Part 3: It Pays To Remember

I have noted that when Elizabeth Bentley defected to the West (1945), her sources and agents working for her in the Perlo and the Silverman groups both dried up and she was not able to be “turned.’

How did the Communists discover her defection to the FBI so quickly?

That is interesting, and the short answer is Judith Coplon, an 1943 graduate of Barnard, who had belonged to communist groups in college.

She first was employed by the government in a low position, and her background check noted her communist sympathies – but in 1943 the FBI was only concerned with Nazi sympathizers. Communist sympathy was not disqualifying, and in fact her record was not even flagged.

Judith then acquired a job in the Justice Department — and proceeded to make contact with a Communist spy ring by being recruited through a close friend and fellow Barnard graduate Flora Wovschi.

(Flora is worth note all by herself – she is known to have recruited three good spies. When Elizabeth Bentley defected, and the Verona decryptions were being done in 1948, the FBI went to look for Flora. She had left for Moscow, renounced her American citizenship, married a Russian, and later died as a nurse in North Korea.)

But back to Judith. She worked her way into the Foreign Agents Registration division of the Justice Department, studied Russian language at night, and had access to many FBI counterintelligence files. It is believed that it was she who alerted the KGB that Bentley had defected.

But Venona decryptions had alerted the FBI to Judith, and the FBI caught Judith actually passing classified documents to a known Soviet Agent working for the United Nations. (Valentin Gubitchev)

Now the problem was convicting Judith. The defense demanded that the files she was reputed to have tried to hand over be produced in open court!

Those documents included the information that the FBI was on to still another Soviet agent, Philip Levy, — but in order to get a conviction it was necessary to reveal the documents. They did and a conviction of Judith Coplon was achieved.

It was overturned! No probable cause shown.

Why? Because the genesis of the search for Judith was the super-secret and still on-going Venona decryptions! The FBI and NSA were not willing to reveal that.

A second trial ensued, and a second conviction – and a second conviction overturned! No probable cause shown.

To protect the Venona project, which would have revealed the US had broken the KGB code which the KGB though unbreakable, a highly successful Soviet spy walked free.

Well, not exactly. She lost her government job.

The only witness against Coplon was Elizabeth Bentley, but she was an admitted spy. Two other spies left the country before they could be called before the committee, and four more denied being spies – but left the country before they could be tried for perjury.

Apparently the much maligned question: “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist,” was having a salutary effect.


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