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Interviewer: How active was Russian Intelligence, Soviet Intelligence in the USA in the 30's and 40's?
Philips: I think everything points to the fact that the Soviet Intelligence was very active in the US in the 30's and the 40's, particularly all the results of Venona. I'm not sure it was obvious, at that time, how active they were. Well, in fact, I'm relatively sure it wasn't that obvious, but it's certainly obvious by about the late 40's. It was obvious that they had been spying on everything we were doing.
Interviewer: What was the perception in the 30's and 40's? How active did Americans and the American authorities think the Russian espionage network was?
Philips: I don't think that's a question I can really answer. I mean, I was 10 years old in the mid 30's, so I don't think I can give you any real information on that.
Interviewer: What kind of activities were Russian spies working on in the 30's and 40's? What were they targeting?
Philips: During the 1930's the Russian spies seemed to be targeting things like American industrial things; they were targeting aircraft plants, and things of that sort, and they were targeting labour unions, of course. They were very active in the Labour unions and trying to steer the Labour unions and to cause strikes and distress and so forth. I think that's the scope of it. Then, as it moved toward war, why they began to spy on all sorts of government policy and everything of that sort.
Interviewer: Now the Russians always had one kind of ace in the hole which was, you might say, the "Fellow Travellers" people who were politically sympathetic to them. Can you describe the atmosphere in the 30's and early 40's? Many people sympathised with the Russians, didn't they?
Philips: During the 1930's and 1940's there was a great deal of sympathy for the Russians and particularly during the war, I think. Even before the war there were a lot of people who looked upon Communism as a great new idea of government and sort of utopian government. Then, that carried over into the wartime period. Except there were some people who left the Communist party during the purges, realising, in fact that Communism was rather savage, I think. There were a significant number of people who were pro Communist and pro Russian. I think that during the war itself almost everyone was pro-Russian. We wanted the Russians obviously to win against the Germans, but without being pro-Communist.
Interviewer: There was also quite a lot of disillusionment with Capitalism which motivated people too, wasn't there?
Philips: The theory is and, in fact, that people were very disillusioned with Capitalism in the 1930's I for one was; my family was. We were damn close to being destitute in the early 30's because of the depression. So the theory is that caused a lot of people to turn toward Communism. Of course, that's an excuse that some people give for turning toward Communism. That it was going to produce a better world; it obviously didn't.
Interviewer: How did this attitude of certain progressive thinkers and other people, who were disillusioned with the depression, create a fertile recruiting ground for Russian agents?
Philips: I'm sure that the disillusionment with the economy, and so forth created a very fertile ground for recruiting agents. Because in the first place the Communist party was, I guess, at it's largest probably in the 30's. So it turned out most of the agents that are exposed by Venona were recruited through the Communist party. This is in contrast to their people who've said, oh well, the Communist Party wasn't spying, these were just certain spies. But in point of fact they were actually being recruited by the party and organised to help the Soviet Union. So it was a fertile ground, a very fertile ground for recruiting spies.
Interviewer: A very, very interesting answer. How did the Soviets set about recruiting Americans who were sympathetic to them?
Philips: You're talking about spies? I guess the perception is that the way the Soviets recruited spies was that they looked for people who were particularly devoted to the party. I mean this is one of the things they seemed to want to screen people for, and make sure that they were absolutely and totally devoted to Stalin, and to the party, and that they were trustworthy, and that kind of thing. Then, you know, some of the people, the important figures in the party, would then recommend that here's a person who is really devoted to the party and so forth. In some cases they were recruited by other spies. I think Judith Copman was recruited by a woman who was already spying for the KGB. That kind of thing happened.
Interviewer: The main instrument of this recruiting effort was the Communist Party?
Philips: Almost entirely the recruiting was done through the Communist Party. I don't know of any other case. Now Ted Hall was what's sometimes called a walk-in but his mother had been active in the Communist party. I don't know whether he was a party member per se or not, but he certainly felt he was a Communist.
Interviewer: How important was the American Communist Party in as a means of recruiting spies?
Philips: Well the recruiting of the spies was very heavily focused through the American Communist Party. There were people in the party who would actually single out people and recommend them to Moscow. These were people who they thought were particularly loyal and particularly useful to the party.
