Thursday, February 16, 2012

Secrets Can Hurt

The United States successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. Shortly thereafter, two atomic bombs were used to bring an end to World War Two. Although still somewhat controversial, it is generally understood that these bombs saved millions of lives. The destruction they caused convinced Japan to surrender; had the Japanese continued to fight to the end, millions would have been killed in the invasion of Japan. This much can be learned from any standard history book.

What is less well known is the struggle to keep the plans for the atomic bomb secret after the ceasefire with Japan brought an end to the war on August 15, 1945. The Soviet Union no longer needed to direct its resources toward battling the Germans and the Japanese; free to exert itself in other directions, it made getting those plans a top military priority. The Soviets created one of the world’s largest networks of spies.

In addition to obtaining actual diagrams and descriptions of the nuclear weapon itself, the Soviets generally worked to obtain any information about the American military: where ships might be sailing, how much weight an aircraft could carry and what its range might be, how many troops were in basic training at any one time, etc.

Rather than sending in spies as outsiders to investigate or prowl around military installations, the Soviets decided that a better tactic would be to plant operatives inside the government, where access to such information would be routine. Hundreds of individuals were successfully planted in various departments and agencies. One such person was Helen Silvermaster.

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one editor of the Michigan Law Review wrote:

Soviet cables now prove absolutely Silvermaster was a Soviet spy, her husband, Gregory, was a Soviet spy, and her son was a currier for their spy ring. Her husband was literally on the payroll of Moscow and the United States government at the same time. He worked for the Board of Economic Warfare and later, the War Assets Division of the Treasury Department. Among his services for the Soviet Union, Silvermaster smuggled out “huge quantities of war production Board data on weapons aircraft, tank, artillery, and shipping production.” While working for the Roosevelt administration, Silvermaster was given a medal for his service to the USSR.

Helen Silvermaster and her family were a unit, smuggling information to a country which was wondering if it might try a sneak attack on an American military installation, or if it could defeat the United States in a military confrontation in some remote corner of the world - like Korea or Vietnam.

Gregory Silvermaster was a connection between his family and a larger Soviet spy network. It is shocking to think that inside the U.S. government - the government whose purpose is to protect the lives and freedoms of American citizens - were agents whose purpose was to endanger those lives and end those freedoms. These agents were employed by not merely a foreign government, but rather by an enemy government: a government which had declared publicly that one of its objectives was to bring an end to the lives and freedoms of many U.S. citizens. How was Gregory Silvermaster installed inside the U.S. government?

He got his job from another Soviet agent, Harry Dexter White. When Mr. Silvermaster’s loyalty was questioned by the Office of Naval Intelligence and War Department counterintelligence, Harry Dexter White (Soviet spy) and Lauchlin Currie (Soviet spy) enthusiastically vouched for his patriotism. Roosevelt’s undersecretary of agriculture, Paul Appleby, wrote a righteous letter saying Silvermaster had been questioned simply because he happened to have been born in Russia.

This illustrates a Soviet technique: once one mole is in place, that mole can hire, and vouch for, other moles. (Readers of spy novels, and viewers of spy films, will recognize that the word ‘mole’ refers to “a spy who achieves over a long period an important position within the security defenses of a country; someone within an organization who anonymously betrays confidential information,” according to a popular electronic dictionary.) A good mole not only receives endorsements from other, well-placed moles, but also reacts with indignation when her or his loyalty is questioned:

When questioned by the FBI in 1947, suspected spy Helen Silvermaster lamented that “anyone with liberal views seemed to be called a communist now-a-days.”

“Suspected spy” Helen Silvermaster would soon become “proven spy" Helen Silvermaster. The Soviet government’s own documents revealed that she, her husband, her son, Harry Dexter White, and Lauchlin Currie were being paid by the KGB, by Soviet military intelligence, or by other Soviet counterintelligence agencies - and there were dozens of other spies in the U.S. sending secrets to Moscow. It was a dangerous time. By August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union had indeed stolen the plans for the atomic bomb and proven its own bomb in a test detonation.

Much of this information came to light when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990; in 1995, quantities of these files were released to the public under the name ‘Venona Cables’ or ‘Venona project’ - quotes here are taken from a Three Rivers Press publication of some of the Venona results.