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The Black Arts

This conclusion strikes me as completely likely, and it has been amply supported by recent discoveries in the archives of the former Communist world.* But it would have been hard to prove what the ALES message meant in a court of law in the 1950s, when Hiss was on trial. No witnesses would have been available to testify who wrote the document, how its claims were known to be true, what “military information” had been obtained, or even whether it represented a true copy of what had been radioed from Washington to Moscow at the time. Hiss’s defenders, who claimed the FBI fabricated a typewriter to “prove” that State Department documents kept by Whittaker Chambers had been copied by Hiss’s wife on the family portable, would have encountered little trouble in spinning out a conspiratorial explanation of the embarrassments of the VENONA traffic.

There is a vast gulf separating the sort of evidence a prosecutor needs for a court case and the fragmentary and ambiguous materials of uncertain provenance which may be all that counterintelligence sleuths have to work with. VENONA is full of clues—some 200 cryptonyms of probable agents and enough bits and pieces of information to let investigators identify perhaps half of them. Moynihan did the country a service in pressing for declassification of VENONA. There is no operational reason to keep this stuff secret any longer. The men and women who conducted the extraordinary feat of breaking communications enciphered with a “one-time pad”—i.e., with a code specific to each message—deserve public recognition and thanks for their efforts, and historians of the cold war will make solid use of VENONA to help explain the nationwide panic known as McCarthyism.

But I very much doubt that prompt exposure at the time would have changed the course of events significantly, and it might have done a good deal of damage. Uncertainty is not merely a fact but a tool of intelligence. The VENONA messages were read piecemeal over many years, some as late as the 1970s. In the late 1940s and 1950s they were an important aid to FBI spy hunters, and the fact that the Soviet Union learned that a number of its messages had been decoded was less important than the alarm which must have swept Moscow at the ghastly prospect that the American codebreakers might succeed in reading all of the traffic. Hundreds of spies and operations would have been compromised. What intelligence organizations do when discovery looms is burn paper, shut operations down, roll up agent networks, pull people back to home base, abandon safe houses and meeting places, change phone numbers and the location of message drops—in short, disappear. The point in a global conflict is not to put miscreants into jail (except pour encourager les autres) but to keep track of what the other guys are up to, and to give a convincing impression of always knowing a good deal more than is overtly let on. What that means, among other things, is never revealing how you know what you know. Keeping VENONA secret—from the public and, insofar as possible, from the Russians—was not Boy Scout stuff but an important part of the Great Game. Naturally at some point the secret ceases to matter but knowing when that point arrives is easier in retrospect than at the time, which explains why the CIA errs vigorously on the side of caution.


Like most books about secrecy, Moynihan’s is largely concerned with secret history—things that happened wholly or in part beyond public view, why the government wanted it that way, the policies and methods used to keep secrets secret. The principal tools of the US government are the definition of treason in the US Constitution and the Espionage Act of 1917, amended in 1933 to protect American codebreaking efforts and again in 1950 to protect “national defense information,” mainly the scientific knowledge involved in the design and manufacture of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The British Official Secrets Act, which grants virtually unlimited power to the government on security matters and provides for no release of certain official secrets, ever, also has its origins in the First World War.

Richard Gid Powers (who bears a noble name but is no relation of mine) has contributed a long and extremely useful introduction to Moynihan’s book recounting the recent history of American popular thinking about government secrets, from the blank check of the early 1950s through the discoveries of the 1960s and 1970s—the FBI’s campaign against leftists, the CIA’s aggressive meddling in other countries—to the delicate modern balance of skepticism with realism one finds in the work of many recent commentators: they concede the reality of the war within the cold war but darkly suspect simultaneous government manipulation of secrecy for reasons of political advantage and corporate gain. Was Kennedy obsessed with Castro because he feared a Russian military base in the Caribbean, or worried he would be clobbered in the 1964 presidential election? Did the Pentagon want more nuclear missile submarines to protect American retaliatory capacity against a Soviet first strike, or to ensure the prosperity of the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Connecticut? Who can imagine that such questions have clear and simple answers?

