By PATRICIA VILLAMIL
Cipher-names, code-breaking, one-time pads? The terms could be puzzling to the novice, but to John Haynes, Ph.D., Cold War historian and Soviet espionage expert from the Library’s Manuscript Division, they are the keys to unlocking intricate Library resources on Soviet-era intelligence networks that spread from the onset of the Second World War through the Cold War, dominating much of the intellectual domestic and foreign policy discourse in America.
A specialist in modern history and politics, Haynes was appointed as the 2009-2010 Kluge Staff Fellow. Established in 2000, the John W. Kluge Center accommodates scholars who pursue research in the Library’s collections.
Haynes is the author or co-author of 11 books and 70 articles, almost all of them about American communism and Soviet espionage.
He wrote his latest book, “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America,” with his oft-time writing partner, Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University, and Alexander Vassiliev. The book draws on the notebooks of Vassiliev, a journalist and former KGB agent with access to many KGB-era espionage documents. In 1998, Haynes and Klehr collaborated on a book about the Venona files: “Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America.”
Haynes will use his one-year appointment to the Kluge Staff Fellowship to create an annotated concordance and index for two major Library archival sources of information about Soviet intelligence networks in the United States: The Vassiliev notebooks containing information copied from KGB files and the Venona files containing deciphered cables.
He hopes with his project to convert the Vassiliev notebooks and the Venona files from highly valuable but difficult-to-use archival resources into accessible historical renderings of an important moment in American Cold War history.
The U.S. Army created the Venona files to break Soviet ciphers. Instrumental in exposing Julius Rosenberg and other American spies, the Venona files contain 3,000 cables that were intercepted and deciphered by American intelligence agencies during the 1940s. The messages, which passed between the KGB and American spy networks, relate to espionage activities performed mainly by American nationals. The bulk of these activities involved spying for highly secret projects, such as the atomic bomb.
To communicate with their American satellites, the Soviets encoded information using “a one-time pad,” an encryption in which plaintext is combined with a key or pad containing secret random numbers. Initially, the pad was used only one time and destroyed immediately.
This arduous method rendered the code unbreakable. However, with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Soviet cable traffic exploded. With the pressure of German troops outside of Moscow, Soviets took a risk and began using duplicate pads instead of creating one-time pads, which was labor-intensive and time-consuming in the era before computers.
According to Haynes, duplicate pads made it possible for two messages that shared the same pad, or key, to be intercepted. War-time conditions required U.S. cable companies in outposts around the world to turn in all international messages, facilitating American code breakers in assembling a sufficient number of duplicated messages to finally break the ciphers and the underlying codes. As more messages were broken, more codes became available to eventually develop a code book, allowing some 3,000 messages to be read in whole or in part.
During Stalin’s Great Purge in the late 1930s, many experienced KGB officers in the United States were recalled and shot or imprisoned, and their American networks were disbanded. When the KGB had to swiftly rebuild its American networks, it turned to American Communist party loyalists for their espionage activities. After World War II, the FBI began cracking down on the alleged participants of these party-based networks, making it more difficult for the Soviets to obtain American secrets.
Haynes believes these two factors—taking shortcuts to create ciphered messages and recruiting Americans as spies—contributed to the unveiling of the covert reach of Soviet influence on American society during the Cold War. “History doesn’t always present some agency with easy choices. The [Soviets] had a choice and they picked it,” he said.
In early 2007 Haynes contacted Vassiliev, a journalist and former KGB agent who had worked on a book project in Moscow with the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the successor to the KGB, in the early 1990s. Vassiliev’s job was to put together a set of notes based on Soviet intelligence activities in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. He was granted access to many KGB-era espionage documents. Based on this research in KGB archives, Vassiliev published “The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America” (1999), which he co-authored with Allen Weinstein.
During their initial meeting, Haynes learned from Vassiliev that while he was working for the Foreign Intelligence Service, Vassiliev had collected a total of nine handwritten notebooks containing 1,115 pages of highly secret information on the internal workings of the KGB. Several of these notes were copied verbatim from KGB documents.
In 2008, Vassiliev donated his notebooks to the Library of Congress, thanks in part to Haynes and their joint collaboration on “Spies.” Today, the Alexander Vassiliev notebooks are housed in the Library’s Manuscript Division along with the deciphered cables of the Venona project.
Patricia Villamil is a part-time employee of the John W. Kluge Center.