Source: CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence Bulletin, Issue Number 11, Summer 2000

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Did Truman Know about Venona?

Did President Truman know about Venona, the US Army's program for intercepting and decrypting Soviet intelligence cables?1 In 1996 Robert Louis Benson and the author of this article wrote:

Truman's repeated denunciations of the charges against [Alger] Hiss, [Harry Dexter] White, and others--all of whom appear under cover names in decrypted messages translated before he left office in January 1953--suggest that Truman either was never briefed on the Venona program or did not grasp its significance. Although it seems odd that Truman might not have been told, no definitive evidence has emerged to show he was. Truman always insisted that Republicans had trumped up the loyalty issue and that wartime espionage had been insignificant and well-contained by American authorities.2

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) cited the comment in the Venona book as an example of a security system run amok in a bureaucracy that withheld secrets even from its own commander-in-chief. While chairman of the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy, Moynihan asked the FBI to look into the matter.3 The Bureau's search turned up a loose-leaf binder containing 36 Top Secret documents, including one that Sen. Moynihan believes is the smoking gun he needed to conclude that "President Truman was never told of the Venona decryptions."

The document in question was an FBI internal memorandum dated 18 October 1949 that explained the attitude of Brig. Gen. Carter W. Clarke of the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA) toward dissemination of the Venona material outside the AFSA and the FBI.4 Carter had "vehemently disagreed" with Admiral Earl E. Stone, his superior, who had proposed sharing Venona information with President Truman and the then-DCI Roscoe Hillenkoetter. It went on to say that Carter and Stone had discussed the dissemination issue with Stone's boss, Gen. Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

General Bradley, according to General Clarke, agreed with the stand taken by General Clarke and stated that he would personally assume the responsibility of advising the President or anyone else in authority if the contents of any of this material so demanded. [emphasis added]

The question of Truman's knowledge is not a trivial one. As Moynihan noted, the President may have been kept in the dark about the "political perils of a Communist espionage ring operating in his own government."

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists contended that Moynihan's conclusion about Truman's being kept in the dark may be premature.5 While examining other FBI documents released in the same batch that contained the 18 October 1949 memo, he spotted some tantalizing clues. The most important was a 16 October 1950 memorandum to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, which stated that a Venona decrypt had led to the identification of Harry Dexter White as a Soviet spy. Hoover annotated his copy: "Wouldn't it be swell to send substance to Ad. Souers for information of the President." RADM Sidney Souers had been the first DCI and later the executive secretary of the National Security Council. In October 1950, he was Truman's top intelligence adviser and a logical point of contact for the FBI on this matter.

Below Hoover's note is another in a subordinate's handwriting: "LP 10/17 to Ad. Souers." Another FBI memo, dated 28 February 1951, confirms that the FBI had sent something to Souers: "We did furnish, in a carefully paraphrased form, the identification of Harry Dexter White on the basis of [one or more words redacted] information to the White House under date of October 17, 1950."

What did "carefully paraphrased" mean? In view of Bradley's insistence that he and the military--the FBI's source of the Venona intercepts--would determine whether to brief the president on the program, it surely means that the FBI's briefing of Souers did not discuss in detail the cryptologic breakthrough that produced the information on White. Simply put, Hoover would not have jeopardized FBI access to the precious decrypts by disclosing too much to a third party, even in the White House. Nevertheless, Souers knew plenty about signals intelligence, and he might well have made his own, basically accurate inferences about the FBI's 17 October message.

Aftergood has almost certainly established that the White House received Venona material by October 1950. But what information? And what happened to it? No one has yet found a 17 October memorandum on Harry Dexter White in the Truman Library or elsewhere. Indeed, during a 1996 visit there, the author found no evidence that the sensitive intercepts or the fact of the program later called Venona ever made their way to Truman.

Did the FBI brief the president on an "ears only" basis? An oral briefing could have sufficed, even if given in "carefully paraphrased form." So what did Souers tell Truman? We do not know, although we can guess when he might have briefed the President. Truman departed Wake Island after his historic meeting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur on 16 October, and then stopped in San Francisco to give a speech on the 17th before returning to Washington a day later. Both Truman and Souers attended an NSC meeting on 2 November, according to an archivist at the Truman Library, but the admiral did not meet privately with the President until two days later. That session was off the record, although the presence of James Lay of the NSC staff, suggests the meeting was devoted to NSC matters.

Did Souers mention the FBI's new information on Harry Dexter White at that 4 November session? Probably not. The President had a lot on his mind that week. The situation in Korea was getting more worrisome by the day as MacArthur's forces approached the Yalu River. UN forces were capturing Chinese soldiers in increasing numbers, and Washington was trying to get an estimate from MacArthur of the likelihood of a full-scale Chinese intervention. The off-year Congressional election looming on 7 November looked bleak for the Democrats; indeed, the GOP would gain five seats in the Senate and 28 in the House. To make matters worse, on 1 November Puerto Rican nationalists mounted a terrorist attack on Blair House--where the president and his family were residing while the White House was being refurbished. The attack resulted in the deaths of a guard and one of the would-be assassins. Truman heard the shootout below his window and was deeply touched by the heroic sacrifice of his guard.

In these circumstances, Souers probably did not want to distract the president with yet another elliptically worded FBI report on the Harry Dexter White case. Hoover had been forwarding allegations about White to the Oval Office since 1945. Truman ignored Hoover's earlier reports; in 1948 he called the charges leveled at White by ex-communists Elizabeth Bentley6 and Whittaker Chambers7 a "red herring." (In 1953 he went further, calling the two ex-communists "a crook and a louse" in a private note.)

So there are two possibilities. Either Truman was not informed about the Venona messages that implicated White, or he disregarded them. In light of the timing and circumstances of this 17 October FBI report to Adm. Souers, this author votes for the former interpretation.

Michael Warner,
Deputy CIA Historian


1 In 1943, the US Army began trying to decipher Soviet overseas cable traffic. Cables from Soviet representatives in the US to Moscow were enciphered using "one-time" pads. Under normal circumstances such cables would have been indecipherable, but, due to wartime exigencies, Moscow used some of the same pads twice, enabling the Army to make its first breakthrough by 1946. Ironically, the first decrypted message dealt with Soviet atomic espionage. The program continued under the National Security Agency (NSA) until 1980. In 1995-1996, NSA released some 5,000 pages of Venona decrypts consisting of about 2,900 messages.

2 Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, eds., Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939-1957 (Washington: National Security Agency/Central Intelligence Agency, 1996), p. xxiv. Hiss was a senior State Department official and presidential adviser during the 1945 Yalta summit meeting in the USSR. White was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during World War II. In 1946, President Truman nominated him to be the first executive director of the International Monetary Fund.

3 See Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Secrecy: The American Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 69-74.

4 The FBI memorandum was reproduced, in redacted form, as Figure 1 in ibid., p. 73.

5 See Secrecy & Government Bulletin 77, Federation of American Scientists (March 1999).

6 Bentley had been a courier for one of several Soviet spy rings operating in the Washington area and was cooperating with the FBI.

7 Chambers also had been a courier and active Soviet agent in the 1930s before he broke with Moscow and revealed what he knew about Soviet espionage before and after World War II. He is best known for having fingered Alger Hiss as a spy, an accusation that eventually led to Hiss's conviction and imprisonment for perjury.