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"Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies"

PBS Airdate: February 5, 2002
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NARRATOR: In 1949, the Soviet Union explodes its first atom bomb. But was the design stolen from American nuclear secrets? The answer would emerge only after the Cold War ended, when archives, like this one in Moscow, began to open to scholars.

HARVEY KLEHR (Historian, Emory University): I was nervous because here was this massive untapped resource. I was the first American, as far as I knew, and certainly one of the first Westerners, to be in this archive.

NARRATOR: When historians Harvey Klehr and John Haynes examined the top-secret documents they were startled. Buried in the files were lists of names of U.S. government employees from World War Two.

HARVEY KLEHR: I recognized many of the names that were hand-written: Charles Kramer, Victor Perlo and Judy Coplon.

NARRATOR: All had been accused of being Soviet spies. The charges never stuck but were they true?

It would take three more years for Klehr and Haynes to learn the answer. That's when the U.S. government opened its own secret archives, revealing thousands of telegrams sent between Moscow and the Soviet diplomats in the 1940s and '50s.

The telegrams were written in an unbreakable code. But, in one of the greatest counterintelligence exploits ever, American code breakers found a way to read the secret Soviet messages.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY (Author, Battle of Wits): In terms of sheer determination and sheer marshalling of machine and manpower in innovative ways, I think it was extraordinary. And it was particularly extraordinary because the odds were so stacked against any success.

NARRATOR: The decodes reveal that a massive Soviet spy network penetrated the U.S. government during World War Two. Even more incredible, the government knew about these spies as early as 1948 but kept the information secret until the end of the Cold War.

ROBERT LAMPHERE (Retired FBI Agent): There is no question that the Communist Party USA, through the highest levels, was deeply involved in espionage against the United States.

NARRATOR: The decodes raise serious concerns about the government's prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

MICHAEL MEEREPOL (Son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg): They arrested a small fry spy, took his wife as a hostage, put a gun to her head and told him, "Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her." And when he wouldn't talk they murdered her in cold blood.

NARRATOR: And the government knew something else: the name of a spy who did far more damage than the Rosenbergs.

JOAN HALL (Wife of Ted Hall): It was a humanitarian act. His motive was a humanitarian motive. Now, if you want to call that sort of thing treason, go right ahead.

NARRATOR: The spy who stole some of America's most important nuclear secrets was never prosecuted. But the truth about Soviet espionage was kept from the American public for nearly fifty years.

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NARRATOR: In 1943 America was at war. At Arlington Hall, outside Washington, D.C., Army code breakers were trying to penetrate enemy communications. One day they received a surprising order, "Start spying on America's ally the Soviet Union."

ROBERT LOUIS BENSON (Historian, National Security Agency): The Army General Staff were concerned that Stalin might cut a deal with Hitler and get out of the war. So we wanted to see if we could find anything, any evidence of this, in Soviet diplomatic communications.

NARRATOR: Soviet diplomats communicated with Moscow by regular commercial telegraph, and wartime censorship allowed the U.S. Army to receive copies of all international cables.

JOHN HAYNES (Historian, Library of Congress): Now the Soviets knew that, and they didn't mind that, because their cables were in code and they thought their code was unbreakable.

NARRATOR: The code breakers began sifting through tens of thousands of coded telegrams.

These cables are recreations based on scholarly research; the original cables remain classified.

Eventually, these apparently meaningless messages would reveal shocking evidence of Soviet espionage inside America's most secret location, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The U.S. Army chose this isolated setting to build its nuclear weapons laboratory in 1942. It wanted to keep the project secret, not only from America's enemies, but also from its ally the Soviet Union.

SAM COHEN (Nuclear Physicist): When I first came to Los Alamos, there was no doubt in my mind that security was just plus-perfect. It couldn't have been tighter. It was all barb-wired in and then there were guards at gates.

NARRATOR: Physicist Sam Cohen was 23 when he was drafted and sent to Los Alamos. Suddenly, he was mingling with some of the world's greatest scientists and engineers.

SAM COHEN: I saw three people, and I looked at them and I did a double take. They were three Nobel Prize winners in nuclear physics and the greatest, the fantastic Niels Bohr, sort of the father of atomic physics.

NARRATOR: But building a nuclear bomb took even these scientists into uncharted territory. The materials it would be made of were two highly radioactive elements, uranium and plutonium. From the common type of uranium, U-238, they needed to extract a rare isotope, U-235, but this was a difficult and expensive process. Plutonium had a different problem: it was so radioactive it had to be set off in an entirely new way.

