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Rosenberg and Snowdon

Tuesday evening, Elli and I attended the opening of an exhibition at Boston University titled LOVE-CONSCIENCE-CONVICTION: THE ROSENBERG CASE, featuring my parents’ prison correspondence. These are the original physical letters, which my brother and I donated to B.U.’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center last year. The archive has established a website and visitors can view high-resolution digital images of over 500 of these letters at www.bu.edu/rosenbergarchive

To mark the occasion, my brother and I joined a panel entitled Rosenberg & Snowdon. It also included journalists, authors, a professor of communications and two international relations professors, one of whom spent 30 years at the CIA.

I was surprised that several of the panelists including the CIA alum seemed more sympathetic to my parents than they did to Edward Snowdon. I thought the opposite would be the case. Although my father did not facilitate the theft of valuable atomic secrets, he did commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. It was mostly during World War II, but if Morton Sobell is to be believed, also as late as 1948. Snowdon, on the other hand, gave classified information to the press so that the public could learn what the NSA was up to.

While I sympathize with my father’s desire to help the Soviet Union defeat the Nazis, I find Snowdon’s actions even less problematic. In fact, I consider Snowdon’s releases a gift to the people of the world. But as disparaging remarks indicated (e.g. “Unlike Snowdon, the Rosenbergs didn’t hide in Russia.”) other panelists did not share my sentiments. Why was that?

Perhaps it was because the experts on the panel saw my father as playing by the rules. Partisans of the United States might claim that my father spied for the wrong side, but his actions did not call into question the validity of the concept of secrecy. Ultimately Snowdon’s actions are potentially more damaging to our burgeoning secrecy apparatus; publicizing these agencies’ activities threatens their existence. He raised the radical and dangerously popular idea that the people have the right to know what the government is doing in their name.

I don’t wish to credit Snowdon with motives he may not have. He has stated in interviews that he left “bread crumbs” for the NSA to help them to figure out which documents he took in order to give the government time to prepare for future leaks, change code words, and make other moves to mitigate whatever damage the release of this material might cause. In other words he blew the whistle to alert the public to the NSA’s abuses, but he was not out to destroy the system.

Some of my fellow panelists Tuesday evening appeared to believe in the necessity of governmental secrecy. They say that for our safety the public must trust the government. However, Snowdon provided irrefutable proof that the government is unworthy of such trust. Perhaps they have no choice but to disparage him, since his actions have made their position untenable. Read More 
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