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
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
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
1. Trade representatives_Lend-Lease, AMTORG, and the Soviet Government
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
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
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.
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 agentsthat is, spies or cooperating sourcesas
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:
|ANTENNA (later LIBERAL)
||U.S. War Department
||U.S. Department of State
||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.
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 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
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
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
The COMINTERN and the Soviet Intelligence Services
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 Directorateinternal counterintelligenceat
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
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 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
New York Espionage OperationsThe 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.
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 FBIcounter-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.
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 namespersons 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.
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."
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 CHAPTER 4