JOSEPH ALBRIGHT (Co-author, Bombshell): This was the idea that you could make an atomic bomb by compressing a lump of plutonium very rapidly through an explosive process.

NARRATOR: It was called "implosion." And it works like this, in theory: a sphere of plutonium was encased in a metal shell called a tamper, then surrounded by a layer of explosives. When the explosives were detonated, the shock wave would travel inward, compressing the plutonium into a critical mass. At the center of the bomb, a tiny device called the initiator would spew out neutrons and initiate a runaway chain reaction in the plutonium, an atomic explosion.

Physicist Klaus Fuchs, the son of a minister and a refugee from Hitler, worked on implosion. Army Private Theodore Hall was one of the scientists testing the theory.

JOSEPH ALBRIGHT: Hall was one of a small team that was testing out how an implosion bomb would work. So he knew the actual diameters and shapes of not only the plutonium in the middle but also the explosive layers and the tampers on the outside.

NARRATOR: At 18, Hall was the youngest physicist at Los Alamos.

SAM COHEN: That guy was so fantastically bright that he could do more in a given amount of time than 99 percent of normal mortals. And so, in he came, and started a, what I considered to be a very warm, rewarding friendship.

NARRATOR: The research on implosion was supposed to be secret, but it was quickly smuggled out of Los Alamos and brought 6,000 miles to the edge of Moscow, where Russia's top nuclear scientist had his office.

By 1945, physicist Igor Kurchatov had been reading reports stolen from Los Alamos for two years. These are Kurchatov's own notes about the research on implosion. Implosion was such a new idea that there wasn't even a word for it in Russian.

Kurchatov ordered Soviet scientists to start experiments on implosion immediately.

Four months after Kurchatov read the KGB report the atom bomb was tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The principle of implosion worked.

Kurchatov received secret reports on the test, and later on the bombs dropped on Japan. This information would save the Soviet nuclear program enormous amounts of time and money.

MICHAEL DOBBS (Reporter, The Washington Post): It probably helped the Soviet Union build a bomb two or three years before they would otherwise have managed to do so. Their first atomic bomb they simply copied from the American atomic bomb. And espionage largely helped them to do that.

NARRATOR: Ironically, evidence of Soviet espionage was in the hands of American code breakers at Arlington Hall almost as soon as it occurred, but no one knew it, because they hadn't yet broken the code—although they were working on it. They knew that the Soviets used a type of code called a "one-time pad system."

Author Stephen Budiansky demonstrates how it works.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: So the first thing we want to do is write out the message we want to send—which might be "attack at dawn"—and we'll put a period at the end. Then we go to the code book, which is really just a dictionary, and next to each word is a number that stands for that word. So we look up the first word, which is "attack," and that's zero four four one. And "at," which is zero four one two. "Dawn" is two one two three, and then "period" is nine zero zero zero. Then what we want to do is regroup these into five-digit groups.

NARRATOR: Regrouping prepares the message for the next crucial step, the one-time pad.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: And then comes the part that really makes this work which is taking the one-time pad—and this is just a booklet of sheets containing a bunch of random numbers in a row...

NARRATOR: Random numbers are ideal for code making. They form no pattern, so there's no way to predict what the next number will be from what the last number was.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: We take the first of these random five-digit numbers from the first page here and write it down under our first code group, then the second under the second, and so on. And then what we do is add them together. And we do that with non-carrying addition. One seven six four two and zero zero four two five.

NARRATOR: The original message has now become a string of random numbers.

Then the Soviets took one more step. Using a chart provided by the telegraph companies they converted the numbers to letters. It had nothing to do with secrecy; it was to save money—telegraph companies charged less to send letters than to send numbers.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: And then when this is gone the only other person who can read the message is the guy at the other end who has the one duplicate copy of this.

ROBERT BENSON: A one-time pad system cannot be broken.

NARRATOR: It's the perfect code. Even with today's super computers it cannot be broken if it is used properly. So the code breakers tried to imagine what mistakes the Soviets might have made.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: The only way that it would be conceivable that you could break these messages was if the Soviets had made a mistake and reused one-time pad sheets for more than one message.

NARRATOR: The code breakers began to hunt through thousands of messages. They were looking for pairs of messages that had matching sequences of letters in two or more places. The more of these matches they found, the more likely it was that the same sheets of one-time pad had been reused. So they began to look for messages that had these double matches.

