Key testimony from Rosenberg spy case released after 64 years

Julius and Ethel RosenbergThe final piece of sealed testimony in one of the most important espionage cases of the Cold War has been released, 64 years after it was given. The case led to the execution in 1953 of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, an American couple who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs were arrested in 1950 for being members of a larger Soviet-handled spy ring, which included Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass. Greenglass agreed to testify for the US government in order to save his life, as well as the life of his wife, Ruth, who was also involved in the spy ring. He subsequently fingered Julius Rosenberg as a courier and recruiter for the Soviets, and Ethel as the person who retyped the content of classified documents before they were surrendered to their handlers. That piece of testimony from Greenglass the primary evidence used to convict and execute the Rosenbergs.

However, although historians are confident that Julius Rosenberg was indeed an active member of the Soviet spy ring, there are doubts about Ethel. Many suggest that her involvement with her husband’s espionage activities was fragmentary at best, and that she refused to cooperate with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an ill-judged attempt to protect her husband. The argument goes that Ethel was put to death as a warning to Moscow, as well as to intimidate other American spies, rather than on the basis of actual evidence of her involvement in espionage. Many years after the Rosenbergs’ execution, Greenglass claimed he had lied about Ethel’s role in the spy affair in order to protect his wife, who was the actual typist of the espionage ring.

The debate over Ethel Rosenberg’s fate was rekindled by US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein’s decision in May of this year to unseal Greenglass’ testimony. The documents could not be made public while Greenglass was alive, because he objected to their release. But he died last year in a nursing home in New York, so Judge Hellerstein said his testimony could now legally be made available to the public as a “critical piece of an important moment in our nation’s history”.

Greenglass’ grand jury testimony, made under oath in 1950, six months before he implicated his sister in nuclear espionage for the Soviets, was posted online on Wednesday by George Washington University’s National Security Archive. Speaking at a press conference about the release, several experts said the new information directly contradicts Greenglass’ later testimony in which he accused his sister of being a spy. In the press conference of his grand jury testimony, Greenglass emphatically denies that Ethel had a role in the atom spy ring. When asked whether she was involved in espionage, Greenglass responds: “my sister has never spoken to me about this subject”. Later on he recounts how Julius tried to convince him to prolong his US Army service in order to continue to have access to classified information. When asked whether Ethel also tried to convince him to continue to spy for the Soviets, he responds: “I said before, and say it again, honestly, this is a fact: I never spoke to my sister about this at all”.

National Security Archive Director Tom Blanton said at the press conference that the evidence made it clear that Julius Rosenberg led an active spy ring; but Ethel was not an active spy, he said, even though witting.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 July 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/07/17/01-1737/

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One Response to Key testimony from Rosenberg spy case released after 64 years

  1. Actually, the David Greenglass and Max Elitcher grand jury testimony that were both unsealed yesterday were not the “final pieces” of sealed testimony in the Rosenberg espionage case. William Danziger’s testimony has yet to be released. Those of us involved in the effort to unseal the Rosenberg grand jury record will be filing papers in the near future in federal court to have that last testimony released as well.

    By the way, though most press accounts failed to mention it, the Greenglass transcripts suggest that Ethel Rosenberg was no innocent bystander; two instances in the transcripts provide suggestive evidence that the federal government was justified in naming her as a co-conspirator (see Greenglass transcript at _173-176 and Elitcher transcript of 14 August at _264 lines 8-10) That Ethel was deserving of execution for her apparent minor participation in the espionage activities on behalf of her husband’s espionage cell is certainly another matter.

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