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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Unveils '40s Soviet Spy Messages

LANGLEY, Virginia -- A U.S. intelligence agency has released a first batch of decoded diplomatic messages from the 1940s that laid bare a Soviet effort to steal the secrets of the atom bomb and led to the capture of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.


At a ceremony at CIA headquarters to salute some of the cryptologists who painstakingly cracked the Soviet code nearly 50 years ago, the National Security Agency on Tuesday made public translations of 49 messages from the 1940s. It plans to release more than 2,200 such messages starting in September.


"This is the stuff of spy novels," CIA Director John Deutch said of the super-secret project code-named "Venona" that revealed that the KGB and GRU Soviet spy organizations, as early as 1943, fielded a network of more than 200 spies in hopes of matching the U.S. effort to develop the atom bomb.


The intercepted documents show that Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 along with his wife Ethel on espionage charges, was a hyperactive agent. His Soviet handlers called him "Antenna" at first and then "Liberal" in messages to Moscow asking for money to pay him. Throughout the 49 messages are requests to pay spies $500, never more, and for film cassettes for his Leica camera to photograph documents.


David Kahn, author of the book "The Codebreakers," said the messages "may lay to rest a major controversy of the post World War II era -- were the Rosenbergs spies?"


One message asked for more film because wartime made it scarce, Kahn said, adding he didn't think "they were taking photographs of the Grand Canyon."


For decades, sympathizers and family members have campaigned to clear Rosenbergs' name, arguing they were caught up in a frenzy of early Cold War anti-communist zealotry.


The NSA, which has the task of electronic eavesdropping from its headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, provided the FBI with the lead to track down the Rosenbergs and others, effectively shutting down the Soviet atom spy network.