Interviewer: Now the Soviets also had two organisations very active in the USA which were used as cover Amtarg, the trade representation and Tass, the news agency. In your own words can you tell me about Amtorg and Tass?
Philips: They were two legal organisations, I suppose you'd call them, in the US which the Soviets used for cover. Of course these were quasi-diplomatic things. One of them was Tass, which was the Soviet press. There were people in the Soviet press who actually participated in spying or acted as handlers and things of this sort. Amtorg was the Soviet trading mission and that was an enormously large thing because of the lend lease programme. So there were people, particularly technicians, who were in Amtorg who actually served as spies or spy handlers, or reviewed material that had been given to them by spies.
Interviewer: Amtorg was active before the war as well, wasn't it?
Interviewer: Before World War II what was Amtorg doing?
Philips: Before World War II, the Amtorg was an organisation that existed, as far as I know, since probably the early 30's. When we first re-opened relations with the Soviets, and maybe even before that, Amtorg was a trading mission. The whole idea was since there was no private sector in the Soviet system, the government ran the trading. So they were here and very active before the war. Then they became suddenly much more active, of course, as lend-lease came into being.
Interviewer: Generally speaking, people were unaware of how active Soviet espionage was in the USA at this time.
Philips: I'd have been talking about the general awareness of Soviet espionage. I would have to guess that most people were unaware of. The extent of it and in fact, you could almost say that there is some suggestion that even people like the FBI were not as aware of it as they might have been. They were perhaps slow to react to the idea that the Soviets were stealing all our secrets.
Interviewer: Now tell me, what exactly was Venona? What is the word Venona? What did it refer to?
Philips: Venona is a name that was applied to a set of translations that were made from KGB and GRU messages that were solved by the army. Security agency started work on this in 1943 and continued until 1980. During that period the translations that were made pertaining to spying were given a cover name of Venona. In point of fact, Venona was the third cover name that had been given to these same messages, so it has no meaning. People have tried to assign a meaning to it, it just happened to be a cover word that was made up. Originally Venona only applied to the translations themselves. Since the whole set of translations has been made public, we've come to know the whole project as Venona. It wasn't originally. We didn't think of it as Venona when we worked on it.
Interviewer: You worked on it yourself?
Philips: I worked on it myself, yes. Starting on May Day, 1944.
Interviewer: A socialist date?
Philips: Yes, isn't it. Yes, it was.
Interviewer: How exactly were these Soviet messages obtained?
Philips: The Soviet messages that we worked on were obtained primarily during the war through censorship. There was an American law, which required the cable companies to file copies of all incoming and outgoing messages with the US government. So we had a few messages before the war, and other times they were intercepted.
Interviewer: What was your role in the Venona project?
Philips: My role in the Venona project? I came on the project on May Day 1944. The project had been running for, I guess, about twelve to fourteen before that. I came on it as what we call a crypt-analyst: somebody who's job it is to try to solve the cipher aspects of a problem. Of course, I was very junior at the time. I had been working at Arlington Hall, which was the Armies crypt-analytic organisation. I'd been working there for just about ten months, when I actually started working on the Soviet problem.
Interviewer: Tell me physically what you actually were looking at? What were you handling?
Philips: When one is trying to do a crypt-analysis on a problem like this, there are a lot of different things you do. First place, one of the things you have to understand is that we're talking about a very large number of messages. I mean the Soviets sent between Washington and Moscow, in the year 1943, about 25 thousand trade messages. So you have large numbers of messages, and what you're doing quite often is entering those messages into some sort of a machine process. In this case, in the 1940's, it was an IBM punch card. You put the messages on the punch cards, and then sort the cards down looking for repeats in cipher. So you do a number of things -- you're helping to get the messages ready for punch. You're going through looking at messages finding duplicates, all kinds of things of that sort. Then you examine these machine results when they come back from the IBM process.
Interviewer: What actually do the Soviet cables look like? I mean what would they consist of?
