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The Spy Buried in Alexandria: Unraveling the Tale of Lieutenant William Weisband and the Impact on American Intelligence

Former First Lieutenant William Wolf Weisband (August 28, 1908 – May 14, 1967), a member of the U.S. Signal Corps, rests in Alexandria, Virginia’s Presbyterian Cemetery. In the shadows of the Cold War, he assumed a civilian role within the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). During his tenure, he stumbled upon a monumental secret—American cryptanalysts had successfully deciphered the encrypted communications of the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and intelligence channels. Concealed under the alias “Zhora,” Weisband himself was a double agent, serving the Soviet Union since 1934. His revelation prompted swift action from the Soviets, leading to a drastic shift in their encryption methods. This move had dire consequences for American intelligence, leaving a gaping blind spot that would later catch the United States off guard when North Korea’s invasion of South Korea erupted in June 1950.

In Memoriam: William Weisband – Soviet Spy Resting in Alexandria’s Presbyterian Cemetery-image from Wikipedia.

Born in Odesa (also spelled as Odessa), a city that once belonged to Russia but now resides within Ukraine’s borders, Weisband’s origins traced back to a place marked by shifting allegiances. His journey took him to the United States during the 1920s, where he eventually embraced American citizenship in 1938. As World War II swept the globe, Weisband donned the uniform of the US Army, serving valiantly in North Africa and Italy.

Post-war, a new chapter unfolded as he found himself at Arlington Hall, assuming the role of a language expert. Within its secretive corridors, he collaborated closely with the brilliant minds deciphering codes within the Russian Section. Highly regarded among his peers, Weisband held a key to valuable information about the Soviet Union. This knowledge, however, he discreetly shared with his KGB handlers, an allegiance that remained hidden from his colleagues.

His espionage took on ingenious forms, one of which involved the sale of jewelry to women employed at Arlington Hall. This seemingly innocuous tactic afforded him access to off-limits areas, enabling him to gather crucial intelligence. In this covert manner, he chanced upon Venona, a secretive project that unveiled encrypted Soviet messages. Through clandestine observation of famed code-breaker Margaret Gardner, Weisband uncovered the project’s secrets. The jewelry he acquired in New York was a conduit during meetings with his Soviet contacts, further deepening his dual existence.

The Venona Project

Nestled within Arlington Hall’s confines, the Venona Project held the key to unlocking and interpreting Soviet communications. Within these messages lay a web of hidden agents on American soil, among them Harry Gold. Once apprehended, Gold’s revelations cascaded, unmasking a network of spies, including Julius Rosenberg, codenamed “Liberator,” and his wife, Ethel. This shocking exposé culminated in their 1953 execution at Sing Sing prison in New York—a verdict later vindicated by Venona’s confirmation of their treasonous actions.

Beyond the Rosenberg affair, Venona’s revelations extended to other covert operatives. Alger Hiss, known by the codename “Ales,” was among those implicated. Although Secretary of State Dean Acheson defended Hiss’s innocence staunchly, Venona’s evidence painted a contrasting narrative. The extent of Hiss’s value to the Soviets was underlined by the USSR’s awarding him a medal—an honor earned through his covert contributions to their cause.

The Invasion of South Korean

In 1948, a pivotal achievement unfolded within the United States government—a breakthrough in deciphering the closely guarded codes of the formidable Soviet Union. This triumph yielded a wealth of critical insights into Soviet intentions on a global scale, particularly within the Pacific region. However, the narrative took an unforeseen twist when Weisband, driven by his covert loyalties, transmitted the unsettling news of the code’s breach to the Soviet Union.

In response, the Soviets swiftly fortified their encryption methods, erecting a veil of complexity around their communications. The ramifications were severe: American code-breaking mechanisms experienced a prolonged period of recovery and restoration, impacting their efficacy. Amidst this tumultuous phase, a blind spot emerged—the United States failed to perceive the burgeoning strength of Soviet military forces in North Korea.

This dearth of information birthed a pivotal moment in history. On June 25, 1950, North Korea executed a surprise invasion of South Korea—a seismic intelligence lapse that reverberated through the annals of American history. Regarded as one of the most significant intelligence failures, this event forever altered the trajectory of the Korean Peninsula, plunging it into a state of instability that would endure for decades.

The war that ensued bore a grim toll, with casualties numbering over 3 million—primarily civilians—bearing the brunt of the conflict’s devastation. Among the numbers were 33,000 American soldiers who perished and another 103,000 who were wounded among the 1.7 million who served. The United Nations forces, aligning with South Korea, also experienced substantial losses in their valiant struggle.

The weight of culpability for this harrowing chapter has been ascribed to William Weisband. Blamed for the profound harm inflicted on the U.S. SIGINT program against the Soviet Union, Weisband’s actions cast a long shadow over the course of events. As Robert L. Benson’s “The Venona Story” notes, Weisband’s contribution to the tragedy is irrefutable, shaping the narrative that would echo through history.

