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VENONA Historical Monograph #4: The KGB in San Francisco and Mexico City and the GRU in New York and Washington

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"Remembrances of VENONA"
by Mr. William P. Crowell

National Cryptologic Museum

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The release of VENONA translations involved careful consideration of the privacy interests of individuals mentioned, referenced, or identified in the translations. Some names have not been released when to do so would constitute an invasion of privacy.


In February 1943, the U.S. Army's signal intelligence organization, often called "Arlington Hall" after the location of its headquarters in Virginia, began a secret program to examine encrypted Soviet diplomatic telegrams between Moscow and Soviet missions abroad. Not until 1946, however, after very difficult analytic work, did Arlington Hall begin to recognize that these so-called diplomatic communications contained thousands of messages of the KGB (the Soviet espionage agency) and GRU (the Soviet Army General Staff Intelligence Directorate). This project eventually was named "VENONA."

This monograph accompanies the fourth set of VENONA translations being released to the public. The first release of translations consisted of Soviet intelligence messages concerning espionage against the U.S. atomic bomb project. The second and third releases were messages sent from 1942 to 1945 between the KGB Residencies (offices) in New York and Washington and Moscow Center (KGB headquarters).

The fourth release is the largest - some 850 message translations - and involves the KGB in San Francisco and Mexico City and the GRU in New York and Washington. This completes the release of U.S. (and Mexico) Soviet espionage message translations. However, more KGB and GRU translations between Moscow and other world capitals will be released during 1996.

Covername GNOME - Trotsky's Murderer

The KGB communications between Mexico City and Moscow during 1943-46 are a particularly rich historical trove, showing the elaborate plans to free from prison a man using the covername GNOME, who had murdered Trotsky in Mexico City in 1940. The murderer, who had been arrested at the scene of his crime, was known as Frank Jacson; he held Canadian documentation. Mexican authorities readily saw this documentation as a sham, but it would be many years before GNOME's true identity was known, for he had many aliases. GNOME (GNOM in the Russian spelling) was in reality Ramon Mercader, a Spanish Communist recruited into KGB service by his mother, the Spanish Communist and KGB agent-officer Caridad Mercader. She appears in these VENONA messages as covername KLAVA.

The Soviet Union opened an embassy in Mexico City in 1943, which provided a cover for a KGB Residency (before then the KGB had operated in Mexico without diplomatic protection). During 1943-45 that KGB Residency sent about 570 messages to Moscow Center, while the Center sent 400 messages to Mexico. This was a substantial number, though fewer than half could be sufficiently decrypted to be issued as the translations seen in this release. Many of these messages concern the GNOME affair and indicate that the KGB had two plans to facilitate his release: a combat operation, to spring him by force, or an effort to use influence. In any case, the KGB drew upon American, Mexican, and Spanish Communists to accomplish this mission, but the operation failed. The following KGB messages related to the GNOME case. (all except the last two were from Mexico City to Moscow) are particularly interesting.

Some of these messages were addressed to covername PETROV (L. Beria), head of Soviet state security:

  • Plans for the Combat Operation:
    No. 158, 23 December 1943; Nos. 174-76, 29 December 1943
  • The work of KGB agent Jacob Epstein:
    Nos. 193-94, 14 March 1944
  • The KGB has suspicions about one of their agents:
    Nos. 553-54, 29 June 1944
  • Influence operations and an agent with access to GNOME in prison:
    No. 474, 6 June 1944
  • GNOME's mother's presence in Mexico is complicating the case:
    Moscow Center to Mexico City, Nos. 172-174, 9-10 March 1945
  • A scathing criticism of the work of the KGB Resident(chief) in Mexico:
    San Francisco KGB to Moscow, Nos. 321-322, 19 August 1944

Other Mexico City messages discuss or mention a remarkably varied group of KGB personalities, including General Leonid Eitington (covername TOM), who had organized the murder of Trotsky; Dolores lbarruri, the Spanish Communist leader known as "La Pasionara"; the later Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda; and Communist Party member and KGB agent Kitty Harris (covername ADA), sometime lover of KGB agent and American Communist Party leader Earl Browder. In several messages, the KGB discusses Otto Katz (also known as Andre Simon), a prominent Communist executed with other members of the Czech Communist Party leadership after World War II in an infamous purge ordered by Stalin. We also continue the story, simultaneously seen in the previously released New York City KGB messages, of Nicholas and Maria Fisher, whom the KGB was trying to get into Mexico via a U.S. transit visa. The Fishers were clearly important KGB officers, operating under instructions from Beria. Their goal was to take over the GNOME affair, to support operations in the U.S., maybe even for atomic bomb espionage. 1