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: It was an incredible long shot, and I think the real challenge was convincing yourself that it was worth spending any effort at all.

NARRATOR: Today, digital computers could do the work in a few hours, but at the time punch cards were the fastest technology available. The operator punched in each message, converting it from letters back into numbers using the standard telegraph table.

Each card held five number groups and a message identification number. Then the cards were sorted. The results were printed in a series of catalogs, which the code breakers began to comb through. If they found one match between messages, they would look for another match in the same messages.

Eventually, they found seven pairs of messages sharing the same number groups in the same two places. This was the break they'd been looking for. It suggested that sheets of one-time pad had been reused, a potentially fatal error.

ROBERT LOUIS BENSON: So really, the whole story in a nutshell was the effort by the United States and the British to find these duplicate, one-time pad pages. If you could find duplicate pages and make a match, you could break into that message.

NARRATOR: Now the code breakers had to figure out the Russian word that each code group stood for and its English equivalent. They were trying to reconstruct a KGB code book they'd never seen. This kind of work is known as "book breaking."

STEPHEN BUDIANSKY: That's a really linguistic and almost cross-word puzzle-solving sort of skill, where you are using your knowledge of the language and rules of grammar and what words are likely to appear where and in what order in a message to try to figure out which code group stands for which word.

NARRATOR: One of the best book breakers was Meredith Gardner, a linguist who'd mastered twelve languages.

MEREDITH GARDNER (Former Code Breaker): It was easy to identify certain very common words such as prepositions and conjunctions, which is what I started with.

NARRATOR: "Zero six six nine," for example, stood for the Russian word "vah," which means "into."

Then in the fall of 1946, using his knowledge of linguistics, Gardner made an important breakthrough. He determined the sub-code used for English letters. This allowed him to spell out proper names.

In a message sent in 1944 he found a list of names: Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and others. These were the scientists who'd built the atom bomb. Their names were top-secret at the time.

As Gardner was working on the message, he was interrupted by William Weisband, a Russian language specialist at Arlington Hall.

MEREDITH GARDNER: So he took it on himself to stroll by and look over my shoulder when I was filling out this message.

NARRATOR: No one knew at the time but William Weisband was a KGB spy. Only later would it become clear just how much damage he had done.

Arlington Hall was stunned to find evidence of atomic espionage in the telegrams. It was time to call in the FBI.

Agent Robert Lamphere was assigned to the case, and in the fall of 1948 he began to work with Gardner.

ROBERT LOUIS BENSON: Mr. Gardner would give him new de-crypts of Russian spy messages and Bob Lamphere, in turn, would give Meredith results of FBI investigations.

NARRATOR: The collaboration quickly paid off. With Lamphere's information Gardner could decipher more code groups and translate larger sections of some messages.

He broke into cables about a spy with the cover name "Rest." Rest had given the KGB a special report on the separation of the isotopes of uranium. Later, under the cover name "Charles," he passed on other atomic secrets.

Lamphere learned from Los Alamos that the stolen uranium report had been written by Klaus Fuchs, the physicist who'd helped refine the theory of implosion.

Then, as Lamphere continued his investigation, the stakes suddenly rose enormously. In September 1949 the Soviet Union tested an atom bomb, ending America's nuclear monopoly years earlier than expected.

How had this happened?

The Soviet decoding project, given the meaningless cover name "Venona," immediately took on immense importance.

ROBERT LAMPHERE: All of a sudden what had been a nice quiet operation to identify a few low-level spies became the most important thing in the FBI.

NARRATOR: Klaus Fuchs was arrested in England in February 1950 and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He admitted giving the KGB a sketch of the plutonium bomb and detailed information on implosion. Fuchs identified Harry Gold as his KGB courier.

Gold fit the description in the Soviet cables of a spy cover-named "Gus." Gold identified David Greenglass as his other source at Los Alamos. Greenglass matched the description of an atomic spy with the cover name "Kalibr." Greenglass named his brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, as the KGB spy who'd recruited him.

This was a crucial break for the FBI. Rosenberg matched perfectly a spy with two cover names: "Antenna" and "Liberal." He was working so hard as a spy the KGB worried about his health.

JOHN HAYNES: He was at the head of an apparatus of engineers and scientists who were providing information on high tech military weaponry of that period, particularly electronics, jet engines and avionics.

NARRATOR: The telegrams provided clues to Liberal's identity. His wife's name was Ethel. They both were "fellow countrymen," KGB jargon for Communist Party members. Liberal's sister-in-law was Ruth Greenglass. She lived in lower Manhattan.