Article in The Courier-News
30 Jun 2000, Fri · Page 74.

Arrest and Sentence

The year 1950 saw a significant turning point in Weisband’s life. Suspicion began to cloud his loyalty, leading to his suspension from work. Summoned before a federal grand jury in Los Angeles, he became a central figure in the investigation into the Communist Party and Soviet espionage activities on the West Coast.

Yet, when the summons came a second time, Weisband was conspicuously absent. This absence carried consequences—his arrest followed, culminating in a verdict of Contempt. The judgment bore a weighty sentence: one year of confinement. This period of confinement played out within the confines of the Federal Labor Camp situated on McNeil Island, Washington.

However, it’s crucial to note that Weisband’s legal entanglement wasn’t tantamount to a charge of espionage. His actions centered on contempt of court, a response to his failure to comply with judicial orders. The complex web of national security laws and the delicate nature of classified information were intricately woven into this chapter of his life, preventing explicit accusations of espionage from being leveled against him.

Evening Star
22 Aug 1950, Tue · Page 22

Life in Alexandria, VA

Upon his release, he embarked on a new chapter as an insurance agent in Alexandria. According to his son, his father’s ledger of outstanding dues held remarkable proportions, making it the most extensive in the state. He diligently traversed neighborhoods, making regular visits to residences every week or month to secure payments for the insurance policies he had sold.

Marriage

On January 15, 1949, Weisband entered into matrimony with Mabel Elizabeth Woody Ricker (June 8, 1925 – August 27, 2015). Mabel, a government analyst, contributed her expertise during a brief tenure at Arlington Hall. Her association with Weisband, however, inadvertently entangled her in his web of suspicion during his espionage investigation. Over the course of their marriage, the couple welcomed four children into their lives.

Following Weisband’s passing, Mabel embarked on a new chapter, eventually remarrying. When she breathed her last, her final resting place was in the National Memorial Park located in Falls Church, Virginia, serving as a poignant reminder of her enduring journey.

Evening Star
22 Aug 1950, Tue · Page 22

Death and Burial

On May 14, 1967, his life came to an end due to a heart attack while he was driving his family to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., along the George Washington Parkway. Following his passing, his funeral was marked by a poignant display of respect. His son recounted that a sizable gathering of African Americans, many of whom were his clients, assembled on the lawn to pay their final respects, their emotions a blend of sorrow and tears. Subsequently, his remains were laid to rest in Section 1, Plot 1.

A fascinating twist of fate emerged with the location of his grave. Adjacent to The Alexandria National Cemetery, the final resting place for veterans of the Korean War—an event that some associate with Weisband’s actions—his grave takes on a layered significance.

Adding another layer to the story, the gravestone that marks his burial was provided by the very government he had betrayed, a paradoxical detail that encapsulates the intricate complexity of his life and legacy.

William Wolf Weisband’s Gravestone at The Presbyterian Cemetery – Captured by D. Heiby.
WILLIAM W WEISBAND
VIRGINIA
1st LT SIGNAL CORPS
WORLD WAR II
AUG 28 1908 May 14 1976
Section 1, Plot 1, Lot 1

Sources of Information

Robert L. Benson. The Venona Story. Center for Cryptologic History. National Security Agency. Fort Meade, Maryland. It was accessed online in 2023 [Link]

David A. Hatch, with Robert Louis Benson. The Korean War. The SIGINT Background. Published by the Center for Cryptological History. National Security Agency. 2000. It was accessed online in 2023. [Link]

The official website of Conservapedia and a webpage about [Bill Weisband]. It was accessed in 2023.

John Schindler. The Greatest Intelligence Disaster in U.S. History. February 21, 2021. The substack [article]was accessed in 2023.

[Family of Spies]. January 2022 NOVA interview with William Weisband Jr. about his father. It was accessed online in 2023.

The official website of Obits.al.com and an online obituary on [Mable Flanagan]. It was accessed online in 2023.

The archives of The Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium.

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By David

Hello. My journey has taken me through various paths, from owning businesses to delving deep into the annals of history. For many years, I dedicated myself to researching and leading tours of Civil War Battlefields, bringing the past to life for those eager to learn.

In 2015, I assumed the role of Superintendent of the Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria, Virginia. This cemetery holds a profoundly special place in my heart. It's owned by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, where I was baptized and raised, and my parents are laid to rest. It's also the place where I will one day be buried. This responsibility allowed me to assist families during pivotal moments and opened a unique avenue for me. Most Saturdays, I lead tours within the complex, combining my passion for teaching history with the stories of the 35,000 souls resting there. To further share these narratives, I established this blog focusing on the lives and tales of those buried in Alexandria.

In addition to my work at the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, I am honored to serve as a dedicated Board member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum. I am a Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium member dedicated to preserving endangered cemeteries throughout the region, representing the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex.

If you're intrigued by history or curious about the stories that shaped Alexandria, I invite you to join me on my tours, read my writings, or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram.

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