IN THE ENEMY’S HOUSE
The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies
By Howard Blum
Illustrated. 317 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99.
In writing about the events and the back story surrounding the espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Howard Blum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, seems at first glance to be going over well-trod territory. But “In the Enemy’s House” is not a mere rehash. Instead, it is an account of the two men who were principally responsible for tracking down the Rosenbergs: Robert Lamphere, an F.B.I. counterintelligence agent, and Meredith Gardner, the most experienced and able code-breaker working for the United States government.
Blum succeeds in making comprehensible the difficult story of how code-breakers unraveled a system of encrypted Soviet messages that eventually became known as the Venona files (and started being released in 1995). He has also managed to write a book that is not an academic work (although it is informed by a careful reading of numerous academic volumes) but a gripping detective thriller. The reader gets into the minds of the two men, accompanying them in the tense but eventually successful effort to uncover a major Soviet network. Blum bases his work on Lamphere’s own 1986 autobiography, “The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent’s Story” (written with Tom Shachtman), together with interviews with Lamphere conducted by others, and also on many conversations with Gardner’s relatives, various F.B.I. files and personal papers from the two men’s families. He paints fascinating portraits of the “reticent, inaccessible” Gardner and of the meticulous Lamphere, who stayed on track though constantly challenged by his superiors.
Blum’s book is especially valuable in rebutting the dwindling few who still believe the Rosenberg case was about the government seeking to curb the civil liberties of dissenters. Suppression of dissent, Blum demonstrates, was the furthest thing from the two men’s minds.
Turning to the Soviet side, readers will learn how and when Soviet intelligence began to concentrate on getting its agents into the American labs that were working to create an atomic weapon. In the early 1940s Russia’s station chiefs in the West were ordered to gather evidence on any atomic work undertaken by American scientists. For example, a Soviet “spook working under student cover” went to see a professor at Columbia University, who asked him what he would think of a bomb that could completely destroy the center of New York City. The agent thought that was impossible, but the professor blurted out: “There is such a bomb. I’m working on it.”
In Moscow, the Soviets quickly set up a lab run by the scientist Igor Kurchatov to try to develop the bomb first. Kurchatov immediately saw that his team needed aid — that is, espionage from the United States. The deputy intelligence chief Leonid Kvasnikov was sent to the New York office to lead the effort, and once there, he helped establish a connection to Julius Rosenberg.
By the time Lamphere began working with him, Gardner had already found one important clue. It was a code name — “Lib?? (Lieb?) or possibly LIBERAL” or “ANTENNA.” Gardner noted that a message of Nov. 27, 1944, “speaks of his wife ETHEL, 29 years old.”
With that, Gardner and Lamphere were off and running, and after months of grueling decoding work they were confident that they had uncovered a Soviet spy network put together by Julius Rosenberg. Eventually, both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested and sentenced to death.
Blum says that Lamphere and Gardner both “knew beyond any doubt the wrongness of Ethel Rosenberg’s death sentence,” and he concludes his book by describing a reunion years later when the two men supposedly expressed regret that Ethel’s execution could not have been stopped. Today, students of the case all agree that her involvement was only peripheral, and that her execution was unwarranted. Nonetheless, various Soviet archives do show that she urged her sister-in-law Ruth to recruit her husband, David Greenglass, into Julius’s circle and that she also provided names to the Russians of those she thought were potential recruits. She was, then, guilty of being part of the conspiracy.
By focusing on Lamphere and Gardner and their pursuit of Soviet spies, Blum has managed to provide a fresh look at the familiar story of the Rosenbergs. Indeed, his book may be the last piece we need to understand the puzzle surrounding one of the most memorable espionage cases of the 20th century.