Short History of VENONA





In 1943 the Army Signal Intelligence Service, the forerunner to the National Security Agency (NSA), started a project codenamed "VENONA," which concentrated on cracking the Soviet Diplomatic code. Ultimately, after a series of cryptographic breakthroughs over a period of several years, a number of KGB espionage messages were broken, read, and discovered to reveal details of widespread KGB-inspired espionage efforts, including those of the atomic bomb spies.

The counterintelligence payoff from VENONA was significant. It was instrumental in providing the FBI with investigative leads that contributed to the identification of the Rosenberg atomic espionage ring and a number of other agents spying on the atomic bomb program.

In a ceremony at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on 11 July 1995, Director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch announced the release of the VENONA translations of the encrypted Soviet diplomatic communications. In October 1996 a conference on VENONA, cosponsored by CIA, NSA, and the Center for Democracy was held in Washington, D.C. For the conference, CIA and NSA collaborated on producing a publication, called VENONA, Soviet Espionage and The American Response, 1939-1957, as a handbook for scholars interested in VENONA. Anyone interested in this chapter of American counterintelligence should also use the VENONA volume as well as look at the 2,900 Soviet messages on the Internet.


Short History of Venona

On 1 February 1943, the US Army's Signal Intelligence Service, a forerunner of the National Service Agency, began a small, very secret program, later codenamed VENONA. The object of the VENONA program was to examine, and possibly exploit, encrypted Soviet diplomatic communi-cations. These messages had been accumulated by the Signal Intelligence Service (later renamed the US Army Signal Security Agency and commonly called "Arlington Hall" after the Virginia location of its headquarters) since 1939 but had not been studied previously. Miss Gene Grabeel, a young Signal Intelligence Service employee who had been a school teacher only weeks earlier, started the project.

The accumulated message traffic comprised an unsorted collection of thousands of Soviet diplomatic telegrams that had been sent from Moscow to certain of its diplomatic missions and from those missions to Moscow. During the first months of the project, Arlington Hall analysts sorted the traffic by diplomatic missions and by cryptographic system or subscriber.

Initial analysis indicated that five cryptographic systems, later determined to be employed by different subscribers, were in use between Moscow and a number of Soviet overseas missions. It also became apparent that one system involved trade matters, especially Lend-Lease. The other four systems appeared to involve the Soviet Foreign Ministry in Moscow in communication with its missions abroad.

Further analysis showed that each one of the five systems was used exclusively by one of the following subscribers (listed in descending order according to the volume of message traffic, which had been collected):

1. Trade representatives_Lend-Lease, AMTORG, and the Soviet Government Purchasing Commission.

2. Diplomats_That is members of the diplomatic corps in the conduct of legitimate Soviet Embassy and consular business.

3. KGB_the Soviet espionage agency, headquarters in Moscow and Residencies (stations) abroad.

4. GRU_the Soviet Army General Staff Intelligence Directorate and attaches abroad.

5. GRU_Naval-Soviet Naval Intelligence Staff.

The VENONA Breakthroughs
From the very beginning in February 1943, the analysis of the traffic proved slow and difficult. Then in October 1943, Lt. Richard Hallock, a Signal Corps reserve officer who had been a peacetime archaeologist at the University of Chicago, discovered a weakness in the cryptographic system of the Soviet trade traffic. This discovery provided a tool for further analytic progress on the other four cryptographic systems.

During 1944, the skills of other expert cryptanalysts were brought to bear on this Soviet message traffic to see if any of the encryption systems of the messages could be broken. One of these cryptanalysts, Cecil Phillips, made observations, which led to a funda-mental break into the cipher system used by the KGB, although he did not know at the time who used the system. The messages were double-encrypted and of enormous difficulty. In spite of Arlington Hall's extraordinary cryptanalytic breakthroughs, it was to take almost two more years before parts of any of these KGB messages could be read or even be recognized as KGB rather than standard diplomatic communications.

