Secret Testimony Released from the Rosenberg Atomic Espionage Case

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The Julius and Ethel Rosenberg grand jury transcripts released today as the result of legal action by the National Security Archive and a coalition of historians directly contradict the central charge against Ethel Rosenberg in the atomic espionage prosecution that J. Edgar Hoover called “the case of the century,” according to experts who analyzed the documents today.

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, for passing on to Julius Rosenberg and the Soviet Union. Records of the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that ten days before the trial against the Rosenbergs commenced, Ruth and David Greenglass for the first time mentioned that Ethel Rosenberg had typed those notes. At trial, Ruth and David Greenglass testified that Ethel Rosenberg had typed up the information from the Los Alamos nuclear installation. Ruth Greenglass was never herself prosecuted for her role. The lead prosecutor used the Greenglass 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.”

Ronald Radosh, co-author of The Rosenberg File and one of the experts who filed affidavits in the case, commented, “The grand jury documents cast significant doubt on the key prosecution charge used to convict Ethel Rosenberg at the trial and sentence her to death.” Radosh found confirmation for the grand jury version, in contradiction to the trial version, in the VENONA intercepts of Soviet intelligence communications, which describe key information on Los Alamos coming from David Greenglass through Julius Rosenberg in hand-written form in January 1945.

Today’s release includes 940 pages of the Rosenberg grand jury testimony, and 41 of the 45 witnesses who appeared before the grand jury between August 1950 and March 1951.

David Vladeck, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, remarked that today’s release was only the fourth time in history that historical grand jury testimony has been released to the public. Vladeck called the release the “first act in a two-act play,” referring to the still-withheld grand jury testimony from the Brothman-Moskowitz trial, which served as a “tuneup” for the Rosenberg trial.

“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,” commented Vladeck. “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. “

Steven Usdin, author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley (Yale Univ. Press), commented that there is no question about the guilt of Julius Rosenberg and those associated with him in spying for the Soviet Union, “but the new records suggest that the government committed its own misconduct in the way it prosecuted the Rosenbergs.” In Usdin’s view, the grand jury testimony was also important for what was not there, that is, evidence on the industrial espionage carried out by the group around Julius Rosenberg, which the government apparently did not pursue.

Bruce Craig, professor of History at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada and author of Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case (University of Kansas), remarked that the new evidence raised significant questions about whether the trial was fair, whether the prosecution strategy was improper, and whether the prosecutors manipulated the grand jury.

Martin Sherwin, University Professor of History at George Mason University and co-author of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, cautioned that the real analogy between the Rosenberg trial and today was not so much any similarity between Communists and Islamists, but the “charged atmosphere” to the point of hysteria in which the government reacted in both the early Cold War and post 9/11.
The release of the previously secret transcripts resulted from a successful law suit filed by the National Security Archive and several historical groups and historians almost eight months ago. The National Archives and Records Administration today released transcripts from 41 of 45 witnesses’ appearances before the grand jury between August 1950 and March 1951, providing key insights into the early Cold War period. ...

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