In the summer of 1950 the FBI arrested Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

HARVEY KLEHR: The government believed that arresting Ethel would put pressure on Julius to confess. The FBI was aware of the fact that Ethel was actually a fairly minor figure in the espionage, and so it clearly was a tactic designed to put pressure on Julius Rosenberg.

MEREDITH GARDNER: I thought, "Well, all my work is turning into some real happenings, real events, and not just translations sent to the FBI to file away." It was having real effects.

NARRATOR: The Rosenbergs were charged with conspiracy to commit espionage, but at their trial the prosecutor implied that they had actually stolen the secret of the atom bomb and given it to Russia. No mention was ever made in court of the Soviet telegrams.

ROBERT LAMPHERE: We had the greatest thing that man could ever get from a counterintelligence point of view in decrypting the KGB's system. To reveal that, for whatever reason, to me would be a bad, bad mistake.

NARRATOR: While the Rosenberg case was unfolding, Gardner broke into the most explicit KGB message he would ever read about two atomic spies. The message was sent from New York to Moscow in November 1944. Theodore Hall, 19 years old, a graduate of Harvard, a physicist, handed over a report about "CAMP-2"—the KGB cover name for Los Alamos—and named the key personnel working on "Enormous," the KGB cover name for America's nuclear program.

Hall had a friend named Saville Sax. The KGB considered it expedient to maintain a liaison with Hall through Sax.

The FBI contacted Los Alamos and learned that Theodore Hall had worked there until 1946.

They began a nationwide manhunt. The two suspects turned up in Chicago. Sax was driving a taxicab. Hall had been sharing an office with Edward Teller, the physicist designing the new hydrogen bomb.

The FBI's Chicago office sprang into action.

MARCIA KUNSTEL (Co-author, Bombshell): They had undercover guys watching Hall and Sax, reading their mail, probably tapping their phones, following them around, trying to get as much information as they could about these two guys who they knew had done something, but they really didn't know what it was.

NARRATOR: But the surveillance produced no further evidence of espionage. Robert McQueen, the FBI agent in charge, had only one option left.

ROBERT McQUEEN (Retired FBI Agent): The only practical way that we were going to get an indictment was to get a confession from one or both.

JOAN HALL: Ted was working at the lab and along came this FBI guy, got permission from the head of the lab to take Ted off downtown to the office.

ROBERT McQUEEN: He came with us without question—we put him in the bureau car—came back to the Chicago office at 105 West Adams.

NARRATOR: They drove into an alley and took Hall in through the back door. McQueen had planned every step for maximum intimidation. Hall did not know that Sax had already been picked up and was in a room upstairs. McQueen put Hall in another room.

JOAN HALL: I didn't know anything about it until about the time he normally would have got home from the lab, say six o'clock, when he phoned and said in a rather strange voice, "I've been detained." And I kind of intuited right away what was going on.

ROBERT MCQUEEN: We had advised him of his rights, of course. And then, when we explained to him our reason for interviewing him was espionage, he agreed to answer our questions.

NARRATOR: The questions were based on Gardner's decodes. McQueen asked Hall if he had met Sax in New York in 1944 and handed atomic secrets to the KGB. If Hall was shocked by the question he didn't show it.

ROBERT McQUEEN: He was very calm, obviously a very bright young man. He was still a young man.

NARRATOR: Hall denied everything, but Sax admitted that he might have met Hall in New York.

MARCIA KUNSTEL: Sax came across as kind of a bumbling disheveled guy and said, "You know, I'm not sure, but I probably did see Ted at some time. But you know..." And he denied any complicity in anything remotely resembling espionage.

NARRATOR: After nearly three hours, McQueen had failed to get a confession from either man. But he wasn't about to give up. He told Hall to return on Monday for more questions.

ROBERT McQUEEN: Sax gave us permission to search his home, which we did. But we found nothing there which would help us in the prosecution. And Hall refused to give us permission to search his place.

NARRATOR: When Hall got home that night he and Joan sprang into action.

JOAN HALL: We took all the left-wing stuff and packed it in boxes, and put it in the car, and put Ruthie into her snowsuit. She was just, then, just over a year. Put her in her car seat, and got in the car and drove to the bridge that crosses over the Chicago drainage canal. We dumped all the stuff into the canal.

