Interview with Robert Lou Benson, NSA - Dagger and Cloak

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Interview with Robert Lou Benson, NSA

Interviewer: Tell me in your own words about the sabotage school in Barcelona, during the Civil War. What was that really?

Lou Benson: Well the sabotage school was apparently supervised by the KGB which was then called the NKVD.

Interviewer: And what was the point of it?

Lou Benson: Well, this was in the course of the Spanish Civil War; the Russians were supporting the loyalists. The patriotic or rather the legally elected Government of Spain in 1936 there was a rising against the Republic by General Franco's Forces. And the Civil War resulted. There was an intervention by the left and the right, so to speak. The Soviets came in on the side of the Republic, and the Nazis and the Italians on the side of what became called the Nationalists, Franco's Government.

Interviewer: If the KGB were basically running the sabotage school in Barcelona?

Lou Benson: Yes.

Interviewer: What was their gain? What was the point?

Lou Benson: Well, it was, I mean, to fight Franco's Forces, and that was one technique, of course sabotage, operating behind Franco's lines. But that was the military purpose of it. It undoubtedly gave them an opportunity to process people from the International Brigades who might be invited in. But its purpose was fight against Franco's forces and on behalf of the Republicans.

Interviewer: But also there's a good, a good opportunity -- to, to recruit.

Lou Benson: To recruit. I would think so, yes.

Interviewer: Now moving back to the United States. Um, the Soviet's, um, had -- what part did the American Communist Party play in selecting, screening, recruiting Americans who might be useful to the Soviets? To the KGB?

Lou Benson: If we look at the spy scene in Venona, and the agents, let's call them, Soviet Agency scene in Venona, they were essentially all Communists, or very closely allied with Communist Party members, called "the travellers," and that sort of thing. The party did in fact provide candidates who would recommend the specially trusted Communists to the Soviet Intelligence Services. For instance, Earl Browder, who was the leader of the American Communist Party, in Venona we see him from time to time discussing candidates and the KGB coming to him to discuss candidates. The party used a man named Bernie Schuster, again seen in Venona, as a liaison between the party and the KGB. Then Schuster would conduct what would be called background investigations. If a particular party member seemed like a good candidate to work for the KGB because of his access to classified information, or for some other reason the KGB wanted a person in a certain place, Schuster would check them out. We can only guess from the messages, Venona messages, but he apparently would check party records, and he would interview other party members and then make a recommendation as to whether this person would be suitable for the KGB.

Interviewer: And the KGB used these Americans to do it's work for it?

Lou Benson: The KGB used American Communists. Yes.

Interviewer: Now they were front organisations, legitimate organisations but with a covert purpose, TASS and Amtorg. In your own words could you tell me what those were and what they did?

Lou Benson: TASS was the Soviet Press Organisation in the United States, and in other countries where they were accredited. It served as a legitimate press relations and news service purpose and provided a cover for the KGB and GRU. So on the staff of any TASS unit in any country was KGB and GRU officers. The same could be said for Amtorg, which was the Soviet Government's trading organisation in the Western Hemisphere. There were similar trading organisations in other areas that had different names. Amtorg existed to further Soviet economic interests and legitimate trade purposes. Once again it provided a front, a cover, under which the KGB and GRU officers could operate.

Interviewer: Before the war they were interested in commercial intelligence or industrial intelligence. What kind of things did they collect?

Lou Benson: In the inter-war years there's no question, at least in the United States, the KGB and GRU had a great interest in what might be called industrial espionage, collecting trade secrets and so forth. I feel some of the targets were very mundane, but it was important to the Soviet Union and the Soviet economy. Things like synthetic rubber, sugar refining, processors, patrolling and refining processes, automobiles, automobile engines and, in a more, much more secret area of course, the development of American military aircraft. The espionage against these kinds of targets could be carried out in any number of ways. It could be the using the KGB and GRU officers under the cover of TASS and Amtorg but they could also be under the cover of the Embassy or the Soviet legations.

Interviewer: What do the term's legal and illegals mean?

