Lamphere, Robert J. 1918-2002

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LAMPHERE, Robert J. 1918-2002

PERSONAL: Born February 14, 1918, in Coeur d'Alene, ID; died January 7, 2002, in Tucson, AZ; son of a miner; married; wife's name, Martha. Education: Studied law at University of Idaho; National Law School, law degree, 1941.

CAREER: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Washington, DC, counterintelligence specialist, 1941-55; Veterans Administration, administrator, 1955-61; John Hancock Mutual Insurance Co., executive.


(With Tom Schachtman) The FBI-KGB War: A SpecialAgent's Story, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.

SIDELIGHTS: Robert J. Lamphere was an FBI counterintelligence specialist who oversaw many of the most notorious Soviet espionage cases during the period following World War II. One of the best-known cases he supervised was the atomic espionage incident that led to the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for spying.

Lamphere was born in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and grew up in Mullan, Idaho, a mining region; his father was a miner who worked underground ore deposits. Lamphere attended law school at the University of Idaho, and finished earning his law degree at the National Law School in Washington, D.C.

After graduating in 1941, Lamphere joined the FBI, drawn by the idea of fighting crime and working in an organization that had high standards for those it accepted. He worked in the field office in Birmingham, Alabama for seven months, and was then transferred to New York City. In three and a half years, he made over 400 arrests. Most of these involved violations of draft laws. In 1947 he was transferred to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and was assigned to the Soviet espionage section.

At the time, the government of the United States was vitally interested in cracking the code the Soviets had used during World War II; if this was achieved, FBI investigators would be able to decipher messages that the Soviet consulate in New York and the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. had sent to Moscow in 1944 and 1945.

So far, only a few words of the code had been broken, by workers in the Army Security Agency. Lamphere proposed that the FBI assist the Army Security Agency in cracking the code. The chief cryptanalyst working on the case was Meredith Knox Gardner. With the information provided by Lamphere and the FBI, Gardner began making steady progress in cracking the code. These deciphered messages allowed Lamphere to crack several difficult espionage cases.

In September of 1949, the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb at a test site in Russia; it was only a few years after American scientists had developed the bomb. American intelligence officers suspected that the Soviets were able to develop a bomb so quickly because they had received stolen information about the bomb's construction. Lamphere, while examining a freshly deciphered document, found information that was apparently taken directly from the Americans' top-secret atomic bomb project: here was proof that someone was spying.

A British scientist, Klaus Fuchs, admitted giving atomic information to the Soviets, and through his list of contacts with his Soviet spymasters, Lamphere tracked the leader of the ring, Julius Rosenberg. Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, were arrested and tried for passing secret information on to the Soviets. They were convicted in 1951 and executed in 1953, the first American civilians ever executed for wartime spying.

Lamphere later said that he was opposed to the execution of Ethel Rosenberg, as he believed she was not deeply involved in the espionage; however, his objections were overruled by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In his memoir, The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent's Story, Lamphere wrote, "The KGB messages were to change my life. More important, they were to affect the course of history. In the coming years, their revelations would lead directly to decisive actions that the FBI took against KGB operations in the United States." In the New Leader, Barry Gewen wrote that Lamphere writes honestly about his occasional disagreements with FBI policy, and noted that Lamphere was "a professional, and his book resonates with the sincerity of a person trying to do his job." Ronald Radosh wrote in the New Republic that the book presents an "interesting and highly readable story," and in Commentary, Harvey Klehr noted that it provides "useful reminders of just how real a danger Soviet espionage has posed to the security of the United States." In the New York Review of Books, Thomas Powers commented, "Lamphere's book adds much important information to the stories of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg," and "Many loose ends of old spy stories are partially cleared up by Lamphere's book."

Lamphere left the FBI in 1955, after which he worked for the Veterans Administration and for the John Hancock Insurance Company. Lamphere died in January, 2002, of prostate cancer.



Commentary, November, 1986, Harvey Klehr, review of The FBI-KGB War: A Special Agent's Story, p. 83.

New Leader, October 6, 1986, Barry Gewen, review of The FBI-KGB War, p. 16.

New Republic, September 8, 1986, Ronald Radosh, review of The FBI-KGB War, p. 38.

New York Review of Books, May 13, 1993, Thomas Powers, review of The FBI-KGB War, p. 49.


Public Broadcast Service Web site,, interview with Lamphere (July 24, 2002).



Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2002, p. B10.

New York Times, February 11, 2002, p. A25.


Guardian Online, (February 13, 2002).*