Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies

Who really stole the secret of the atom bomb? In this PopSci.com exclusive, the producer of the NOVA special tells us what it was like to be involved with this project.

by Credit: LANL

Ted Hall
At Los Alamos in 1944, scientist Ted Hall's espionage gave the Soviets vital information for designing their first nuclear weapon.
Credit: LANL

In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for stealing the secret of the atom bomb. Now–through never-before-seen interviews–NOVA uncovers who really stole it.

NOVA presents "Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies": Tuesday, February 5, 2002, at 8 PM ET on PBS

It's Friday, June 19, 1953. Ted Hall, a 28 year-old biophysicist from New York, and his wife, Joan, 24, are driving to a dinner north of the city. The road takes them past Sing Sing Prison. Joan Hall remembers, "As we drove by, the sun was setting. ... It was large over the river going down." At the same time, inside Sing Sing, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were being executed in the electric chair–the only Americans ever to die for conspiracy to commit espionage.

Joan Hall: "We rode ... watching the sun go down and feeling indescribable. And we didn't say anything, not a word."

The judge who sentenced the Rosenbergs claimed they´d stolen the secret of America's atom bomb and given it to the Soviet Union. But that wasn't true; the spy who stole some of the most important secrets of the atom bomb was Ted Hall. He'd had been the youngest physicist working on the bomb at Los Alamo. What Hall and his fellow scientist/spy, Klaus Fuchs, gave to the Soviets saved them enormous amounts of time and money. The Washington Post's Michael Dobbs explains: "It probably helped the Soviet Union build a bomb two or three years before they would otherwise have managed to do so."

The government uncovered these spies by reading secret Soviet espionage cables sent in an unbreakable code. In one of the greatest counter-intelligence exploits ever, American and British code breakers found a way to read the secret Soviet messages. The code breaking project was given the meaningless code name, VENONA. "In terms of sheer determination and sheer marshalling of machine and man power in innovative ways it I think it was extraordinary," says Stephen Budiansky, author of Battle of Wits, "because the odds were so stacked against any success. "

The VENONA decodes reveal that a massive Soviet spy network penetrated the US government during World War Two. "There was not a single agency of the American government that the Soviets had not infiltrated," insists historian Harvey Klehr, "ranging from the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, to the Justice Department, to the Treasury Department, to the State Department, to all of the wartime defense agencies."

Even more incredible, the government knew about these spies ... as early as 1948 but kept the information secret until the end of the cold war. The decodes raise serious concerns about the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Their older son, Michael, was ten when his parents died: "They arrested a small fry spy ... took his wife as a hostage, put a gun to her head and told him, 'Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her.' And when he wouldn't talk, they murdered her in cold blood."

The government knew that Ted Hall had done far more damage than the Rosenbergs, but he never was prosecuted. And the truth about Soviet espionage was kept from the American public for nearly fifty years.

When NOVA asked me to make a film about American code breakers who read secret spy Soviet messages, I was not prepared for the remarkable people I would encounter, in particular, the children of Americans who spied for the KGB. These men and women are now middle-aged, with children of their own and they have remarkable stories to tell.

Michael and Robert Meerepol's parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were electrocuted for conspiracy to commit espionage and accused of stealing the secret of the atomic bomb. Soviet espionage cables reveal that Julius was a busy KGB spy but suggest that Ethel was only a minor figure. Michael and Robert remain incensed at the way the government handled the case. As Michael explained, "They arrested a small fry spy ... took his wife as a hostage, put a gun to her head and told him, 'Talk or we'll not only kill you, we'll kill her.' And when he wouldn't talk, they murdered her in cold blood."

Only after their interviews did I realize that this was the first time either brother had ever admitted in public that their father, Julius, was a Soviet spy.

Ruth and Sarah Hall also champion their parents. Their father, Ted Hall, the youngest physicist working at Los Alamos, passed vital atomic secrets to the Soviets. Shortly before he died in 1999, Ted Hall told his daughters what he'd done. They applaud his actions. They consider him a hero who helped save the world from the perils of nuclear monopoly.