Philips: The Soviet cables looked exactly like telegrams except that the headings for the most part were cable company headings, a logo, RCA, Moscow Radio. Occasionally in fact, they were Western Union; they looked exactly like a telegram, an ordinary telegram. Except that instead of being in plain text the message was in cipher in 5 letter groups as a matter of fact.
Interviewer: Groups of letters?
Philips: Groups of letters, yeah.
Interviewer: How did Venona get broken?
Philips: The breaking of Venona was a very complicated process that went on, if you will, in some sense, throughout the 37 years it was worked on, I mean there was no single kind of thing. If you were to focus on the single most important thing that happened, an army Lieutenant named Richard Halleck, in October, 1943, took 10 thousand messages and had them put into IBM cards, and sorted down to look for repetitions of text. When he did that he found 7 clear cases of what we call duplicate key. That was the real beginning. Now that was only in the trade messages. From October, 1943 until November 1944, we had nothing but trade messages. The trade messages were not likely to be terribly important so, we were trying to solve other systems. I began working on the KGB, which at that time we didn't even know was KGB, but I began working on it. In 1944, November '44, I found an indicator in the KGB messages which allowed us to pair KGB messages with the trade messages. Now for the first time we were able to solve something that was of interest.
Interviewer: And what did you learn of interest?
Cecil Philips: Well it was a long time before we learned anything of interest. The first thing that happened in November of '44 was we began to pair KGB messages with trade messages. But, as I said, we did not know that they were KGB messages at the time. It was about two years later when Meredith Gardner who was the linguist on this, began to break out enough of the text of the KGB messages to know that it was in fact spying. We had thought they might be Consular messages, about visa's and so forth.
Interviewer: You saw it lists of names?
Philips: The list of names of scientists which Meredith Gardner broke out in December of 1946, was one of the sort of key events in all of this. Before that, starting in the middle of '46, he had begun to see things that looked like spying. He said he'd see things where a name would be spelled out, and it'd say "hereafter known as Joe," or something. It was clear that this was some sort of a surreptitious kind of activity. When the message, the long list of scientists, was broken out in December of 1946, why, that was perhaps a seminal event, I guess.
Interviewer: Who were the scientists?
Philips: The list of scientists were a large number of scientists who were at Los Alamos, mostly the scientists there who were American and British. A curious thing on the list was the name Werner Heisenberg, who was a German scientist working presumably on the Atom bomb in Germany. So the message was a little unclear on exactly what the list of names was. It may be just a list of who are the best atomic scientists around.
Interviewer: Clearly they knew what was going on?
Philips: Yes, it was certainly clear that they, whoever was sending this message, knew a great deal about the people who were working at Los Alamos, because there were people like Fermi and Oppenheimer and so forth.
Interviewer: Tell me how Klaus Fuchs was tracked down?
Philips: Klaus Fuchs was tracked down because one of the messages that was read in Venona was a message on the gaseous diffusion process of separating the kinds of Uranium. The FBI primarily, I guess. I don't know whether they had any help from the UK or not, at any rate, were able from the nature of this message, and the fact that it was about the gaseous diffusion process, to narrow it down to just a small number of scientists who might have had some involvement. Who would have known this process well? At some point they were able to narrow that on down to Klaus Fuchs. I don't know exactly how that was done.
Interviewer: Thanks to Venona the authorities were able to close in on Harry Gold, weren't they?
Philips: The exposure of Klaus Fuchs, which really, in the long run, was the UK MI5 who got Klaus Fuchs to confess. When he confessed he said that he had a contact in New York whom he knew only by the name of Raymond, and he described him physically, in some manner or other. The FBI searched through all of its files of pictures. Fuchs looked through these pictures and finally identified one which was Harry Gold, he just writes on the back of it, "I think this is the representation of the man I believe I knew as Raymond." The bureau goes to Harry Gold and arrests him. He confesses, and so the chain of confessions began. Gold leads them to David Greenglass, who confesses.
Interviewer: And Greenglass leads?
Philips: Leads to the Rosenbergs. What happens is that Gold confessed and identified a soldier. He didn't identify him by name at Los Alamos; he described the house that he lived in, and that was David Greenglass. David Greenglass confessed he was the brother of Ethel Rosenberg. When he confessed, he implicated Ethel and Julius both as people who persuaded him to spy for the Soviet Union. Also he said that Ethel apparently helped Julius prepare documents for them.
