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Introduction to the Venona Materials


The term "Venona" began life as "merely an arbitrary codeword stamped on a relatively small number of documents in order to limit access to a particular cryptanalytic breakthrough." However, by the time the effort to decipher the texts generated by this breakthrough ended in 1980, "the codeword 'Venona' meant to a handful of witting US and Allied intelligence officers the entire program of cryptanalytic and exploitation activities based on the messages." Michael Warner and Robert Louis Benson, "Venona and Beyond: Thoughts on Work Undone," Intelligence and National Security 12, no. 3 (Jul. 1997): 1-2.

On 11 July 1995, DCI John M. Deutch announced the declassification of the Venona project, and released 49 Venona messages to the public. The Venona project was begun by the Army Signal Intelligence Service in 1943 with the aim of cracking the Soviet Diplomatic code. "Ultimately, after a series of cryptographic breakthroughs..., a number of KGB espionage messages were broken, read, and were discovered to reveal details of wide spread KGB-inspired espionage efforts, including those of the Atomic Bomb spies.... Over 2200 translations from the Venona project will be released in the coming year." On 12 July 1995, the National Cryptologic Museum, Ft. Meade, MD, unveiled a new exhibit entitled "Soviet Espionage Against the U.S. Atomic Program," based on the newly declassified Venona documents. NMIA Newsletter 10, no. 3 (1995), 13.

A second group of Venona documents was released on 12 October 1995. According to an NSA press statement, this release, consisting of "over 250 translations of KGB-GRU communications, focuses on messages between the New York KGB Residency and Moscow Center during 1942 to 1943.... Highlights of this second release include a September 1943 message providing KGB Residencies instructions on how to handle intelligence sources within the Communist party after the disestablishment of the COMINTERN.... There is a message from the head of Soviet state security L.P. Beria admonishing the KGB Residencies to improve their security practices and also included are several messages dealing with Soviet subversive activity in Latin American countries." From the NSA Homepage at http://www.nsa.gov:8080/.

Additional Venona documents were released in March 1996. These documents include notes by NSA identifying the Soviet agents mentioned by code name in the original cables. See Michael Dobbs, "Pointing the Finger at Mlad," Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 11-17 Mar. 1994, 34.

The final release of the Venona materials took place at a conference held 3-4 October 1996 at the National War College on Ft. McNair, Washington, DC. A 450-page volume of additional documents was distributed at the conference: Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, eds., VENONA: Soviet Espionage and American Response, 1939-1957 (Washington, DC: National Security Agency/Central Intelligence Agency, 1996). The publication is available through the National Technical Information Service, 5285 Port Royal Road, Springfield, VA 22161 (Telephone: 703-487-4650) and on the Center for the Study of Intelligence's Homepage at https://www.cia.gov/csi. See Star Murphy, "VENONA Conference," CIRA Newsletter 21, no. 4 (Winter 1996/97): 34-35.

The National Security Agency maintains a Web site for the Venona translations (some 2,900) and associated monographs: http://www.nsa.gov. Available at the site are William P. Crowell [Deputy Director, National Security Agency], "Remembrances of VENONA"; Robert Louis Benson, "The 1942-43 New York-Moscow KGB Messages"; and Robert Louis Benson, "The 1944-45 New York and Washington-Moscow KGB Messages."

David A. Hatch, "VENONA: An Overview," American Intelligence Journal 17, no. 1/2 (1996), 71-77, supplies an excellent overview of the Venona project, in terms of the nature of the activity and what was obtained from it and what was not. The author includes a brief but lucid section on the relation of the materials to the Rosenberg espionage case. For individuals coming to a discussion of the Venona decrypts without some background in the project, this is a good place to start.

A longer, more detailed overview is provided by Robert Louis Benson, The VENONA Story (Ft. George G. Meade, MD: National Security Agency, Center for Cryptologic History, [n.d.]). Available at http://www.nsa.gov/about/_files/cryptologic_heritage/publications/coldwar/venona_story.pdf.

Hayden B. Peake, "The Venona Progeny," Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer 2000), provides an excellent review of the growing literature drawn from the Venona materials. An updated version (to include the Romerstein and Breindel book) appears in Intelligencer 11, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 74-80.


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