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Interviewer: Can you describe your role on the Venona project?
Robert Lamphere: In 1948, I was a supervisor at FBI headquarters in the espionage section. Four of us were able to see some fragmentary KGB messages which had been deciphered by the Army Security Agency. I got very excited about it, and even though there wasn't anything that we could do with what we had, I asked for permission to interview whoever had - who was responsible for this breakthrough. After some difficulty, I got permission to go over and see Frank Rowlett, who was the head of the division where this was going on. After talking to Frank he let - let me see Meredith Gardner.
Interviewer: Now, Meredith Gardner asked you get him something extra didn't he? Tell me that story.
Robert Lamphere: After I got to know Meredith, a couple of months went by, he said, "was there any possibility that I could get the plain text of the matching messages to the KGB messages, commercial messages?." I indicated, because we were talking about something that was about four years old, that I wasn't at all sure, but let me see what I could find out. So I wrote a careful letter to the New York office, asking them whether they had anything like this. By return mail I came back with a stack of messages, seven or eight inches high, and they were all in Russian, with one or two exceptions where there had been a translation. I took the bundle over to Meredith Gardner. When I saw him about two weeks later, and he was the most excited I had ever seen him in my time with him. Because these messages were the matching messages, or some of them were matching messages to the plain text of messages which had been sent on the commercial system.
Interviewer: How did the FBI get hold of those texts?
Robert Lamphere: I don't know. I'd asked the FBI to check and see if they had anything, and they had something. Other people have suggested it was a black bag job by the FBI, but I've never known for sure, and I certainly couldn't have testified in court one way or the other.
Interviewer: What's a black bag job?
Robert Lamphere: A black bag job is where illegal entry is made, and documents are photographed.
Interviewer: Now tell me how Venona led to the entrapment of Klaus Fuchs. How did he become a suspect?
Robert Lamphere: One of the fairly early messages that we got indicated that someone on the British mission to the Manhattan project had supplied information of a particular kind on the gaseous fusion method of breaking-down uranium. Fuchs was the author of that text, and there was one other member of the British mission that we had first had some suspicion of. We quickly zeroed in on Klaus Fuchs, based upon, in part, our own files indicated that somebody involved in the Canadian spy ring had Fuchs' name in his address book. We also had information that Fuchs had been on the wanted list of the Gestapo in Germany. Those two things convinced me and one of my associates that Fuchs was the most likely suspect, and we immediately told MI5 that, and they started their investigation.
Interviewer: Why would the Gestapo have Fuchs on their wanted list?
Robert Lamphere: He had been a Communist. He was raised and educated in Germany and was an anti-Nazi. He found out that the Communist Party was doing more against the Nazi's than anyone else, and he became an active member of the Communist Party of Germany. That put him on the wanted list for the Gestapo.
Interviewer: Now, you personally helped interrogate Fuchs. Describe that.
Robert Lamphere: Fuchs had given a confession and a description of his American contact, and we mounted a massive investigation and sent all kinds of photographs for the identification. Among the early photographs that we sent to England was a photograph of Harry Gold, but Klaus Fuchs did not identify him. So in May, 1950, I got orders to go to London to handle the interview, and went there with the Assistant Director of the FBI, Hugh Clegg. We began an interrogation of Klaus Fuchs, and in a relatively short time, got him to identify a photograph of Harry Gold.
Interviewer: What was Fuchs like to meet? How did he conduct himself during the interrogation?
Robert Lamphere: Initially he was a little bit reluctant to furnish any information. He had been co-operative with the Skardon of the MI5, but the FBI people were a little different in his eyes. I think that over a period of time, I convinced him that we weren't going to do any damage to his sister, Christal Heinemann in the United States, and that it would be very helpful to us if he would furnish the information, which he did.
Interviewer: How did you persuade him to change his mind?
Robert Lamphere: I told him we'd traveled a long way to see him. This was early in the interview, when he had just spent a few minutes looking at some photographs for me. I convinced him in a friendly way that he could furnish information to us, just as he had to the British.
Interviewer: Just describe briefly what William Skardon was like.