Interviewer: How did the British MI5 have access to the progress on Venona?
Philips: The British participation in Venona really began in about 1947. It began because they had a liaison officer working with us at Arlington Hall, who became interested in it. It happened at about the time names were beginning to pop out, and lots of information was beginning to come out. The British knew about the programme beforehand, but they had not taken advantage of it.
Interviewer: Who was Kim Philby? Tell us about his access to Venona and what that meant?
Philips: Kim Philby was the British intelligence representative, the MI6 representative in Washington in the crucial period. I mean, he had been in MI6 from the beginning of the war. He came to Washington as the MI6 representative to replace a fellow whose name I can't remember at the moment. We presume that he was briefed on the contents of Venona before he came. As his predecessor received copies of the Venona translations and saw some correspondence which related to identifications and names and so forth, we assumed that there was a file of translations in his office when he arrived here in Washington, and he continued to receive them. He was probably able to monitor the progress in identifying people almost perfectly. I suppose, during a period from 1950, when I think he came, I've forgotten what the dates are.
Interviewer: What did it mean that a man like Philby had access to Venona?
Philips: Philby's access to Venona would have been only to the translations, he would not have had any access to the technical side. He might have been briefed on the technical side, but his access to the translations would have meant that he would have been able to monitor the exact progress of breaking out names and identifying people as spies. So that he would have known exactly when we were about to identify somebody, perhaps even just before or just as it happened.
Interviewer: How could he use that knowledge?
Philips: Philby would use this knowledge of who the people were to notify the KGB in Moscow that such and such a person was about to be exposed. In fact, the most likely case is he tells Moscow that McLean and Burgess are about to be identified or had been identified, I guess, because by that time they had been identified, that this might have enabled him to flee. I think the supposition is that's exactly what happened. He tells Moscow and Moscow says, "It's time for you to leave."
Interviewer: Philby would have seen, reading the Venona transcripts, the name Homer, code name Homer, McLean. How could he use that information?
Philips: Reading the Venona translations Philby might have seen the name Homer -- Homer which was McLean's cover name. He might also have seen a translation, which identified that Homer was now clearly Donald McLean. Because there was a long period of time in which they were wrestling around at the British Embassy trying to figure out who Homer was. They knew that someone in the Embassy was passing on telegrams that belonged to Churchill. They didn't know who it was. There was finally a single message, which clearly identified Donald McLean as the one. It referred to his wife being pregnant and waiting in New York with her family.
Interviewer: How soon do the Soviets know about Venona?
Philips: We believe that the Soviets probably knew about the Venona project, if you will, from as early as 1945. That's before we had broken out any KGB messages. We believe that a man named William Weissband who was an army officer assigned to the Soviet section was probably telling them about our technical progress from 1945 on.
Interviewer: Why was evidence from Venona not introduced at the Rosenberg trial?
Philips: The primary reason that evidence from Venona was not introduced at the Rosenberg trial, I think, was that the FBI had agreed in the beginning that they would never do anything to expose Venona. I don't know what other reasons there would have been. I think, probably one of the complicating reasons is that it would have been a very complicated subject to introduce into it. They also had confessions from David Greenglass and his wife who -- apparently her testimony was devastating, I guess.
Interviewer: Do the code names Pers, p-e-r-s or Kvant, k-v-a-n-t mean anything to you?
Philips: Well they're cover names. Pers and Kvant occur in the Venona translations. They were both some form of atomic spies; they're both unidentified. There had been a lot of speculation about Pers, but no identification. He's only mentioned briefly a couple of times, and a couple of the messages that mentioned him are only partially readable. Kvant, I think, is somebody who actually visited the Soviet Embassy in Washington, I believe and said something. But there's no clear identification who Kvant is.
Interviewer: So does this mean that there are still people, possibly alive now, who took part in the atomic spy ring, and who were never identified?
