Friday, September 12, 2008

AP Rosenberg transcripts raise possibility of perjury

By PETE YOST, Associated Press Writer

In this 1951 file photo, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are shown during their trial for espionage in New York City. Grand jury transcripts released Thursday from the biggest espionage case of the Cold War raise questions about whether Ethel Rosenberg was convicted and executed based on perjured prosecution testimony. The Rosenbergs were convicted of passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union and were executed in 1953. Since then, decrypted Soviet cables have appeared to confirm that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, but doubts have remained about Ethel Rosenberg's role.
(AP Photo/File)

WASHINGTON - Newly released grand jury transcripts add strong evidence to the argument that the conviction and execution of Ethel Rosenberg in the Cold War's biggest espionage case were based on perjured testimony.

In recent years, one of the two key witnesses against Rosenberg recanted his testimony. It now appears that the other witness made up her testimony. too. The witnesses were Ethel's brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass.

Thanks to the work of a team of lawyers and historians, the government released the grand jury testimony that formed the basis for the charges against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

At the Rosenbergs' trial, the Greenglasses testified that Ethel Rosenberg had typed stolen atomic secrets from notes provided by David Greenglass. The testimony provided the direct involvement the jury needed to convict Ethel Rosenberg and that the judge in the case needed to sentence her to death.

On Thursday, after spending several hours poring over the transcripts, the lawyers and historians spotted a major omission in Ruth Greenglass' testimony to the grand jury. Nowhere does Ruth Greenglass tell the story about seeing Ethel Rosenberg type up the secrets.

In fact, in her grand jury testimony, Ruth Greenglass says she herself wrote out the secrets in longhand. That testimony is consistent with subsequently decrypted Soviet cables from the time in which the Soviets describe material received from the Rosenbergs as being in longhand.

Also Thursday, a man who was convicted with the Rosenbergs on espionage charges in 1951 admitted for the first time that he spied for the Soviet Union.

Morton Sobell, 91, told The New York Times that he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II, when the country was allied with Washington fighting the Nazis. Asked if he was spying, he said: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that. I never thought of it as that in those terms."

Sobell, who lives in New York, was released from prison in 1969 and had maintained his innocence.

In the interview for the Times' Friday editions, Sobell, an electrical engineer, said the equipment he stole for the Russians were radar and artillery devices, not atomic secrets.

Sobell said he believes Ethel Rosenberg was aware of espionage by her husband but didn't actively participate. "What was she guilty of? Of being Julius's wife," he said.

The grand jury testimony from Ruth Greenglass confirms that the trial testimony about Ethel Rosenberg typing secrets is a fabrication, said Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck, part of the team that succeeded in gaining public release of the transcripts.

"The Rosenberg case illustrates the excesses that can occur when we're afraid," said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive, one of the private groups that fought in court to get the testimony released.

"In the 1950s, we were afraid of communism; today, we're afraid of terrorism. We don't want to make the same mistakes we made 50 years ago," Fuchs said.

The material reveals that nearly four dozen witnesses testified to the grand jury. Only four of them testified at the Rosenbergs' trial. Among those who did not testify at the trial but did testify to the grand jury were a man and wife who the FBI believed were Soviet agents.

But they never were charged and the transcripts show that prosecutors made no effort to question any of the grand jury witnesses about a series of stolen U.S. non-nuclear defense secrets that the government felt many of the witnesses knew about. The stolen secrets included proximity fuses used by the Soviets to shoot down the U-2 spy plane of Francis Gary Powers.

The government also had evidence that the Rosenberg ring gave the Soviets secrets about airborne radar, land-based radar, analog computers used for guiding anti-aircraft weapons and information for the first designs of U.S. jet engines, said Steve Usdin, an author who helped win release of the grand jury material.

Why didn't the grand jury delve into the theft of non-nuclear secrets?

"I think that discussion of all of these other secrets that they gave the Soviets probably would have caused a great deal of alarm among the public and would have raised questions about the competence of American counterintelligence," said Usdin.


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