Elizabeth Terrill Bentley (1905 - 1963) A graduate of Vassar, Bentley was studying in Italy at the University of Florence when she first became interested in fascism. In 1934 she returned to America and abandoned fascism, joining the American League Against War and Fascism and the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA).
In 1938, while working at the Italian Library of Information in New York, Bentley met Jacob Golos, the chief of Soviet espionage operations in the United States. Bentley became Golos' lover, providing him with information acquired during her work with the Italian government and serving as a courier. Golos encourgaged Bentley to read the material she was handling, yet she never mastered the analytical skills Golos had to deliver oral briefings to Soviet case officers. Between the fall of 1942 to November 1943 Bentley spoke several times with Julius Rosenberg by phone.
Every two weeks from 1941 to 1944, Bentley traveled from New York City to the house near Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. shared by Nathan Gregory Silvermaster, or 'Greg' as he was known, his wife Helen Silvermaster, and their close friend Lud Ullman. At first, Bentley picked up stolen wartime secrets transcribed by Silvermaster longhand, but when the volume of material grew unwieldy, Ullman set up a darkroom to photograph the documents. Bentley carried the undeveloped rolls of film in her knitting bag back to Manhattan and gave them to Golos. Later the film would be shipped to Moscow via diplomatic pouches, which are not subject to border inspections.
Four days after Golos death in 1943, Bentley met with an alternate Soviet contact according to contingincies in place should something ever happen to Golos. Bentley was introduced to Iskhak Akhmerov, the Soviet "Illegal Rezident", or station chief for unregistered agents operating under deep cover. Bentley was assigned to take over running the "Golos/Bentley" group (also called the "Sound" and "Myrna" groups) of spies. This included the Silvermaster group, which had members in several U.S. government departments, including the Office of the President. Greg Silvermaster was the principal contact.
Soviet intelligence was concerned about operational security surrounding the group. The Silvermaster group was taken over in September 1944 by Iskhak Akhmerov, chief of the KGB's illegal station in the U.S. after a bitter struggle. Bentley had opposed the KGB takeover because she felt they drove their agents too hard. Bentley’s objection was overruled by CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder.
In November 1945, fearful of Soviet surveillance in Washington D.C. and New York, Bentley walked into the New Haven Connecticut office of the FBI and defected from Soviet espionage work. On the day she walked in, at least 27 KGB operatives were still employed in the U.S. government. The FBI provided her with cover now that her life clearly was in jeopardy. FBI Code name "Gregory" was used during initial debriefings fearing a leak of the sensitive information and reprisal. This soon created a problem at the White House. Eventually Soviet controllers learned of her defection and other operatives came under investigation. Two counterintelligence debriefing memoranda with outlines of Soviet espionage in the United States were passed up to the White House, the initial debriefing with code name "Gregory" disclosing the network, and an extensive memo with her real name attached. The substance included naming names of high level administration officials. The White House, suspicious of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, was skeptical of the source. Unbeknownst to the President was the existence of the Army Signals Intelligence Service (SIS) highly secret Venona project, which also was giving information attesting to the existence in wartime of a large foreign espionage ring which had penetrated vital departments, bureaus, and agencies, within the United States government.
Eventually Bentley's story was leaked, and when President Truman was asked at a press conference about statements she made regarding the involvement of high level administration personal, Truman responded that he believed the charges to be a "red herring". No one in the US Government was aware that evidence against the Soviets was developing on two adjacent tracks.
The causes and consequences of Truman's remark for 50 years thereafter had a huge impact on American domestic politics.
Bentley was asked in debriefings to name persons that were most adept at infiltration and placement of subversive personnel throughout the government. She answered: "I would say our two best ones were Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie. They had an immense amount of influence and knew people, and their word would be accepted when they recommended someone."
Stephen J. Spingarn, a member of the President's Temporary Commmission on Employee Loyalty in 1946 and 1947 later said of Bentley:
- "I have no doubt that the main thrust of what Elizabeth Bentley says was correct—I mean I believe it—but on any given peripheral individual whom she didn't know but only heard about I would certainly want a lot more information";
that corroborative information was provided in 1995 with the release of the Venona project materials.