Three closely spaced counterintelligence events occurred in 1945 that VENONA decrypts were able to amplify. First, the FBI carefully questioned Whittaker Chambers, whose earlier efforts to disclose details about Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1930s had gone unheeded. Second, Igor Gouzenko, a GRU code clerk, defected in Ottawa. Third, in late 1945 Elizabeth Bentley, a veteran KGB courier and auxiliary agent handler, went to the FBI and named names. While Gouzenko's revelations were important to Allied counterintelligence efforts, they had no bearing on the VENONA breakthroughs. Strong cryptographic systems like those in the VENONA family of systems do not fall easily.

The VENONA decrypts were, however, to show the accuracy of Chambers' and Bentley's disclosures.

In the summer of 1946, Meredith Gardener, an Arlington Hall analyst, began to read portions of KGB messages that had been sent between the KGB Residency in New York and Moscow Center. On 31 July 1946, he extracted a phrase from a KGB New York message that had been sent to Moscow on 10 August 1944. This message, on later analysis, proved to be a discussion of clandestine KGB activity in Latin America. On 13 December, Gardner was able to read a KGB message that discussed the US presidential election campaign of 1944. A week later, on 20 December 1946, he broke into another KGB message that had been sent to Moscow Center two years earlier which contained a list of names of the leading scientists working on the Manhattan Project-the atomic bomb!

In late April or early May 1947, Gardner was able to read two KGB messages sent in December 1944 that show that someone inside the War Department General Staff was providing highly classified information to the Soviets.

US Army intelligence, G-2, became alarmed at the information that was coming out of Arlington Hall. An Arlington Hall report on 22 July 1947 showed that the Soviet message traffic contained dozens, probably hundreds, of covernames, many of KGB agents, including ANTENNA and LIBERAL (later identified as Julius Rosenburg). One message mentioned that LIBERAL's wife was named "Ethel."

Gen. Carter W. Clarke, the assistant G-2, called the FBI liaison officer to G-2 and told him that the Army had begun to break into Soviet intelligence service traffic and that the traffic indicated a massive Soviet espionage effort in the United States.

Gen. Carter W. Clarke

In October 1948, FBI special agent Robert Lamphere joined the VENONA Project full-time as the FBI's liaison and case controller for the VENONA espionage material. Also, by 1948 the British joined the VENONA effort, in particular, their signal intelligence service assigned full-time analysts to Arlington Hall. There was excellent cooperation between the two US agencies and the UK over the many years of VENONA, in large measure a result of the early efforts of Robert Lamphere and Meredith Gardner.

Robert Lamphere

Covernames in VENONA
The VENONA messages are filled with hundreds of covernames (designations used in place of the real names to hide identities of Soviet intelligence officers and agents—that is, spies or cooperating sources—as well as organizations, people, or places discussed in the encrypted messages). A number of public figures were also designated by covernames, while others in that category appear in the text of the messages by their names. The following are examples of covernames recovered from the VENONA corpus:

Covername True Name
KAPITAN President Roosevelt
ANTENNA (later LIBERAL) Julius Rosenberg
BABYLON San Francisco
ARSENAL U.S. War Department
THE BANK U.S. Department of State
ENORMOZ Manhattan Project/A-bomb
ANTON Leonid Kvasnikov, KGB

Arlington Hall and the FBI studied the covernames for leads to identities, grouping them into families of covernames. Some covernames came from mythology, some were Russian given names, and other were names of fish, etc. KAPITAN was easily identified from the context as a good covername for President Roosevelt, but his covername was, nevertheless, outranked by those of persons of lower station, including KGB operatives covernamed PRINCE, DUKE, and GOD. Other KGB assets were just plain BOB, TOM, and JOHN, while Elizabeth Bentley had the covername GOOD GIRL. Very rarely, the KGB was careless in choosing a covername. For example, the covername FROST was used for KGB agent Boris Moros. The Russian word for "frost" is Moroz."

