Source - Again!

by Tina Holmboe 25th of May 2010 (archive)

«Sources are funny things.» — this is how I started a rather annoyed little blog entry on the annoyed little blog entry on the 23rd of May. It was prompted by a plain furious attack on a Norwegian newspaper by a somewhat politically biased «media watch» group called the Monticello Society.

In my post I concede that the newspaper has made factual mistakes, but point out that so does the attack on it.

It is, hardly, difficult not to be upset. Forcing the Fourth Estate to remain honest is not only a noble goal, but a highly practical one. It’s impossible to verify sources and facts for every news article we ever read. We need to know the media is being scrutinised.

It is too important to be hidden behind a thin veneer of political bias. We also need to know that the media remain entirely honest, and don’t angle their stories to avoid upsetting special interest groups.

The newspaper in question — Aftenposten — has, since the publication of the attack on them, revised their article, admitting to doing sloppy work in the first place, and included references to the source documents.

I, on the other hand, got a tweet tossed my way arguing against one of my points. That’s fair enough, but here’s where it gets, well, silly.

In the original attack, Monticello’s Jon Henrik Gilhuus makes the following, amazing claim:

«No one today doubt that the Venona Papers confirmed ’suspicions of communist infiltration in U.S. government’».

The claim was backed up by a link to Wikipedia; a link containing the following gem:

«To what extent the various individuals were involved with Soviet intelligence is a topic of dispute.»

The tweet argued in turn that:

«There is no fair [factual] reason to doubt communist infiltration in the US government, but disagreement as to the extent.» (my translation; any errors are mine and mine alone)

The problem, the very real problem, is that infiltration has a very specific meaning: it is the active, and conscious, process of secretly gain access to an organisation in order to — in this case – retrieve military and/or other sensitive information.

With that in hand, and actually reading the sources that Wikipedia luckily refer to, we very quickly find that there is doubt among both journalists and historians — not only about the intent of the people involved, but the accuracy and even authenticity of the Venona Papers and the source material behind them. Questions are even brought up regarding the intent of the people accused and prosecuted.

Martin Duberman, for example, point out in The Nation (July, 2001), that even the guilt of Julius — and in particular Ethel — Rosenberg is considered dubious. He adds:

«We still don’t know what portion of the total number of Venona documents transmitted to the Soviets by US espionage agents has in fact been released. Nor do we know how or why particular code names in the documents have been linked to given people like Julius Rosenberg. Radosh and others feel entitled to declare that the Venona material has »proved conclusively« Julius’s guilt, but they can’t tell us precisely what sort of »secrets« Julius was guilty of passing to the Soviets.»

Ellen Schrecker, a professor of American history at Yeshiva University has stated:

«Because they offer insights into the world of the secret police on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it is tempting to treat the FBI and Venona materials less critically than documents from more accessible sources. But there are too many gaps in the record to use these materials with complete confidence.» (Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, 1998)

These are just a few of the voices who do doubt that the Venona Papers prove anything conclusively — including an intentional and successful «infiltration of U.S. government».

In order to make the claim that «no one today doubt» as above, you must either have missed out on the source and fact checking or have a political agenda.

I suspect the latter.

PS: I, too, have a political agenda. Like all humans I also base my arguments on a mix of emotion and fact. It’s a terrible affliction I’ve learnt to live with.

Whether the USSR attempted to, and succeeded, in infiltrating the US government…. I don’t know. But I can conclude that US scholars, some of them experts in the McCarthy era, do indeed doubt the Venona Papers.