Mar 11

Because she was the only person to support Whittaker Chambers’ story that Alger Hiss had been a member of the Communist underground, Hede Massing was one of the most important prosecution witnesses against Alger Hiss. I’ve been researching her story on and off for a few years. Back in 2003, the FBI released to me Hede Massing’s file in almost completely unredacted form. As a result, those documents are among the most revelatory off all the FBI files that we’ve managed to get hold of since the 1970s. What they basically show is that while the defense didn’t have all the information it needed to impeach her testimony (although its rebuttal witness Henrikas Rabinivicius was pretty convincing), the prosecution did. With the help of the FBI it managed to keep it hidden — that is until a few years ago.

There are a lot of lessons in the Massing story. One of them is the importance that the FBI files play in our understanding of history. It is crucial that we see complete files. More than 60 years after Hiss’s conviction, there is no good reason to keep any information on the case under wraps. I’m pretty certain as a result of my story the security of the United States will not be endangered nor anyone’s privacy ruined, since all the principals are now dead.

Another important lesson is about the way we look at the new information that is emerging not only from the FBI files but also from the files of the former Soviet Union. Two recent books, “The Haunted Wood” and “Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America,” purport to contain revelations about the Hiss-Massing relationship from the files of the KGB, but while for all I know that information may have been quoted accurately (no one knows for sure, partly because the person who saw them, Alexander Vassiliev, was in actuality only allowed to take notes from documents that had been carefully selected from the files by Russian intelligence officials), that doesn’t mean what was said in those documents was true. In Hede Massing’s case, while she may have told her handlers in the KGB that Hiss was in the underground, that doesn’t make her 1936 claim to them any more true than the similar story she told the FBI in 1948. She had her owns reasons for telling the first story to the Soviets in the 1930s and different reasons for cooperating with the FBI in 1948. I have investigated all of these reasons, and not one of them enhanced her credibility any.

Many of the newly released FBI files have been incorporated into my story only after getting the thorough analysis that they warrant. I’ve also (with the help of the Soviet historian Svetlana Chervonnaya) given the more recent claims based on the Soviet files a careful look. The results of my findings were posted today on the Alger Hiss Web site. You can find the story here. It’s long. Find yourself a nice comfy chair before you start in on it, but if you do stick with it, I think you’ll find it rewarding. Take away Massing’s credibility and whole chunks of the case against Hiss fall apart, not to mention the light it sheds on the FBI’s investigative techniques.

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