NARRATOR: When Hall left for the FBI office on Monday morning, Joan worried that he'd end up in jail. But McQueen did not have enough evidence to make an arrest.

ROBERT McQUEEN: The interviews did not produce any information that we could take to the United States Attorney to get an indictment.

NARRATOR: According to the official FBI report Hall refused to answer more questions and the interview ended calmly. But that's not what Joan Hall remembers.

JOAN HALL: I guess it was McQueen said, "We're going to lock you up right now." And at that point Ted picked up his coat. He said, "I walked out of the room into the hall. They followed me. I pushed the button for the elevator. The elevator came. I got in. They didn't come in. They didn't join me. The elevator went down to the street. I got out. I walked out of the building. I was on the street. They didn't follow me." He called me right away and he came home.

NARRATOR: In spite of Ted's bravado the Halls were terrified, with good reason. Ted Hall was a KGB spy.

Now, for the first time on television, Joan Hall, Ted's wife of more than fifty years, tells their story.

JOAN HALL: I never thought of myself as an accomplice. I suppose if anybody had suggested it to me I would have said, "Well, I suppose so."

NARRATOR: Hall made the decision to become a spy while working at Los Alamos.

JOAN HALL: He told me that he had done it because he was afraid that the United States might become "a very reactionary power" after the war—those were his words—and that this would give the Soviet Union a better chance of standing up to them.

NARRATOR: In October 1944 Hall had gone to New York with a report on the bomb. He met up with his former Harvard roommate Saville Sax. Sax had grown up in a tight community of Russian Jewish immigrants.

BORIA SAX (Son of Saville Sax): They tended to be very suspicious of American society at large. Communism was a sort of substitute Judaism for the people in that community. They idealized Russia.

NARRATOR: Hall and Sax went looking for a Soviet agent.

MARCIA KUNSTEL: They knew nothing about how to do this. Sax initially made some forays to places like Art Kino, which was the place that distributed Soviet films in America. Went to the guy who was the head of this organization and said, "Well, you know, I've got this buddy of mine who's working at a secret installation and he's got all these secrets." Of course, this fellow must have thought, "Give me a break." But he also thought, "Well, maybe it's true. Maybe there really is somebody." So he gave Sax the name of Sergei Kournikov.

NARRATOR: Sergei Kournikov was a Soviet journalist—and a KGB agent. Hall went to visit him.

JOAN HALL: I guess Kournikov didn't know quite what to make of him. And Kournikov was consuming considerable quantities of vodka at the time and he kept pressing Ted to drink more.

NARRATOR: Hall began hinting at his secret work at Los Alamos.

JOAN HALL: Finally, Kournikov said, "Well, why don't you just write up your ideas or whatever you want to tell us and give it to me." And Ted said, "I've already done that," reached into this money belt which he had, put the papers on the table.

NARRATOR: Among the papers was a list of atomic scientists. It was the same list that Meredith Gardner would decode two years later.

JOSEPH ALBRIGHT: This was perhaps the first solid disclosure that there was this camp in New Mexico where the best scientists in the world had been brought together to build this secret weapon.

NARRATOR: After Hall returned to Los Alamos from New York he continued to send atomic secrets to the KGB via Saville Sax and other couriers.

JOSEPH ALBRIGHT: He was the first to pass on to the Russians information about how the principle of implosion worked. And later in the summer of 1945, after the bomb was exploded, he actually gave information permitting them to visualize how the various layers within an atomic bomb would be constructed.

NARRATOR: Hall's spy methods were amateurish but effective. He used milk as invisible ink to copy down classified equations on the edges of a newspaper, which he mailed to Saville Sax in New York, who took it to the Soviet consulate.

MICHAEL DOBBS: Ted Hall gave away the blueprint of the American atomic bomb, which later became the blueprint of the first Soviet atomic bomb.

JOSEPH ALBRIGHT: Then Klaus Fuchs came along and gave them slightly more detailed information. And Fuchs' information included the design of one of the key parts of the bomb called the initiator, which Ted Hall didn't know anything about.

NARRATOR: Neither Hall nor Fuchs knew that the other was a spy, and that made them even more valuable to the KGB.

MARCIA KUNSTEL: When they had two totally independent sources, Fuchs and Hall, who didn't know each other, who didn't work together, but gave basically the same information, they figured, "There's a good chance that this is right, that it's accurate."

JOAN HALL: It's a completely wrong picture of Ted to suggest that he was obeying orders from anybody. This thing was entirely his own initiative. He was not recruited or brought into it by anybody else.