The VENONA Translations
There were about 2,200 VENONA messages translated. The VENONA translations released to the public often show an unexpectedly recent date of translation because the breaking of strong cryptographic systems is an iterative process requiring trial and error and reapplication of new discoveries leading to additional ones. Consequently, a message may have been reworked many times over the years as new discoveries enabled progress in the decryption and understanding of more and more of the text. Partial information was available from many messages as early as 1947 and later that year was provided to the FBI. Almost all of the KGB messages between Moscow and New York and Moscow and Washington of 1944 and 1945 that could be broken at all were broken, to a greater or lesser degree, between 1947 and 1952.

There are still unreadable gaps in the translated messages. These are indicated as a number of code groups "unrecovered" or "unrecoverable." This means that the cryptanalysts were unable to break those portions of the messages.

Success Rate
The serial number of the VENONA messages indicate that the KGB and GRU sent thousands of messages between Moscow and the overseas recipients. Only a fraction of the total messages sent and received were available to the cryptanalysts. The messages, which have been exploited were never exploited in real time. In 1946, Meredith Gardner was working on KGB messages of 1944.

Arlington Hall's ability to read the VENONA messages was spotty, being a function of the underlying code, key changes, and the lack of volume.
Of the message traffic from the KGB New York office to Moscow, 49 percent of the 1944 messages and 15 percent of the 1943 messages were readable, but this was true of only 1.8 percent of the 1942 messages. For the 1945 KGB Washington office to Moscow messages, only 1.5 percent was readable. About 50 percent of the 1943 GRU-Naval Washington to Moscow messages were read, but none from any other year.

VENONA Myths and Misunderstandings
In spite of what has been written in a number of books and articles, Arlington Hall made the VENONA breakthroughs purely through sweat-of-the-brow analysis. There was no cryptanalytic assistance for Lt. Richard Hallock, Cecil Phillips, or Meredith Gardner and their colleagues from lost, discovered, or battlefield-recovered Soviet codebooks during the years in which the main analytic breakthroughs were made. It was not until 1953 that a photocopy of a partially burned codebook (recovered by US Military Intelligence in 1945) was discovered to be related to the VENONA crypto-graphic systems after another cryptanalytic breakthrough. The successful decryption of the VENONA messages was a triumph of analysis by a small group of intelligent and dedicated women and men working long hours in their cramped offices at Arlington Hall.

Messages from the KGB New York Residency to Moscow Center
Although KGB and GRU communications between New York and Moscow during 1939-1941 were in cryptographic systems that could not be broken, a comparison of the New York_Moscow KGB, and GRU message counts between these years indicates that, at least in the United States, the GRU may have been the more active Soviet intelligence agency up until that time. For example, in 1940, the NY GRU sent an estimated 992 messages to Moscow while the KGB sent only an estimated 335 messages. Furthermore, later translations of 1944 and 1945 messages show that a number of KGB espionage personalities had previously been GRU assets (or possibly COMINTERN agents under GRU control). In 1942 there were nearly 1,300 KGB New York_Moscow messages, but only 23 were successfully decrypted and translated. In 1943, however, there were a little over 1,300 messages with over 200 decrypted and translated.

The COMINTERN and the Soviet Intelligence Services
The COMINTERN (Communist International) was a Soviet-controlled organization that conducted liaison with the national communist parties of various countries, including the United States, in order to further the cause of revolution. Moscow issued guidance, support, and orders to the parties through the apparatus of the COMINTERN. Nevertheless, Stalin publicly disbanded the COMINTERN in 1943. A Moscow message to all stations on 12 September 1943, message number 142, relating to this event is one of the most interesting and historically important messages in the enter corpus of VENONA translations. This message clearly discloses the KGB's connection to the COMINTERN and to the national Communist parties. The message details instructions for handling intelligence sources within the Communist Party after the disestablishment of the COMINTERN. The translation of the Moscow-Canberra message was the only message of those sent to all the Residencies that was successfully decrypted.