The KGB in San Francisco

The KGB established a Residency (office) in San Francisco in December 1941. The Resident from 1941 to July 1944 was Grigori Kheifits (covername KHARON). He was replaced by Grigori Kasparov (covername DAR). In 1945 Moscow Center sent the New York Resident Stepan Apresyian (covername MAJ) to take over the San Francisco operation in anticipation of the UN conference (attended by KGB agent Harry Dexter White). Arlington Hall and NSA were unable to decrypt the approximately 125 messages sent by that Residency in 1941-42 (only 2 or 3 messages were sent in 1941). As often happened (see the previously released New York, Washington, and A-Bomb translations), the San Francisco KGB got most of its agents - spies - from the local Communist Party. Isaac Folkoff (covername DYaDYa - "uncle"), a grand old man of the California Communist Party, is seen in VENONA as an agent, espionage talent spotter, and recruiter for the KGB. But there is one surprise: a major KGB agent in the West Coast defense aviation industry was not a Party member. This was Jones Orin York, covername IGLA, who later admitted he was in it for the money, although he received very little.

One other oddity of the San Francisco translations is that, with one exception,2 there is no obvious reference to atomic bomb espionage (though non-VENONA sources confirm that such espionage was in progress at least in 1942-43). Perhaps that work had ended locally by the time of the readable VENONA messages (and we should note that the Los Angeles KGB message traffic, though of small volume, is entirely unreadable). The San Francisco messages do contain evidence of espionage against other high-tech targets.

One important KGB officer, Olga Valentinovna Khlopkova (covername JULIA), is seen in both San Francisco and New York KGB messages. She was on some missions of interest to Beria, possibly involving internal KGB security issues.3

The Hunt for Sailor Deserters

Several dozen San Francisco KGB messages concern the hunt for deserters from the Soviet merchant fleet and investigations into the suicides or accidental deaths of other sailors. There is, for example, the tragic story of ship's officer Elizabeth Kuznetsova, who jumped ship in Portland, Oregon, on 9 February 1944. According to a later VENONA KGB message, she subsequently married a taxicab driver in San Francisco. The VENONA part of the story ends, "On 4 November this year the traitor to the fatherland KUZNETSOVA was shipped to Vladivostok on the tanker 'BELGOROD'. Details to follow in a supplement...."4

Shedding Light on GRU Espionage in the U.S.

As noted in an earlier monograph, up until 1941 the GRU, the intelligence directorate of the Red Army General Staff, had been the principal foreign intelligence agency of the Soviet Union. By the time of VENONA readability (the 1939-41 messages of KGB and GRU in the U.S. could not be decrypted), Stalin had made the KGB his top espionage organization. Still, the GRU continued to run espionage operations (though many of its best assets had been transferred to the KGB), and these are seen in the fifty or so translations of 1943 messages from the GRU Residency in New York.

Hundreds of GRU New York messages remain unsolved. We especially feel the loss to history in the record of the GRU in Washington. Of the several thousand Washington messages from 1941-1945, only about fifty were decrypted, in spite of the best efforts of the U.S. and U.K. Unlike the New York GRU messages, where the translations concern espionage, these few Washington translations deal with routine military attache matters (such as overt visits to U.S. defense factories). However, a separate Washington GRU cryptographic system, which was never read, may have carried GRU espionage traffic.

But the New York GRU messages show that the organization had good espionage sources in some government agencies, including the OSS, the predecessor to CIA. GRU New York also had a radio-equipped Illegal, 5 covernamed MOK.6 We see some of the work of the spy (and Communist Party member) Joseph Bernstein, covername MARQUIS, and his recruitment of fellow Communist T. A. Bisson, covername ARTHUR.7 The GRU chief in New York, covername MOLIERE, was Pavel P. Mikhailov (the alias he used in his cover assignment as vice consul; true name was probably Menshikov or Meleshnikov). A number of GRU sources remain unidentified.

Some Notes on Analysis of GRU Systems

Exploitation of GRU (both Red Army and Naval) messages lagged behind the cryptanalytic successes and exploitation of KGB messages by many years. While the 1945 defection in Ottawa of GRU code clerk Igor Gouzenko provided message texts that revealed a great deal of espionage, Gouzenko did not produce any cryptographic materials of direct use to Arlington Hall's cryptanalytic effort. In the long run, success against GRU messages came from the accumulated knowledge and experience gained exploiting the Soviet trade, true diplomatic, and KGB systems and the application of early computers. In particular, the 1949-50 theoretical work of the distinguished mathematician and former navy cryptanalyst Dr. Richard Leibler opened new methods of attack against the VENONA related diplomatic systems - including those of the GRU.

