May 13, 1999
Public Citizen Wins Release of Historic Hiss-Chambers Records
1948 Grand Jury Testimony to be Made Public
A New York federal judge today ordered the release of grand jury records relating to the indictment of alleged Soviet agent Alger Hiss. U.S. District Judge Peter K. Leisure of the Southern District of New York ordered the records be unsealed in response to a Public Citizen Litigation Group petition filed on Dec. 15, 1998 — the 50th anniversary of Hiss’s grand jury indictment.
“This is a landmark victory for the American people. At long last the public will be able to judge for itself whether justice was served by the indictment and conviction of Alger Hiss,” said David Vladeck, director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group.
In his 55-page ruling, Judge Leisure stressed the historical significance of the records.
“The court is confident that disclosure 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, all to the immense benefit of the public,” Judge Leisure wrote. “The materials should languish on archival shelves behind locked doors no longer.”
Public Citizen’s petition was supported by leading scholars, historians and archivists in calling for the release of the secret documents pertaining to one of the most important political and legal events of the early Cold War era.
After his first perjury trial ended in a hung jury, Alger Hiss was convicted of two counts of perjury arising out of his denials under oath before the grand jury. Hiss served nearly four years in prison.
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 remain about changed testimony, judicial improprieties and political interference with the legal process by then-U.S. Rep. Richard M. Nixon.
Full disclosure of the grand jury transcripts was backed by Hiss’s son, Tony, and Chambers’s friend and colleague, William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the National Review. Both Hiss and Buckley provided affidavits in support of Public Citizen’s petition, filed jointly with the American Historical Association, American Society of Legal History, Organization of American Historians and Society of American Archivists.
“I’m delighted that Judge Leisure has seen the importance of releasing these records both to get out the full facts of the Hiss case and to make it plain that in certain exceptional cases the public does have a compelling interest in access to its own history,” Tony Hiss said.
The government is likely to appeal the decision. “Today’s ruling is truly a watershed in legal history because it establishes, really for the first time, the idea that grand jury records — even those from historically important cases like Hiss — should not be locked away forever,” Vladeck said. “Judge Leisure should be applauded because he has recognized that the public should not be denied access to important historical documents, unless there are compelling reasons to do so. Here, of course, the passage of more than 50 years has eroded, if not eliminated, any reason for continued secrecy.”
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.
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.