World War II: United States Cracking Soviet Codes--The Venona Papers


Figure 1.--.

The United States along with Finland and the Axis countries cracked some of the Soviet World war II codes. The U.S. Army's top-secret Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), the forerunner of the National Security Agency (NSA), began working on Soviet secret messages (February 1943) hoping to crack the dioplomatic code. SIS code named the effort JADE, BRIDE and DRUG, but it eventually became known as VENONA. Venona is just a code name and has no geographic connotation. The project was ininiated by Ms. Gene Grabeel, but military personnel soon took over the program. The Venona work was conducted at Arlington Hall. As the effort progressed the SIS obtained a range of Soviet messages. Many were fromm the Soviet Trade Office working with Lend Lease, but there were messages from any other agencies as well, including the Soviet military and intelligemce services. From an early stage, the SIS staff determined that the messages came from five different agencies with separate encryption systems. Although the effort began during the War, the SIS did not suceed in reading many of the messages until after the War. Many of the messages the United States had to work with were messages associated with the Soviet Trade Office involved with Lend Lease. The first success came fairly quickly. Richard Hallock, an Army Signal Corps lieutenant and trained an archaeologist (who worked with ancient writing systems) suceeded in developing insights into the system being used by Soviet trade officials who were relatively lax in their security measures (October 1943). This provided clues to other cryptologists working on messages from other Soviet agencies. Cecil Phillips managed to develop a beginning understanding of NKVD messages (1944). This was a more difficult undertaking because the NKVD more carefully protected their messages, using double encryption. As a result, it would take 2 years of work to actually read any of the NKVD messages. The Venona was assisted after the Germans surrendered (May 1945). Army security officers were able to obtain access to the German work on Soviet codes. Meredith Garner decrypted the first portions of the NKVD messages (Summer 1946). The results were starteling. It was clear by 1947 that Soviet agents had penetrated a variety of U.S. Government agencies. The British joined the effort and sent two of their cryptologists to Arlington Hall (1948). The Soviets found out about the effort at an early stage. As information on Soviet espionage emerged, the Venona group contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). FBI Agent Robert J. Lamphere who was given access to the Venona decrypts. [Goebel] The American decrypts are today known as the Verona papers and provided valuable insights into Soviet espionage operations in the United States. They thus become more of a Cold War than a World War II story. Arlington Hall by 1952 had decrypted most of the messages that would be decrypted by 1953, but some of the messages were still being decrypted in the 1970s.

World War II

The United States along with Finland and the Axis countries cracked some of the Soviet World war II codes. The Finns got ahold of partially burned code books from the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki during World War II. The OSS obtained some of this material, but was ordered to return it to the Soviet Embassy. The Venona effort was assisted after the Germans surrendered (May 1945). Army security officers were able to obtain access to the German work on Soviet codes.

Soviet Codes

We do not yet have a good understanding of Soviet codes during World War II. There seem to have been quite a number of codes with several different agencies having their own codes. In addition to the military services and Foreign Ministry, several other agencies had code systems. One was Soviet trade offices which had an especially important unit with a considerable amount of traffic working with the American on Lend-Lease. This group included the Soviet Trade Organization (AMTORG) and the Soviet Government Purchasing Commission. Other codes were adopted by Soviet intelligence (NKVD/KGB), Red Army military intelligence (GRU). Red Navy military intelligence (GRU-Naval). [Goebel] Presumabky the Red Air Force also had an intelligence unit, although we do not have details. We do not know if there was any central cryptology school or instituition providing technical information to these various institutions or if the different agencies were on their own in developing codes. Not do we know if there were similarities withe codes adopted by these agencies. We have very little information as to the nature of the Soviet codes. Many of these codes were cracked during the War by the Finns, Germans and Japanese. A major step was the Finns seizing a partially burned Soviet code nook at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki when the Germans launched Batbarossa (June 22, 1941). The Finns shared their find with the Germans and Japanese. We are not sure what inteligence coups resulted from this work. The Red Army launched several major offensives during the war in the East and German intelligence failed to provide alerts to any of these offensives. The United States also cracked some of these codes, by began working on them later (1943) and many were not read until after the War. Many of the messages the United States had to work with were messages associated with the Sioviet Trade Office involved with Lend Lease. The American decrypts are known as the Venona papers and provided insights into Soviet espionage operations in the United States. [Goebel] The only aspect of World War II crypthology that is not now available to historians are Soviet efforts at code breaking. The Soviets and now the Russians have been reluctant to open their archives to historians.