Lou Benson: In Soviet intelligence usage, a legal would be a KGB or GRU Officer, intelligence officer, operating under a legal cover, let's say in the United States, perhaps on the staff of the Ambassador, -- perhaps on the staff of TASS or Amtorg, or the Consulate, as a First Secretary of the Consulate. That person, the legal, is concealing his true purpose, but he has a legal connection to the Soviet mission in the United States or in another country. An illegal traditionally was also a sworn KGB or GRU officer who would enter the target country, illegally, using false documentation, and then would assume a certain identity and perhaps might work as a salesman, which is what Colonel Akhmarhov, the illegal Chief in the United States did. He worked, I think, selling furs.

Interviewer: Tell me how Colonel Akhmarhov operated?

Lou Benson: Lieutenant Colonel Isak Akhmarhov was the Chief of the KGB illegals in the United States during the World War II. He was in this country on a second tour as an illegal, from 1942 to 1945. He'd also been here during the 1930s. He entered the United States illegally, using false documentation, and he was called the illegal resident. Resident is the Soviet term for station chief the United States, and in Britain you would use the term station chief perhaps for CIA or British Secret Service. They call that person a resident; he was the illegal resident. There were legal residents under diplomatic cover in New York, Washington, and San Francisco. So in theory he had parallel networks. You had a network run by the illegal resident, and you had multiple networks run by the legal residents. Of course it was all illegal. It was all against the law, but these were the terms of the time. And the terms are still in use.

Interviewer: How many kinds of code names did Akhmarhov have?

Lou Benson: Akhmarhov is his true name. In the United States he used four or five aliases at different times, such as, I believe, Michael Green, and perhaps Michael Adamack. He had a communications cover name, which is what we see in the Venona messages. That was Albert. When he met his agents he used what one might call a street name. Just a first name, Bill, John. His agents didn't know his alias. They didn't know his real name. They just knew him as Bill, and they knew his wife as Catherine.

Interviewer: Was Colonel Abel another illegal?

Lou Benson: Colonel Abel was an illegal. He was also a KGB officer, a sworn officer, of that service. I don't know how he entered the United States; I don't know if we do now. He certainly was using an alias in the United States, and he had a front, a cover business as a photographer

Interviewer: Now tell me about Venona. What exactly was Venona?

Lou Benson: Venona's just a made-up code word. Made up by the United States and Great Britain. It was the third of a series of code names. Earlier it was called Drug and Bride. It stood for the fact that we were able to read a certain set of Soviet Intelligence Service communications that had been sent during the 1940s.

Interviewer: Now where were these sent from? And how were they collected?

Lou Benson: The messages were between the KGB and GRU establishments abroad and the Centre in Moscow. For the most part they were passed by commercial international radio, by legitimate commercial companies, but of course they were turned into the message company, the cable company in cipher. So Western Union then would radio to Moscow a cipher telegram which they were told was perhaps of the Embassy, or the Consulate to Moscow. In other words a legitimate diplomatic communications. There were in fact diplomatic communications. There were trade communications. But there were also the communications of the GRU, the KGB and Naval Intelligence, the intelligence services operating in the United States.

Interviewer: How were these cables collected, as copies from Western Union?

Lou Benson: In general, yes. During the war, generally speaking, these messages were acquired through censorship. On the day after Pearl Harbour certain emergency laws and regulations went into effect, and every cable going to or from the United States a copy had to go to the censor. The censor would turn over these messages to Arlington Hall. There were occasionally messages that were intercepted, on different circuits, for instance, between the KGB in Tokyo and the KGB in Moscow. Of course that had to be intercepted but it turns out none of those were read anyway.

Interviewer: What exactly was Arlington Hall? What were they trying to do there?

Lou Benson: Arlington Hall is just a convenient name for the Army Signal Intelligence Service. It had formally been in the War Department building in downtown Washington, but with the onset of war larger quarters were needed. A girl's school was acquired in Arlington, Virginia, and then a couple of large temporary buildings were put up behind the girls' school. Army Corp engineers worked day and night, and during 1942, army signal intelligence moved into Arlington Hall. We just tended to call that organisation Arlington Hall, though it was merely the name of the former school.

Interviewer: Is that where they were trying to crack Venona?

Lou Benson: All Army, I should say. Most Army code breaking work was done at Arlington Hall. It was the Headquarters for the Army's world-wide signal intelligence operations. So Venona, what became called Venona was being worked on at Arlington Hall. Yes. It was a small effort to begin with.

Interviewer: The first break in cracking the code or one of the first breaks was Cecil Philips. Can you describe what happened?