NARRATOR: When Ted Hall married Joan Krakover in Chicago in 1947 he promised her that his spying days were over. But within a year, he was back spying for the KGB, even recruiting other scientists. After the FBI interviewed Hall in 1951 they grilled his colleagues from Los Alamos.

SAM COHEN: So this agent came down to my office and he began asking questions about Ted Hall, question after question after question. And like, "Well, what kind of a guy was he?" Well, answer, "Kind of a curious duck." It didn't occur to me that Ted might be a spy.

NARRATOR: By early 1952 the FBI still had no evidence against Hall and Sax apart from the decoded Soviet telegrams.

MICHAEL DOBBS: The problem that the FBI faced was that, although they had this evidence against Ted Hall and others in the form of decrypts, they were unable to use that evidence in court because they felt it would give away the fact that they had managed to break the Soviet code.

NARRATOR: So the FBI put the Hall and Sax case on hold. But protecting the secrecy of the Venona decodes was not the only reason they weren't used in court.

HARVEY KLEHR: The VENONA material would have been very difficult to use in court. How do you introduce it? How do you prove that these random numbers the Soviets sent in code over Western Union wires...that two three four seven is actually Ted Hall? It would be very, very difficult to prove that legally.

NARRATOR: As the Rosenbergs were inspiring a worldwide campaign for clemency Hall came up with his own plan on how to save them.

JOAN HALL: He thought perhaps if he were to confess what he had done, and say that he had done more than they did, that that would take the pressure off them to some extent. I said, "That's crazy. It wouldn't do them any good, and it would ruin us."

NARRATOR: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison on June 19, 1953.

The FBI's Robert Lamphere had supported the death penalty for Julius, but not for Ethel.

ROBERT LAMPHERE: I wrote the memorandum, for J. Edgar Hoover's signature, in which I opposed the execution of Ethel on two grounds: one, that the amount of evidence that had been produced at the trial was not sufficient to require her being executed; and secondly, she was the mother of two small children. Hoover signed that memorandum but it was not acted upon by the judge.

NARRATOR: Because the Soviet cables had been kept out of court, neither judge nor jury had gotten to read Gardner's decode of a KGB message which indicated that Ethel was not a spy like Julius.

MEREDITH GARDNER: "She knows about her husband's work," it says. "In view of her delicate health, does not work."

NARRATOR: As Gardner reported, the word "work" was KGB jargon for "espionage" which would explain why Ethel was never given a cover name.

MICHAEL MEEREPOL: They murdered her in cold blood. When the United States admits that, then I'll be more than willing to admit that maybe Venona has identified something of my father's involvement in some kind of activity with the KGB.

HARVEY KLEHR: If the Venona material had been made public at the time that the Rosenbergs were tried and convicted, it's very unlikely they would have gotten the death penalty. If the American public had known about Ted Hall's activities at the time the Rosenbergs were tried and convicted, it's impossible to believe that the judge would have called them the "central figures" in the theft of the atomic bomb. Clearly, if you're going to provide a candidate for that description, it was probably Ted Hall and Klaus Fuchs.

NARRATOR: According to Joan Hall, her husband stopped spying a few months later. By 1965, when this photo was taken, the family had moved to England, where Hall went on to a distinguished career in biophysics.

Saville Sax, Ted Hall's KGB courier, had a far more difficult time. His son remembers a strange family visit to the movies.

BORIA SAX: Just as the movie was about to start—the movie was "My Fair Lady"—my father said, "I just had a terrible thought. What if an atomic bomb were suddenly to fall on Chicago, right now, and all these people would be locked together in this movie theater? Pretty soon there would be cannibalism. I wonder who would get eaten first?"

And then the movie began, and I looked over to him and he seemed to be lost in a kind of reverie. But I'm pretty sure that a lot of it was guilt and fear about the espionage that he had done. After all, the bomb that he had passed to them, should it be used, would have been used on us.

NARRATOR: Saville Sax died in 1980. In 1997, two years before Ted Hall died from cancer, he defended his actions at Los Alamos to a visiting scholar.

TED HALL (U.S. Physicist who served as a KGB spy): I felt that it was important that somebody should go tell Stalin, as you just put it, and that it should be done sooner rather than later, so that it would not be a threat, but developing a pathway toward a better, more harmonious world.

ROBERT McQUEEN: They were traitors, simply put, nothing more, nothing less.

