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Friday, November 10, 2017

The Venona Project, Espionage And A Chess Champion

    The Venona Project was a counterintelligence program initiated by the United States Army's Signal Intelligence Service (later the National Security Agency) that ran for nearly four decades, spanning 1943 to 1980. The purpose of the project was the decryption of messages transmitted by the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union, specifically the NKVD, the KGB and the GRU.

     During the 37-year duration of the Venona project, the Signal Intelligence Service obtained approximately 3,000 Soviet messages, only some of which were ever decrypted. The intelligence yield included discovery of the Cambridge Five espionage ring in the UK and Soviet espionage of the Manhattan Project in the U.S. The Venona project remained secret for more than 15 years after it concluded.
     Among the Soviet spies identified in the Venona project were Enos Regnet Wicher (1911-1993) who was a professor of physics at Columbia University at the time. Wicher was never convicted of anything, but it was during the time he worked for the Wave Propagation Group of Columbia University's Division of War Research that he was a source of information on American military electronics for the Soviets.  According to one source he was "unofficially" banished to Mexico. The Wicher family (Enos, his wife Maria and stepdaughter Flora) were all accused of being spies for the Soviet Union during the 1940s.
     During World War II Enos worked in the Wave Propagation Group at Columbia's Division of War Research and was alleged to have spied for Soviet intelligence with code name was "Keen" and also “Kin”. He was married to Maria Wicher and the stepfather of Flora Wovschin, the most active Soviet spy revealed in the Venona project.
     Maria Wicher had previously been married to Dr. William A. Wovschin and was the mother of Flora Wovschin. Maria's code name in Soviet intelligence and in the Venona project is "Dasha".
     Flora Don Wovschin was born in 1923 in New York City. She attended the University of Wisconsin, Columbia University and Barnard College. At Barnard she was active in the American Students Union and may have been a member of American Youth for Democracy. She attended Barnard with Marion Davis Berdecio and Judith Coplon, both of whom Wovschin later recruited into service for the NKVD.
     From September 1943 to February 1945 she worked in the Office of War Information then transferred to the United States Department of State. She resigned from the State Department in September 1945. The most active secret agent during WWII, Wovschin acted as courier for Soviet intelligence.  After the war she renounced her American citizenship and travelled to the Soviet Union where she married a Soviet engineer. An FBI counterintelligence report on Wovschin has a hand written note in the margin stating she may have died serving as a nurse in North Korea. Her code name in Soviet intelligence and in the Venona project is "Zora".
     Enos and Maria were members of the U.S. Communist party and Maria was aware of both her husband's and her daughter's work.
     The December 8, 1955 issue of the Mexico City Collegian, The American College South Of The Border, ran article titled “Wicher Combines Work With Study.” Wicher, an Associate Professor of Science and Mathematics, stated his interest in science began as a youngster in Rock Falls, Illinois when he skipped school to go fishing and while digging for worms found an old skull in an Indian mound.
     In 1929 when he entered college at St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa he majored in mathematics and graduated cum laude in in 1933. He went on to receive his Master's Degree in 1934 and later that year began to study theoretical physics at the University of Wisconsin. While there he also taught classes. From 1938-1940 he was consulting mathematician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forrest Products Laboratory. In 1941 he was appointed to head the Department of Physics at Olivet College in Michigan. He tendered his resignation after four months after Pearl Harbor and taught radio and radar physics for the Army Signal Corps. After being medically discharged in 1944 he was appointed to the highly classified War Research Division at Columbia University where he contributed to a highly technical book, Radio Wave Proagation.
     After the war's end Wicher worked for five years doing a contract job for the Bureau of Naval Ordinance as a research mathematician and later as Research Director. In 1950 he returned to the University of Wisconsin for futher study and published a paper on the Faraday Effect. In 1951 he was appointed head of the Physics Department at the University of Georgia where he remained until late 1953.
     Wicher stated in the article that he had visited Mexico in 1951 and like the relaxed atmosphere and so moved to Mexico in 1953 along with his wife Maria and son Anthony.
     According to the history of Harvey Mudd College in California, in the fall of 1961, three physicists were added to the Physics Department; one of them was Enos Wicher who applied from Mexico City, where he had spent eight years as head of the science and engineering department at the University of the Americas. Wicher was a very active member of the department until his retirement in 1975. He was also known at the college for his competence as a chess player.
     Wicher, whose USCF rating was in the mid-2000s, was the 1939 Wisconsin State Champion and in 1940 he was Co-champion with Arpad Elo. He won the Championship for the third time in 1951. In 1952 he was the Georgia State Champion. He participated in the 1971 U.S. Open in Ventura, California where he finished 163rd out of 402 players with a score of 6.5-5.5. He was also active in ICCF postal tournaments in the 1980s. I wasn't able to locate any of his games.

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