Lou Benson: Well, Cecil Philips came to Arlington Hall in 1943. I think it was when he was eighteen years old, after he had finished two years at college. He went onto the Russian program surprisingly or worked on Mayday, 1944, and in November, 1944, he made some observations in studying Russian diplomatic traffic that essentially was the basic break in Venona. He made the basic solution that led to this whole thing unravelling. The reason was the material he was studying turned out to be KGB. He did not know that at the time. He found a way to exploit this material, or to identify it to make what we would call matches. The fact that it happened to be KGB was -- is one of the most important parts of this whole story.

Interviewer: What was the nature of the break through?

Lou Benson: What he did is he took the first few groups of messages and the last few groups of a message. I think it took some hundreds of messages and studied them and wrote them down. He found in one set of messages that there appeared to be too many sixes. If these were truly random numbers, one-tenth of the numbers in these groups should have been sixes. In fact there it was more than that, much more than that. After further study and discussion, what Cecil realised was that these numbers were what's called free key, that they were not encrypted. That they had been taken directly from a one-time pad and not added to anything not added to the code groups. Had these numbers been added to code, this bias in favour of sixes would have disappeared. We cannot explain why there was this bias in favour of sixes, because these were essentially random numbers, but they weren't absolutely random. His noticing it led to the unravelling of the whole thing.

Interviewer: The person who made the break through, I think, in language is Meredith Gardner. What did he do?

Lou Benson: Meredith Gardner was a -- a linguist, a linguistic genius, who during World War II had worked on Japanese Army problems, particularly military attaché. He spoke or could read a dozen or so languages and he had taught himself Russian. After the second world war, he was assigned to the Russian section, and taking advantages of the cipher breaks that had been made by Cecil Philips, and a large modest sized group of people, he was able to start attacking the underlying code. Now here was a codebook that the United States had never seen and has never seen to this day. But using his understanding of the Russian language, he reconstructed that codebook. The code group had ten thousand groups, probably by mid 1948, through analysis, he recovered ninety per cent of those code groups.

Interviewer: And what did that enable them to, to do?

Lou Benson: Well that enabled him then, to put the code groups into the messages, and translate, and then you would have the text of a Russian espionage message. So first you have to deal with that cipher, which is from the one-time pad. You have to strip the cipher off. Then you get down to the code. Then you've had to figure out what the code means. That code or code book is a dictionary really with -- with numbers.

Interviewer: One of the first great discoveries Gardner made was he saw this list of names appear. What list of names was this?

Lou Benson: During 1946, Meredith Gardner was able to decrypt to some extent, oh, a handful of messages, maybe four or five. In one of these messages that he translated he broke out from the code and so forth, he found a list of names which he recognised as people who had been involved in the atomic bomb program of the United States. Also it did include some foreign names such as Eisenberg I believe.

Interviewer: Who was he?

Lou Benson: He was, as I recall, a German Physicist who the US believed was probably heading the Nazi atomic bomb effort. So this was a list of physicists, involved in the development of this new weapon.

Interviewer: What could that tell American Intelligence?

Lou Benson: It was suggested that there was a Soviet agent inside the Manhattan Project.

Interviewer: Doing what?

Lou Benson: This agent was supplying the Soviet Union with classified information concerning the Manhattan project and the development of the atomic bomb.

Interviewer: What conclusion was drawn from the existence of this list of names?

Lou Benson: When Meredith Gardner saw this list of names, he recognised a number of names of famous physicists who were involved in the Manhattan Project. Meredith realised that this message was dated in, I believe, 1944, perhaps early '45. Now in 1944, any association of people with the Manhattan Project was at that time top secret. So it suggested to him somebody had acquired top secret information and had passed it on to Soviet intelligence.

Interviewer: So the Manhattan project was no longer secure?

Lou Benson: Correct.

Interviewer: Now, what further discoveries did this cracking the code as it were, lead to? For example did was Fuchs tracked down?