Robert Lamphere: Skardon was a very down-to-earth Britisher, not upper-class at all, but a very convincing interrogator. A man that I liked at first, I respected the job he'd done in convincing Fuchs' to co-operate initially.
Interviewer: When Fuchs started to talk, what did that lead to? What was the affect of Fuchs' confessions?
Robert Lamphere: Well, even as I conducted in that the first possible identification which was confirmed in a later interview, agents from the New York office were in Philadelphia interviewing Harry Gold who by that time was almost convincingly to our agents a spy. He found a map of Albuquerque in his belongings, and he had told the agency he'd never been west of the Mississippi River. They said, "Why do you have a map of Albuquerque when you've told us that?" And he said, "oh, all right, I'm the man you've been looking for." He then began a long, long confession, which went back to his recruitment in the thirties as an agent for Soviet Intelligence.
Interviewer: And Gold's confession lead to the rounding up of whom?
Robert Lamphere: Well, Gold's confession initially rounded up a number of people that he'd worked with over a number of years, but it also lead to one very important identification. He had received instructions on his Soviet superior, a man by the name of Anatoly Yakovlev in the United States - actually he's named Yatskov. Yatskov had told him in addition to reading what Fuchs in was providing in the Los Alamos area, that he was to go to Albuquerque to make another contact. Gold didn't want to do that, and he argued with Yakovlev, who'd given him very strict instructions about what he was to do. So they went and met this soldier, whose name he couldn't remember, but he had with him an identification of a side of a Jell-O box top, which he had got from Yakovlev. He met with this soldier and this soldier's wife in Albuquerque, he couldn't remember their names, but he could give us a good description of who they were, where they lived. The FBI agents in Albuquerque had no trouble in identifying the soldier as David Greenglass. David Greenglass, when he was interviewed, immediately identified his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg as the man who had recruited him to spy for the Soviets. And that was the start of the Rosenberg case.
Interviewer: What was the affect at FBI headquarters when Fuchs started to talk?
Robert Lamphere: I came back from Britain on a plane with the identification of Harry Gold firmly in mind, and Gold had already made his own confession. That had been a fairly quiet investigation, with a lot of pressure from J. Edgar Hoover to identify this American contact. Now the American contact was with us, on our side supposedly, and talking, and all of a sudden we had cases breaking everywhere. I ended up working twenty-two hours a day, and information was piling in from all over the country, on these various people that Harry Gold had identified. In some instance we were getting confessions from them as to their work with the KGB in past years. So we had a raging monster underway, and I had the job of trying to co-ordinate it and keep J. Edgar Hoover informed of what was going on, communicating with the Justice Department for the cases that were going to be prosecuted and so on.
Interviewer: It's said that was a quiet investigation which turned into a raging monster of an investigation.
Robert Lamphere: What had been a quiet investigation turned into a raging monster, with me trying to keep up with every demand.
Interviewer: Why did people talk so readily? Were the people who were caught, were they afraid of being executed? Were they afraid of the electric chair?
Robert Lamphere: I don't know why people talked so freely to us. It was probably we had so much positive information as to exactly what they had been doing and when they had done it, and Harry Gold had a excellent memory.
Interviewer: You had to liaison with the MI6, the man in Washington. Who was that and what was his job supposed to be?
Robert Lamphere: Well, the original man that I worked with was named Peter Dwyre. He was a suave British gentleman and a good negotiator
Interviewer: What was Philby's role in Washington?
Robert Lamphere: We'd had representatives of MI6 with us for over a period of years who represented both, initially, MI5 and MI6. Peter Dwire was the predecessor to Kim Philby, and there was also by then a MI5 representative. Peter Dwire, in August of 1949, told me that he would be leaving for a job in Canada, and he would be replaced by a man who was an up-and-coming star in MI6 who might someday be the head of MI6. His name was Kim Philby. In October of 1949, he brought Kim Philby around to see me, and I was not impressed at all. He spoke with a stutter; he was sloppily dressed, compared to Pete Dwire, and most of all, he was not friendly to me, never in the time we knew each other. He spent most of his time with CIA in the period that followed, but would come by the FBI maybe once a month or so.