In debriefings, Bentley eventually named more than 80 Americans, some in the United States government, who were working for Soviet intelligence. The Myrna Group was also formerly the "Sound" group, prior to Jake Golos (cover name "Sound") death ("Zvuk and Umnitsa" groups). The United States Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive Counterintelligence History says Venona decryptions confirm the accuracy of Bentley's story. Among them were,
- Rae Elson, an active Communist, and courier of the CPUSA underground, was chosen by Joseph Katz to replace Bentley at the Soviet front organization, U.S. Shipping and Service Corporation.
- Frederick V. Field, Executive Secretary American Peace Mobilization
- Irving Goldman, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs
- Michael Greenberg, Board of Economic Warfare; Administrative Division, Enemy Branch, Foreign Economic Administration; United States Department of State
- Joseph Gregg, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs; United States Department of State
- Irving Kaplan, United States Department of the Treasury Foreign Economic Administration; United Nations Division of Economic Stability and Development; Chief Advisor to the Military Government of Germany
- Charles Kramer, Senate Subcommittee on War Mobilization; Office of Price Administration; National Labor Relations Board; Senate Subcommittee on Wartime Health and Education; Agricultural Adjustment Administration; Civil Liberties Subcommittee, Senate Committee on Education and Labor; Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee; Democratic National Committee
- Bernice Levin, Office of Emergency Management; Office of Production Management
- Harry Magdoff, Chief of the Control Records Section of War Production Board and Office of Emergency Management; Bureau of Research and Statistics, WTB; Tools Division, War Production Board; Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, United States Department of Commerce; Statistics Division Works Progress Administration
- Jenny Levy Miller, Chinese Government Purchasing Commission
- Robert Miller, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs; Near Eastern Division United States Department of State
- Willard Park, Assistant Chief of the Economic Analysis Section, Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs; United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration
- Victor Perlo, chief of the Aviation Section of the War Production Board; head of branch in Research Section, Office of Price Administration Department of Commerce; Division of Monetary Research Department of Treasury; Brookings Institution
- Bernard Redmont, head of the Foreign News Bureau Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs
- William Remington, War Production Board; Office of Emergency Management
- Bernard Schuster
- William Taylor, Assistant Director of Monetary Research, United States Department of Treasury
- Lee Tenney, Balkan Division Office of Strategic Services
- David Weintraub, United States Department of State; head of the Office of Foreign Relief and Rehabilitation Operations; United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA); United Nations Division of Economic Stability and Development
The public first became aware of Bentley when she testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948. Bentley testified at the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Newspapers referred to her as the "Red Spy Queen." She became a celebrity ex-communist and published an autobiography entitled Inside the Russian Spy Organization.
Bentley died in Connecticut in December 1963. She never knew about the Venona secret, or about the way in which her testimony assisted the program. Before she died, she had been denounced as a traitor, a liar, and a criminal by everyone from her old comrades to a former President of the United States. The controversy over her testimony was only a skirmish in the national debate over the true extent of Soviet espionage, and over the federal government's attempts to balance competing requirements of civil liberties and internal security.
Ironically, over 30 years after she died, her bona fides as a Soviet spy were verified by Pavel Sudoplatov, who had been a two-star general in the NKVD. He said in his autobiography, Special Tasks, that:
- "For the FBI to utilize the disclosures by Guzenko, and later by Elizabeth Bentley, an American NKVD agent, to penetrate and destroy our agent networks was not an easy job."
thereby confirming that she really was an NKVD agent, and really did blow real agents/sources to the U.S. authorities.
- Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, A Counterintelligence Reader, vol. 2, chap. 4' Official History of Counterintelligence Operations in the United States, edited by Frank J. Rafalko.
- John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)
- Douglas Linder, A Trial Account (2001)
- Alexander Vassiliev’s Notes on Anatoly Gorsky’s December 1948 Memo on Compromised American Sources and Networks
- Elizabeth Bentley deposition, 30 November 1945, FBI file 65-14603 (pgs. 2 - 108, pdf).
- Truman Presidential Library Oral History Interview with Stephen J. Spingarn