Philips: There is some possibility that there are people alive. Obviously one of them is Ted Hall, who's been identified. One of the Soviets who was interviewed some five or six years ago said he was Pers, in fact, was called Perseus. Because we believe that's a misinformation or dis-information kind of approach, that Perseus was alive and well and would not be identified, and that he was a very important man or something of that sort.
Interviewer: Do you believe that?
Philips: I guess it's true. I don't have any real problem with that. The information from the Soviets always seems to be tainted by special things. In fact Sudoplatov, the former deputy head of the KGB, in his book Special Tasks, tends to roll two or three spies into one, and gives them a different name. That kind of thing seems to be pretty commonplace among the Soviets.
Interviewer: So they're still playing the old game?
Philips: We think that they are still playing the same game of confusion, if possible.
Interviewer: Meredith Gardner had a story to tell.
Philips: The story about Meredith Gardner and the list of Soviet spies and scientists is very interesting. This is a story that I've heard him tell a number of times. I wasn't there at the time. William Weissman had been brought into the section at the beginning of 1945 to be a linguistic consultant, because we didn't have anyone who was a native speaker of Russian. So Weissman had a rather carte blanche to move around the whole Soviet problem. Meredith Gardner says that when he was breaking out the message about the atomic scientists, William Weissman was looking over his shoulder and perhaps helping him with a word here and a word there. We know that Weissman knows at least that much about the absolute details. We don't believe that Weissman ever saw any translations because the translations were terribly tightly held in the section. I never saw the translations until recently, but at any rate Weissman saw one being produced.
Interviewer: Was Weissman a Soviet agent?
Philips: Weissman was a Soviet agent, had been a Soviet agent on the West Coast handling a spy in the aircraft industry, just before he entered the army.
Interviewer: In your judgement, did the Venona project effectively catch all the people working for the Russians? Particularly people working with the Russians, giving the Russians information about the atomic bomb project?
Philips: The Venona project exposed a large number of people. I believe the number Lou Benson quite often quotes is about 130 American citizens identified as being spies for the Soviet Union. There were another 100 names that looked like cover names that might be Americans who were never identified. Now that's partly because there was not enough information in the messages to identify them. I guess the two primary names that were not identified, would be the two atomic scientists Pers and Kvant, who have never been identified. There were some other names that were not atomic names. Well, there are two names, Erie and Huron, the two lakes, that appear to be a pair of people involved in the atomic programme, but they have never been identified.
Interviewer: We have to assume that they were helping the Russians.
Philips: We don't know. They could conceivable have been Russian or they could have been Americans.
Interviewer: How confident were the Russians that their system would never be broken?
Philips: I believe that the Russians were totally confident that the system would never be broken. The kind of system that they were using, which we call a one-time pad, is essentially unbreakable if everything is done right. So they had every reason to believe that it was unbreakable. Actually they spelled out names sometimes partly because they were confident but also because of the first contact. They had to identify to Moscow who they were actually talking about, then thereafter they'd refer to the cover names. There are cases where the true name is spelled out in a message, and the cover name is given in the same message, which is an absolute no-no by most standards. They did that because they were confident of the security of the cipher system.
Interviewer: Is this in part how Ted Hall was identified?
Philips: Ted is a good example of how this came about. There was a message, a long message, about Ted Hall, which spelled out his name, Theodore Hall and his friend Saville Sacs. About a week or two before there was another message which identified them then as Mlad and Star. It was pretty clear from the beginning that these were the same people that were Hall and Sacs. Now I don't know how long it took the FBI to make an absolute identification, but it must have focused pretty sharply on this.
Interviewer: What exactly did Ted Hall do?
Philips: Ted Hall. What had precipitated the first message, he turned up with material and tried to find somebody in the Soviet system who would take his information. He went to a guy who was in TASS, I believe, and finally the guy in TASS put him in touch with a real agent handler. He was trying very hard to pass information; he was what they call a walk-in. He wanted to pass information, but he had done some very important scientific work even though he was only nineteen. He had already received his degree from Harvard physics, a very brilliant guy.
Interviewer: He was the man who of course was handing secrets to Lona Cohen.
Philips: Ted Hall supposedly handed something to Lona Cohen in Los Alamos or Albuquerque I'm not sure where it was.