JOAN HALL: He certainly broke the law. He certainly broke his security oath. But he did not betray his country. He didn't betray the people. Everything that he did was done because of his concern for the people. It was a humanitarian act. His motive was a humanitarian motive. Now, if you want to call that sort of thing treason, go right ahead.

NARRATOR: What should have been done with Ted Hall?

SAM COHEN: ...shot. He was a military man. He was a soldier in the United States Army. He was subject not to civil law, he was subject to military law. Military law called for a traitor to be executed. And that son of a bitch should have been retrieved, once we found out what he had done, called back into the army, court marshaled and summarily executed.

NARRATOR: Ted Hall was not the only atomic spy to go free. Cover names of at least three other atomic spies appear in the cables.

JOHN HAYNES: To this day, we don't know who they are. But they are clearly very important sources. One who had the cover name "Quantum," provided the Soviets at a very early stage, the actual scientific formula for separating U-235 from U-238, which is a very key step in developing a working atomic bomb.

NARRATOR: Ultimately the code breakers found cover names for more than 300 Americans who spied for the Soviets in World War Two.

HARVEY KLEHR: American counterintelligence was able to identify only about 100 of these Soviet agents.

NARRATOR: But even this incomplete list is remarkable: Harry Dexter White, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, cover name "Lawyer;" Larry Duggan, Chief of the Division of American Republics at the State Department, cover name "Prince;" Lauchlin Currie, Senior Administrative Assistant to President Roosevelt, cover name "Page."

HARVEY KLEHR: There was not a single agency of the American government that the Soviets had not infiltrated, ranging from the OSS—the forerunner of the CIA—to the Justice Department, to the Treasury Department, to the State Department, to all of the wartime defense agencies.

NARRATOR: Venona also helps to settle the case of Alger Hiss, the State Department official accused of spying.

HARVEY KLEHR: There's one Venona message about an agent code named "ALES." And the message gives certain detail about ALES, and those details fit Alger Hiss and nobody else. And the FBI believed that ALES was Alger Hiss. And material that has emerged from Russian archives in the last decade, I think, makes it absolutely clear that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent.

NARRATOR: The cables also helped to uncover three KGB agents working at high levels in the British government: Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, and Kim Philby. All three escaped arrest by fleeing to Moscow.

JOSEPH MCCARTHY: In my hands, a document which was never used before...

NARRATOR: Ironically, there is no evidence that Senator Joseph McCarthy, who smeared hundreds of innocent people as Soviet spies, ever heard of the Venona project.

JOHN HAYNES: If he had any notion that we were reading Soviet intelligence traffic he would have made it public. If Joseph McCarthy had learned about a code breaking operation that named Soviet spies in the morning, he would have been holding a press conference announcing it that afternoon.

HARVEY KLEHR: As far as we can tell, of all the people that McCarthy named as possible Soviet agents, only a tiny, tiny handful, perhaps two or three, are revealed in Venona. You would have thought that there were so many people that if you threw a dart you'd hit more real spies by chance.

NARRATOR: The authenticity of the Venona decodes has been corroborated recently by Alexander Vassiliev, a former KGB agent now living in London. Vassiliev managed to smuggle out of Russia copies of top-secret reports written to Moscow by KGB agents in America.

ALEXANDER VASSILIEV (Former KGB Agent): There were several cases when the real documents which I saw in the files and Venona decodes coincided word to word.

NARRATOR: According to Vassiliev this is the actual text of a report to the KGB by Julius Rosenberg. He and Ethel asked Ruth Greenglass to convince her husband, David, to spy at Los Alamos.

ALEXANDER VASSILIEV: The Rosenbergs, Theodore Hall and Alger Hiss did spy for the Soviets, and I saw their real names in the documents, their code names, a lot of documents about that. How you judge them is up to you. To me they're heroes.

NARRATOR: The Venona project lasted until 1980. Only those messages that reused sheets of one-time pad could be read, less than one percent of the total. No messages sent after 1948 could be broken; that's because the code breakers had been betrayed by one of their own.

ROBERT LOUIS BENSON: Beginning in 1948, and over a six month period, all the Soviet cryptographic systems went dark and the United States no longer could read any encrypted Soviet traffic. We assume...we know that the Soviets were tipped by Bill Weisband.

NARRATOR: William Weisband was the linguist who'd watched Meredith Gardner break his first KGB message.

ROBERT LOUIS BENSON: Many of us consider this the greatest intelligence loss in U.S. history.

