Venona and "ALES"
In 1995, the existence of the Venona project was revealed to the public. This project had resulted in the decryption or partial decryption of thousands of telegrams sent to the Soviet Union from its U.S. operatives in the years 1942 to 1945. FBI Special Agent Robert Lamphere identified the Soviet spy known by the codename “ALES” in one decoded cable as “probably Alger Hiss”. In 1997, the bipartisan Moynihan Commission on Government Secrecy, chaired by Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, stated in its findings: “The complicity of Alger Hiss of the State Department seems settled. As does that of Harry Dexter White of the Treasury Department.” In his 1998 book Secrecy: The American Experience, Moynihan wrote, “Belief in the guilt or innocence of Alger Hiss became a defining issue in American intellectual life. Parts of the American government had conclusive evidence of his guilt, but they never told.” In addition to Moynihan, the identification of Hiss as ALES has been accepted by many other authors, including John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. National Security Agency analysts have also gone on record asserting that ALES could only have been Alger Hiss. In the second edition of his book Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Allen Weinstein calls the Venona evidence “persuasive but not conclusive.” Former KGB operative Alexander Vassiliev, who researched Soviet intelligence files alongside Weinstein, testified in court, “I never saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss.”
The Venona transcript with the most relevance to the Hiss case is #1822, sent March 30, 1945, from the Soviets’ Washington station chief to Moscow. This transcript indicates that ALES attended the Yalta conference and then went to Moscow. Hiss attended Yalta and then traveled to Moscow in his capacity as adviser to Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.
However, the Venona evidence on Alger Hiss is disputed by some. John Lowenthal has challenged the Hiss-ALES identification in Venona #1822 by the following:
ALES was said to be the leader of a small group of espionage agents; Hiss was accused of having acted alone, aside from his wife as a typist and Chambers as courier.
ALES was a GRU (military intelligence) agent who obtained military intelligence, and only rarely provided State Department material; Alger Hiss in his trial was accused of obtaining only non-military information and the papers used against him were non-military State Department materials that he allegedly produced on a regular basis.
Even if Hiss was the spy he was accused of being, it’s unlikely he would have continued being so after 1938 as ALES did, because in that year Hiss would have become too great a risk for any Soviet agency to use. In that year, Whittaker Chambers broke with the Communist Party and then went into hiding, telling his Communist Party colleagues he would denounce them if they did not follow suit. At this point therefore, ALES’s cover would be in extreme jeopardy if he were Alger Hiss.
Other recent information places ALES in Mexico City at the same time when Hiss was known to be in Washington.
Lowenthal also suggested an interpretation of the transcript that differs from Lamphere’s reading. Lowenthal’s reading does not put ALES at the Yalta conference at all, but rather refers to the presence at Yalta of Andrey Vyshinsky, the Soviet deputy foreign minister. According to Lowenthal, the entire point of paragraph 6 of Venona #1822—that the GRU asked Vyshinsky to get in touch with ALES to convey thanks from the GRU for a job well done—would have been unnecessary if ALES had actually been in Moscow, because the GRU could have easily contacted ALES with no need of Vyshinsky. Others, notably Eduard Mark, dispute Lowenthal’s analysis on this point. In the opinion of intelligence historian John R. Schindler, the original Russian text of Venona #1822 (released in 2005), removes some of the ambiguity present in the English translation and confirms ALES’s presence at Yalta. Schindler concludes “the identification of ALES as Alger Hiss, made by the U.S. Government more than a half-century ago, seems exceptionally solid based on the evidence now available; message 1822 is only one piece of that evidence, yet a compelling one.”
Also in rebuttal to Lowenthal, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr noted the following:
None of the evidence presented at the Hiss trial precludes the possibility that Hiss had been an espionage agent after 1938 or that he had only passed State Department documents after 1938.
Chambers’s charges were not seriously investigated until after the revelations made by the defection of Elizabeth Bentley in 1945, so Hiss and the Soviets could in theory have considered it an acceptable risk for him continue espionage work, even after Chambers’s defection.
Vyshinsky was not in the U.S. between Yalta and the time of the Venona message and the message is from the Washington KGB station reporting on a talk with Ales in the U.S., thus making Lowenthal’s analysis impossible.
There is one Venona cable, #1579, that includes the name “Hiss.” This partially decrypted cable consists of fragments of a 1943 message from the GRU chief in New York to GRU headquarters in Moscow. The reference reads: “…from the State Department by name of HISS…” The name “Hiss” appeared “Spelled out in the Latin alphabet” according to a footnote by the cryptanalysts. In the cable, “Hiss” goes without a first name, so it could possibly refer to either Alger or Donald, since both were at the State Department in 1943. Lowenthal argues that for the GRU to name Hiss openly, not by a codename, would be highly unorthodox if he was, indeed, a spy. Once Soviet intelligence assigned a codename to an agent, it would be highly unusual for their actual name to be used in a coded transmission.
At an April 2007 symposium, authors Kai Bird and Svetlana Chervonnaya presented evidence that a U.S. diplomat named Wilder Foote was the best match to ALES, based on the movements of all the officials present at the U.S.-Soviet Yalta conference. In particular, Bird and Chervonnaya noted that Foote had been in Mexico City at a time when a Soviet cable placed ALES there, whereas Hiss had left Mexico several days earlier (see above). Other authors have disputed the likelihood that Foote was ALES, noting that Foote doesn’t fit known information about ALES, and saying that the author of the Soviet cable could have been mistaken in stating that ALES was still in Mexico City.