NKVD Error


Venona

The U.S. Army's top-secret Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), the forerunner of the National Security Agency (NSA), began working on Soviet secret messages (February 1943) hoping to crack the dioplomatic code. SIS code named the effort JADE, BRIDE and DRUG, but it eventually became known as VENONA. Venona is just a code name and has no geographic connotation. The project was ininiated by Ms. Gene Grabeel, but military personnel soon took over the program. The Venona work was conducted at Arlington Hall.

Lend Lease Aid to the Soviet Union (1941-45)

Soviet participation in the land campaign against Germany was critical. Without the Red Army engaging the Wehrmacht in the East, an Allied invasion of France would have never been possible. America extended Lend Lease to the Soviet Union in September 1941. Lend Lease proved critical to the Soviet war-effort. This should not be over emphasized. The Red Army stopped the Wehrmacht at Lenningrad and Moscow (December 1941) before Lend Lease aid had begun to arrive in any quantity. The Soviets had a massive arms industry that out produced the Germans in many areas. [Dunn] Many of their weapons were of a high quality--especially the T-34 tank which was superior to the American Sherman tank. The Soviets had moved their armaments plants back to and beyond the Urals after the NAZI invasion. By 1942 those plants were back in opperation. Still wars are won by marshalling superior resources. After the War, Stalin down-played the importance of Lend Lease. Most historians, however, report that Lend Lease played a critical role in the Soviet war effort. The Red Air Force had been largely destroyed in the first weeks of the German invasion. The United States commitment to supply 400 planes a month to the Soviets was a critical factor in the rebuilding of the Red Air Force. Lend Lease not only provided weapons including high performance aircraft, but many oyher key materials. American trucks and locomotives played a key role in the logistics neeed to support Red Army offenses. Other materials such as blankets and canned meat were very imporyant tothe Red Ary. The Soviet Union had been essentially a parter with the NAZIs until Hitler ordered an invasion (June 1941). Aid to the Soviets was more contencious than to other countries, but had a stron advocate in Hopkins. [McJimsey, pp. 293-294] Some Americans wanted to restrict aid to the Soviets on ideological grounds. Some ike Ambassador Standley may have also understood the evil nature of the Soviet regime. Here a case can be made that Ameruca erred in so copiously supplying the Sovierts. Certainly the trucks which America supplied the Soviets to fight the Wehrmacht were later used to cart unknown numbers of people off to the Gulag. These arguments can safely made today after the NAZIs ere defeated. That defeat was, however, much less certain in 1941-43. One of the considerations to bear in mind was that Stalin and joined Hitler once, in part because he thought the Allies were intent on weakening the Soviet Union by sitting out the war and having the Soviets and NAZIs destroy each other. After the cross-Channel invasion was postponed in 1942 (Sledgehammer) and especially in 1943 (Roundup). Stalin was enraged. There were Soviet and NAZI peace feelers. [Mastny, p. 1378. and Karpov] Historians debate as to how serious these feelers were, in part becuse Stalin to suppress all evidence after the War. Hopkins argued with considerable force that after the postponment of the cross-Channel invasion in 1943 that full scale Lead Lease aid was necessary to convince Stalin of the Westen Allies sincerity and commitment. [McJimsey, pp. 292-294.]

Soviet Messages

As the effort progressed the SIS obtained a range of Soviet messages. Many were fromm the Soviet Trade Office working with Lend Lease. Until Lend Lease, Soviet commercil operations in America were very limited. Mixed in with the Lend Lease associted messages were messages from any other agencies as well, including the Soviet military and intelligemce services. From an early stage, the SIS staff determined that the messages came from five different agencies with separate encryption systems. Although the effort began during the War, the SIS did not suceed in reading many of the messages until after the War. Many of the messages the United States had to work with were messages associated with the Soviet Trade Office involved with Lend Lease.

