Elizabeth Terrill Bentley (January 1, 1908 – December 3, 1963) was an American spy for the Soviet Union from 1938 until 1945. In 1945 she defected from the Communist Party and Soviet intelligence and later (1952) became an informer for the U.S. She exposed two networks of spies, ultimately naming over 80 Americans who had engaged in espionage for the Soviets. When her testimony became public in 1948, it became a media sensation and had a major impact on Soviet espionage cases of the 1950s.
Bentley provided no documentary evidence to support her claims and the accuracy of her allegations was long disputed. The declassification of both Soviet documents and the U.S. codebreaking Venona project have lent some credence to the basis of Bentley's allegations, but the claims remain controversial due to questions about the accuracy of translations and vague nature of the exact identities of those with code names in Venona (along with several dubious claims made in the years following her defection to the United States).
Elizabeth Terrill Bentley was born in New Milford, Connecticut to Charles Prentiss Bentley, a dry-goods merchant, and May Charlotte Turrill, a schoolteacher. In 1915 her parents had moved to Ithaca, New York, and by 1920 the family had moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania and then to Rochester, New York. Her parents were described as strait-laced old family Episcopalian New Englanders.
She attended Vassar College, graduating in 1930 with a degree in English, Italian, and French. In 1933, while she was attending graduate school at Columbia University, she won a fellowship to the University of Florence. While in Italy, she briefly joined a local student Fascist group, the Gruppo Universitario Fascista. Under the influence of her anti-Fascist faculty advisor Mario Casella, with whom she had an affair, she soon moved to another part of the political spectrum, however. While completing her master's degree at Columbia University, she attended meetings of the American League Against War and Fascism. Although she would later state that she found Communist literature unreadable and "dry as dust," she was attracted by the sense of community and social conscience she found with her friends in the league. When she learned that most of them were members of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA), she joined the party herself in March 1935.
Bentley's entry into espionage came at her own initiative. In 1935, she obtained a job at the Italian Library of Information in New York City; this was fascist Italy's propaganda bureau in the United States. She then reported to CPUSA headquarters, telling them of her willingness to spy on the fascists. Juliet Stuart Poyntz, who also worked at the Italian Library of Information, approached and recruited Bentley. The Communists were interested in the information Bentley could provide, and NKVD officer Jacob Golos was assigned to be her contact and controller. Golos was a Russian émigré who had been a naturalized United States citizen since 1915.
At this point, Bentley thought she was spying solely for the American Communist Party. In fact, Golos was one of the Soviet Union's most important intelligence agents in the United States. At the time when he and Bentley met, Golos was involved in planning the assassination of Leon Trotsky, which would take place in Mexico in 1940. Bentley and Golos soon became lovers, although it would be more than a year before she learned his true name, and, according to her later testimony, two years before she knew that he was working for Soviet intelligence.
In 1940, two years into their relationship, the Justice Department forced Golos to register as an agent of the Soviet government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This made it dangerous for him to contact and take documents from the network of American spies he controlled, and he gradually transferred this responsibility to Bentley. Golos also needed someone to take charge of the day-to-day business of the United States Service and Shipping Corporation, a Comintern front organization for espionage activities. Bentley stepped into this role as well. Although she was never directly paid for any of her espionage work, she would eventually earn $800 a month as vice president of U.S. Service and Shipping, a considerable salary for the time, equivalent to $13,676 in 2016. As Bentley acquired an important role in Soviet intelligence, the Soviets gave her the code name Umnitsa, loosely translated as "Wise girl". (In some literature it is less correctly translated as "good girl".)
The Silvermaster group
Most of Bentley's contacts were in what prosecutors and historians would later call the "Silvermaster group", a network of spies centered around Nathan Gregory Silvermaster. This network would become one of the most important Soviet espionage operations in the United States. Silvermaster worked with the Resettlement Administration and later with the Board of Economic Warfare. He didn't have access to much sensitive information himself, but he knew several Communists and sympathizers within the government who were willing to pass information to him, and by way of Elizabeth Bentley, ultimately to Moscow. At this time, the Soviet Union and the United States were allies in the Second World War, and much of the information Silvermaster collected for the Soviets had to do with the war against Nazi Germany. It included secret estimates of German military strength, data on U.S. munitions production, and information on the Allies' schedule for opening a second front in Europe. The contacts in Golos and Bentley's extended network ranged from dedicated Stalinists to, in the words of Bentley's biographer Kathryn Olmsted, "romantic idealists" who "wanted to help the brave Russians beat the Nazi war machine".
