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The Fourth Man

Was Alger Hiss a Soviet Agent
Code-Named "Ales"?

In The Sunday Times (London), June 20, 1999, Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the course of a book review of two new Cold War works that Alger Hiss "was known as 'Ales' to his Russian spymasters."

The definitive tone of of this judgment as well as the entire review considers the matter a closed case on the basis of irrefutable evidence. As it turns out, however, the new "evidence" condemning Alger Hiss is even flimsier than the old, if that is possible.

Not long ago, I asked if any of the Cold War historians on the American Society of Professional Journalists discussion list could locate KGB documents mentioned in the following paragraph from the June 27, 1999 New York Times review by Ann Douglas of The View From Alger's Window A Son's Memoir by Tony Hiss.

During World War II, the American military intercepted and decoded key Russian documents recording American espionage carried out under the aegis of the K.G.B.; the file, known as the Venona Project, was finally released to the American public in 1995. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow opened some of its archives to scholars. Both the K.G.B. and the American files, among other documents, confirm Chambers's account, naming Hiss both directly and under an alias (Ales) as a spy for the G.R.U., a separate, military branch of Soviet intelligence. Since the G.R.U.'s archives are still closed, a handful of Hiss supporters continues to doubt his guilt, but for most historians it is all but certain.

I had already searched for these documents myself. Before presuming to draw any conclusions, however, I wanted to see if, perhaps, I had missed anything.

As you know, I'm a little out of touch. The last I heard, the KGB cleared Hiss. The attention this got seemed a little strange to me at the time. What were they going to do, answer, "Yes, you were a spy, one of our best, Comrade Hiss"? Then I heard about KGB documents that proved he was a spy. Well, I gather you can buy anything you want from the KGB in these days of Russian scorched earth capitalism, so that doesn't help much on the Hiss puzzle, does it?

When Ann Douglas's book review assured me that all except hardened Comsymp's were now convinced by unrefutable evidence of Comrade Hiss's guilt, I looked up said evidence on our God-given Infobahn. Here's what I found:

[1] There aren't any KGB documents. The plural is just a symptom of righteous anti-communist enthusiasm. If I am wrong about this I will welcome correction, as I don't like to look slovenly.

Click to see enlarged view of Venona document[2] There is a single document [click on image at left to see it] in English mentioning an agent called "Ales" who was one of four State Department officials who went to Moscow in 1945 after the Yalta conference. This is one of what are described as several thousand items said to be decoded KGB messages from Washington to Moscow released by the CIA and the National Security Agency in 1995.

There are no explanations of why a KGB agent in Washington would be filing a report to Moscow about an event that took place near the Kremlin. I'll concede, however, that it could have been a report from one of their operatives spying on another of their operatives. The original Russian text is not available.

There is nothing in the document that identifies it definitively as coming from the KGB. I looked at a .gif of the document. It looks so bogus that it should be marked "Made in USA" (as in the toys said to have been manufactured in the Japanese city of Usa). The physical document itself was, in fact, manufactured in Washington. The content may or may not have been originally written in Russian and decoded and translated by Americans.

[3] At the bottom of the document, there is a footnote identifying "Ales" as "probably Alger Hiss." You'd think that the KGB would know for sure, I thought at first, but then I realized that the footnote was added by the NSA/CIA/MI functionary who reviewed the document. So this isn't even a direct transcript of a decoded and translated Russian cable, but an annotated copy prepared for public consumption.

[4] The Moynihan report (1997) concluded: "This could only be Alger Hiss, Deputy Director of the State Department’s Office of Special Political Affairs; the other three State Department officials in the delegation from Yalta to Moscow are beyond suspicion."

I just love the last part. It had to be Hiss because .... what? Because it couldn't be any of the others? Is there a technical term for this logical fallacy? Circular reasoning? Mental masturbation?

Here's what I think.

You remember the famous mole hunt that paralyzed the CIA under Angleton? Maybe one of the other three was the mole. If so that's who fingered Hiss.

Until I saw the item from the Moynihan report, I had no idea why they went to all this trouble to make sure that Hiss never was cleared. To protect the mole, of course. If not, why don't they mention the names of the other three?

Now let's get really boring and look at the original case against Alger Hiss.

I last read about the Hiss case in Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician by Roger Morris, nominated for the National Book Award in 1990. Hiss was not convicted of spying but perjury, for having denied under oath that he knew and conspired with a man who called himself Whittaker Chambers and charged that Alger Hiss, like him, had been a communist spy. 

When confronted with Chambers in person, Hiss admitted that he did know him in 1937, but under a different name, Robert Crosley. Hiss sublet him his apartment and tried to help him, let him have his old abandoned Ford. He vehemently denied any other relationship.

Even Whittaker Chambers strongest supporters will freely admit that he was a psychopath and liar. I hate to tell you what his detractors call him.

They had only two pieces of supposedly hard evidence:

[1] Some microfilms of State Department documents that had passed through Hiss's hands that Whittaker Chambers was hiding in a pumpkin -- the famous Pumpkin Papers. Many of the documents were completely innocuous. Others concerned economic, political and economic information that would have been of interest to the Soviet Union.

It was never proved that Hiss had anything to do with the microfilms. Other people also had access to the documents. Chambers actually said that some of the documents came from another State Department official, Henry Julian Wadleigh, who later confessed that he had been Chambers' contact at the State Department, and denied having conspired with Hiss.

When the microfilms first appeared, a Kodak executive said that the serial numbers were post-war, not 1937. Nixon flipped out and Whittaker Chambers contemplated suicide. Kodak called back and reported that it was all a mistake. I never saw any written testimony from Kodak stating the serial numbers and assigning them to the correct years. I've always wanted to check that out.

[2] A Woodstock typewriter on which it was said these documents were typed. The FBI testified that the manuscripts came from a Woodstock which they said the Hiss's owned. The couple did own a Woodstock, and they themselves made it available to the prosecution, but it was not the same one on which the documents were typed. The FBI knew that it was the wrong machine all through both trials and concealed this from the judge and jury and defense, apparently committing perjury to do so.

Roger Morris writes: "The defense's Woodstock -- the typewriter identified on all sides as the necessary incriminating link between the documents, the Hisses, and historic espionage .... was the wrong typewriter.... Examining the FBI files decades later, even historians who believed Alger Hiss in some measure guilty would be shocked by the government's misconduct."

In the final decision on Hiss's last appeal, the judge dismissed the false testimony on the typewriter as irrelevant -- even though the prosecution itself had insisted that the case lived or died on this single piece of evidence.

For those who got this far, my last question: did Ann Young look at the KGB documents? Or did she just get her opinions from the clips? If any of my loyal fans at the Times are reading this, perhaps they will be kind enough to pass it along to her.

My next report will be on the proposed merger between The Washington Times and The New York Times, which will be celebrated by a mass marriage of all employees of the combined organization at Moonie headquarters in Seoul. I have KGB documents to prove this, if anyone dares doubt my accuracy. They are just working out a few details about divorces and gay and lesbian issues and so on. Remember, you read it here first, not on the Drudge Report.


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