Coplon, Judith (1922 – )

Judith Coplon

An employee of the U.S. Department of Justice who was the first person tried as a result of the breaking and partial decrypting of Soviet intelligence cables from the World War II period in the course of the Venona operation.

Judith Coplon was born in 1922 and studied at Barnard College, from which she graduated cum laude in 1943. Soon after her graduation, she got a job at the Department of Justice, and in 1944 she transferred to its Foreign Agents Registration section, where she worked as a political analyst and had “sensitive FBI reports … continually on her desk or within easy reach.” 1

In December 1948, Coplon was reportedly identified by Venona translators as the person behind the NKGB cover name “Sima”, which appeared in 16 Venona cables from July 20, 1944 to July 5, 1945. Since the Venona information could not be revealed in a trial, the FBI launched an extensive counterintelligence operation to build a case against Coplon, conducting intense surveillance of her activities, monitoring her mail, and placing wiretaps on her office and apartment telephones. In January 1949, she was followed to a meeting with “a dark haired, conservatively dressed man,” whom the agents identified as a Russian named Valentin Alexeevich Gubischev, an employee of the United Nations Secretariat. To arrest Coplon “in the act of passing and receiving secret information,” the agents faked a few FBI documents and planted them for Coplon to purloin. As a result, Coplon and Gubischev were arrested on March 4, 1949, during a meeting in New York. 2 When Judith Coplon was arrested that day, according to the FBI records, “she had 34 data sheets of the Foreign Agents Registration Section in her possession,” 3 which “amounted to identifications of persons suspected by the FBI of working for Soviet and related intelligence services.” 4

In preparing for the prosecution, the FBI faced serious obstacles. First, it could not reveal its initial predicate (the Venona operation) in beginning to look at Coplon as a suspect, because this would compromise the top-secret Venona operation. But neither could it give telephone wiretapping as a reason for this predicate, so it had to testify that Coplon came under suspicion because of information from a reliable “confidential informant” that was not a wiretap. Another problem was the necessity of revealing the actual files behind the slips of paper discovered in Coplon’s handbag, because if these files were made public, they would compromise the FBI’s infiltration of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. and other things “that cried out to be kept confidential.” 5

Coplon’s first trial, which opened in Washington, D.C. on April 25, 1949, ended with a guilty verdict, on charges of espionage, and a sentence of 40 months to 10 years. Coplon’s second trial, this time with Gubischev, took place in early 1950 and ended with a guilty verdict on charges of conspiracy and a sentence to 15 years each. As a result of diplomatic negotiations, however, Gubischev’s sentence was suspended on condition that he leave the country. Coplon’s convictions were both overturned by the Circuit Court of Appeals. A decision written by Judge Learned Hand ruled that 1) the court’s refusal to let the defense see certain wiretap records was a “refusal of a constitutional right” and that 2) the arrest of Coplon and Gubischev was illegal, since it was made without a warrant, and, hence, any evidence obtained from that arrest was illegal and inadmissible. Without that evidence, the government would have no case in a retrial. 6 Still, the government did not officially decide to drop the case until 1967.

After her second trial, Judith Coplon married one of her lawyers and, according to the authors of a 2002 book on her case, went on to live a “life as a model citizen, raising a family of decent, law-abiding children, and serving her community.” 7

  1. The FBI-KGB War, A Special Agent’s Story, by Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, New York: Random House, 1986, p. 100.
  2. Ibid., pp. 102-110.
  3. L. Whitson to H. B. Fletcher, March 21, 1949, The FBI Silvermaster File, No 65-56402, Vol. 148, Serials 3731-3805, PDF p. 14.
  4. Robert J. Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, Op. cit., p. 114.
  5. Ibid., pp. 114-115.
  6. Ibid., pp. 120-122.
  7. The Spy Who Seduced America: Lies and Betrayal in the Heat of the Cold War— The Judith Coplon Story, by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell. Montpelier, Vt: Invisible Cities Press, 2002.