In 1952 cryptanalyst-linguist Charles Condray proposed an attack against unknown message beginnings which was based on Dr. Leibler's work. The computer implementation of this attack by mathematician Dr. Hugh Gingrich led to detection of reused key in GRU messages and, ultimately, to the solution and translation of GRU messages.

The Naval GRU systems resisted the best efforts of Arlington Hall, NSA and the U.K. SIGINT service until 1957, when a U.K. analytic attack provided the first results in detecting reused key.

Translations of Naval GRU Messages

NSA and the U.K. service decrypted some 300 GRU naval messages that had been sent in 1943 between Washington and Moscow - including about half (200 of 400) of the messages sent by Washington. However, only a few Naval GRU messages from any other year could be decrypted and none from any other U.S. location.

Commodore I. A. Egorichev was Soviet naval attache in Washington at that time, and he was probably also the Resident (chief) of the secret intelligence apparatus as well. His superior in Moscow was the Soviet director of naval intelligence, probably Commodore Mikhail A. Vorontsov.8

The Naval GRU was clearly the junior Soviet intelligence service, at least in the U.S. The translated messages show the Washington Naval GRU wrestling with various unrelated missions while trying to establish secret espionage networks. In fact, the Naval GRU's cryptographic system was used for various nonintelligence entities, such as the Soviet naval Lend-Lease representatives, their naval weather service personnel, and Soviet naval convoy officers. Some of the topics of Washington Naval GRU messages were these:

  • Counterintelligence in Tampa, Florida:
    Washington to Moscow Nos. 834, 846-848, 18 April 1943
  • Recruitment and handling of American Communists as espionage agents:
    Moscow to Washington, No. 115, 20 January 1943; No. 704, 1 April 1943; No. 1194, 10 July 1943;
    Washington to Moscow, No. 1969, 13 August 1943 (Mentions exceptional possibilities in the high-tech field)
  • Moscow lays out the rules for "the primary and basic aims" of Naval Intelligence:
    No. 1109, 26 June 1943
  • Regular attache business - exchange of information with U.S. Navy:
    Washington to Moscow, No. 1657,17 July 1943
  • Human interest - a grief-stricken Soviet admiral:
    Washington to Moscow, No. 1150,27 May 1943

The Case of SALLY

Naval GRU assigned covernames AUSTRALIAN WOMAN and then SALLY to an Illegal to be sent by ship from the Soviet Far East to the U.S. West Coast. Fourteen messages relating to this operation were translated. The first of these, Washington to Moscow, Nos. 2505-2512, 31 December 1942, is one of the longest messages in VENONA an extraordinary document showing the Naval GRU's inexperience in this sort of activity and the need for assistance from the GRU and/or KGB. The last decrypted message about the case states that SALLY had been landed in San Francisco from a Soviet freighter (Washington to Moscow No. 1983, 14 August 1943). The FBI later learned that SALLY had been known in the U.S. as Edna Patterson, that she had left the U.S. suddenly in 1956, and that she was a Soviet citizen who had been born in Australia.

The reader will recall that several Illegals appear in KGB traffic, most notably covername MER/ALBERT. Other Soviet Illegals are in the current release: the GRU Illegal MOK and various Illegals in the Mexico City messages (these included probably Spanish nationals and a Canadian, who probably were not Soviet citizens - a variation on the usual origin of Illegals).

Historical Chronology and VENONA Translations

Since the first release Of VENONA translations in July 1995, there have been many questions about the dates of the translations, their dissemination, and the means by which the covernames were identified. Some earlier points will be repeated here and amplified, and new material will be introduced.

