Dec. 15, 1998
Public Citizen Petition Seeks to Lift Shroud of Secrecy
Covering Hiss-Chambers Case
Questions Surrounding Case Remain Unanswered
NEW YORK — Fifty years after Alger Hiss was indicted in a controversial anti-communist case, leading scholars, historians and archivists joined the Public Citizen Litigation Group today in calling for the release of secret documents pertaining to one of the most important political and legal events of the early Cold War era.
The conviction of Hiss, accused of being a Soviet agent while serving in the State Department, convinced many Americans that the threat of Soviet subversion was real. Despite a number of books written about the Hiss case — including books written by Hiss and his chief accuser, Whittaker Chambers — questions about changed testimony, judicial improprieties and political interference with the legal process by then-U.S. Rep. Richard M. Nixon remain unanswered.
Public Citizen filed legal documents today — the 50th anniversary of Hiss?s grand jury indictment — with the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York in support of a petition asking for the release of the grand jury records relating to the indictment. Hiss was later convicted of two counts of perjury arising out of his denials under oath before the grand jury.
“Fifty years of secrecy is long enough,” said David Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group. “It?s time to lift the shroud of secrecy and let the American people judge for themselves whether justice was served by the indictment and conviction of Hiss.”
Full disclosure of the grand jury transcripts is also favored by Hiss?s son, Tony, and Chambers?s friend and colleague, William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. Both Hiss and Buckley signed affidavits in support of the petition, filed jointly by the American Historical Association, American Society of Legal History, Organization of American Historians and Society of American Archivists.
“I believe my father would have been honored to be associated with this petition,” Tony Hiss wrote in his affidavit. “As long as he lived, Alger Hiss was deeply interested in having these grand jury records unsealed.”
Buckley, a prominent defender of Chambers, stated in his affidavit that “disclosure of these grand jury materials would allow historians, journalists, and other interested persons to close the chapter on the Hiss-Chambers affair.” Buckley also stated that “based on my friendship with (Chambers), I can say with full assurance that he would not oppose full release of these grand jury materials.”
By mid-1947 two government investigations into Soviet espionage within the government agencies were under way. The House Un-American Activities Committee, led by Rep. Karl Mundt and Nixon, carried on its own investigation on Congress?s behalf, while the Justice Department impaneled a grand jury to investigate the allegations of espionage in the United States. Chambers first denied any knowledge of espionage but later changed his story and made detailed assertions that Hiss provided him with State Department documents to convey to Soviet agents. Hiss denied the allegations.
Chambers also produced for Nixon several rolls of 35mm film he had hidden in a hollowed-out pumpkin. Once developed, the film revealed copies of State Department documents, which later became known as the “pumpkin papers.” Nixon also appeared before the grand jury at his own request and testified about the film. Hiss?s lawyers later alleged that Nixon?s testimony may have been unduly influential.
“The reasons for grand jury secrecy are virtually eliminated here with the discharge of the grand jury, the passage of fifty years and the deaths of all the major participants,” Vladeck said at a press conference today at New York University?s Law School. “The release of these documents could provide vital new information on Hiss?s guilt or innocence.”
Public Citizen is a non-profit consumer advocacy organization with extensive experience in working to open government records and to preserve historically significant records. In April 1996, after more than 15 years of litigation, work by Public Citizen Litigation Group culminated in an agreement to release thousands of hours of White House audio tapes that revealed important new insights into the Nixon presidency.