Mar 20

This week’s mail brought a new batch of FBI documents. These are sometimes called “see references,” documents that contain cross references to people whose files we have requested. Although they are often not complete documents, they still can be fascinating and illuminating. The document I want to talk about here is both, in part because it again demonstrates the selectivity of those historians who have tried to build cases for Alger Hiss’s guilt.

The cross reference document in question is dated October 20, 1949. It reports on an interview the FBI had with journalist Joseph Freeman, a former member of the Communist Party who knew Whittaker Chambers personally during the period. (For more on Freeman, check out his memoir, “An American Testament.”)

To begin with, there’s this fascinating tidbit about how Freeman nearly got into a fight with an inebriated Chambers. Here’s the paragraph:

“[Chambers proposed] to Joseph Freeman that they become friends. Freeman stated he readily agreed to this proposition and offered to shake hands with Chambers but he declined this approach. Chambers stated that it was his habit that when he made friends that he and the other party slash their wrists and mingle their blood as a token of friendship. Freeman said he naturally refused such a move and after an extended discussion the proposal was again made that Freeman and Chambers become friends. Freeman recalled that he again offered his hand to Chambers and this time Chambers clasped Freeman’s fingers with his left hand and at the same time attempted to slash his wrists as previously described. Freeman said that a brief melee followed which was terminated through the intercession of the bartender and several other guests at the saloon they were visiting.”

Sam Tanenhaus has a reference to this interview in his biography of Whittaker Chambers, but curiously only mentions another aspect of it: Chambers’ later refusal to give Freeman a job at Time magazine. The story is more than gossip, however, since Chambers swore during his appearance before the HUAC on August 7, “I was strictly forbidden by the Communist Party to taste liquor at any time.” (Chambers made this statement to support his inaccurate allegation that the Hisses were teetotalers.)

Oddly, the interview also contains the kind of statement that would have gotten Allen Weinstein very excited: Freeman told the FBI that shortly after being made editor of The New Masses, Chambers disappeared, and the rumor was that he was working for OGPU. Weinstein doesn’t report it, however, although he does say in “Perjury” that Freeman was one of those who mentioned Chambers’ apparent instability,

But here’s the statement by Freeman that should have at least been mentioned by Tanenhaus:

“Mr. Freeman stated he had never heard any comments during his affiliation with the Communist Party or since his break in 1939 which would indicate to him that Hiss was ever a member of the Communist Party or even a sympathizer…

“Freeman said that during his period in the Communist Party, he reported numerous affairs and conferences for the “New Masses”, including a detailed report on the hearings before the Nye Committee on Munitions. Freeman was unable to recall Hiss’ affiliation with this group. He pointed out that whenever he was covering meetings of such a nature as the Nye Committee, he was constantly on the alert for ‘available’ sources of information of individuals who were known to be sympathetic with the Communist Party. Freeman said that he positively could not recall Alger Hiss ever being identified to him by any of his Washington contacts as a person who could be approached for information.”

For those who unfamiliar with the facts of the case. Chambers said he was introduced to Hiss during the period when Hiss moved from the Agriculture Department to the Nye Committee because of Hiss’s association with the Communist Party at that time. The Nye Committee’s investigation into profiteering by the munitions industry during World War I was headline news across the country, and Freeman is correct in saying that the Communist Party also followed the story of capitalist malfeasance very closely — as it would have been expected to. Thus, Freeman is offering important insight into one of the key aspects of Chambers’ allegations against Hiss.

Now, one may or may not choose to believe Freeman, but clearly his comments were pertinent both to Tanenhaus’s portrait of Chambers and to his thesis that Hiss was guilty, but you won’t find either one in his book.

Here’s a look at the document:


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Mar 13

Several years ago, I did a series of taped interviews with Bill Reuben going over Allen Weinstein’s “Perjury” allegation by allegation. It makes for fascinating reading, and I hope to post the entire interview one day.

Anyway, toward the end of the interview, Bill leaned over and spoke into the microphone and said, “I’ve always wanted to get something on the record before I died, and it’s this: The only two people connected to the Hiss case with any real typing ability and who could have typed the Baltimore Documents were Pat Nixon and Esther Chambers.”

I thought of that today when I opened the latest packet of information from the FBI. This one contained the FBI’s file on Pat Nixon. As I leafed through the file, I came across this file and burst out laughing. Take a look:


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Feb 26

As a result of the cavalier way the FBI has treated our Freedom of Information requests for documents on the Hiss case, we are suing the Bureau in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The lawsuit, filed on our behalf by veteran FOIA attorney James Lesar, asks that the Court order the FBI to release all of its documents on the case in unredacted form.

