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STILL OUT ON A LIMB

Presenting My Parents to a New Generation

May 15, 2014

Tags: Rosenberg Case, high school students, NSA

I’ve only given a few talks about my parents’ case in the last several years, but I’ll be making a presentation to local high school students next week. I’ve done dozens of these talks over the past 40 years and although the content has evolved, the core has remained relatively constant: establish the political climate of the McCarthy period, describe the major pieces of evidence and key prosecution and defense testimony, and examine the research that discredits the evidence and demonstrates prosecution witnesses’ perjuries and the government’s trickery. I conclude that my parents did not steal the secret of the atomic bomb, that my mother did not engage in espionage, and that whatever my father did, it did not justify a death sentence.

Planning this talk I realize that I must make major revisions to take into account not only the significant, recent developments in the case, but also because of important contemporary issues of secret police surveillance and judicial fairness. Since 2008, my understanding of what happened to my parents has changed in these ways:

• Morton Sobell, my parents’ co-defendant, recanted his previous denials and admitted that he, with my father and others provided military industrial information to the USSR during the 1940’s
• Ruth Greenglass’s previously secret Grand Jury testimony implied my mother’s innocence.
• Analysis of publicly available KGB, CIA and NSA files indicated that the Greenglasses attempted to steal atomic secrets, independently of my parents.
• Before my parents’ trial, Justice Department officials shared with my parents’ trial judge information that the NSA had decoded Soviet electronic transmissions which proved Julius Rosenberg aided the KGB.

The last point is key. Since the Judge “knew” my father was guilty before the trial began, it was a sham. The evidence didn’t matter. So my usual presentation of evidence, piece by piece, showing how it unraveled over the years, while exposing the mechanics of the frame-up, no longer gets to the heart of the judicial unfairness in the Rosenberg case.

Instead, I need to focus attention on the NSA files which indicate that although Julius Rosenberg provided the USSR with military-industrial information and connected his brother-in-law, David Greenglass, to the KGB, Julius was ignorant of the A-bomb project and asked that Greenglass meet another handler. The files also show Ethel Rosenberg did not participate in espionage, but Ruth Greenglass did. Evidently, the Justice Department showed the judge that my father was connected to the KGB and that he involved David Greenglass, but WITHHELD that Julius knew nothing about the A-bomb project and that Ethel was not involved. Judge Kaufman was known for his over-bearing arrogance; it is unlikely that he considered that the Justice Department would dare to manipulate him.

The prosecution’s secret sharing with the judge before the trial began was unconstitutional, perhaps even illegal. The presumption of innocence, a cornerstone of our judicial system, was destroyed. The rights of defendants to confront the testimony against him or her, and of cross examination were thrown out the window. Judicial impartiality was obliterated. This is how our court system was maneuvered into wrongfully executing two people.

The high school students in my audience next week might not care a lot about two thirty-somethings executed over six decades ago, but I’m hoping they do care about their right to privacy and their civil liberties today. The contemporary use of secret deliberations and evidence at Guantanamo’s military tribunals, or in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (the FISA court), provide the same recipe for outrageous injustice. Even worse, laws have been changed and the constitution re-interpreted to make what was done illegally in my parents’ case perfectly “legal” now.

In post 9/11 America, my parents’ case reverberates from Chelsea Manning to Edward Snowden. My challenge next week is to help students born 45 years after my parents’ deaths see that we are making the same mistakes and that our current practice makes injustices even more likely in their future.

Selected Works

Memoir
"Bravery is rare. Tyranny is commonplace. Both define the life of Robert Meeropol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his heart-wrenching, honest memoir, Meeropol recounts the emotional terrors of his childhood, the kindness of Abel and Anne Meeropol-who adopted him and his older brother after their parents' execution-his struggle to vindicate his parents, and his own political activism, culminating in the creation of the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which he now directs."
Publisher's Weekly
"one of those rare books everyone should read"
–Joyce Carol Oates

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