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Venona expert: Declassified

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Robert Benson, of Front Royal, talks about his days as a National Security Agency counterintelligence expert Wednesday at the Samuels Public LIbrary. He discussed the Venona codebreaking project that helped identify Soviet spies during the Cold War. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Former counterintelligence official provides insight into once-secret codebreaking project

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- A former counterintelligence official who was instrumental in lifting the veil of secrecy from some of America's most closely kept espionage secrets talked about what he found in government archives Wednesday night.

Robert "Lou" Benson, of Front Royal, worked in the first half of the 1990s to declassify the products of a 37-year American and British program that exposed Soviet spies around the world.

The publicly available records have nearly resolved hotly debated spy cases that have festered since the early days of the Cold War, he said.

Benson spoke to an audience of 25 people at the Samuels Public Library.

Few people remain who harbor any doubts about the guilt of Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss as spies for the Soviet Union since the declassification of the Venona files, said Benson, who retired two years ago from the National Security Agency.

His career included stints as chief of staff and division chief for NSA's Office of Security.
His writings include a three-volume classified history of the Venona project, part of which has been declassified since its completion.

"Venona" was the last of several names for a U.S.-British codebreaking operation begun in the middle of World War II by Gene Grabeel. She worked in the U.S. Army's Signal Intelligence Service, a forerunner of the National Security Agency.

Grabeel had been teaching home economics to high school students weeks before joining the government, but an aptitude test revealed she had a knack for cryptology, and soon she was trying to decode Soviet diplomatic messages, Benson said.

The seeds planted by Grabeel and several others with similar talents grew into the codebreaking operation that helped bring down Rosenberg and link Hiss to Soviet espionage in two of the most notorious spy cases in U.S. history.

American conservatives lined up against Rosenberg and Hiss while liberals insisted they were innocent victims of a witch hunt. Rosenberg was convicted and executed for passing secrets to the Soviets that helped them build the atomic bomb. Hiss was convicted and went to prison on a perjury charge linked to accusations of spying. Debate raged among political activists and historians for decades, but declassified Soviet diplomatic cables have left little doubt about the guilt of both men, Benson said.

He showed one translated document on an overhead projector that contains a codename that he said was a reference to Hiss.

"There is no one else but Alger Hiss who fits this -- no one," Benson said of the code name.

Other Venona documents revealed Soviet spies at the elbows of the highest American officials during World War II. Benson listed Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the treasury; Lauchlin Currie, executive assistant to President Franklin Roosevelt; and Maj. Duncan Lee, executive assistant to William Donovan, head of the agency that was the forerunner of the CIA, as among the guilty.

Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. was surrounded by spies, Benson said.
"When he walked into his office Monday morning, he would not have seen anyone who was not a [Soviet] agent," Benson said.

Benson said the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, former CIA director John Deutch and William P. Crowell, former deputy director of the NSA, along with several historians, helped him in opening the Venona files to the public in the mid-1990s.

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