Hafis Salich

Name Hafis Salich
Born May 24 1905
Died 1970
Birth Location Georgia (Europe)

Intelligence officer who spied on prewar Japanese communities and central figure in an important court case.

Born in Moscow, Russia, of Georgian ancestry, Hafis Salich (1905–70) left the city after the Russian Revolution and moved successively to Kazen (Russia), Manchuria, and finally Yokohama (Japan), where he lived for two years before immigrating to the United States in 1923. After serving for six years as a police officer in Berkeley, California, Salich applied for a position in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). In August 1936 he was hired by the U.S. Naval Intelligence Bureau for the 11th District (Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico) as a civilian employee, because of his law enforcement background and the knowledge of the Japanese language he had gained in Japan. Assigned to investigate Japanese activities in Los Angeles, Salich arrived in Little Tokyo and posed as a friend of the Nisei . He frequented Nisei hangouts and attended meetings of organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). According to later testimony, his tasks included "detailing the coming and going on the west coast of Japanese military and civil officials as well as private citizens whose actions were deemed of possible interest to the Intelligence Office." [1] Salich compiled approximately fifty reports on potential subversion by Japanese Americans, including notes on movements of Nisei-owned fishing boats at Terminal Island and their actions in Mexican waters. [2]

Salich seems to have had contact with Soviet agents even before joining ONI. He ultimately made contact with Mihail Nicholas Gorin, the agent who operated the branch of the Soviet travel agency Intourist in Los Angeles. In March 1938, Gorin persuaded Salich to share his reports, on the pretext that Japan was the common enemy of the United States and of the Soviet Union. Salich, who was in need of money, transmitted the essence of 43 reports that he and other agents had submitted, for which he was paid $1,700, which he considered a "loan." FBI agents discovered the espionage after a dry cleaner discovered an envelope with money and instructions in a suit that Gorin had left for cleaning.

Arrested by the FBI, Salich and Gorin were brought to trial in January 1939. In the course of the court hearings, selections from the reports were introduced into evidence, thereby also revealing Salich's deception of his Nisei friends. Taken together, the documents and the testimony surrounding them revealed massive official distrust of Issei and Nisei, even those engaged in harmless activities. The names of many ordinary Japanese Americans appeared on surveillance lists alongside Imperial Navy Officers as "Japanese," although Salich admitted at trial that he had no idea whether any of the people he reported on were actually espionage agents. The reports described not only the movements and activities of suspected agents sent by Japan, but the activities and alleged attitudes of Issei and Nisei community members, including journalists, JACL members and several ethnic Japanese whom it described without elaboration as "suspected of being interested in intelligence work." [3] One dispatch, with unintentional irony, recounted keeping tabs on the loyalty of a Nisei dentist who was an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve (USNR), in case his race-based exclusion caused him to be discontented. While Salich declared that he trusted the loyalty of the Nisei, even if he was suspicious of the Issei attitude as entirely pro-Japanese, a Nisei reporter observing the trial summarized the attitude of the mass of reports (and of Gorin): "[T]he official Russian and American opinion is that Nisei are Japanese and, consequently, potentially dangerous." [4]

Following the trial, Salich and Gorin were convicted under the Espionage Act. (Gorin's wife Natasha was also indicted, but was acquitted by the jury). [5] Salich was sentenced to a $10,000 fine and a four-year prison sentence for selling naval secrets, while Gorin was sentenced to six years in prison. Gorin and Salich appealed their convictions. Their case was reviewed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and ended up being decided by the Supreme Court, which affirmed the convictions. The reports in question were included in their entirety as evidence in the Supreme Court file. Gorin eventually was permitted to return to the Soviet Union. Salich went to prison, but after serving nearly three years of his sentence at McNeil Island, he was permitted to leave prison to enlist in the U.S. Army during World War II, and he served for over three years. As a result of his military service, in 1946 he was granted a pardon for his crime by President Harry S. Truman , and his fine was refunded. Ironically, in 1952 he registered with the U.S. government as a paid foreign agent of the Soviet Union.

Authored by Greg Robinson , Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America . New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Zacharias, Ellis M. Secret Missions: The Story of an Intelligence Officer . Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003.


  1. United State Supreme Court, GORIN v. U S, 312 U.S. 19 (1941) at 22, 23.
  2. "Salich Trial Reveals Nisei 'Friend' as Spy," Japanese American Mirror , March 3, 1939, 1.
  3. Henri deB. Claiborne, report June 7, 1938, Government's Exhibit No. 6(s), Record, 287-88.
  4. "Tell Nisei Activities in Court," Japanese American Mirror , March 10, 1939, 1.
  5. Following their conviction, Gorin and Salich appealed, and the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1941 unanimously upheld the verdicts. United State Supreme Court, GORIN v. U S, 312 U.S. 19 (1941) at 21, 22.

Last updated June 12, 2020, 4:50 p.m..