KGB Organization in the United States
During the VENONA period, the KGB had US Residencies in New York, Washington, and San Francisco__the latter residency was not established (or possibly reestablished) until December 1941. There was also a geographic Subresidency in Los Angeles.

The translations show that the KGB New York Residency operated under three official institutional cover arrangements-the Soviet Consulate, the trade
mission (AMTORG/Soviet Government Purchasing Commission), and TASS, the Soviet news agency. Other KGB officers worked at various locations around the United States under Purchasing Commission cover, often as factory inspectors working on Lend-Lease matters.

During 1942, Gen. Vassili M. Zubilin (true name: Zarubin) was the KGB Resident (chief) in New York. Zubilin, known in VENONA by the covername MAXIM, signed many KGB telegrams. His wife, Elizabeth, was a KGB colonel who had the covername VARDO. There are indications that Zubilin/MAXIM was the senior KGB officer in the United States. For example, the KGB Residency in Washington did not send messages until late 1943 after Zubilin arrived there. Before that, New York sent the Washington espionage messages.

All KGB Residencies abroad came under the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence) of the Moscow Center. Lt. Gen. Pavel Fitin, covername VICTOR, ran the First Chief Directorate, and most VENONA messages from the Residencies are addressed to him.

Although most or all KGB officers in New York worked for the First Chief Directorate, their day-to-day operations were defined by what the KGB called a "Line." A Line worked against a specific target set or carried out some specialized function. A number of Lines are mentioned in the VENONA translations, and their specialization can be either identified or easily inferred. Some, not all, of these may be seen in the 1942-43 messages:

Line Target or Function
KhU Line: High-tech targets, including the Manhattan Project, jet engines, rocket engines, radar (Julius Rosenberg's group worked under this Line).

White Line: Probably worked against the White Russians.

Fifth Line: Security of the Soviet Merchant Fleet (probably connected to the Second Chief Directorate—internal counterintelligence—at Moscow Center.

Second Line: Watching nationalist or minority groups of interest to the Soviet state (for example, the Ukrainians).

Technical Line "A": Special work such as document forgery.

Fellow Countryman Line: Liaison with the American Communist Party.

Line of Cover: The institutional or personal cover of the KGB officer.

Other organizations referenced in the VENONA materials include the Eighth Department at Moscow Center, which evaluated political intelligence; the special cipher office, which encrypted and decrypted the telegrams; the Center-KGB headquarters; and the "House" or "Big House," which probably meant the COMINTERN headquarters in Moscow (although it sometimes appears to be used interchangeably for Moscow Center).

Telegrams sent by the KGB Residency in New York were usually signed by the Resident (MAXIM, LUKA, or MAJ) and were addressed to VIKTOR, head of the First Chief Directorate. Sometimes telegrams were signed with the covername ANTON, head of the KhU Line, since Moscow Center gave him special authority to do so in 1944. In special circumstances, telegrams were addressed to or received from PETROV, believed to have been L.P. Beria, head of the Soviet security apparatus; however, PETROV might also have been V.N. Merkulov, a principal deputy of Beria, who probably headed KGB operations from the latter part of 1943.

At least in the case of the New York Residency, we see what probably was the KGB in transition-trying to organize its espionage activities better while sorting out the impact of the dissolution of the COMINTERN. We also see considerable KGB interest in European and Latin American Communists, which presented opportunities for subversion, a classic COMINTERN methodology, rather than espionage. Nonetheless, the New York Residency had many espionage assets during this period and was aggressive, even reckless, and imaginative in trying to recruit or place people in sensitive positions.

The activities of a Soviet Illegal: MER/ALBERT (covername for KGB officer Iskak Akhmerov, who operated as a clothier) is seen in VENONA, which also provides some insight into Illegals used by Soviet intelligence. Although only the activities of Akhmerov and a GRU-naval operation involving an illegal are presented in some detail, there is a small number of other cases of illegals mentioned. An Illegal was usually a Soviet citizen, a KGB or GRU officer, who operated under an alias with no visible connection to official Soviet establishments. Illegals had no diplomatic immunity, usually entering the country illegally-hence the term.