Interviewer: Now when he came to the FBI he had access to Venona, didn't he?
Robert Lamphere: Philby had access to Venona, because his predecessor, Pete, Peter Dwire, had got from our number-three man the right to see me about Venona and I had furnished information to him on some British cases, notably the search for Homer, who turned out to be Donald MacLain who had been a first secretary of the British Embassy.
Interviewer: What exactly did Philby's access to Venona enabled him to do for the Russians?
Robert Lamphere: Well, the biggest value Philby had to the Russians on Venona was the fact that we were inside their system, which striked terror to an organisation like the KGB. We were reading their cables and were beginning to be able to identify people like Klaus Fuchs.
Interviewer: Who was Colonel Abel?
Robert Lamphere: Colonel Abel was known as an illegal who was sent to the United States in 1948, with no connection to the diplomatic establishments. Otherwise known as an illegal agent.
Interviewer: An important spy?
Robert Lamphere: He was an important spy in the United States, and we got on his track firstly when I received a nickel which had been hollowed out, and their was a coded message in it, which caused me to believe that there was an important illegal in the United States a defector who worked with Abel, defected in France to the CIA, by the name of Hayhaneh. He enabled us to identify Colonel Abel. In the possession of Colonel Abel we found was material which led us to believe that there was a - a big spy ring around. This included information about people who turned out to be the Cohen's. But they had also been socially known to be associated with Abel. Well, we sent photographs of the Cohens. He had been in the Army, and she had been in - in a defence plant, so we had photographs of both. They were sent to the British. When the British broke open the Portland Naval case, this included the identification of two people and the photographs identified them as the Cohen's.
Interviewer: Just stepping back slightly: When the Cohen's fled, they were on the FBI's wanted list weren't they? I mean, there was a big investigation to try and trace them. Can you tell me about that in your own words?
Robert Lamphere: It wasn't until after they surfaced in the British case that the FBI back tracked and found out they had disappeared right at the time we were making major arrests in the Rosenberg case. Well that caused me and others to believe that they liaison with the Rosenbergs.
Interviewer: What evidence was it that linked Abel to the Cohens?
Robert Lamphere: The FBI agents in their investigation of Abel found out that he had been socially associating with Morris and Lona Cohen. Also in the material, which was seized when they searched his hotel room, they found an envelope with information about the Cohens and photographs of them. This caused them to think that the Cohens might surface somewhere in the English - speaking world, and they sent fingerprints abroad to Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and Canada. When the Cohens were arrested they objected to being fingerprinted. But a court order caused them to be finger printed, and they were then matched up with the FBI's fingerprints.
Interviewer: Did that cause a lot of surprise at the FBI? What did the FBI do when the match was made?
Robert Lamphere: Jumped with jubilation. You know, it's not often something like that works itself out.
Interviewer: And did you then begin a huge investigation of the Cohens?
Robert Lamphere: Yes, the Cohen's they're in jail in England.
Interviewer: What did they do?
Robert Lamphere: They arrested and made a trade for somebody that they had in custody. I've forgotten whom.
Interviewer: Tell me about some of the counter measures that the FBI took to counter the Soviet espionage in the USA?
Robert Lamphere: It wasn't until we received in an anonymous letter in about 1943, I'm not exactly sure of the date, that it galvanized the FBI into opening many investigations on suspected Soviet agents. Prior to that, most of our manpower had been against the Japanese, the Italians, and the Germans. This letter showed us clearly that there was a major effort being launched against the United States to develop information. We shortly began concentrating on the Manhattan project, because we knew there were attempts being made to infiltrate it by Steve Nelson and others who were under investigation by the FBI.
Interviewer: What counter measures did you take?
Robert Lamphere: Well, in time we began to cover every Soviet establishment with heavy manpower. Photographs were taken of people entering the embassies and consulates; interviews with those people as to what their purpose was in visiting a Soviet establishment. We began in active spy cases to interview people, and then we were able to get confessions. Where earlier we had just used surveillances. We became much more aggressive against them, and we now know that it paid off. By 1946 the KGB couldn't get information in the United States anymore.