The meat and potatoes of Secrecy is to be found largely in Powers’s introduction. It explains and places Moynihan’s argument, which would otherwise seem half-finished. Moynihan contributes the flavor and personality of the book—a rambling history of our times, some flashes of insight (“secrecy is a form of regulation”), and a discussion of the relentless growth in Washington over the decades of the cold war of a “culture of secrecy,” by which he means the habit of exaggerated classification (those six million secret documents each year), the temptation to hide failure behind a screen of bogus national security, and the all-thumbs international bumbling which comes from thinking some information too secret to share with the people making decisions. How did we know the Russians had a slew of agents operating inside the American government? How did we know a Communist victory in the Italian elections of 1948 might be followed by a Stalinist coup? How did we know Castro was a client of the Russians? How did we know North Vietnam was running the war in the South? How did we know Allende was a Stalinist in social democratic garb? How did we know the Soviet Union was building a first-strike capability? How did we know the Sandinista government in Nicaragua was running the revolution in El Salvador? How did we know the Soviet economy was 60 percent as big as the American economy?

To these and many similar questions over the last fifty years American intelligence organizations have had secret answers, and the details, on which all depends, were very often considered too secret to share with other members of government except in the bland form of national intelligence estimates prognosticating X with a probability of Y based on sources with a reliability of Z. Who can make head or tail of that? Moynihan thinks a lot of dumb decisions have been made over the years by people trying to play cards with half a deck, and he is probably right.

But can excessive secrecy be blamed for the really big mistakes? The biggest of all was probably Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to be the first American president to lose a war. The way things turned out tells us all we need to know about the wisdom of drawing the line in Vietnam, and it is certainly clear now that one of the principal rationales for going to war—the idea that Hanoi was doing the bidding of Red China—was just utterly wrong, no matter what the secret evidence might have said. Moynihan might argue that a vigorous public debate based on all-source intelligence in 1964 and 1965 might have convinced American leaders that Hanoi and Saigon were approaching the climax of a Vietnamese civil war of no concern to us, and Moynihan might be right.

But taking Red China out of the equation wouldn’t have changed some basic facts—the fact that Hanoi was Red, too; and the fact that the United States under President Kennedy had sent more than 16,000 American troops to make sure Saigon didn’t lose; and the fact that Hanoi in 1965 was about to whip Saigon’s ass and send American troops scuttling for safety; and the fact that the men in the White House were all serenely certain that, as Dean Rusk expressed it at the time, when a mighty nation like the United States puts its shoulder to the wheel, that wheel is going to move. The disaster of the Vietnam War wasn’t the fault of secrecy-obsessed intelligence officers putting the wrong stuff, or not enough stuff, into the briefing books. Major disasters are never the result of small mistakes and overlooked details, but of men in positions of relative safety choosing by gradual stages to postpone first the inconvenience and then the pain of failure by doubling and redoubling the number of chips pushed to the center of the table.

But the intelligence failure at the top of Moynihan’s list in Secrecy is not Vietnam but the Soviet Union, which at one moment was challenging American might in every corner of the globe, according to supersecret information regularly provided to the White House by the CIA, and the next moment had collapsed in five kinds of bankruptcy—moral, social, political, military, and above all financial. “These were the best people we had, the CIA so-called experts,” said President Gerald Ford in 1997, years after the curtain had come down and longstanding Soviet weaknesses were revealed. “How they could be so in error, I don’t understand, but they were.”

Moynihan has much to say about the reasons for this error, which go back to the earliest days of the cold war and reached full bloom in the 1957 report “Deterrence and Survival in the Nuclear Age,” known by the name of the chairman of the committee which wrote it, H. Rowen Gaither, Jr. Delivered to President Eisenhower not long after the successful Soviet launching of the world’s first satellite, the Gaither Report grimly concluded that “the Gross National Product (GNP) of the USSR is now more than one-third that of the United States and is increasing half again as fast.” Half again as fast, Moynihan points out, would have meant Soviet growth at a rate of 8.25 percent a year, and that promised a crossover point, the moment when the USSR forged into the lead, in 1998. Talk about error.

As things turned out, the Soviet GNP in 1990, the year before the USSR’s collapse, was only a third of the American GNP. In the years since that collapse the CIA and some former intelligence officers have tried to suggest they weren’t really all that wrong but it won’t wash. Moynihan has got this right; the CIA not only failed to note, much less predict, the early signs of the Soviet collapse, but for decades it persistently exaggerated the economic strength which lay behind Soviet military programs.

  1. *

    See, for example, Whittaker Chambers (Random House, 1997), Sam Tanenhaus’s brilliant and exhaustive biography; the 1997 Random House edition of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein; and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America—The Stalin Era, by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, just published by Random House.

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