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.
On 1 February 1943, the U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service, a
forerunner of the National Security Agency, began a small, very secret
program, later codenamed VENONA. The object of the VENONA program was
to examine and possibly exploit, encrypted Soviet diplomatic
communications. These messages had been accumulated by the Signal
Intelligence Service (later renamed the U.S. Army Signal Security
Agency and commonly called Arlington Hall after the Virginia location
of its headquarters) since 1939 but had not been studied previously.
Miss Gene Grabeel, a young Signal Intelligence Service employee, who
had been a school teacher only weeks earlier, started the project.
The accumulated message traffic comprised an unsorted collection of
thousands of Soviet diplomatic telegrams that had been sent from Moscow
to certain of its diplomatic missions and from those missions to
Moscow. During the first months of the project, Arlington Hall analysts
sorted the traffic by diplomatic mission and by cryptographic system or
Initial analysis indicated that five cryptographic systems, later
determined to be employed by different subscribers, were in use between
Moscow and a number of Soviet overseas missions. It also became
apparent that one system involved trade matters, especially Lend-Lease.
The other four systems appeared to involve the Soviet Foreign Ministry
in Moscow in communication with its missions abroad.
Further analysis showed that each one of the five systems was used
exclusively by one of the following subscribers (listed in descending
order according to the volume of message traffic which had been
1. trade representatives - Lend-Lease, AMTORG, and the Soviet
Government Purchasing Commission;
2. diplomats - i.e., members of the diplomatic corps in the conduct of
legitimate Soviet embassy and consular business;
3. KGB - the Soviet espionage agency, headquarters in Moscow and
Residencies (stations) abroad;
4. GRU - the Soviet Army General Staff Intelligence Directorate and
5. GRU-Naval - Soviet Naval Intelligence Staff.
From the very beginning in February 1943, the analysis of the traffic
proved slow and difficult. Then in October 1943, Lieutenant Richard
Hallock, a Signal Corps reserve officer who had been a peacetime
archaeologist at the University of Chicago, discovered weaknesses in
the cryptographic system of the Soviet trade traffic. This discovery
provided a tool for further analytic progress on the other four
During 1944, the skills of other expert cryptanalysts were brought to
bear on this Soviet message traffic to see if any of the encryption
systems of the messages could be broken. One of these cryptanalysts,
Cecil Phillips, made observations which led to a fundamental break into
the cipher system used by the KGB, although he did not know at the time
who used the system. The messages were double-encrypted and of enormous
difficulty. In spite of Arlington Hall's extraordinary cryptanalytic
breakthroughs, it was to take almost two more years before parts of any
of these KGB messages could be read or even be recognized as KGB rather
than standard diplomatic communications.
Three closely spaced counterintelligence events occurred in 1945 that
VENONA decrypts were able to amplify. First, the FBI carefully
questioned Whittaker Chambers, whose earlier efforts to disclose
details about Soviet espionage in the U.S. in the 1930s had gone
unheeded. Second, Igor Gouzenko, a GRU code clerk, defected in Ottawa.
Third, in late 1945 Elizabeth Bentley, a veteran KGB courier and
auxiliary agent handler, went to the FBI and named names. While
Gouzenko's revelations were important to Allied counterintelligence
efforts, they had no bearing on the VENONA breakthroughs. Strong
cryptographic systems like those in the VENONA family of systems do not
fall easily. The VENONA decrypts were, however, to show the accuracy of
Chambers' and Bentley's disclosures.
In the summer of 1946, Meredith Gardner, an Arlington Hall analyst,
began to read portions of KGB messages that had been sent between the
KGB Residency in New York and Moscow Center. On 31 July 1946, he
extracted a phrase from a KGB New York message that had been sent to
Moscow on 10 August 1944. This message, on later analysis, proved to be
a discussion of clandestine KGB activity in Latin America. On 13
December Gardner was able to read a KGB message that discussed the U.S.
presidential election campaign of 1944. A week later, on 20 December
1946, he broke into another KGB message that had been sent to Moscow
Center two years earlier which contained a list of names of the leading
scientists working on the Manhattan Project -the atomic bomb!
