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9 March 2000
Source: Hardcopy The Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2000

Letters to the Editor

Decrypting Cold War Espionage Codes

In regard to " 'McCarthyism' Is Becoming Orwellian" by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, editorial page, Feb. 9, and the March 1 Letter to the Editor "McCarthy Was Right About One Thing" by Arthur Herman, visiting associate professor of history, George Mason University:

By this time the Venona decryptions first promulgated by the National Security Agency in 1995 have been integrated into the given "facts'' category and are now used to rehabilitate McCarthy. No one has questioned the veracity of these decryptions. As it turns out, the FBI was called into the Venona project in 1947 not to help with the actual decryption, but to try to piece together its files with the partial decryptions of the NSA. As an example of the error such methods can create, the code names currently ascribed to Julius Rosenberg, antenna and liberal, were pinned on Joseph Weichbrod, until David Greenglass implicated his brother-in-law, and only then were they connected with Julius. Apparently an easy switch, which should raise some questions.

In the course of getting various files from the government agencies, my attorney was given several cover letters dated 1947 involving an intra-agency transfer of various decrypts made at that time. As I was to learn from Mr. Benson of the NSA, the decrypts accompanying the cover letters were not copies of the originals, but were later decrypts, made after the FBI had entered the Venona project.

Interestingly, the FBI helps shed some light on this very question in a memorandum dated February 1956, on the possible use of Venona for prosecutions, posted on their Website, "" at "Venona." Page 4 details the cooperation between the FBI and the decrypters: "The messages . . . are, for the most part, very fragmentary and full of gaps"; it concludes, "It is for such reasons that has indicated that almost anything included in a translation of one of these decrypted messages may in the future be radically revised." Viz: The switch from Weichbrod to Rosenberg.

If this is so it would certainly be interesting to see what these earlier decrypts looked like. It is one thing to decrypt coded messages cold, and quite another to decrypt when one has "leads." How much tailoring there was, to fit the "leads." remains to be seen. Mr. Benson said he would look into getting me those earlier decrypts, which were supposed to have been sent to my attorney in the first place. But then it turned out that they were not available.

The NSA makes the claim that "The preservation of NSA's ability to use specific cryptanalytic techniques and the resulting success or failure at exploitation using those techniques must be kept in greatest secrecy." As I wrote them in my Notice of Appeal, "To protect the NSA's pre-computer cryptanalytic methodology because it might have some bearing on today's methodology . . . is nothing less than a joke."

I have received the final denial from the NSA and am ready to proceed in the courts .


San Francisco

(Mr Sobell was convicted with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg of "conspiracy to commit espionage" in 1951 (a conviction that Mr. Sobell contends was achieved through government-sponsored perjury) and served more than 18 years in prison.)

Cryptome spoke with Morton Sobell this morning. He said he is one of the first to critique the easy-to-spot FBI bias of the Venona-decrypt interpretations and that the lack of other such critiques is peculiar. We discussed why narrative text is often more beguiling to writers than code, and why the FBI and historians want compelling stories without gaps not the indecipherable shards which cryptanalysts ponder for years in search of elusive accuracy.

We said it is noteworthy that The Wall Street Journal had featured his letter, that perhaps it is due to Journal's recognition of the importance of cryptography for electronic commerce since the Cold War. Mr. Sobell agreed; and said The New York Times had refused to publish a similar letter five weeks ago.

He has additional information and views on this matter and welcomes inquiries, especially from those with an interest in how the NSA, FBI and historians have creatively interpreted the Venona decrypts to fit intentions. The NSA's refusal to release outdated decrypt material is a challenge for which Mr. Sobell solicits support and advice from the cryptographic community.

He may be reached at:; tel: 415-826-2075.