Conflicts with Soviet spymasters
Late in 1943, Jacob Golos suffered a fatal heart attack. After meeting with CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder, Bentley decided to continue her espionage work, taking Golos's place. Her new contact in Soviet intelligence was Iskhak Akhmerov, the leading NKGB Illegal Rezident, or undercover spy chief working without a diplomatic cover. Under orders from Moscow, Akhmerov wanted to have Bentley's contacts report directly to him. Bentley, Browder and Golos had been resisting this move, believing that an American intermediary was the best way to handle their sources, and fearing that Russian agents would endanger the American spies and possibly drive them away. With Browder's support, Bentley initially ignored a series of orders that she "hand over" her agents to Akhmerov. Indeed, she expanded her spy network when Browder gave her control over another group of agents. This was the "Perlo group", with contacts in the War Production Board, the United States Senate and the Treasury Department.
Bentley had been noted as suffering from bouts of depression and having a drinking problem since her days in Florence. Now, despondent and lonely after the death of Golos and under increasing pressure from Soviet intelligence, she began to drink more heavily. She missed work at U.S. Service and Shipping, and neighbors described her as drinking "all the time".
In early June 1944, Browder gave in to Akhmerov's demands and agreed to instruct the Silvermaster group to report directly to the NKGB. After her defection, Bentley would describe this as the event that turned her against Communism. "I discovered then that Earl Browder was just a puppet, that somebody pulled the strings in Moscow," she would say. Her biographers suggest that Bentley's objections, rather than being ideological, were more a lifelong dislike for being given orders and a sense that the reassignments left her with no meaningful role. Late in 1944 Bentley was ordered to give up all of her remaining sources, including the Perlo group she had recently acquired. Her Soviet superior also told her she would have to leave her position as vice president of U.S. Service and Shipping.
Breaking with the Soviets
Things did not improve for Bentley in 1945. She began an affair with a man whom she came to suspect was either an FBI or a Soviet agent sent to spy on her, and her Soviet contact suggested that she should emigrate to the Soviet Union—a move Bentley feared would end with her execution. In August 1945, Bentley went to the FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut and met with the agent in charge. She did not immediately defect, however. Instead she seemed to be "feeling out" the FBI, and it would not be until November that she began to tell her full story to the FBI. In the meantime, her situation continued to worsen. In September she met with Anatoly Gorsky, her latest NKGB controller, and arrived at the meeting drunk. She became angry with Gorsky, called him and his fellow Russian agents "gangsters", and obliquely threatened to become an informer. She soon realized that her tirade could have put her life in danger, and in fact when Gorsky reported to Moscow his recommendation was to "get rid of her".
Moscow advised Gorsky to be patient with Bentley and calm her down. Only a few weeks later it was revealed that Louis Budenz, editor of the CPUSA newspaper and one of Bentley's sources, had defected. Budenz had not yet revealed any of his knowledge of espionage activity, but he knew Elizabeth Bentley's name and knew she was a spy. Imperiled on both sides, Bentley made her final decision to defect on November 6, 1945.
Defection and after
In a series of debriefing interviews with the FBI beginning November 7, 1945, Bentley implicated close to 150 people in spying for the Soviet Union, including 37 federal employees. The FBI already suspected many of those she named, and some of them had been named by earlier defectors Igor Gouzenko and Whittaker Chambers, so the FBI was fairly confident that her story was genuine. They gave her the code name "Gregory," and J. Edgar Hoover ordered the strictest secrecy measures be taken to hide her identity and defection. Hoover advised Sir William Stephenson, head of British Security Coordination for the Western hemisphere, of Bentley's defection, and Stephenson duly notified London. However, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service's (SIS or "MI6") new Section IX (counter-espionage against the Soviet Union), was the Soviet double agent Kim Philby, who would flee to the Soviet Union in 1963. Philby promptly alerted Moscow, which immediately shut down all contact with Bentley's people, just as the FBI was beginning surveillance of them. Bentley's NKGB contact Gorsky once again recommended to Moscow that she be "liquidated", and again Moscow rejected the idea.
The breach of secrecy around Bentley's defection foiled a year-long attempt by the FBI to have her act as a double agent. Additionally, because of the shutdown of Soviet espionage activity, the FBI surveillance of the agents Bentley had named turned up no evidence that could be used to prosecute them. Some 250 FBI agents were assigned to the Bentley case, following up the leads she had provided and, through phone tap, surveillance and mail openings, investigating people she had named. The FBI, grand juries and congressional committees would eventually interview many of these alleged spies, but all of them would either invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify or maintain their innocence.