NARRATOR: Weisband was questioned by the FBI in 1950 and jailed for contempt of court. To protect the secrecy of Venona he was never charged with espionage.

So the ultimate irony of Venona is that the KGB knew about it almost from the start, and the FBI, once they'd uncovered Weisband, knew that the KGB knew.

ROBERT LAMPHERE: I said to the head of the NSA, "Who are you keeping it secret from? You're not keeping it secret from the KGB, you're keeping it secret from the American public."

HARVEY KLEHR: It's unfortunate that Venona was not made public much earlier. Certainly for the last 30 years or so we've had fierce debates about McCarthyism, for example. The extent of the Soviet danger, I think, would have been a lot clearer had Venona been made public. I think a lot of the bitterness and rancor in American political life might have been avoided had we known the truth.

NARRATOR: Beyond its revelations, Venona raises important questions about the value and the danger of secrecy in a democratic society. But fundamentally, and undeniably, it was a triumph of code breaking seldom equaled or surpassed.

On NOVA's Website, hear from family members of Americans accused of spying for the Soviets, including Julius Rosenberg and Ted Hall, and find out what it was like to live with a loved one who led a double life, on PBS.org or America Online, Keyword PBS.

To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

Next time on NOVA, germ warfare. "This is a perfect weapon for Osama Bin Laden." Do they have what it takes to make one? Do we have what it takes to survive? NOVA and the New York Times reveal the untold story, Bioterror.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

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PRODUCTION CREDITS

Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies

Narrated by
Liev Schreiber

Written, Produced and Directed by
Tug Yourgrau

Edited by
Jean Dunoyer

Co-producer
Pip Gilmour

Associate Producers
Dixie Ching
Tracey Spolter
Elizabeth Benjes

Field Producer, Moscow
Svetlana Chervonnaya

Narrated by
Liev Schreiber

Principal Advisor
Stephen Budiansky

Camera
Tom Kaufman
Michael Fox
Brian Dowley
Robert Jaye
David South
Richard Ball

Assistant Camera
Matt Fox
Sandra Chandler
Nate Clapp
Melissa Donovan
Bill Floyd
Mike Krebs
Joe Christofori
Scott Rolf
Stuart Stein
Kurt Parlow

Sound Recordists
Mike Lax
Juan Rodriguez
Frank Bigg
Mario Cardenas
K.C. Clayton
Mike Boyle
Fred Burnham
Dwayne Dell
Paul Rusnak

Music
Ray Loring

Animation
Brian White

Assistant Editor
Deb Cote

Online Editor
Fernando Guerreiro

Colorist
Mark Kueper

Audio Mix
Heart Punch Studio

Research
Bonnie Rowan
Bob Adams
Michelle Ching
Joanna Boelio
Mark Holmes

Production Assistants
Sarah Newton
Rodger Reis
Terry Minogue
Tim Daoust
Eli Brown

Archival Material
AP/Wide World Photos
Archive Films
Corbis-Bettman
Educational and Television Films, Ltd.
Fox Movietonews, Inc.
Grinberg Film Library
Hulton Archive by Getty Images
Nadezda Films
National Security Agency
NBC News Archives
Russian Film Archives/ABA Media
Sekani, Inc.
Martin J. Sherwin
UCLA Film and Television Archive
VCE.com
The WPA Film Library
WPIX, Inc.

Special Thanks
Joel Olicker
David Weil & The Computer Museum
Don House & NADCOMM
Mildred Hayes
Howard Kulp
William Weisband
John Bass
Alexander Berlin
Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies
Nigel West
William Crowell
Jane Hudgins
Frank Lewis
Oscar Prelin
Raisa V. Kuznetsova
Howard Zinn
Robert Meerepol
Morton Sobell
Ilene Sasso
Rush Glick
Angelica Murillo
Kelly Weith
David Kahn

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody
Michael Whalen

Post Production Online Editor
Mark Steele

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Publicity
Jonathan Renes
Diane Buxton
Katie Kemple

Senior Researcher
Ethan Herberman

Unit Managers
Sarah Goldman
Jessica Maher
Sharon Winsett

Paralegal
Nancy Marshall

Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen Shishko

Business Manager
Laurie Cahalane

Post Production Assistant
Patrick Carey

Associate Producer, Post Production
Nathan Gunner

Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole

Post Production Editors
David Eells
Rebecca Nieto

Supervising Producer
Lisa D'Angelo

Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham

Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by Powderhouse Productions, Inc. for WGBH/Boston.

© 2002 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

 

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