Lou Benson: Klaus Fuchs is found in Venona under a couple of cover names such as Charles or Rest. A particular message that Meredith Gardner solved was sent by the KGB in New York in 1944 to Moscow Centre, and it referenced a particular document, a particular study, that had been produced at Los Alamos in the Manhattan Project. It was learned that the author of that particular study was Klaus Fuchs, so that at least entered Klaus Fuchs' name into the tracking of Soviet agents. It began the investigation into atomic bomb espionage. As other messages were studied, it became apparent that the cover name Charles was a Soviet agent, and the cover name Charles was Klaus Fuchs. Fuchs was subsequently interrogated by security service and by FBI. He made confessions to both. His confessions then led in to other people and further confessions and the break up of a particularly important espionage network. Now the people who were rolled up here are also all in Venona so the investigation proceeds in a couple of directions. Studying these people later learned about Harry Gold, the Greenglasses and the Rosenbergs. Studying them in Venona, but then also taking Klaus Fuchs' confession and going after the next person, getting a confession from Harry Gold, then getting the identification of the Greenglasses, and then getting their confession and the identification of the Rosenbergs.

Interviewer: Did the Russians have any agents who had access to Venona? Who could feed back to them what was going on?

Lou Benson: A man named William Wiesband, who had been in Army signal intelligence during the second world war, and was assigned to Arlington Hall from the Mediterranean Theatre Operations later 1944. He was a Russian speaker. He spoke quite a number of languages. In 1945, probably the very beginning of 1945, he was assigned to the Russian Program which we speak of it as Venona. In those days, it simply would have been called the Russian Program if it were spoken of at all. He had the opportunity to observe certainly the early developments in this program. Meredith Gardner upon breaking out the atomic scientist's message called Wiesband over and said take a look at this message. He was subsequently determined from the investigation of a man named Jones York, found in Venona, that Wiesband apparently was a veteran KGB agent who had handled Mr. York and perhaps others.

Interviewer: So it was penetrated almost from day one?

Lou Benson: If in fact Wiesband was still working for the Soviets in the beginning of 1945, he could have reported on the progress of the attack on Russian diplomatic communications which of course included the KGB's communications.

Interviewer: Now of course Kim Philby also had access to Venona?

Lou Benson: Kim Philby was assigned to MI6 in Washington. In 1949, and he continued in that post until 1951. Part of his legitimate duties were to receive and study Venona translations. We know that from 1949 to '51, perhaps monthly, perhaps every couple of weeks, he did receive Venona translations. Kim Philby also visited Arlington Hall a couple of times. There was nothing particularly notable about the visits. Allegedly, he didn't pay much attention to what was being said. The important thing is he was receiving the translations. He was also undoubtedly was learning from the FBI about the progress of the investigations. Of course he liased with his counterpart in the Security Service. So he would have had full knowledge of the privacy investigations as well as the progress of the code breaking, and the discovery of new cover names from circumstances.

Interviewer: And how could he use that knowledge?

Lou Benson: Presumably Philby would have passed this information back to the Soviets by whatever channel he was using. It's a certainty that information Philby got from Venona led to the tip-off of Burgess and Donald Maclean and their flight to the Soviet Union. Maclean's cover name was Homer in Venona. He was identified, but before the next move could be made, he and Burgess fled. This is probably the most important counter intelligence development of the Venona story. Regardless of the fact that they supposedly got away with it, in fact, it broke up the most important espionage group any country could ever have had. Maclean's access to UK and US secrets was without parallel. It went far beyond just diplomatic matters, military and so forth. So when they fled, of course, we know the story that people began looking at Philby. Effectively that was the end of that group.

Interviewer: So it's seen as a kind of a victory that they fled, but in reality it was felt the end of the whole enterprise. It was a defeat for them?

Lou Benson: As a matter of fact, yes. It's hard to imagine how anything could have been more disappointing to the Soviets. They had extraordinary agents in the highest places, and they lost them.

Interviewer: Did the knowledge of what was going on in Venona help the Soviets tip off people, like possibly the Cohens, that they should flee?

Lou Benson: It's very hard to say until the Soviets tell their side of the story. How they made use of the information they got from Philby in tipping off and extracting their agents, we know, in the case of Burgess and Maclean what happened. They certainly had ample opportunity to tip off other people, such as the Rosenbergs, Cohens and so forth. They did tip off the Rosenbergs late in the game, and Julius Rosenberg tried to get his network out of the United States. Some got out. Some didn't. Lona Cohen's cover name was probably Lesley. She appears just in a single message of, I believe, early 1945, where KGB New York says they have not been in touch with Lesley for several months and are thinking of reactivating her to do some support work. I don't recall if it was as a courier, or it could be the keeper of a safe house. Morris Cohen is definitely not identified in Venona. He was, after all, in the army at that time. KGB would have had trouble contacting him. Some people think that the unidentified cover name, Volunteer, is Morris Cohen, but we don't know.