For J. Edgar Hoover and a few highly placed FBI and army intelligence personnel, the definitive corroboration of Bentley's story came some time in the late 1940s to early 1950s, when the highly secret Venona project succeeded in decrypting some wartime cables sent between Soviet intelligence agents and Moscow. In these cables, Bentley was referred to by the codename she told to the FBI, and several of her contacts and documents she had collected were discussed.
However, Venona was considered so secret that the US Government was unwilling to expose it by allowing it to be used as evidence in any trial. In fact, even presidents Roosevelt and Harry Truman were unaware of Venona; when Hoover delivered intelligence reports based on Venona data, the source of the information was not named.
With the chances of successful prosecution looking unlikely, Hoover chose to give Bentley's information to certain U.S. Congressmen with the understanding that the accused spies would be questioned before congressional committees, and the publicized suspicion and accusations would be sufficient to ruin their careers. Additionally, Attorney General Tom C. Clark decided to present the Bentley case to a grand jury, although he thought there was little chance they would be able to return any indictments. Bentley's appearances before this grand jury lasted until April 1948, and during this time, some details of her case began to leak to the press. It was Bentley herself who decided to reveal the full story, however. She met with reporters for the New York World-Telegram, and in July 1948 the paper carried a series of front page stories about the "beautiful young blonde" who had exposed a ring of spies (the initial articles included no picture of Bentley). Almost immediately, Bentley was subpoenaed to testify at a public hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on July 31, 1948 (see hearing transcript).
Descriptions and analyses of Bentley's testimony varied wildly with the politics of the reporter. The strongly anti-communist New York Journal-American described her as a "shapely" "blonde and blue-eyed New Yorker" who "lured" secrets from her sources, while A. J. Liebling of The New Yorker ridiculed her story and called her the "Nutmeg Mata Hari." For her part, Bentley portrayed herself as naïve and innocent; corrupted by her liberal professors at Vassar and seduced into espionage by Golos.
At the HUAC hearings, Bentley received corroboration from Whittaker Chambers, who claimed to know two of Bentley contacts, Victor Perlo and Charles Kramer as communists. He also supported her charge that Harry Dexter White, a prominent economist who had worked in the Treasury Department, was a Communist sympathizer. Of his testimony compared to hers, Chambers wrote in his memoir:
I knew that I was simply back-stopping Miss Bentley, that hers was the current testimony. The things that I had to tell were ten years old and I had only to let the shadows, dust and cobwebs conspicuously drape them to leave the stand unscathed.
Still there was considerable skepticism in some quarters about Bentley's claims. Since some of those she accused were prominent figures in two Democratic administrations, Democrats in particular were eager to have her discredited. President Truman at one point characterized her testimony as a Republican-inspired "red herring." Republicans, in turn, accused Truman of "covering up" Communist espionage. Conflicts of this nature, along with the increasingly publicized hearings of HUAC, were setting the stage for McCarthyism, which would become a central factor in domestic American politics in the 1950s.
Trials and credibility
Most of the people accused by Bentley invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer her charges. A few, however, specifically denied them. Most notable of these was Harry Dexter White. White was suffering from heart disease, and he died of a heart attack a few days after his testimony before HUAC. Others who denied Bentley's charges were Lauchlin Currie, formerly President Roosevelt's economic affairs advisor, William Remington and William Henry Taylor, both midlevel government economists, Duncan Lee, formerly with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Abe Brothman, a private sector chemist who worked on defense projects. In September 1948, William Remington sued Bentley and NBC for libel. In hopes of discrediting her, Remington's attorneys hired private detectives to look into her past. They were able to produce evidence of her alcoholism, her periods of severe depression and a suicide attempt while a student in Florence, that her master's thesis had been written by someone else, and that, by the standards of her day, she had been sexually promiscuous since her college days. Bentley declined to testify at a Remington loyalty board hearing, and NBC settled the libel case out of court for $10,000.
Bentley would give testimony in the trials of three accused spies: The perjury trial of William Remington, a case against Abe Brothman for obstruction of justice, and the famous case of the "atomic spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Bentley's involvement with the Rosenberg case was peripheral. She was used to develop two points for the prosecution: first, the proclivity of American Communists to be spies for the Soviet Union; and second, to establish, if only vaguely in the jury's mind, a connection between Julius Rosenberg and Golos. She testified that she would receive calls from a man who identified himself as Julius, after which Golos would go out to meet him.
