will be abused. This is certainly in the back of my mind as I try to assess competing claims of the activities of the NSA (and the surveillant state more generally). You don’t have to go back to the Red Scare. There’s the evidence of the Church Committee in the 1970s. Probably we need another Church Committee now. Maybe it will be called the Wyden-Udall Committee.

At the moment I am prepared to leave this an open question. I’d like first of all to research the OSS files for Halperin, Wheeler, Lee and Tenney and see what they did in general, as well to investigate the specific material they may have passed to the Soviets.This should be fascinating and provide an interesting context and perspective for today’s ongoing relationship between the public and the US intelligence community.


2 responses to “Venona decrypts and Soviet Penetration of the OSS

  1. Pingback: Still “in denial” ten years later? | Open Geography

  2. Pingback: Jesus, Jimmy | a.nolen

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