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New development.

When the Supreme Court refused, in October 1983, to review Alger Hiss's petition for a writ of error coram nobis of his 1950 conviction on perjury charges, one of the most significant political trials in American history had finally come to an end. But the documents released to Gil Green--showing that under J. Edgar Hoover the Federal Bureau of Investigation had the ability and the willingness to commit forgery by typewriter--raise disturbing questions.

The key evidence against Hiss, everyone familiar with the case agrees, was sixty-five pages of typewritten copies of State Department documents and cables dated in the first four months of 1938. Those copies were said to have been typed on a Woodstock typewriter that Hiss and his wife, Priscilla, had owned in the 1930s. The typing was supposedly done in Hiss's home in Washington by Priscilla Hiss, and the copies turned over to Whittaker Chambers for delivery to Soviet agents.

The sixty-five pages--which surfaced in 1948, more than ten years after the alleged espionage had ceased--were the only corroboratory evidence ever produced for Chambers's story that he and Hiss had spied together for the Soviet Union during the 1930s. And Chambers was the government's only witness against Hiss his trial for perjury. Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Murphy spelled out their importance to the government's case in his summation:

Told you in the beginning that the facts would be proved by the immutable documents, and there, ladies and gentlemen, are the documents. They do not change. They are there and have been there for 11 or 12 years. . . . They cannot be altered. They are immutable. . . . Take them with you to the jury room. . . . What do they prove? Ladies and gentlemen, it proves treason, and that is the traitor.

Only Ramos C. Feehan, an F.B.I. document examiner, corroborated Chambers's claim that the copies were genuine. Feehan said that after comparing Chambers's papers, referred to as the Baltimore exhibits, with "standards" conceded to have been typed on the Woodstock when it was in the Hisses' possession, he had concluded that "the same machine was used to type the Baltimore Exhibits . . . that was used to type the standards." Although Feehan had based his opinion on a comparison of only ten characters and did not identify Priscilla Hiss as the typist, he was not cross-examined by the defense. (The defense offered evidence that the Hisses had given away the Woodstock prior to the dates on Chambers's papers.)

Just before he was sentenced, Alger Hiss briefly reasserted his innocence and added, "I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed."

Two and a half years later, after Hiss had begun serving his five-year prison sentence, his new counsel, the late Chester T. Lane, moved for a retrial. Lane said he had new evidence proving "a technique of forgery by typewriter exists which was not known about at the time of the trial," that the Baltimore exhibits "are an ingenious set of forgeries" and that "the typewriter in evidence at the trials is a fake machine. . . . it can only have been planted on the defense by or an behalf of Whittaker Chambers as part of his plot for the false incrimination of Alger Hiss."

The government ridiculed Lane's motion as "frivolous" and "absurd." In 1978, when Hiss filed the coram nobis petition, it took the same position. Hiss's petition was in large measure based on the claim that the typewriter could not possibly have been the original Hiss machine and that this had been established by the F.B.I.'s own investigation. According to the government's argument, set forth by U.S. Attorney Robert B. Fiske Jr., that contention was "Hiss' fanciful theory." Fiske asked, "If Exhibit UUU was fabricated for the purposes of the libel action or the criminal prosecution, who built it and why?"

The courts have consistently accepted the government's argument that forgery by typewriter is a fantasy, and Hiss--rebuffed eight times by the higher courts in his thirty-five-year attempt to establish his innocence--has never been able to get a hearing also dismissed the forgery-by-typewriter argument. Allen Weinstein, author of Perjury, accepted in many quarters as the definitive work establishing Hiss's guilt, approvingly quotes Feehan's recent statement that "forgery by typewriter is impossible" and that the typewriter in the case "not only could not have been forged, but was not as far as I know."

Hoover's 1960 memorandum casts considerable doubt on that assertion, however. The case of Alger Hiss may legally be closed, but the F.B.I. director's admission that the Bureau had the capacity to commit such a forgery and the implication that it had in the past utilized the technique suggest that the prediction Hiss made on his sentencing day may yet come true.
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Title Annotation:revelations of typewriter forgery and the Alger Hiss case
Author:Reuben, William A.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Nov 10, 1984
Previous Article:Forgery by typewriter.
Next Article:The diary of a U.A.W. dissident.

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