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Presenting My Parents to a New Generation

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. Read More 
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Most of us have heard about the activists who admitted burglarizing the FBI office in Media, PA in March 1971. The internal documents they leaked to the press revealed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal multi-prong campaign to destroy the anti-war and civil rights movements in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and led to significant civil liberties victories. Many Internet postings have focused on the similarities between COINTELPRO and the NSA spying forty years later, and between the liberators of the Media FBI documents and today’s whistleblowers, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.

I find the differences between the two situations just as interesting.

COINTELPRO (an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram) was designed to undermine the effectiveness of, and in some cases assassinate, activists who were struggling to bring about basic changes in our foreign and domestic policies. The FBI had specific targets, including the Black Panthers, CORE and other Civil Rights organizations, Puerto Rican Nationalists, the American Indian Movement, SDS and the Weathermen. Even though the project was interrupted, COINTELPRO played a powerful role in undermining progressive movements of the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

In contrast, the National Security Administration appears to be collecting massive amounts of data; they want to know everything about everybody. This government spying is ubiquitous and indiscriminate, even sometimes ludicrous. I got a kick out of the stories last month about a mysterious task force of federal anti-terrorist agents who searched a Long Island family’s home after the husband and wife conducted internet searches for backpacks and pressure cookers and their teen-aged son researched the Boston Marathon bombing.

You could describe the FBI tactics as authoritarian (enforcing strict obedience to the government at the expense of personal freedom) and the NSA’s as totalitarian (centralized and dictatorial, requiring complete subservience to the state). I worry that the repeated assaults on progressive dissent from the Red Scare of the 1950’s, to COINTELPRO, and the draconian post 9/11 laws, have finally succeeded in disempowering the activist bulwarks against assaults on our civil liberties. In this manner the earlier authoritarian attacks may have set the stage for our current government’s totalitarian foray, leaving a pacified and frightened population, willing to accept today’s global surveillance in the name of security.

Many commentators have concluded that the problem with these NSA tactics is that they invade our privacy and sweep up harmless innocents. Such analysis reminds me of “Good Night and Good Luck,” the film about Edward R. Murrow during the McCarthy period. The film’s focus on the harm caused to non-communists by McCarthy’s wild accusations might have left viewers wondering if the Red Scare would have been acceptable if its attacks had been limited to real communists.

While the danger posed by blanket surveillance is real and must be resisted, I worry most about targeted authoritarian attacks against those working to shift the balance of power and change government policies. What is most dangerous about both COINTELPRO and the NSA’s spying is not that they destroy our privacy and ensnare the innocent, but rather that they target political dissidents who are essential to maintaining the rich fabric of our freedoms.  Read More 
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