In late April or early May 1947, Gardner was able to read two KGB
messages sent in December 1944 that showed that someone inside the War
Department General Staff was providing highly classified information to
the Soviets. These two messages are currently undergoing
U.S. Army intelligence, G-2, became alarmed at the information that was
coming out of Arlington Hall. An Arlington Hall report on 22 July 1947
showed that the Soviet message traffic contained dozens, probably
hundreds, of covernames, many of KGB agents, including ANTENNA and
LIBERAL (later identified as Julius Rosenberg). One message mentioned
that LIBERAL's wife was named "Ethel."
General Carter W. Clarke, the assistant G-2, called the FBI liaison
officer to G-2 and told him that the Army had begun to break into
Soviet intelligence service traffic, and that the traffic indicated a
massive Soviet espionage effort in the U.S.
In October 1948, FBI special agent Robert Lamphere joined the VENONA
Project full time as the FBI's liaison and case controller for the
VENONA espionage material.
Also, by 1948 the British joined the VENONA effort; in particular,
their signal intelligence service assigned full-time analysts to
Arlington Hall. There was excellent cooperation between the two U.S.
agencies and the U.K. over the many years of VENONA, in large measure a
result of the early efforts of Robert Lamphere and Meredith Gardner.
The VENONA messages are filled with hundreds of covernames
(designations used in place of the real names to hide identities of
Soviet intelligence officers and agents - i.e., spies or cooperating
sources - as well as organizations, people, or places discussed in the
encrypted messages). A number of public figures were also designated by
covernames, while others in that category appear in the text of the
messages by their true names. The following are examples of covernames
recovered from the VENONA corpus:
Covername: True Name
KAPITAN: President Roosevelt
ANTENNA, later changed to LIBERAL: Julius Rosenberg
BABYLON: San Francisco
THE BANK: U.S. Department of State
ARSENAL: U.S. War Department
ENORMOZ: Manhattan Project/A-bomb
ANTON: Leonid Kvasnikov, KGB Chief of A-bomb espionage in KGB's New
York City office
Arlington Hall and the FBI studied the covernames for leads to
identities, grouping them into families of covernames. Some covernames
came from mythology, some were Russian given names, and others were
names of fish, etc. KAPITAN was easily identified from the context as a
good covername for President Roosevelt, but his covername was,
nevertheless, outranked by those persons of lower station, including
KGB operatives covernamed PRINCE, DUKE, and GOD. Other KGB assets were
just plain BOB, TOM, and JOHN, while Elizabeth Bentley had the
covername GOOD GIRL. Very rarely, the KGB was careless in choosing a
covername. For example, the covername FROST was used for KGB agent
Boris Moros. The Russian word for "frost" is "moroz."
There were about 2200 VENONA messages translated. The VENONA
translations now released to the public often show an unexpectedly
recent date of translations because the breaking of strong cryptologic
systems is an iterative process requiring trial and error and
reapplication of new discoveries, leading to additional ones.
Consequently, a message may have been reworked many times over the
years as new discoveries enabled progress in the decryption and
understanding of more and more of the text. Partial information was
available from many messages as early as 1947 and later that year was
provided to the FBI.
Almost all of the KGB messages between Moscow and New York, and Moscow
and Washington in 1944 and 1945 that could be broken at all were
broken, to a greater or lesser degree, between 1947 and 1952.
There are still unreadable gaps in the translated messages. These are
indicated as a number of code groups "unrecovered" or "unrecoverable."
This means the cryptanalysts were unable to break those portions of the
The serial numbers of the VENONA messages indicate that the KGB and GRU
sent thousands of messages between Moscow and the overseas recipients.
Only a fraction of the total messages sent and received were available
to the cryptanalysts. The messages which have been exploited were never
exploited in real time. In 1946 Meredith Gardner was working on KGB
messages of 1944. Arlington Hall's ability to read the VENONA messages
was spotty, being a function of the underlying code, key changes, and
the lack of volume. Of the message traffic from the KGB New York office
to Moscow, 49 percent of the 1944 messages and 15 percent of the 1943
messages were readable, but this was true of only 1.8 percent of the
1942 messages. For the 1945 KGB Washington office to Moscow messages,
only 1.5 percent were readable. About 50 percent of the 1943 GRU-Naval
Washington to Moscow messages were read, but none from any other year.