Boria Sax has a very different outlook. His father, Saville Sax, was Ted Hall's KGB courier. Boria views his dad as a tragic figure, a lost, confused young man who was swept along by currents he couldn't control. When his father confessed to him in the 1970's that he'd helped steal atomic secrets, Boria did not believe him.

Perhaps the most moving story of all is that of William Weisband, Jr, whose father betrayed US intelligence secrets to the Soviets. Bill was eleven years old when his father died from a heart attack as they were driving together in a car. He found out about the spying two years later, by accident, when he came upon his dad's picture in a book about Soviet spies. Ever since, he's been trying to come to terms with the man he loved being the spy who caused what one expert calls "the greatest intelligence loss in U.S. history."

Bill expresses his internal struggle in a song he performed for NOVA:

There was a time after the war, we were afraid the Communists were trying to take over.

It wasn't just the lies, the truth could make you blind,

That was my father's crime.

After meeting these adult children of spies, I'm reminded that the greatest secret of all may be that which goes on inside the human heart.

(Next page: More about the NOVA special, "Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies")

In 1953 Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for stealing the secret of the atom bomb. Now-through never-before-seen interviews-NOVA uncovers who really stole it.

NOVA presents "Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies": Tuesday, February 5, 2002, at 8 PM ET on PBS

In August 1945 the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, developed after an unprecedented top-secret crash program. Four years later, the Soviet Union stunned the world by testing an atomic bomb of its own. Now through never-before-seen interviews with scientist Ted Hall and his wife Joan, and information from a recently revealed code-breaking operation, NOVA uncovers the secret of the Soviets´ sudden atomic success, on Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies, airing Tuesday, February 5, 2002, at 8 PM ET on PBS
(check local listings).

Secrets, Lies & Atomic Spies takes viewers inside one of the most extraordinary decryption breakthroughs in history–VENONA, which in 1943 began probing the seemingly unbreakable Soviet code for a loophole.

NOVA interviews several surviving officials involved with VENONA, including crack code breaker Meredith Gardner, who explains how he exploited Soviet mistakes to uncover their atom spy ring, and retired FBI agent Robert Lamphere, who worked with Gardner to identify spies. Against all odds the code breaker's effort finally succeeded, and with the help of the FBI, exposed a vast network of spies operating in the United States, including highly placed agents at the clandestine facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was designed and built.

VENONA (a meaningless code name) is now forcing scholars to reassess the entire history of the Cold War, in which spying inside the most sensitive branches of the U.S. government and military played a more significant role than many experts believed.

Among the U.S. agents revealed by VENONA was Los Alamos scientist Klaus Fuchs, who was tried and convicted for espionage in the early 1950s based on his confession under questioning. NOVA reveals that Los Alamos scientist Ted Hall was also identified by VENONA, but never confessed and managed to escape prosecution, even though his espionage gave the Soviets the all-important key to designing their first nuclear weapon. Hall was never publicly accused by the government since it was reluctant to expose VENONA by using decrypts as evidence in court.

Hall comes clean about his spying activities in a never-before-seen interview recorded shortly before his death from cancer in 1999. His wife, Joan, also recounts–for the first time on television–the tale of his treachery and the cat-and-mouse game he and she played with the FBI, as it unsuccessfully tried to maneuver Hall into self-incrimination.

Meanwhile, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were prosecuted as the leaders of the Soviet atom spy ring and executed in 1953, despite evidence from VENONA that they played only a minor role in the loss of atomic secrets.

CRACKING THE CODE

The VENONA operation was far from straightforward. The system relied on Soviet human error in employing the unbreakable one-time-pad cipher. This type of cipher is secure only if the sender uses one page per message; reuse of the same page, which is composed of a unique string of random numbers, provides a toehold for code breakers, who can laboriously recover meanings of individual words and phrases.

But even as Gardner and others were providing a windfall of intelligence data, spies with knowledge of VENONA alerted the Soviets, who promptly changed their system and rendered VENONA useless against later messages. However, VENONA stayed in business for decades, unraveling the complex spy network that operated in the United States in the 1940s and allowing authorities to gauge the extent to which American secrets had been compromised.