Breaking the Code: Duncan Lee, HUAC, and the Venona Files

Duncan Lee testifying before HUAC/tiles/non-collection/2/2-2-text-Duncan-Lee-2008_011_007.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection
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Duncan Lee testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee on August 10, 1948.
Here’s the thing about being a spy: You can’t tell anybody. Especially if you’re a descendant of the Lee family of Virginia, educated at an elite prep school and university, a Rhodes Scholar, a lawyer at a prominent Manhattan law firm, and working in counterintelligence for the United States. Duncan Chaplin Lee was and did all of those things. He was a spy, and he got away with it.

On August 10, 1948, Lee had been called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the imposing grandeur of the Caucus Room after being accused of working with members of the Communist Party. As the committee grilled him on his personal relationships, Lee went on the defensive: “I want to say categorically that I am not and have never been a Communist and that I have never divulged classified information to any unauthorized person.” Lee’s performance after nearly two hours of questions was convincing enough because at 12:05 p.m., as the committee broke for lunch, he simply got up and left. No charges were ever filed against him. Nearly 50 years later, however, records declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) revealed that Lee had indeed been working as a double agent for the Soviet Union.

In July of 1942, Lee joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War II–era predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he worked as an aid to the director of OSS, William Donovan, who was also a partner at Lee’s law firm. His recruitment as a spy probably happened shortly after he joined the OSS. Security in OSS had a poor reputation, and a number of Communist sympathizers and other staff were the sources of leaks to the Soviets. In his private life, he served on the board of the China Aid Council, an organization that funneled aid to groups affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. Through his participation in this organization, he made connections that eventually developed him as a source.

Elizabeth Bentley/tiles/non-collection/2/2-2-bentley_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Elizabeth Bentley famously defected from Soviet Intelligence and testified about her activities and contacts, including Duncan Lee, before the House Un-American Activities Committee on July 31, 1948.
Lee was accused by Elizabeth Bentley, who worked as a courier and assistant for covert operations for a member of the Communist Party of the United States, of passing OSS information to her over a period of more than a year. Bentley turned herself in to the FBI, and her accusations about Lee’s activities became public when she testified before HUAC on July 31, 1948. Lee denied the accusations during his testimony on August 10, claiming he never even knew Bentley’s last name even though they had met many times. At the time, he was never charged with any wrongdoing; seemingly, his impeccable connections and background did not fit the “profile” of a Soviet spy and made it easier for the accusations to be left as just those. Nonetheless, Lee never completely shook their taint (or suspicion), and as the furor over Communists in the United States increased with the Cold War, Lee left the United States in 1953 and lived abroad for the remainder of his life and died in Toronto, Canada, in 1988.

The release of the Venona files by the CIA in 1995–1996 eventually confirmed Lee’s status as a Soviet spy. Venona began as a secret program of the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service (precursor to the National Security Agency) in 1943. The initial mission was to decode Soviet diplomatic communications, but it eventually included espionage activities as well. The Soviet’s code took two years to break, and this only happened when code-breakers discovered that the Soviets had re-used a supposedly unbreakable “one-time pad” code system to transmit messages, exposing the code and allowing some messages to be deciphered. The decrypted cables from Soviet intelligence showed that Duncan Lee, code named Koch, had passed on information about American diplomatic strategy and activities, OSS operations in Europe, and a list of names the OSS suspected of being Soviet spies—confirming virtually all of Bentley’s testimony before HUAC. Although it appears that the U.S. government had collected the intelligence that implicated Lee as a spy at the time of his testimony before HUAC, the connection between Lee and his code name was not identified until 1951, and even then, the source of the corroborating information—the priceless intelligence of the deciphered cables—could not be revealed, and the FBI was unable to build a successful case in court against Lee without them.

Sources: “Hearings Regarding Communist Espionage in the U.S. Government,” 80th Congress; John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, 1939–1957 (Washington, D.C.: National Security Agency/Central Intelligence Agency, 1996), available at: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/venona-soviet-espionage-and-the-american-response-1939-1957/venona.htm (accessed March 6, 2013); Mark A. Bradley, A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy and Cold Warrior. (New York: Basic Books, 2014).