  • Some VENONA translations will indicate in the analytic footnotes that a covername is unidentified. Another message may footnote that very same covername with an identification. Analysts rarely hand-corrected a footnote identification to reflect later identification (unless a completely new translation was issued). For example, in some early message translations that were never reissued, covernames MER/ALBERT are footnoted as unidentified, when it was afterward determined, as footnoted in later translations of other messages, that this person was Iskak Akhmerov, the KGB's chief Illegal in the U.S. Unfortunately for the reader, the KGB did occasionally reuse covernames: the same covername for different persons. This can usually be understood by context or geographic location.
  • Meredith Gardner, an Arlington Hall analyst, was able to solve several KGB messages in 1946. From summer 1947 to mid 1948, Gardner published translations or summaries of several dozen KGB messages. At first he noted that the covernames LIBERAL or ANTENNA both referred to the same person. Later he gave full translations of some of these LIBERAL/ANTENNA messages, but he did not know at the time that those covernames were for Julius Rosenberg. Gardner, in 1947, personally identified the true names of a few covernamed persons, e.g., that the covername KOMAR was Viktor Kravchenko, who defected in the U.S. in 1944 and was being hunted by the KGB, as shown in VENONA.
  • In late August or early September 1947, General Carter W. Clarke, deputy G-2, cautiously informed S. Wesley Reynolds, the FBI liaison to G-2 and Arlington Hall, that the Army had begun to break into Soviet espionage messages. Over the next year, Wes Reynolds received an unrecorded number of translations. Some of these translations were probably handwritten.
  • In October 1948 Wes Reynolds officially introduced Robert J. Lamphere, from FBI headquarters, to Meredith Gardner and the Arlington Hall leadership. From then till he left the FBI in 1955, Lamphere was in constant touch with Gardner and his associates, receiving VENONA translations as soon as they were made. He had at least some version of every 1944-45 New York (and probably Washington) KGB message that was ever decrypted before the end of 1952. Army G-2's counterintelligence element, which had been studying the earliest Gardner translations, had long before dropped out of the picture.
  • Most U.S. covername identifications were made by the FBI through file review/analysis and by intensive investigation. The U.K. made some identifications, and, starting in 1953, CIA made others. Sometimes the true name of the agent is given in the message, and that name could, by analysis or investigation, be placed against a covername seen in later messages (e.g., the case of Theodore A. Hall, subsequently covernamed MLAD).
  • Some dates of covername identification as shown in NSA VENONA papers, covernames ROBERT, DORA, and PILOT, were found in VENONA messages as early as 1947. In November 1948, the FBI told Arlington Hall that those covernames were for, respectively, Greg Silvermaster, his wife Helen Witte Silvermaster, and Lud Ullman, who resided with them. In early 1949, the FBI advised that they had identified covername SIMA (first found in a message in 1947) as Judith Coplon. Covernames CHARLES and REST were identified as Klaus Fuchs during the summer of 1949, based on VENONA messages that were decrypted in 1947-49. Covernames LIBERAL and ANTENNA were first found in 1947, and the FBI made final identification of the Rosenbergs in 1950.

Future Releases of VENONA Translations in 1996

The next, and final, release will also be very large and will include KGB, GRU, Naval GRU messages to and from London, Stockholm, Canberra, Latin America, and elsewhere.

by Robert Louis Benson


1. See, for example, No. 334, Moscow Center to Mexico City, 20 May 1944. However, for context see especially the previously released message, New York KGB to Moscow, No. 786, 1 June 1944, that mentions that friends of David Niles (a White House staffer) "will arrange anything for a bribe," i.e., get the transit visas for the Fishers.

2. See the previously released No. 619-620, 27 November 1945.

3. See, for example, San Francisco to Moscow, Nos. 510 and 519, December 1943.

4. See San Francisco messages to the Center, from 1944; Numbers 65, 151, 159, 293; and message numbers 166, 295, and 568 of 1945. See also the very detailed message from Moscow Center that sets up new procedures for the KGB's Fifth Line in handling the security of the Soviet merchant fleet on the West Coast No. 379, Moscow to San Francisco, 16 November 1944.

5. An illegal was usually a Soviet citizen, a KGB or GRU officer, who operated under an alias with visible connection to official Soviet establishments. Illegals had no diplomatic immunity, usually entering the country illegally, hence the term.

6. See message New York to Moscow Nos. 895-985, 987, 1295.

7. The will be of interest to students of the so-called Amerasia affair. In 1945 the OSS Security Division and the FBI searched the offices of the magazine Amerasia, which was suspected of holding classified government documents. The staff of the publication included Communist spies and agents, including Joseph Bernstein. In subsequent years, the case resulted in several prosecutions but no major convictions, and a number of congressional hearings were held on the case. A recently published book, The Amerasia Case, by Harvey Klehr and Ronald Radosh, presents more details on the matter.

8. The signatories and addresses of the Naval GRU messages are quite confusing, as the service dedicated a block of code groups at the back of their codebook for covernames. As these do not fall in alphabetical order and are not seen in any othercontext, the actual meaning of these code groups could not be found. Thus we see the arbitrary numbersing and lettering systems adopted by the U.S.-U.K. (not by the Soviets) to identify these covernames, e.g., Name No. 5.

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