The Traitorous Code Clerk, Part Nine
By David H. Lippman
The story began in Part One and continued in Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven and Part Eight.
In our previous installment, Tyler Kent obtained legal counsel and pleaded not guilty to all seven counts against him as his trial opened.
“I became quite absorbed in the case,” Muggeridge wrote later, “snatching a quick snack at a pub outside the Old Bailey in order to be back in court in time to miss none of the proceedings. The fact that every now and then the sirens sounded, and one and all – Judge, Learned Counsel, prisoners, witnesses—repaired to the underground cellars to await the All Clear, only added to the drama. Outside, such sound and fury; inside, the Judge with his wheezy dispassionateness, doodling or listening with closed eyes to interminable cross-examinations.”
Jowitt began his case by describing the indictments in detail, but did not reveal the authors of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence. Jowitt described how they went from Kent to Anna, from there to the Italian Embassy, and the terms of the Official Secrets Act. He handed over direct examination to his junior, C.B. McClure, who took the Crown witnesses through their testimony. Max Knight told his story. Under cross-examination, he described the rise of the Right Club.
Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence William Derek Stephens explained that the signals might be useful to an enemy. Under cross-examination, he added that they might also be of use to “anybody taking an interest in American politics.”
Next came Guy Liddell, disguised as a “civil assistant on the general staff of the War Office,” who identified the original and Kent’s copies of two letters Liddell had written. Yes, they were useful to enemies (on direct) or other foreign governments (on cross-examination).
Franklin Gowen testified that the stolen documents were secret and that Kent had “no right or reason to copy them or to have copies made.” Nor did Kent have any “right whatsoever to have duplicate keys made or any purpose whatsoever.”
A police photographic specialist gave technical evidence on the glass negatives. He was followed by photographer Eugene Smirnoff, who testified that on April 13, 1940, Anna had brought him three sheets of documents to be photographed. Mrs. Smirnoff gave Anna a cup of tea while the plates dried, then she put them into her handbag with the other documents, and left. Later she brought in some documents in German to be photographed. When she did not return for them – probably being jailed by then – he destroyed them.
Now the prosecution had to prove that Kent had communicated these documents to a hostile power, with a purpose that was “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State.” The Crown had to prove that Anna Wolkoff was working for the Nazis. That meant putting Helene de Munck and Marjorie Mackie, two of Knight’s agents from the Right Club, on the stand.
Helene described her role in the Right Club, describing its lack of loyalty to Britain. On cross-examination, she admitted that the latest charge against Kent was dated February 28, and it was not until April 9 that Anna had asked de Munck to take the letter to Belgium.
Mackie was next, and she testified to the Right Club’s anti-Semitism and having seen Kent with Anna there, and Kent showing Wolkoff some of the letters.
Detective Sgt. Harold Sutling of Special Branch, who searched Anna’s flat at the time of her arrest, described documents he had found there: a report to Ramsay of her visit to Germany in the summer of 1939, which included her meeting with Frank. The letter said that Anna was briefed on the upcoming and highly secret Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. That showed Anna was tied in to high-level Nazi leadership, proving her role as a German agent.
With that, the prosecution rested its case, and the defense presented its sole witness right after lunch on October 29 – Tyler Kent himself, wearing a gray flannel suit, white shirt, and blue tie. He was always a snappy dresser.
Muggeridge described Kent as “one of those intensely gentlemanly Americans who wear well-cut tailor-made suits, with waistcoat and watch-chain, drink wine instead of highballs, and easily become furiously indignant. They always strike me as being somehow a little mad.”
The examination would last all afternoon and into the morning. “I knew,” Kent said in a 1988 interview, “that I would be found guilty. I hoped to offer mitigating motives and circumstances which could keep my forthcoming sentence minimal.”
Healy led Kent through his family history, education, State Department assignments, and anti-Semitism, with Kent freely admitting to the last. He added that his visits to Germany, and seeing its financial and economic methods left him with a good impression of the Nazi regime.
That out of the way, Kent turned arrogant. He described stealing documents at the Embassy in Moscow and keeping them for his own use. He blasted the US ambassadors in Poland and France for being too involved in the war, and said they should not be giving advice to foreign governments. His plan was to bring the issues to the attention of U.S. Senators, and needed the documents to prove his case. He had burned the Moscow papers but was keeping the London papers for that purpose.
Yes, he was in sympathy with the anti-Semitic views of Anna and Ramsay, and thought it was right to let them see the documents, but stressed that neither were connected to any foreign government.
As a code clerk, Kent continued, he had conflicting loyalties: one to his chain of command and one to the American people. He had stolen the documents out of loyalty to the American people, so they would not help any country but he US government.
With that, Healy turned Kent over to Jowitt for cross-examination, and the British Solicitor-General, in his robe and wig, began probing the fact that Kent’s handling of American and British government correspondence was a position of the highest confidence and demanded that he adhere to secrecy laws.
Kent hedged, saying it “requires qualification.” He added, “Correspondence by Americans in foreign affairs is not secret correspondence.”
“I am not dealing with foreign affairs,” Jowitt countered. “I am dealing with these messages. Do you wish the jury to understand that these messages sent in code from the American ambassador in London to his government, or from his government . . . are not to be kept secret?”
“They are to be kept secret from foreign powers, yes,” Kent answered. “That is the main object of using codes.”
“When you say foreign powers, do you mean that any American is entitled to know them?” Jowitt asked, incredulously.
Kent called the question “moot.”
Jowitt suggested that it was a bit difficult to keep a secret if 130 million people knew it. Kent said that the American government was protected by the Constitution and the American practice to engage in such matters.
Jowitt pressed, “Would you feel yourself entitled to reveal a communication to one of your own compatriots at the dinner table, a person who had nothing whatsoever to do with the embassy, stating what had been put into code and what had been translated that day?”
“To an American subject, yes,” Kent said, unruffled. “I should not have hesitated to reveal any of these things to an elected representative of America, Canada, or France.”
“With regard to America,” Jowitt continued, “you wanted them to give no sort of help or encouragement to this country or her allies?”
“Not to any European or any country outside the western hemisphere,” Kent said firmly.
David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. He currently works
as a public information officer for the city
of Newark, N.J. We're always pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.