Interviewer: Were you ever told what the Manhattan project was? Was it such a secret?
Robert Lamphere: It was a secret, but the Army intelligence found they had to use the FBI if we were going to effectively cover the Manhattan employees, and a number of us were then briefed on what the project was all about: to make an atom bomb. For example, I and others, who had been opened up for this, knew of the first Trinity explosion when it took place.
Interviewer: Now as part of this intense surveillance, a suspected Russian agent, you mounted surveillance on a man called Yatskov. Who was he?
Robert Lamphere: Well, he was in a key position in the New York Consulate, the Soviet Consulate. His true name was Yatskov, we knew him as Anatony Yakovlev. I remember following him on one instance to a Soviet - to a Russian Theatre, just off of 42nd Street on the West Side. two of us were watching him from four or five seats back, watching a film of a victory parade in Moscow. All of a sudden he was gone. We looked in horror around, and he had moved from a good seat to a bad seat further up. Years later we knew that he had actually used the message from underneath the seat.
Interviewer: Can you tell me about the surveillance of Yatskov and Bullethead?
Robert Lamphere: When we began to put coverage on the Soviet Consulate in New York, we wanted to identify one or more of the important intelligence people. Most of the people had to spend their time at their desks there. Our Soviet translator, Mr. Boguslav, thought it was interesting that this man Yatskov could come and go freely. We also know that once we put surveillance on him, that when he came in and out of the building, he had unusual deference from the doorman whom we called Bullethead. This caused us to believe that he was perhaps one of the important spies in the Soviet Consulate. I followed him on one occasion to a theatre where he moved from one good seat to a very bad seat, which we came to suspect was servicing a dead drop.
Interviewer: Now jumping about to the Rosenbergs, why did the judge sentence Ethel Rosenberg to death? How did you feel about that?
Robert Lamphere: The death sentence - prior to the sentencing, we'd been asked by the Department of Justice for our recommendation on the sentencing of both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. We recommended the death penalty for Julius Rosenberg. We recommended that Ethel Rosenberg get a thirty-year sentence. That was done because of the fact that the amount of evidence we had produced at the trial against Ethel Rosenberg fell far short of that against her husband, and secondly, that she was the mother of two small children. Nevertheless, the judge went ahead with the death sentence, but made it clear to the attorneys for the defendants that if they would co-operate with the government, he would reduce both death sentences to some other sentence. But only if they talked, and if only they told the authorities the truth. So on the night of the executions, the scheduling of the executions, I was sitting next to the desk of the number-three man in the FBI, Mickey Ladd, and we had an assistant director of the FBI at Sing Sing. I sat there hoping and hoping and hoping that they would decide to talk, but instead they chose to die for their belief in support of a man like Joseph Stalin.
Interviewer: What were your feelings as that execution got nearer and nearer? And when it happened?
Robert Lamphere: I wanted them to talk. We had positive information that at least ten people were part of their ring. A friend of mine has estimated there was at least fifteen. It would have been a great break for us from a counter intelligence point of view. Also, I had reluctance to see anybody sentenced to death. I wanted them to co-operate with us and not to die.
Interviewer: Were you worried about Ethel and the children?
Robert Lamphere: Well I was, and that had been part of my recommendation which Hoover agreed with, but it came down to the fact they died for what they believed in. And it opened up a propaganda career that's still going on that there is something wrong with the prosecution and sentencing of the Rosenbergs to death.
Interviewer: So in a way, the deaths did help Joe Stalin?
Robert Lamphere: The deaths did help Joe Stalin quite a bit, because in twenty-four countries across the world there were save the Rosenberg committees established, and to this day, there is doubts on the part of some people in this country that the Rosenberg's deserved to be executed.
Interviewer: And, do you think they were foolish or brave?
Robert Lamphere: Foolish and brave.
Interviewer: What were they foolish of?
Robert Lamphere: I think they were foolish and brave both. They had to be brave to go to their deaths, but it was certainly foolish with the hatred that Stalin had, anti-Semitic Stalin, the leader of what these people believed in. And their sons ended up devoting most of their lives to trying to proclaim their parents innocent.