How Rosenberg’s In-Law Helped Seal Their Fate

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The New York Sun

The Federal Court in New York released yesterday the long-awaited closed Grand Jury Records pertaining to the Rosenberg case. What did they disclose? What new information did they provide about ties between the Rosenbergs and other Soviet spy rings? Do they provide any new information, particularly relating to the role of Ethel Rosenberg, and the charge by the prosecution and Judge Irving Kaufman that Ethel, in typing information given to her by her brother-in-law, David Greenglass, to be transmitted to the Soviets, had betrayed her country?

The documents include the grand jury testimony of Ethel Rosenberg’s sister-in-law, Ruth Greenglass, in which she describes, writing in her own longhand, the information her husband obtained at the Los Alamos nuclear installation, and passed along to Julius Rosenberg and the Soviet Union. Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that 10 days before the trial against the Rosenbergs commenced, Ruth and David Greenglass, for the first time, mentioned that Ethel Rosenberg had typed those notes. Ruth Greenglass was never prosecuted for her role.

In the trial, Ruth Greenglass testified that at Julius’s behest, she gave Ethel David’s rough notes to type for transmittal to the Soviets, both in January of 1945 and later that September. This damning testimony pointed to the jury’s satisfaction that Ethel was a key participant in the spy network. That testimony was used at the trial in the summation by the prosecuting counsel, Irving Saypol. It also was cited by Judge Kaufman as the reason for granting the death penalty. Judge Kaufman used Ruth’s testimony as the culmination of his closing speech to the jury, saying that Ethel Rosenberg sat at that typewriter and “struck the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets.”

Testifying before the Grand Jury on August 3, 1950, Ruth told the jurors that when David was home on furlough in late December of 1944, he had informed Julius that he had consented to gather information from the Manhattan Project.

She then told him what David had conveyed to her about the physical set up at Los Alamos and the scientists who were working there. “Didn’t you write that down on a piece of paper?” prosecutor Myles Lane asked. “Yes,” Ruth answered, “I wrote that down on a piece of paper and [Julius] took it with him.” Lane asked: “In longhand?” Ruth’s answer: “Yes.” Moreover, she told Lane that she wrote it down in Julius’s presence, and she did not make one mention of Ethel being present or doing any typing.

Yet at the Rosenberg trial, Ruth testified precisely the opposite: On that day in January 1945, she told the trial jurors, she asked Ethel why she was looking tired, and Ethel replied she had been “up late” the previous night typing material David had given her to hand over to Julius. “She [Ethel] told Ruth she always typed Julius’s material,” she testified in court, and Ethel said that she often had to stay up late at night to do this work.

Not only was this contradicted by her Grand Jury testimony, but one of the now famous Venona decrypts — the secret Soviet decrypts released in 1995 by the National Security Agency and FBI — show that in a January 8 KGB message, a Soviet agent reported that Greenglass “has confirmed his agreement to help us,” and had given them a “hand-written plan of the lay-out of Camp 2 [at Los Alamos] and facts known to him about the work and the personnel.” Their job he reported was to “make the mechanism which is to serve as the detonator.” In other words, the KGB decrypt confirms precisely that they had received the data Ruth had handed to Julius, and that it was, as she told the Grand Jury, handwritten and not typed.

This was a dramatic example of the fact that Ruth’s testimony implicating Ethel Rosenberg was inconsistent with her trial testimony, and that most likely, the “typing” never took place. It does not mean, as some might think, that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent. Venona also corroborated that Ethel had recommended Ruth, her sister in law, to the KGB as a suitable recruit. She also knew about her husband’s espionage work, as well as that of other members of his ring, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant. Ethel, in other words, was knowledgeable, and in legal terms was a conspirator.

Indeed, the moment that she urged Ruth to carry a message from Julius to David, asking him to spy for the Soviets, she was part of a conspiracy. Even without the typing story, she could have been part of the government’s indictment. Yet, nothing was as dramatic and substantive than the typing story, and it was this episode the government stressed as its trump card to indict Ethel.

As David Vladeck, who handled the plaintiff’s case to the court, commented at a press conference yesterday, “It is quite clear that if the trial were held today the government would have had a very difficult time establishing that Ethel Rosenberg was an active participant in this conspiracy and indeed it looks like the key testimony against her was perjured.”

The records also implicate others. The government suspected, and later Venona proved it true, that a couple, Ann and Michael Sidorovich, were couriers for Julius Rosenberg’s network, and had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to be close to a major physicist who was a key figure in Rosenberg’s network, William Perl.

Perl was working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a predecessor agency for NASA, and had worked on wing design for jet aircrafts that were used by the Russians for MIG fighter planes used in Korea against American pilots. The records indicate that Perl accompanied the Sidoroviches in a quest to purchase an automobile, and the salesman testified that all three came together and Perl drove the car during the test drive.

Both the Sidoroviches and Perl denied knowing each other, and held fast to their story of innocence. Perl, however, denied that he knew Julius, Ethel, and others, and the government was easily able to establish he had committed perjury, and indicted him on those grounds, on which he was convicted.

Perl was thus removed from his government military work, where he might have continued to do damage. He was not, however, tried for the real military espionage for which he was clearly guilty.

Finally, new information is provided about the espionage work of the co-defendant in the case, Morton Sobell. Decades ago, when this author interviewed Morton Sobell, he told me that at “the time and juncture we now live in,” historical truth could not come out, because it might hurt the establishment.

Only one week ago, Mr. Sobell told Mr. Vladeck that he had been framed up, and completely innocent. Yet, on September 11, 2008, the day on which the long awaited Grand Jury records on the Rosenberg case were released, Mr. Sobell decided to go public and confess to the world that he was a Soviet spy, as was his friend, Julius Rosenberg.

He proudly gave to the Soviets classified military information although he “never thought of it as espionage,” he told the New York Times yesterday. What made Mr. Sobell suddenly come forward yesterday and admit that he was guilty when a week ago he was saying that he had been framed and was completely innocent? The answer, I think, lies with what he feared was in the Grand Jury records that would soon come forth.

His open admission appears as a bold attempt to pre-empt the attention that might be paid, and to make it appear that he never had anything to hide.

In the Grand Jury files, testimony appeared that made clear that Mr. Sobell had access to important classified military data, and was in a position to hand it over to the Soviets.

One of his supervisors, Harry Belock, disclosed that Mr. Sobell was working on gun fire control equipment, and had obtained clearance from the Air Force to work on classified military information that was top secret. Mr. Vladeck said, “It is clear that at some point the government strategy took a dramatic turn. Grand jury testimony reveals that there was a great deal of espionage on conventional munitions but none of that came out at trial. Why not? It may be that the government did not want to reveal the extent to which Rosenberg and other Soviet spy rings had managed to penetrate the U.S. defense establishment.” Mr. Sobell’s admission validates Mr. Vladeck’s argument.

These current files are not the end of this story. Later, the court will release the files of a related case, that of Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz, which had the same chief accuser as the Rosenbergs, chemist Harry Gold.

Moreover, next year, a new book written by Harvey Klehr and John Haynes will produce actual KGB documents never before seen that will shed more light on the role Ethel Rosenberg played in the KGB network set up by Julius Rosenberg. Until then, and when the KGB, known as the FSB today, releases its files to the public, will the full story be known about the Rosenberg spy ring.

Mr. Radosh, a contributing editor of The New York Sun and adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a co-author of “The Rosenberg File.”

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