In 2006, we were told by the Bureau that its files contained some 500,000 pages of documents related to the case. Thirty years before, when Hiss was pursuing his Writ of Error Coram Nobis to overturn the verdict against him on the grounds of prosecutorial misconduct, he was told there were less than 50,000 pages of documents.

As a result of a request filed by me in 2000, we have received less than 10,000 pages, many of them heavily redacted. Thousands of pages have been denied all together, with the Bureau citing, among other things privacy concerns (which we dispute) or a new category for denying documents: “out of scope.” They have even redacted grand jury testimony from the documents even though the minutes of the grand jury investigating Whittaker Chambers’s charges were released in 1999.

A day after he took office, President Obama ordered government departments to follow new guidelines for FOIA requests. These new rules are supposed to put into practice the President’s stated belief that a democratic government is a transparent government. This lawsuit, if not the first test case of his new policy, will certainly be one of the most important, in terms of establishing new guidelines for the release of historically important documents.

I’ll post a pdf of the court documents shortly.

Also, for those who don’t use an RSS feed of this blog or who choose to get a more immediate notice of updates, I will be sending out Twitter tweets when I add a new post (as well as new posts to my blog at To receive them, go to and after signing up (it’s free), click “find people” and then “find people on Twitter.” In the search bar, type my username, jeffisme. It will ask you if you want to follow my tweets. Just confirm to receive them.

Feb 19

A couple of weeks ago, The Nation’s Web site published an article I wrote, detailing my frustrations with the FBI’s highhanded treatment of our FOIA requests. Especially frustrating was their policy regarding deletions. Calling their decisions arbitrary doesn’t even close to describing them. I thought I’d include here one of the most incomprehensible deletions I’ve ever seen in three decades of going through FBI files.

Here’s the document:


Look at the first deletion on the page. The name blacked out is: Whittaker Chambers! A document recounting an action in the Hiss-Chambers case, an event publicized in every major newspaper in the country, and some dunderhead decides to remove Chambers’ name sixty years later, citing privacy concerns. If you have any examples that are more egregious than that, I’d love to see them.

Oh, there is supposed to be a comments section on this page. Like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe, it occasionally malfunctions. Feel free to email me at if you have a comment but can’t post it.

One final note regarding the deletions, the decision to remove the other names is almost equally outrageous. The first is Mike Catlett, and the second is Donald Hiss.

Feb 19
New Blog, New Books, and New FOIA rules

This is the first entry in a blog that I hope those interested in matters relating to the Hiss case will find both useful and enjoyable. I’ll keep you posted on new research and information as well as relevant news tidbits. I am also writing a book on the case, and in the next few days I’ll be posting what I think is exciting news about the book. In order to encourage a dialogue on the case, all the entries are open to constructive comments.

Two new books on the Hiss case have been announced for the first quarter of this year. Yale University Press is publishing “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History” by Susan Jacoby, the author of most recently “The Age of American Unreason,” which The New Yorker called “a cogent defense of intellectualism.” According to the Yale catalogue, in her new book on Hiss, Jacoby “positions the case in the politics of the post–World War II era and then explores the ways in which generations of liberals and conservatives have put Chambers and Hiss to their own ideological uses.”

An article in The New York Times by Sam Roberts announced that Yale is also publishing a new examination of the Hiss and other Cold War cases by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. Their latest effort, “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America,” is written with Allen Weinstein’s former collaborator on “The Haunted Wood, Alexander Vassiliev. A description on the Web site calls the book “stunning” and says it is “based on KGB archives that have never come to light before.” However, Vassiliev’s participation would indicate the work is based on notes he had taken while working with Weinstein and later secreted out of Russia after he emigrated to Great Britain in 1996. Had Roberts checked with this site before writing that the new book confirms Hiss’s guilt, we would have told him that the notes contain old news and excerpts from this data , including the controversial Gorsky list and Perlo list — both of which were said to implicate Hiss as a spy — are already discussed in detail on this site. It will be interesting to see to whom The New York Times Sunday Book Review section — edited by Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a favorable biography of Whittaker Chambers, assigns its review — if it decides to do so.

Last week, I wrote an article for The Nation’s Web site suggesting that the new administration should reevaluate the current treatment of FOIA requests. Perhaps the new president reads The Nation. One of his first acts was to issue an order imposing new rules on government transparency in regard to the FOIA. Here’s the story that is potentially great news for our own pending FOIA suit for records on the Hiss Case.

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