Judge orders release of testimony from Hiss case
NEW YORK–In a rare ruling, a federal district judge in Manhattan ordered in mid-May that the federal government must unseal thousands of pages of secret grand jury testimony from the investigation of Alger Hiss and the Communist movement in the United States.
Hiss was accused in 1948 of being a Communist spy when he worked for the State Department in the 1930s. Hiss denied the charges but was convicted of perjury in 1950.
Judge Peter Leisure said that “disclosure will fill in important gaps in the existing historical record.” The ruling could lead to the release of grand jury testimony by Hiss and dozens of other witnesses in the late 1940s, including that of his chief accuser, Whittaker Chambers, and Richard Nixon, then a congressman. Leisure held that releasing the documents would lead to new debate and new historical works, “all to the immense benefit of the public.”
In ordering the papers released, Leisure found that the case fits a narrow exception to grand jury secrecy in matters of compelling historical importance. Leisure stated that the public had a significant interest in several issues, including whether Nixon sought to lobby the grand jury to indict Hiss, the extent of Soviet espionage activity in the United States during and after World War II, and whether there were improprieties in the grand jury investigation itself.
Leisure wrote that “grand jury testimony by a congressional official allegedly attempting to influence a grand jury’s charging decision is of inherent and substantial historical importance.”
“The materials should languish on archival shelves, behind locked doors, no longer,” he added. Leisure found that only two of the grand jury witnesses were known to be still living, and one of those witnesses supported disclosure.
Leisure did rule that a small portion of the records may implicate privacy interests, and allowed the government additional time to argue against their release.
Federal prosecutors in New York are considering whether to appeal. (In re Petition of American Historical Association)