Josef Peters, Joseph Peters, orJoszef Peter (more commonly known as J. Peters), is best known for his work for the NKVD's Inostrannyi Otdel (special operations) section and the secret apparatus of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) underground in the 1930s and '40s. Among his other aliases were Alexander Goldfarb, Isador Boorstein, Alexander Stevens, and Sandor Goldberger.
Peters was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was a petty officer in the Austrian Army in World War I. After the Béla Kun revolution in Hungary, he joined the Communist Party and was a member of the short-lived Bela Kun Hungarian Soviet Republic government that seized power in Hungary in 1919. Peters emigrated to the United States in 1924 and became an organizer for the CPUSA, later serving as a CPUSA official in its Hungarian ethnic section. He was a delegate to the Sixth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow in the late 1920s and was appointed head of the party's National Minorities Department in 1929.
As organizational secretary for the New York party in 1930, Peters was put in charge of building an illegal apparatus, or network designed to support Soviet foreign policy. CPUSA and Comintern documents at the RGASPI archive in Moscow show that he headed the CPUSA underground apparatus from the early 1930s until Whittaker Chambers’ defection in 1938. He was sent to Moscow for training with the Comintern in 1931 and was made a senior intern in the Anglo-American Secretariat. Returning to the United States in 1932, the Central Committee assigned him to work in the secret apparatus where he remained until June of 1938. As an inside member of the network, Peters is believed to have participated in events leading to the kidnapping and alleged murder of fellow CPUSA member Juliet Poyntz, who after expressing revulsion at Stalin's purges and the Moscow Trials, disappeared from her New York home in 1937, never to be seen again.
The secret apparatus under Peters carried out surveillance, exposed infiltrators, protected sensitive party records from seizure, and disrupted rival communist and leftist movements such as the Trotskyists. Another of Peters' duties included maintaining contact with the Ware group in Washington D.C., and he took over direct supervision of the group in 1935. The head of the CPUSA Earl Browder instructed Peters to cooperate with Soviet intelligence.
About 1936 Peters recognized some members of the Ware group had potential for advancement within the government, so a decision was made to separate them from the group. Whittaker Chambers became the courier between the GRU and this group. The members separated included Alger Hiss, Henry Collins and Lee Pressman.
Peters was removed as head of the secret apparatus two months after Chambers broke with the espionage ring in 1938 and was replaced by Rudy Baker. He continued to work on the CPUSA's Central Committee staff on what a 1947 Soviet Communist party personnel report called “special assignments”. An examination of the Comintern's records turned up two 1943 messages from the GRU referring to a GRU officer in Washington as having come across “a group of workers singled out by the American Comparty CC [Central Committee] for informational work and headed by the CC worker ‘Peter.’” Though usually called “Peters” in the United States, in Comintern archives Peters' name is often rendered as “Peter.” “Informational work” was GRU parlance for clandestine activity.
In 1948, Peters, then using the name Alexander Stevens, was subpoenaed to appear before a congressional investigating committee. He refused to answer any questions and was deported to Hungary.
Peters is identified as assisting Soviet espionage in deciphered KGB cables and in the KGB documents listed in The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev. Many years later, he was located by Weinstein in Hungary and interviewed for Weinstein's book Perjury.
- The Weekly Standard, Professors of Denial 21 March 2005
- John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)
- Whittaker Chambers Testimony before HUAC 3 August 1948
- Weinstein, Allen and Vassiliev, Alexander, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era, Modern Library(1999) ISBN 0375755365.
- Weinstein, Allen, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, Random House (1997) ISBN 067977338X.