Bentley's personal life became increasingly tumultuous after her defection. She continued to drink heavily, was involved in car accidents and had a relationship with a man who beat her severely. She also avoided subpoenas on a number of occasions. These incidents, along with generally erratic behavior, led her FBI handlers to worry that she was "bordering on some mental pitfall". Nevertheless, she was invariably calm and professional on the witness stand, earning praise from the prosecutors whose cases she was supporting. As she repeatedly testified before grand juries, congressional committees and jury trials, however, some details of her story became embellished over time. Information passed to her about a process for manufacturing synthetic rubber that was originally "vague" and "probably of no value" became "super-secret" and "an extremely complicated thing." She would also assert that her espionage gave her advance notice of the Doolittle raid on Japan and the D-Day invasions, both claims that appeared to be exaggerated.
Remington's first trial began in late December 1950. Roy Cohn, later to become famous as Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel and already a noted anti-communist, joined the prosecution's legal team. "Elizabeth Bentley later supplied a wealth of detail about Remington's involvement with her and the espionage conspiracy. Remington's defense was that he had never handled any classified material, hence could not have given any to Miss Bentley. But she remembered all the facts about the rubber-from-garbage invention. We had searched through the archives and discovered the files on the process. We also found the aircraft schedules, which were set up exactly as she said, and inter office memos and tables of personnel which proved Remington had access to both these items. We also discovered Remington's application for a naval commission in which he specifically pointed out that he was, in his present position with the Commerce Department, entrusted with secret military information involving airplanes, armaments, radar, and the Manhattan Project (the atomic bomb)."
During the trial eleven witnesses claimed they knew Remington was a communist. This included Elizabeth Bentley, Ann Remington, Professor Howard Bridgeman of Tufts University, Kenneth McConnell, an Communist organizer in Knoxville, Rudolph Bertram and Christine Benson, who worked with him at the Tennessee Valley Authority and Paul Crouch, who provided him with copies of the southern edition of the communist newspaper, the Daily Worker.
Occupation currency plates
Bentley also testified that Harry Dexter White was responsible for passing treasury plates for printing Allied currency in occupied Germany to the Soviet Union, which then used them to print millions of marks. Russian soldiers exchanged these marks for goods and hard currency, sparking a black market and serious inflation throughout the occupied country, and costing the U.S. a quarter of a billion dollars.
Bentley wrote in her 1951 autobiography that she had been "able through Harry Dexter White to arrange that the United States Treasury Department turn the actual printing plates over to the Russians." In her 1953 testimony before Joseph McCarthy's Senate subcommittee, she elaborated, testifying that she was following instructions from NKVD New York rezident Iskhak Abdulovich Akhmerov to pass word through Ludwig Ullmann and Nathan Gregory Silvermaster for White to "put the pressure on for the delivery of the plates to Russia."
Bentley had not previously mentioned this in any of her earlier debriefings or testimonies, and there was no evidence at the time that Bentley had any role in this transfer. Bentley biographer Kathryn Olmsted concluded that Bentley was "lying about her role in the scandal", citing historian Bruce Craig's conclusion "that the whole 'scheme' was a complete fabrication"; i.e., that neither Bentley nor Harry Dexter White had a role in the plate transfer.
After the publication of Olmsted's 2002 biography, Bentley's testimony in this matter would be corroborated by a memorandum found in Soviet archives and also published in 2002. In it, Gaik Ovakimian, head of the American desk of the NKVD cites an April 14, 1944 report reporting that, "following our instructions" via Silvermaster, White had "attained the positive decision of the Treasury Department to provide the Soviet side with the plates for engraving German occupation marks."
Since Bentley was the Soviet's contact to Silvermaster at this time, her involvement in this incident is substantiated.
Paid Informer (1952)
After her defection, calls to give evidence before various bodies would become a fixture in Bentley's life for many years. Occasional consultations with the FBI would continue for the rest of her life. In 1952, she began taking payments for her testimony, making her a "paid informer" for the FBI.
Though she had been a successful executive with a profitable shipping company while she was with the Communists, after her defection she earned a living first through secretarial work and then at a variety of teaching jobs.
Having been converted to Roman Catholicism by Fulton Sheen in 1948, she was frequently invited to lecture on the Communist threat by Catholic groups happy to pay her $300 fee.
Bentley died on December 3, 1963, aged 55, from abdominal cancer at Grace-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Obituaries appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
However, in her biography of Bentley, Kathryn Olmsted notes a sharp contrast between the notice paid to Bentley's death and that of Whittaker Chambers, who had died two years earlier. The National Review, which had put out a special memorial issue on the death of Chambers, allotted only a paragraph to Elizabeth Bentley. Time magazine had devoted two pages to its Chambers obituary, but gave Bentley's death a two-sentence mention in its "Milestones" section.