In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz...
NEW YORK — In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.
Through it all, he maintained his innocence.
But Thursday, Sobell, 91, reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.
He also implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the U.S. government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.
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Sobell, who lives in the Bronx, was asked whether as an electrical engineer he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II, when they were considered allies of the United States and were bearing the brunt of Nazi brutality. Was he a spy?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he replied. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”
Sobell also concurred in what has become a consensus among historians: that Ethel Rosenberg was aware of her husband’s espionage but did not actively participate. “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’ wife,” he said.
Sobell made his revelations Thursday as the National Archives, in response to a lawsuit from the nonprofit National Security Archive, historians and journalists, released most of the grand-jury testimony in the espionage-conspiracy case against him and the Rosenbergs.
Coupled with some of that testimony, Sobell’s admission bolsters what has become a widely held view among historians: that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of spying but his wife was at most a bit player and may have been framed by complicit prosecutors.
Stole for the Russians
The revelations Thursday “teach us what people will do to get a conviction,” said Bruce Craig, a historian and the former director of the National Coalition for History, a nonprofit educational organization. “They took somebody who they basically felt was guilty and by hook or crook they were going to get a jury to find him guilty.”
The Rosenbergs’ younger son, Robert Meeropol, described Sobell’s confession Thursday as “powerful” but said he wanted to hear it firsthand. “I’ve always said that was a possibility,” Meeropol said, referring to his father’s possible guilt. “This is certainly evidence that would corroborate that possibility as a reality.”
Sobell drew a distinction in his interview between atomic espionage and the details of radar and artillery devices he said he stole for the Russians. “What I did was simply defensive, an aircraft gun,” he said. “This was defensive. You cannot plead that what you did was only defensive stuff, but there’s a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.”
One device mentioned specifically by Sobell, the SCR 584 radar, is believed by military experts to have been used against U.S. aircraft in Korea and Vietnam.
Echoing a consensus among scientists, Sobell also maintained that the sketches and other atomic-bomb details that the government said were passed to Julius Rosenberg by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, were of little value to the Soviets, except to corroborate what they had gleaned from other moles. Greenglass was an Army machinist at Los Alamos, N.M., where the weapon was being built.
“What he gave them was junk,” Sobell said of Julius Rosenberg, his classmate at City College of New York in the 1930s.
The charge was conspiracy though, which meant the government had to prove only that the Rosenbergs were intent on delivering military secrets to a foreign power. “His intentions might have been to be a spy,” Sobell added.
Trial of intrigue, lies
After Julius Rosenberg was arrested, Sobell fled to Mexico and lived under false names until he was captured — kidnapped, he said — and returned to the United States in August 1950. He said he was innocent, but his lawyer advised him not to testify at his trial.
He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and was released in 1969. The Rosenbergs were executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing in New York in 1953.
Greenglass, in an interview for a 2001 book, “The Brother,” acknowledged he had lied when he testified that his sister had typed his notes about the bomb, the single most incriminating evidence against her.
Government prosecutors later acknowledged they had hoped that a conviction and the possibility of a death sentence against Ethel Rosenberg would persuade her husband to confess and implicate others.
That strategy failed, said William Rogers, the deputy attorney general at the time. “She called our bluff,” he said in “The Brother.”
The testimony released Thursday by the National Archives appeared to poke even more holes in the case against Ethel Rosenberg, who was 34 and the mother of two young sons when she appeared before the grand jury and was arrested afterward.
Bowing to Greenglass’ objections, a federal judge declined to release his testimony. But the transcripts released Thursday reveal that his wife, Ruth, in her grand-jury appearance never mentioned typing by Ethel Rosenberg, said she transcribed Greenglass’ notes in longhand on at least one occasion herself and placed Ethel Rosenberg out of earshot during several important conversations.
Still, the transcripts indicate that Ethel Rosenberg was aware of the conspiracy.
James Kilsheimer, the only surviving prosecutor of the Rosenberg-Sobell case, said, “We always thought Sobell was guilty and we knew that Julius was.” He said the trial testimony about Ethel’s typing was not inconsistent with what Ruth Greenglass told the grand jury but was developed by him “during the pretrial process.”