Morton Sobell, convicted of conspiracy in the Rosenberg espionage case, dies at 101

Morton SobellMorton Sobell, an American radar engineer who in 1951 was convicted of conspiracy alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in one of the Cold War’s most prominent espionage cases, has died at 101 years old. His death was announced yesterday by his son, Mark, who also said that his father died on December 26 last year at a nursing home, but that the family had not alerted the media.

Sobell was born in New York’s Manhattan Island in 1917 and worked on radar tracking systems for defense contractors. During college, he and several of his friends, including fellow-engineer Julius Rosenberg, joined the United States Communist Party, partly in reaction to the Great Depression. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to arrest members of what the United States government claimed was a Soviet atomic spy ring led by Rosenberg, Sobell escaped with his family to Mexico, where he used a fake identity to evade the authorities. But he was dramatically abducted by a paramilitary force and surrendered to the FBI.

He was then tried alongside Rosenberg and his wife Ethel for conspiracy to commit acts of espionage. The Rosenbergs refused to cooperate with the FBI and were sentenced to death. Both were executed in 1953 and remain to this day the only American citizens to have been executed for espionage after the Civil War. Sobel was found guilty of the lesser charge of conspiracy and no evidence was presented in court that connected him to atomic espionage. He was therefore sentenced to 30 years in prison and served 18 of those, following a successful public-relations campaign organized by his wife, Hellen. He was released from prison in 1969 and continued to insist that he had never been a spy and had been wrongly convicted of conspiracy.

But in 2008, at the age of 91, Sobell spoke to The New York Times and publicly admitted for the first time that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union. He said that he had worked systematically to provide Moscow with information on weapons systems and other classified technologies. However, he had “never thought of it” as spying, he said. He also told The Times that he had developed a favorable impression of Soviet communism during the Great Depression, when he and many others saw the Soviet economic system as an antidote to crisis-ridden capitalism. “Now I know it was an illusion”, he told the paper.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 January 2019 | Permalink

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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/

Judge orders release of key testimony from Rosenberg spy case

Julius and Ethel RosenbergA United States district judge has ordered the release of the last major piece of sealed evidence in one of the most important espionage cases of the Cold War. The case led to the execution in 1953 of an American couple, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of conspiring to spy 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 later told a US court that he firmly believed the USSR should have access to nuclear technology and actively tried to give Moscow information on the Manhattan Project. 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. This piece of testimony from Greenglass was used as the primary evidence 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 will undoubtedly by rekindled by US District Judge Alvin Hellerstein’s decision last week 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 his testimony can now legally be made available to the public. In making his decision known, Judge Hellerstein said Greenglass’ testimony was a “critical piece of an important moment in our nation’s history”. The United States government is legally permitted to block the release of the documents should it decide to do so. But when a White House spokesperson was asked about the subject by the Associated Press, she decline to comment.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 May 2015 | Permalink: https://intelnews.org/2015/05/26/01-1703/

Atomic spy David Greenglass, who spied for the USSR, dead at 92

David GreenglassBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org
David Greenglass, an American spy for the Soviet Union, who played a key role in the most widely publicized case of atomic espionage during the Cold War, has died in New York, aged 92. Born in Manhattan in 1922, Greenglass became an active communist at a young age, and in 1943 joined the ranks of the Young Communist League —the youth wing of the Communist Party USA. Shortly afterwards he joined the United States Army and entered the top-secret Manhattan Project as a machinist. He initially worked for the Project —America’s secret effort to build an atomic bomb— in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before being transferred to the its headquarters in Los Alamos, New Mexico. He later told a US court that he firmly believed that the USSR should have access to nuclear technology and actively tried to share information on the Manhattan Project with Moscow. He did so through his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, who, like him, were committed communists. After all of them were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on charges of espionage, Greenglass agreed to testify for the US government. He told the court that he saw his sister transcribe top-secret information from the Manhattan Project on her personal typewriter in her apartment in 1945. His testimony was central in securing convictions for the Rosenbergs. The two refused to cooperate with the FBI and in 1951 were sentenced to death in the electric chair. In 1953, the husband and wife were executed in New York, leaving behind two young children, Michael and Robert. The orphans were soon adopted by close personal friends of the Rosenbergs and took the name Meeropol. Meanwhile, Greenglass served nearly 10 years of a 15-year sentence for conspiring to conduct espionage against the US. Upon his release from prison in 1960, he changed his name and settled in Queens, New York. On Tuesday, The New York Times disclosed that it had accidentally found out that Greenglass had died on July 1, 2014, after calling the nursing home where he had been living in recent years. Read more of this post

Former KGB officer to publish “new data” on nuclear espionage

By JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
Alexander Vassiliev, who worked in the American Division of the KGB from 1987 to 1990, is well known to intelligence historians. His first book, Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America (1999) included information the author claims to have copied from internal KGB records. Among several critics of the book was Rutgers University professor John Lowenthal, who dismissed it as containing a “plethora of errors, and […] strategic omissions [that] leave it demonstrably untrustworthy [and] far below minimal standards of scholarly or journalistic rigor for any serious consideration”. Now Vassiliev is preparing his return with a second book, entitled Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, which he co-wrote with John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr. The book, which is scheduled for publication by Yale University Press in March, is also based on internal KGB “files, copied by Mr. Vassiliev into notebooks” before he resigned from his post at the KGB. Read more of this post