Saturday, March 3, 2012

Typewriter C.S.I.

Although modern audiences have become familiar with high-tech crime solving through TV shows like CSI and NCIS, one dramatic instance of scientific investigation changed history in a rather low-tech era.

Unlike modern computer printers, old-fashioned typewriters, because of their more physical nature, left a distinct pattern on any document. Under a high-power microscope, the letters left on paper could be traced back to the individual machine which made them. This technique would prove pivotal in the “Hiss case,” as an editor of the Michigan Law Review explains:

The “Hiss case” referred to Alger Hiss, the top FDR advisor and accused Soviet spy, convicted of perjury for denying that he was a Soviet agent. As a young congressman Nixon had exposed Hiss by pursuing the testimony of Hiss’s former fellow spy, Whittaker Chambers. The crucial evidence against Hiss consisted of some highly sensitive government documents that Chambers claimed he had received from Hiss when they were both spying for the Soviet Union. Chambers produced the documents from a hollowed-out pumpkin in response to a subpoena from Nixon’s congressional committee. Though Hiss denied the documents had come from him, the Pumpkin Papers, as they came to be called, were proved to have been typed on the Hiss family typewriter.

As it turned out, Mr. Hiss, who had been highly regarded and appointed to important positions within the U.S. government, was copying secret documents by typing them on his typewriter, and sending them to the Soviet government. Alger Hiss was part of the same network of spies which would later send the plans for America’s atomic bomb to the Soviet Union, creating a huge threat to the security and ordinary lives of millions of Americans. Deadly secrets left the United States, typed out letter by letter, page by page, on Alger Hiss’s typewriter. The fact that the Soviet government obtained this information meant misery and death for people on several different continents. But the microscope proved that Hiss’s typewriter had been the source for these betrayals:

Forced to explain the unexplainable, Hiss expressed amazement on the witness stand, saying he would always “wonder how Whittaker Chambers got into my house to use my typewriter.” The jury laughed out loud at Hiss’s excuse - and then convicted him of perjury.

Alger Hiss was convicted in 1950 and sent to jail. Although that might seem to be the end of the story, it wasn’t.

Decrypted Soviet cables were declassified in 1995, proving that Hiss had been a Soviet spy - even to the satisfaction of the New York Times.

Forty-five years after being definitively exposed and convicted as a Soviet spy, it turned out the Alger Hiss was even more dangerous that anyone in the 1940’s or 1950’s had thought. The Soviet Union was operating an extensive network of spies in the United States, at a time when massive amounts of nuclear weapons were aimed and ready to be launched toward America. The threat at the time was worse than we knew.