Interviewer: Now, we know that Lona Cohen was acting as a courier going down to Los Alamos, or out to Albuquerque where she met a scientist. Who was she meeting? Does Venona tell us the name of the person?

Lou Benson: There is nothing in Venona to really say anything about what the Cohens were doing. Because the single message concerning Lona Cohen as cover name Lesley simply refers to the fact the KGB has not been in touch with her in recent months, but they were going to reactivate her for some type of courier duties or to be the keeper of a safe house. So from Venona we would really not learn much about what Lona Cohen is doing. If Morris Cohen is the unidentified cover name Volunteer, there's a little bit more, but even there the references to Volunteer don't tie to atomic bomb espionage. So Venona is a very modest source of information on the Cohens.

Interviewer: What does Venona tell us about the man that Lona Cohen was meeting in Albuquerque?

Lou Benson: Reportedly, but not from Venona, Lona Cohen was meeting with Ted Hall who was a young physicist at Los Alamos. He's very prominent in Venona. In 1944 he got in touch with the Russians, and was recruited by the KGB by an officer, an agent officer, named Sergei Kurnakov. He is seen in a number of Venona messages. Now the first message where there's a description of Kurnakov's meeting with Hall, his true name is used. The Venona message speaks of Kurnakov having a meeting with Theodore Hall. It says he's nineteen-years-old and a physicist. That he's involved in the Manhattan Project, and how he got in touch with the Soviets through a couple of tries, he and a friend of his made contact with the Soviets. Thereafter we see messages that refer to that meeting, and they speak of a cover name Mollad, and the equation was immediately made that Mollad and Hall were the same person. United States and the UK, therefore, had the identification of Hall, and Hall equals Mollad by the end of 1949 and certainly not later than probably the first half of 1950.

Interviewer: Does that mean that Hall's effectiveness ceased?

Lou Benson: Yes, in the case of Mr. Hall. I would have to draw on some recent books, particularly Joe Allbright's Commercial Consuls Book, Bomb Shell, where by 1950 Hall was not working for the government. I mean he had left what became the Atomic Energy Commission, shortly after the war. According to information, apparently, Hall may have provided to Mr. Allbright, he may have had further contact with the Russians, but he's not working for the US Government at that time. He's perhaps a graduate student at the University of Chicago at the time he comes under investigation.

Interviewer: How many code names are there in Venona? And how many people are still unidentified?

Lou Benson: If we consider the Venona messages that are to and from the United States, it would probably appear that there are at least just say one hundred and twenty-five Americans who were Soviet Agents to the KGB or the GRU. In other words their names are known in or through Venona, either directly from the messages or by analysis and investigation. Some of these people have cover names. Some of these people appear by their true names. Then we have an additional, let's say, a hundred cover names that have not been identified, a hundred cover names that appear to be Americans. That's, approximate. One of the reasons cover names cannot be identified is if they only appear in a couple of messages. So there is no context. It might suggest the person wasn't all that important. And that's hard to say. There are a few unidentified cover names that would appear to be important.

Interviewer: Are these important in terms of the atomic bomb program?

Lou Benson: Among the unidentified Venona cover names is one Pers, who appears in about five Venona messages. Pers is apparently a physicist. He's definitely working on the atomic bomb, or he might be at Oak Ridge, he has never been identified. There are others, other figures that appear in some of the messages concerning the atomic bomb espionage, but it's hard to know quite what to make of them.

Interviewer: Is Pers, probably a significant plan?

Lou Benson: I think Pers probably was a significant espionage figure for the Soviets. But again we only have five messages. But he does provide technical data, or he has access to technical data. In just a modest number of messages the Russians themselves have said that Pers was an important agent, but, of course, they declined to give the name of that person.

Interviewer: So Pers could still be alive?

Lou Benson: It's possible. We really don't know who Pers is.

Interviewer: And he's still not caught?

Lou Benson: If he's alive, he or she is not caught.

Source: Red Files: Secret Victories of the KGB

No comments:

What are you interested in?

Digg this!