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Judge Orders Release of Testimony From Hiss Inquiry

History: Ruling could shed light on whether U.S. official spied for Soviets in 1940s. Some say Nixon, who ran probe, manipulated findings for political gain.


NEW YORK — In a decision that could greatly influence the writing of American history, a federal judge on Thursday ordered the release of grand jury testimony from the highly charged investigations into Soviet spying 50 years ago that led to the perjury conviction of Alger Hiss.

Although the U.S. government had been successful for years in keeping such transcripts secret, U.S. District Judge Peter Leisure ruled that the public's interest in viewing these pages of history, including testimony by Richard Nixon, far outweighs any need to keep them sealed.

Full disclosure, Leisure concluded, "will fill in important gaps in the existing historical record, foster further academic and other critical discussion of the far-ranging issues raised by the Hiss case, and lead to additional noteworthy historical works on those subjects. The materials should languish on archival shelves, behind locked doors, no longer."

His decision was greeted with praise by lawyers, journalists and historians across the political spectrum who have long believed that certain grand jury materials should be made public, especially after so much time has passed. But U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White, who tried to block the release, said the decision could compromise the safety of witnesses and cloud the integrity of future grand jury investigations.

Government officials said they haven't decided whether to appeal the decision, and thus it is not known when or if the papers will actually be made public.

The ruling, which was sought by a panoply of historical organizations, calls for the release of virtually all of the hundreds of pages of the grand jury proceedings, except small portions that might embarrass or compromise the privacy of people still living.

At the heart of the case are two grand jury proceedings held in 1947 and 1950, which investigated alleged Soviet espionage in America. The inquiries ultimately focused on whether Hiss, a high-ranking State Department official, was a Soviet agent who passed top-secret military information to the Moscow regime. The sensational investigations, marking the dawn of McCarthyism in American political life, gripped the nation's imagination.

Hiss, who adamantly denied being an agent, was indicted and convicted of perjury; he served three years in prison and maintained his innocence until he died at age 92, three years ago. Since then, voluminous data from Soviet archives have been made public, tending to strengthen the case against Hiss.

A key player in the case was Whittaker Chambers, then a senior editor of Time magazine, who admitted to U.S. authorities that he was a Soviet agent from 1934 to 1938. He identified Hiss as a Communist Party member who had passed sensitive U.S. documents to him in clandestine meetings.

When Hiss denied those charges, a young first-term congressman from California named Richard Nixon led a highly publicized investigation of Chambers' charges. During his crusade against Hiss, which fueled his rise in the Republican Party, Nixon appeared before the grand jury, and his testimony, long kept under wraps, has sparked intense historical speculation.

Did Nixon abuse his power as a congressional committee member to influence the grand jury decision to indict Hiss? Or were his actions a legitimate act of patriotism?

"It's about time that we strip away all the secrecy and let the American people know what went on with their government, especially during a period so long ago," said presidential historian Robert Dallek, who teaches at Boston University. "There's no reason to conceal any longer."

Dallek, who is writing a biography of John F. Kennedy, said a similar ruling of "historical necessity" should lead to the release of all papers associated with Kennedy's assassination and his medical records. There are other historical mysteries to be solved, he added, including a still-secret probe into the death of a Texas cotton field inspector that might have involved Lyndon B. Johnson.

Although they share a belief in the need for disclosure, voices as disparate as conservative commentator William F. Buckley and liberal editor Victor Navasky offered different estimates of the papers' significance.

Buckley suggested that the disclosure "won't accomplish anything more than satisfy academic curiosity. There won't be any bombshells here, because any censure of [Nixon] will still cast no doubt whatsoever on the guilt of Alger Hiss."

Navasky, who remains convinced of Hiss' innocence, also does not believe the disclosure of grand jury information will provide a smoking gun for historians. The important thing, he noted, "is that we open up the doors for inquiry . . . so there's less rumor and suspicion about history."

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