Code Breakers

Thhe individuals involved in the Nenona effort is itself. Richard Hallock, an Army Signal Corps lieutenant and trained an archaeologist (who worked with ancient writing systems) suceeded in developing insights into the system being used by Soviet trade officials who were relatively lax in their security measures (October 1943). This provided clues to other cryptologists working on messages from other Soviet agencies. Cecil Phillips managed to develop a beginning understanding of NKVD messages (1944). This was a more difficult undertaking because the NKVD more carefully protected their messages, using double encryption. As a result, it would take 2 years of work to actually read any of the NKVD messages. Meredith Garner decrypted the first portions of the NKVD messages (Summer 1946).

Meredith Garner

Meredith Garner decrypted the first portions of the NKVD messages (Summer 1946).

Richard Hallock

Richard Hallock, an Army Signal Corps lieutenant and trained an archaeologist (who worked with ancient writing systems) suceeded in developing insights into the system being used by Soviet trade officials. The trade officials, unlike NKVD agents, were relatively lax in following security procedures (October 1943). This provided clues to other cryptologists working on messages from other Soviet agencies.

Cecil Phillips

Of all the Venona code breakers, Cecil Phillips may be the most fascinating. His story underlies the fact that there is no simple way in which tlented code breakers can be identified. Phillips was from the mountains of North Carolina and very young when recruited, only 18 years old. He had exhibited no real motivation or ambition in life having dropped out of college. His mother presumably tired of having him underfoot ordered him to go back to school or get a job. It is thus that the serendipity of life struck home. Philips went to the U.S. Employment Office in Ashville the very same day that a U.S. Army lieutenant showed up with a quota of clerk positions to fill for Arlington Hall (June 1943). Philips was asked if he would like to go to Washington and be a cryptologist. He startled the lieutenant by replying that it siounded interesting. Apparently no one else knew what crtyptologist meant. The only reason that Philips knew was that as a boy he had owned a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. But beause of that a week later he was at Arlington Hall and given the job of date stamping intercepts and soon was assigned stappling tasks. His real entrance to code breaking was that his boss, Lt. Bill Fleischman who ha just completed a basic course in crytology for some reason had a burning desire to teach. And it soon became clear that Phillips had real talent. [Budiansky, pp. 307-07.] He was subsequently chose to work on the Russian Problem (May 1944). By a fluke, there was some notable inconsitencies in a batch of Soviet intercepts given to Phillips to study and he noticed them. Cecil Phillips managed to develop a beginning understanding of NKVD messages. This was a more difficult undertaking because the NKVD more carefully protected their messages, using double encryption. As a result, it would take 2 years of work to actually read any of the NKVD messages.

William Weisband

William Weisband was the son of Russian emigre parents raised in Egypt. He emigrated to the United States after World War I and became a naturalized ciizen just before the War (1938). Because of his fluent Russian he was hired for work at Arlingon Hall. His outgoing frienfly personality made many friends at Arlington Hall and he took an Italian language course. He then was given an assignment in Europe (1943). What was not known about him was that he was a Soviet spy.

Time Line

The first success came fairly quickly. Arlington Hall by 1952 had decrypted most of the messages that would be decrypted by 1953, but some of the messages were still being decrypted in the 1970s.

Results

The results as the messages were decrypted were starteling. It was clear by 1947 that Soviet agents had penetrated a variety of U.S. Government agencies. The British joined the effort and sent two of their cryptologists to Arlington Hall (1948). As information on Soviet espionage emerged, the Venona group contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). FBI Agent Robert J. Lamphere who was given access to the Venona decrypts. [Goebel] The American decrypts are today known as the Verona papers and provided valuable insights into Soviet espionage operations in the United States. They thus become more of a Cold War than a World War II story.

Soviet Knowledge

The Soviets found out about the effort at an early stage.

Sources

Budiansky, Stephen. Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II (Simon and Schuster--Touchstone: New York, 2002), 436p.

Goebel, Greg. "Venona" 7.5. This is a chapter in a larger work, but it is unclear how to site the overall work.

McJimsey, George. Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Liberty (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1987), 474p.






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Created: 9:57 PM 2/26/2011
Last updated: 9:57 PM 2/26/2011