In spite of what has been written in a number of books and articles,
Arlington Hall made the VENONA breakthroughs purely through
sweat-of-the-brow analysis. There was no cryptanalytic assistance for
Lieutenant Richard Hallock, Cecil Phillips, or Meredith Gardner and
their colleagues from lost, discovered, or battlefield-recovered Soviet
codebooks during the years in which the main analytic breakthroughs
were made (through 1952). It was not until 1953 that a photocopy of a
partially burned codebook (recovered by U.S. Military Intelligence in
1945) was discovered to be related to the VENONA cryptographic systems
after another cryptanalytic breakthrough. The successful decryption of
the VENONA messages was a triumph of analysis by a small group of
intelligent and dedicated women and men working long hours in their
cramped offices at Arlington Hall.
Information in the VENONA materials reveals KGB tradecraft (i.e., the
practical means and methods of espionage and counterespionage) of the
time in great detail. Most VENONA messages concern
operational/tradecraft matters. The sheer volume of data collected by
KGB stations abroad was too great to be reported by telegram; instead
the VENONA messages indicate that photocopies of classified documents
went to Moscow by courier. In one translation which is currently
undergoing declassification review, KGB in New York informed Moscow
that it had fifty-six rolls of film from their agent, covernamed
ROBERT, and that this trove of classified material was to be sent off
by courier to Moscow Center.
Information in VENONA translations describes the KGB's modus operandi
in arranging meetings with their agents, with much attention given to
the security of these secret meetings. Other messages describe KGB
countermeasures against the FBI -countersurveillance, detection of
bugging devices, and ensuring the loyalty of Soviet personnel in the
United States. A particularly fascinating set of VENONA messages
describes the KGB's efforts to locate Soviet sailors who had deserted
from merchant ships in San Francisco and other U.S. ports. Some of the
most interesting messages detail KGB assessment and recruitment of
American Communists for espionage work.
Over 200 named or covernamed persons found in the VENONA translations,
persons then present in the U.S., are claimed by the KGB and the GRU in
their messages as their clandestine assets or contacts. Many of these
persons have been identified, many have not been. These approximately
200 persons are separate from the many KGB and GRU officers who also
appear in VENONA. One such asset, ROBERT, is found in VENONA
translations several dozen times. Other covernamed persons were found
only a few times. The majority of unidentified covernames in the New
York KGB traffic appear three or fewer times.
Information derived from the VENONA translations shows the KGB's
extensive contacts with the American Communist Party. Many of the
espionage activities by members of the American Communist Party are
reflected in the VENONA translations.
A number of sources outside of signals intelligence reveal that the KGB
learned early on that the U.S. had begun to study Soviet
communications. In late 1945, KGB agent Elizabeth Bentley told the FBI
that the KGB had acquired some limited information about the U.S.
effort during 1944. Kim Philby, while assigned to Washington, D.C.,
1949-1951, occasionally visited Arlington Hall for discussions about
VENONA; furthermore, he regularly received copies of summaries of
VENONA translations as part of his official duties. But if the Soviets
knew something about what Arlington Hall was accomplishing, they could
not, at any rate, get the messages back.
VENONA translations that have been identified as associated with atomic
bomb espionage messages are being released first. All but two of this
group of forty-nine messages were KGB traffic; one s a GRU and one a
Soviet diplomatic message.
These messages disclose some of the clandestine activities of Julius
and Ethel Rosenberg, Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, David and Ruth
Greenglass, and others susch as the spy known by the covername MLAD or
the equally important, but still unidentified PERS. The role played by
the person covernamed VEKSEL remains uncertain but troubling. A number
of other covernames of persons associated with atomic bomb espionage
remain unidentified to this day.
VENONA messages show that KGB officer Leonid Kvasnikov, covername
ANTON, headed atomic bomb espionage in the U.S., but that he, like the
Rosenbergs, who came under his control, had many other high-tech
espionage targets such as the U.S. jet aircraft program, developments
in radar and rockets, etc. As with most VENONA messages, the Rosenberg
messages contain much information relating to KGB net control and
The VENONA program concerned KGB and GRU messages that were available
to Arlington Hall codebreakers. Most of the messages which were
collected were not successfully decrypted, and, short of a release of
the KGB and GRU archives from the period, we may never know more about
the KGB and GRU activities represented in the VENONA corpus of
Other VENONA translations covering many additional topics are currently
undergoing declassification review.
Prepared by Robert Louis Benson