The Red Menace

February 20, 2009

Spies. Espionage. There’s been a long history of that type of activity.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. Spies. Espionage. There’s been a long history of that type of activity.

Dr. Fox: “The Red Menace, looking at the penetration of the government by Communists and looking at efforts by the Soviet Union to subvert our politics and our culture.”

Mr. Schiff: That’s FBI Historian Dr. John Fox, who talks about The Red Menace and counterintelligence, and that a significant event happened in February, 59 years ago, 1950.

Dr. Fox: “Well Neal, Senator Joe McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, was talking to a group of fellow Republicans in West Virginia, and in the middle of speech he waved a sheaf of paper saying that ‘I’ve got the names of…’ at one point was 205, other times he changed the numbers, ‘…traitors in the State Department. Communist traitors who are betraying our country and basically selling us down the river.’ And it set off a furor across the nation with McCarthy leading Senate hearings looking for Communist penetrations in the U.S. government.”

Mr. Schiff: What did he find?

Dr. Fox: “Well, he accused a lot of people. And some of the people that he ended up sighting actually were people with Communist backgrounds. One or two of them actually turned out to have had provided intelligence information to the Soviet Union, so were spies. Although the way he approached it and the way he handled evidence and everything else really ended up discrediting his crusade, much more than any successes that might have come up that seemed really almost accidental.”

Mr. Schiff: What does The Red Menace mean in talking about the FBI?

Dr. Fox: “The FBI, of course, for years had been our nation’s principle counterintelligence agency. It was our job to root out spies in the government, among other things. And so, The Red Menace, looking at the penetration of the government by Communists and looking at efforts by the Soviet Union to subvert our politics and our culture, were things that were assigned to the FBI. And the FBI had been doing those things for years.”

Mr. Schiff: What were some of the ways that the Soviet Union tried to infiltrate the U.S. government?

Dr. Fox: “Well, for several decades the Soviet Union had tried to increase its intelligence presence in the United States. And one of the things that they were trying to do was to find sources inside the U.S. government. In the 1930’s, for instance, they were paying a Congressman for intelligence. In the 1940s, as the U.S. was entering World War II and becoming an ally with the Soviet Union, the Soviets had an even greater opportunity for getting agents into the U.S. government. A number of people that had come into the U.S. government, thinking that there were some really some good aspects to Communism; that perhaps the Soviet Union was the way of the future, were also willing to provide information, secret information, from their jobs to the Communist Party of the United States and many of them to the Soviet Union’s intelligence services themselves—what became the KGB and the GRU, which was Soviet military intelligence. So during the course of the war, while we were allied with the Soviet Union, there were dozens of people in the federal government who were actually providing intelligence to the Soviet Union. Some of them were in the Office of Strategic Services, which eventually became the OSS; there were, I believe, about 16 penetrations in that. There were people in the State Department; in the Treasury Department; in the Office of War Information; there were people in the Department of Justice; and in many other smaller agencies throughout the government.”

Mr. Schiff: The FBI was the lead agency to prevent this. What initiatives did the FBI take to thwart this major problem?

Dr. Fox: “Well Neal, the FBI was a little slow in coming to the problem. In the 1930s, as part of our national policy, counterintelligence wasn’t that important. As the decade progressed, and as we started, as a country started noticing more and more espionage by the Japanese on the West Coast and by Nazi spies, the FBI began to approach those threats much more forcefully, along with the rest of the government, especially the Navy and the Army, who were very concerned about military espionage by those countries. The Soviet Union’s espionage was under the radar at the time, and when we entered the war, of course, we were at war with the Germans and the Japanese and the Italians, and so preventing axis espionage, preventing espionage by our enemies was our primary concern, and most of our resources were going towards that. We did begin, during the war, to notice that Soviet espionage was going on and we, where we could, concentrated on it. We were noticing the Soviets trying to penetrate the Manhattan Project, our effort to build the atomic bomb. And we were noticing that Soviet diplomats were interacting with espionage agents and beginning to try and figure out what was going on. But our resources had to be focused on the threats from our enemies who we were at war with, not so much our allies. After the war, that began to change rapidly.”

Mr. Schiff: The war ended in 1945. McCarthy didn’t come out with his statements until 1950. What happened in between?

Dr. Fox: “In between there was a revolution in FBI counterintelligence against the Soviet Union. We had a couple of major defections. Igor Gouzenko was a code clerk who defected to the RCMP, the Mounties up in Canada, and brought with him information about Soviet espionage; Elizabeth Bentley came to the FBI in New York and started to tell about some of these spy rings operating in Washington, D.C., and she named many dozens of Soviet spies. With that information; with a major Army cryptographic breakthrough that we call Venona today, which was the ability to decrypt and read some of the Soviet telegrams that had gone out during World War II about espionage. We were really able to start identifying these agents and we identified over a hundred of them in the federal government; in and around the federal government by 1950. So the FBI and the Army and the Navy and the CIA and the State Department, we were able to start dealing with these penetrations and get them out of the government, even before McCarthy came on the scene and started waving his sheaf of papers.”

Mr. Schiff: What about the long range impact of the FBI’s counterintelligence efforts?

Dr. Fox: “What the FBI, and our allies in the federal government, and even the British and Canadian intelligence services, were able to do, is to deal with the penetrations that had already happened. And that, then, allowed us to go more pro-active. So in the 1950s you see the FBI trying to penetrate the KGB. And trying to get in and actually get double agents working against them; trying to learn what they were going to do so that we could perhaps feed them disinformation; perhaps get them to try something else, or to watch what they were doing so that we knew exactly what they were doing and could control it. We became very pro-active in going against Soviet intelligence, and Soviet intelligence had to change the way it did things, radically. They had to go back to trying to infiltrate illegal agents; secret agents who would come in pretending to be someone else and not operating under diplomatic cover. So their ability to operate as an intelligence service in the United States was seriously hampered for a long time.”

Mr. Schiff: What were some of the cases that people might be familiar with?

Dr. Fox: “After the McCarthy speech, we found spies sporadically through the next decades. The Rosenbergs; Rudolph Abel; Cornelius Drummond; The Falcon and the Snowman case in the 1970s; the Walkers; Richard Miller; Earl Pitts; Ames; Nicholson; Hanssen, of course, most recently in February of 2001, bringing it back at a full circle there.”

Mr. Schiff: But John, aren’t there spies working around the world every day?

Dr. Fox: “History tells us that that has been the case for as long as their have been people, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

Mr. Schiff: Fascinating information when it comes to espionage and spies and wondering about the person next to you walking down the street, in a bus, on a subway car, or in the seat next to you at the ballpark or theater. Keep an eye out. Call the FBI if you think something doesn’t look right. More on the FBI’s counterintelligence program and other historical stories on the Internet at That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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