Robert J. Lamphere
Feb. 14, 1918 - Jan. 7, 2002
In October 1948, FBI special agent Robert Lamphere joined the VENONA Project full time as the FBI's liaison and case controller for the VENONA espionage material. Also, by 1948 the British joined the VENONA effort; in particular, their signal intelligence service assigned full-time analysts to Arlington Hall. There was excellent cooperation between the two U.S. agencies and the U.K. over the many years of VENONA, in large measure a result of the early efforts of Robert Lamphere and Meredith Gardner. NSA - Introductory History of VENONA
Mr. Robert Lamphere, the FBI Venona liaison, has stated that in a letter from
J. Edgar Hoover sent to President Truman, the Attorney General - Tom C. Clark,
and the Rosenberg Prosecutors in 1951, "It was made quite clear that the FBI
had confidential information mitigating the guilt of Ethel Rosenberg and that
the case for active participation of espionage by her was weak, and that he
and FBI Director Hoover had qualms about the possible execution of a mother
of two small children for espionage based on such relatively slight evidence".
Retired agent Lamphere did surprise many of the leftists with a statement that both he and Hoover opposed executing Ethel Rosenberg. Lamphere said that although the evidence supported her guilt, she was not as deeply involved in spying as was Julius. He also thought it unwise to execute the mother of two small children. But President Eisenhower refused to interfere with the judicial process and commute her sentence. - Guest Opinion Column for the Week of October 14, 1996 A Weekly Opinion Column from Accuracy in Media's Reed Irvine and Joe Goulden
Lamphere, Robert J. 1986. The FBI - KGB War: A Special Agentís Story. Random House, Paperback Revised edition (June 1995) amazon
Credits & Sources:
The FBI ...Past, Present & Future
New York Times Obituaries, February 11, 2002
Robert J. Lamphere, 83, Spy Chaser for the F.B.I., Dies
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Robert J. Lamphere, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who supervised the investigations of some of the biggest espionage cases of the cold war, including those of the Rosenbergs, Klaus Fuchs and Kim Philby, died on Jan. 7 in a Tucson hospital. He was 83.
The cause of death was prostate cancer, but he also had Parkinson's disease, his wife, Martha, his only survivor, said. He lived in Green Valley, Ariz., and Hayden, Idaho.
Mr. Lamphere was not as well known as his friend James J. Angleton, who headed counterintelligence operations at the Central Intelligence Agency. But he had a hand in every major Soviet spy case from the end of World War II through the mid-1950's.
At one point, he was working 22 hours on some days, conducting what he called "a raging monster" of an investigation of a Soviet spy ring. He was in daily contact with J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director.
Mr. Lamphere was involved in deciphering the code used by the K.G.B., the Soviet intelligence apparatus, in spy communications until 1945. Using the code, he helped unearth clues pointing to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies in 1953.
Messages were not always clear at first. Code names and descriptions of meetings did not necessarily identify an agent immediately, but as more became known and connected with other information, a vast spy network was exposed.
"We had no idea that such a thing as the Rosenberg case would develop when, in the spring of 1948, we began these investigations based on the 1944-45 K.G.B. messages," Mr. Lamphere said in his memoir, "The F.B.I.-K.G.B. War: A Special Agent's Story" (Random House, 1986), written with Tom Shachtman.
But step by step and spy by spy he followed a trail through the cases of Klaus Fuchs, Harry Gold and Ruth Greenglass to the Rosenbergs. He said that a frame-up of the Rosenbergs, long suggested by their supporters, would have required that the F.B.I. set out to get the couple years before the agency even knew who the Rosenbergs were.
Mr. Lamphere said he did not think Mrs. Rosenberg should have been executed because she had acted under her husband's direction and because, as the mother of two boys who would be orphaned, she would draw sympathy.
He thought Mr. Rosenberg deserved the death penalty but only if in announcing it the judge made it clear that the sentence would be reduced if he cooperated with the F.B.I. Mr. Lamphere recommended the sentences to Mr. Hoover, who sent them to the court in his own name.
Robert Joseph Lamphere was born on Feb. 14, 1918, in Wardner, Idaho. He graduated from the University of Idaho and attended its law school before finishing his degree at the National Law School in Washington.
He joined the F.B.I. because he was "attuned to the idea of being among the very best," he said, and worked first in Alabama. He was transferred to New York City, where he made 405 arrests in three and a half years. When he was transferred to the Soviet espionage squad, he worried that it would not be as satisfying as the criminal cases he had been working on.
It turned out to be anything but monotonous. He was soon told of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, because of evidence that Soviet agents were stealing information.
"The enemy just went on and on," he wrote. "When you get rid of one spy, another would take his place."
His largest contribution was in using deciphered Soviet cables to build espionage cases. After Mr. Hoover received an anonymous letter in 1943 reporting espionage by Soviet agents, analysts were assigned to break the Soviet code. In October 1948, Mr. Lamphere joined the project full time. He worked with Meredith Knox Gardner of the Army Security Agency, a brilliant linguist who spoke six or seven languages, including Sanskrit.
"I would bring Meredith some material and he would print in a new word over a group of numbers," Mr. Lamphere said in an interview with The Washington Post in 1996. "Then he would give a little smile of satisfaction. He was a brilliant cryptanalyst."
Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a speech in 1997 called the men's collaboration "intellectual dedication that Americans have a right to know about and to celebrate."
The messages were sent from 1943 to 1945. The Soviets changed the code well before Mr. Philby, head of British intelligence in Washington, was briefed in 1949 by Mr. Lamphere on Venona, as the project was code- named. The Soviets already had an undercover agent on the project.
But even if Venona did not yield up-to-date information, it spoke volumes about the maze of Soviet espionage networks, who the agents were, what had been sought and what was obtained.
One document that was decoded over several years was a report on the progress of the Manhattan Project. It was written by Klaus Fuchs, a German-born British physicist who had been attached to the research group at Los Alamos, N.M., and had gone on to work at the British atomic energy research center. Information gathered by Mr. Lamphere led Mr. Fuchs to confess that he had been passing information to the Soviets.
Mr. Lamphere was sent to London to get Mr. Fuchs's full story. He found that the spy's American contact, known as Raymond, was Harry Gold. Then, like links in a chain, more spies were found, including the Rosenbergs.
Mr. Lamphere said Mr. Fuchs told him that information he provided probably hastened Moscow's development of an atomic bomb by several years.
An even higher priority than catching the spies, however, was safeguarding the secrecy of Venona. President Harry S. Truman was not even told about it, and it was publicly revealed only in 1995.
Mr. Moynihan has suggested that revealing Venona's existence much earlier might have been better, to dramatize for doubters that Soviet espionage was, indeed, widespread. Disclosure might have prevented persecution in cases where evidence was scant, he said.
Mr. Lamphere left the F.B.I. in 1955. For the next six years, he held high positions in the Veterans Administration. Afterward he was an executive of the John Hancock Mutual Insurance Company.
Mr. Lamphere, who spent years deciphering the dark secrets of Soviet espionage, was strongly critical of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's crusade against Communists.
"McCarthy's star chamber proceedings," Mr. Lamphere wrote, "his lies and overstatements hurt our counterintelligence efforts."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company