Did Asian operatives, some of them connected with the People’s Republic of China, influence the White House, the Department of Commerce, and other offices of the executive branch? This is one of the questions of the day concerning the Clinton administration.

The Senate Committee on Government Affairs has said that it “believes that high-level Chinese government officials crafted a plan to increase China’s influence over the U.S. political process. . . . Our investigation suggests the plan continues today. . . . Importantly, the FBI told the White House about the Chinese plan in June 1996, when two FBI agents briefed two representatives of the National Security Council . . . the FBI placed no limitation on sharing the information, much of which the White House had independent access to through other means.” The Democratic minority of the committee agrees with at least the first part of this statement.

As grave as these developments are for the nation’s security, it is both interesting and instructive to recall that communist penetration of the White House and other government entities has an earlier counterpart—a half-century ago. The outline of earlier penetration operations has been apparent to interested observers for many years, but fuller details are now emerging. It was clear enough at the time, but now it is even more conclusive and specific: Soviet intelligence penetrated the Washington administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, using as agents high-level officials in the White House as well as in executive departments. The information obtained, and the influence exerted, benefited the Soviets immensely in the ensuing Cold War, and the cost to the West in wealth and human resources was tremendous.

During the 1930’s, numerous American communists acquired jobs in the administration, some of them rising to high positions. A number of these New Dealers were communists working under the direction of Soviet intelligence, often in double capacities as both collectors of intelligence and agents of influence. As Whittaker Chambers, himself a former Soviet agent, explained to his erstwhile employer, Henry Luce of Time magazine, being a communist and a Soviet intelligence agent were the same thing. As more recent events show, however, communist ideology is not a requirement for being a communist intelligence agent. Ideology may be useful, but money can be a better motivator. Intelligence agents for communist countries today are often convinced capitalists, their services bought with cash or the promise of future profits. Some of the Asian operatives working in Washington today undoubtedly fit this category. The late Armand Hammer was both an American capitalist and a Soviet sympathizer. In fact, he was an American capitalist for the Soviet Union.

Today’s counterintelligence officials (and outside scholars) are uncovering many details of communist penetrations of the White House in the 1930’s and 40’s. They have received help from several sources: recent access to Soviet documents—particularly files of the Communist International (Comintern), opened for a time in the former Soviet Union—revelations of former Soviet intelligence officials, and the Venona papers.

Scholars, East and West, are now examining Venona, the treasure-trove of communications intelligence documents finally being freed up by the U.S. government. Venona is described by the National Counterintelligence Center (NACIC) as “enciphered Soviet telegrams from the 1940’s that the U.S. and allied intelligence intercepted and decrypted over a 37-year period.” “Venona was a turning point in the Cold War,” NACIC explains. “It revealed the scope and magnitude of Soviet intelligence, especially operations directed at stealing the secrets of the atomic bomb. The decrypted messages, along with other information, opened the way for U.S. and allied counterintelligence to launch a counteroffensive against Soviet espionage.”

Among other things, Venona provides information on a number of high-level Soviet intelligence agents who operated in the United States. Such information, obviously known to insiders in the government and helpful to them in directing the counteroffensive against the Soviets, now is available to everyone. For the public, Venona provides closure, in an intelligence sense, to a number of important cases, including the one involving Alger Hiss. From the time of Whittaker Chambers’ accusations against him, Alger Hiss’s guilt was never in doubt to objective observers. Nevertheless, it was denied for decades by his supporters, including much of the American media. Upon his death in 1996, many American news sources continued to express doubt about Hiss’s guilt. Venona, however, makes it clear that Hiss was indeed a high-level agent of the Soviets—one of the highest, both in espionage and in active measures. The Alger Hiss case is now closed.

Venona provides insights into the case of another Soviet agent of the time, Laughlin Currie, an important advisor in the Roosevelt White House. Nominally special economic advisor to the President, Currie was entrusted with a number of important special tasks for the President—and, of course, for Soviet intelligence. Currie later denied charges of espionage and left the country. It is communist intelligence doctrine that an agent never admit to espionage.

The case of Oleg Gordievsky, for ten years an agent of British intelligence in the Soviet KGB station in London, is particularly revealing. According to Gordievsky, Iskhak A. Akhmerov, the Soviet intelligence case officer for many of the most productive operations in the United States, told a group of high-ranking KGB officers in Moscow that as important as Alger Hiss was to the Soviet Union, another Soviet agent in the American administration—within the White House, no less—was even more important. That agent was Harry Hopkins, top advisor to and confidant of Roosevelt, and widely called “the assistant President” in the United States at the time.

Harry Hopkins represented the President on numerous important foreign missions and actually lived in the White House for a time, so close was he to the President. Such a figure would be the jewel in the crown of any intelligence service. Interestingly, some of Hopkins’ questionable activities were revealed after the war by Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, former head of the “Manhattan Project,” the wartime atomic bomb effort, and by Major George Racey Jordan, Army Air Corps, who had been liaison officer to the Soviets at an American air base from which much Lend-Lease material was shipped to the Soviet Union. According to Groves, Hopkins, as head of Lend-Lease, had actually sent uranium (highly classified at the time) to the Soviets. Major Jordan confirmed this. We now have the shipping document to prove it. The Soviets, when the espionage took place, were not even supposed to know of our atomic development, much less receive American uranium for their own atomic bomb program. It is no wonder the Soviets considered Hopkins a more important agent than even Hiss.

The question of improper Chinese influence in Washington today, particularly in the White House, is justly disturbing. But just as disturbing are the constitutional problems highlighted by this scandal. According to Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “Attorney General Janet Reno testified . . . before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI had withheld national security information from the President because he is a potential subject in a pending investigation. That revelation has critical implications for our constitutional government.”

Governments exert influence on other governments all the time. The essential question is how they go about it. There are degrees of impropriety, after all. In the Chinese influence case, much depends on what, if any, laws were broken and who broke them. The most culpable will probably turn out to be the Americans who translated Chinese influence into American policy, if that is what happened.

There are probably not dedicated, communist agents in high places in Washington like there were in the 1930’s and 40’s. Errant administration officials today are more likely bedeviled by poor ethics than motivated by treason and treachery, too obsessed with reelection concerns and short-term political advantage. If, however, the investigations drag on and obstruction continues, the question will arise: Has America been betrayed as it was half a century ago? Is this, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “Deja vu, all over again”?