The Washington KGB Residency
Except for its agents working against high-tech targets such as the atomic bomb project, the most important KGB sources were in Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, VENONA shows that the New York Residency apparently ran these Washington-based espionage nets. In late 1943 the Washington Residency began to run some of its agents but it was not until 1945 that they finally took charge of most of its agents. Vassili Zubilin, who was the KGB Resident in New York, moved to Washington during 1943 and became Resident. After his move, the Washington Residency began sending messages in increasing volume. When Zubilin was recalled to Moscow in 1944, Anatoliy Gromov, covername VADIM, replaced him in Washington. Gromov (actual last name Gorsky) was also a senior officer, in his late thirties, who had served for the preceding four years as the KGB Resident in London. American spymaster and courier for the KGB, Elizabeth Bentley, knew him only as "Al."

New York Espionage Operations—The New KGB
In 1944, covername MAJ, believed to have been Stepan Apresyian, became the KGB Resident in New York. According to a complaint to Moscow Center by his co-Resident or subordinate, covername SERGEJ, MAJ was a young, inexperienced officer who had not previously been posted abroad. Apresyian was about 28 years old; he operated in New York under the cover of vice consul. While we do not know why MAJ was elevated early to senior KGB rank, there were other major changes in KGB espionage operations.

Moscow Center and the New York Residency intended to take a more direct control of some existing espionage nets that had been run for the KGB by American Communists such as Jacob Golos (covername ZVUK) and Greg Silverman (covernames PEL and ROBERT). And, as MAJ reported to Moscow, the time might come when the KGB would need to have espionage nets not recruited from within the Communist Party.

All of this relates to the dissolution of the COMNINTERN. The transition was resisted by American spies, Greg Silverman and Elizabeth Bentley, as well as by some of their agents. They complained that Moscow did not trust them and that, as a practical matter, the KGB would be less successful in running espionage operations if they put their officers in direct contact with the agents, bypassing the old guard Communist Party controllers. Perhaps mindful of this, the KGB introduced the Illegal Albert into their espionage operations. Silvermaster, Elizabeth Bentley, some of their individual agents, and members of the "new network" were now to fall under Albert's control.

KGB Operations
Information in the VENONA materials reveals KGB tradecraft (that is, the practical means and methods of espionage and counterespionage) of the time in great detail. Most VENONA messages concern operational/tradecraft matters. The sheer volume of data collected by KGB stations abroad was too great to be reported by telegram; instead the VENONA messages indicated that photocopies of classified documents went to Moscow by courier. In one translation, KGB in New York informed Moscow that it had 56 rolls of film from their agent, covernamed ROBERT, and that this trove of classified material was to be sent off by courier to Moscow Center.

Information in VENONA translations describes the KGB's modus operandi in arranging meetings with their agents, with much attention given to the security of these secret meetings. Other messages describe KGB countermeasures against FBI—counter-surveillance, detection of bugging devices, and ensuring the loyalty of Soviet personnel in the United States. A particularly fascinating set of VENONA messages describes the KGB's efforts to locate Soviet sailors who had deserted from merchant ships in San Francisco and other US ports. Some of the most interesting messages detail KGB assessment and recruitment of American Communists for espionage work.

KGB and GRU Spies and Assets in the United States
Over 200 named or covernamed persons found in the VENONA translations, persons then present in the United States, are claimed by the KGB and the GRU in their messages as their clandestine assets or contacts. Many of these persons have been identified, many have not been. These approximately 200 persons are separate from the many KGB and GRU officers who also appear in VENONA. One such asset, ROBERT, is found in VENONA translations several dozen times. Other covernamed persons were found only few times. The majority of unidentified covernames in the New York KGB traffic appear three or less times

KGB Espionage Against the VENONA Program
A number of sources outside of signals intelligence reveal that the KGB learned early on that the United States had begun to study Soviet communications. In late 1945, KGB agent Elizabeth Bentley told the FBI that the KGB had acquired some limited information about the US effort during 1944. Kim Philby, while assigned to Washington, D.C.,
1949-1951, occasionally visited Arlington Hall for discussions about VENONA; furthermore, he regularly received copies of summaries of VENONA translations as part of his official duties. Although the Soviets knew what Arlington Hall was accomplishing, they could not, at any rate, get the message back.

The Rosenberg/Atomic Bomb Espionage Messages
All but two of the 49 VENONA translations, that have been identified as associated with atomic bomb espionage messages, are KGB traffic; one is a GRU and one a Soviet diplomatic messages.

These messages disclose some of the clandestine activities of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, David and Ruth Greenglass, and others. The role played by the person covernamed PERS associated with the atomic bomb espionage remains unidentified to this day.

VENONA messages show that KGB officer Leonid Kvasnikov, covername ANTON, headed atomic bomb espionage in the United States, but that he, like the Rosenbergs who came under his control, had many other high-tech espionage targets such as the US jet aircraft program, developments in radar and rockets, etc. As with most VENONA messages, the Rosenberg messages contain much information relating to KGB net control and tradecraft matters.

Elizabeth Bentley
In 1945, Elizabeth Bentley, a KGB agent who also ran a network of spies and served as courier, went to the FBI to describe Soviet espionage in the United States and her part in it. She gave a 100-page statement, in which she provided many names—persons in positions of trust who, she told the FBI, were secretly supplying information to the KGB. However, she brought no documentary proof. No espionage prosecutions resulted directly from her accusations. Over the years she testified before Congress and in court and also published a book about her espionage career. Elizabeth Bentley was a controversial figure, and there were many who discounted her information. Ms. Bentley appears in the VENONA translations (covernames UMNITSA, GOOD GIRL, and MYRNA) as do dozens of KGB agents and officers whom she named to the FBI. VENONA confirms much of the information about Soviet espionage that Ms. Bentley provided the FBI.

Elizabeth Bentley

Boris Morros
Boris Morros was, like Ms. Bentley, another controversial figure of the Cold War. In 1959 he wrote an often criticized book, My Ten Years as a Counterspy, in which he described his long association with the KGB and his decision to go to the FBI with the story of KGB operations in the United States. In the book he wrote about various personalities who are referred to in VENONA, including Zubilin and Jack Soble. Morros appears in VENONA as covername FROST. In his book, Morros described how KGB agent Alfred Stern provided his own money to fund a musical company, managed by Morros, as a KGB front and a cover for international intelligence operations. This operation is confirmed in VENONA-Stern (covername LUI) is quoted as saying his "130,000 dollar investment is exhausted" but also that "I want to reaffirm my desire to be helpful. My resources are sufficient for any solid constructive purpose."

Donald Maclean
Longtime KGB agent Donald Maclean, covername HOMER, a senior British diplomat posted to Washington during the 1940s, is found in several VENONA messages all sent during 1944. He was neutralized because of information from VENONA. Because only a small body of the Washington messages from a limited window were read, there is only a glimpse of Maclean's involvement, but ample opportunity to see the type of important information he was providing to the Soviets.

HOMER is the English rendition of the Russian covername spelling GOMER. (The Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian has no letter representing the sound "h" of the Roman alphabet, and foreign words are regularly spelled with the Cyrillic equivalent of "g.")

Meredith Gardner, Arlington Hall's principal VENONA analyst in the early days, began to break HOMER messages as early as 1947/48, but the story did not come together immediately as the covername was variously represented in the messages as GOMMER (a KGB misspelling), GOMER, G., and "Material G." Initially, it was not apparent that these were all references to the same person, particularly as both New York and Washington traffic was involved, and Gardner worked the NYC traffic first.

The VENONA program concerned KGB and GRU messages that were available to Arlington Hall codebreakers. Most of the messages which were collected were not successfully decrypted, and, short of a release of the KGB and GRU archives from the period, we may never know more about the KGB and GRU activities represented in the VENONA corpus of messages.


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