On Sunday night, CBS broadcast a moving segment on its 60 Minutes program. Entitled “The Brothers Rosenberg,” the piece delivered a deeply personal account of how the young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—the Soviet spies executed in 1953 for passing secrets to Moscow—coped with that terrible event and got on with their shattered lives.
Robert and Michael Meeropol (they took the surname of their adoptive parents), just 6 and 10 years old when their birth parents went to the electric chair, are now old men, and they have campaigned for decades to clear Julius and Ethel, the only people executed by the United States for espionage during the Cold War.
None can deny that their story is chock-filled with pathos. CBS has them explaining how they asked to see the electric chair where their parents were soon to die, then recounting how there wasn’t exactly a long line of volunteers to take in the orphans of traitors back in 1953.
Getting their father off the hook for his service to Stalin, including passing atomic secrets to Moscow that helped the Soviets get “the bomb” years before anybody in Washington thought they would, became all but impossible in the mid-1990s, when the National Security Agency declassified top secret intercepts that made it crystal-clear that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy.
Since then, the Meeropols have focused their attention on clearing their mother instead. Last year they sent an open letter to President Obama, asking him to exonerate Ethel. “Our mother was not a spy,” they stated, demanding that the White House “acknowledge that Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly convicted and executed.”
Unsurprisingly, President Obama has not yet found the time to pardon Ethel, although the Meeropol’s campaign did manage to get 13 members of the New York City Council to issue a proclamation declaring the government wrongfully executed Ethel. The 60 Minutes segment is the latest round of the sons’ efforts to clear their long-dead parents.
Regrettably for the Meeropols, they don’t have much in the way of evidence to back up their assertion that their mother was not a Soviet spy. What they proffer is recently released grand jury testimony by David Greenglass, who spent nearly a decade in prison for his own espionage for Moscow. Greenglass wasn’t a very reliable witness and his important role in the Rosenberg trial is cited as “evidence” that Ethel was no spy.
Greenglass worked at Los Alamos from 1944 to 1946, when the atomic bomb was developed there in great secrecy, and the Meeropols assert he didn’t know what he was talking about, plus he was desperate to save his own skin. That was undeniably true, and Greenglass was by any definition an unsavory and untrustworthy character. In one of the most perverse aspects of this sordid case, Greenglass helped send Ethel Rosenberg—his own sister—to the electric chair, making his nephews orphans.
That’s not much to go on as evidence of Ethel’s innocence, though—so to bolster the Meeropols’ flimsy case, 60 Minutes adds that after the Cold War, the legendary KGB spymaster Aleksandr Feklisov, who handled the Rosenbergs back in the 1940s, said Ethel wasn’t involved. In 1997, Feklisov stated, “Ethel never worked for us. She didn’t do anything.” Since the elderly KGB officer boasted of Julius’ big role in getting Moscow the atom bomb, that would seem to settle the matter.
However, like much of what CBS showed the public, there’s a lot omitted—including key information which totally undermines the Meerpols’ case. In the first place, the word VENONA is totally absent from the program. That was NSA’s term for its above-top-secret program to intercept and decrypt Soviet intelligence telegrams sent between their secret spy bases in the United States and headquarters in Moscow. VENONA, which ran from 1943 to 1980, identified hundreds of Soviet agents in America and other Western countries.
When NSA declassified VENONA in the mid-1990s, it fundamentally changed what the public knew about the early years of the Cold War. Although Senator Joe McCarthy was a drunk charlatan, it turns out Moscow really did possess a vast network of spies in 1940s America.
Julius Rosenberg appeared in several VENONA messages, under the cover names LIBERAL and ANTENNA, which made plain that he wasn’t just a Stalinist true-believer but an important agent of the Soviet secret police who gave Moscow every American secret he could get his hands on. However, since VENONA was so secret—President Truman wasn’t briefed on the program until shortly before he left office—it could never be mentioned in court. The Justice Department had to find admissible evidence to convict the Rosenbergs, even though NSA and the FBI knew the extent of their treachery.
Unfortunately for the Meeropols, VENONA likewise makes clear that Ethel Rosenberg was a Soviet spy. I’ve worked with VENONA materials for years, including intercepts never released to the public, and I thereby shut the door on denialism regarding Alger Hiss, another one of Stalin’s spies inside the U.S. government that many on the Left simply refused to accept was a traitor, although his guilt was firmly established by VENONA.
We can debate whether the Rosenbergs ought to have been executed until the end of time—but there is no debating that they were guilty of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.
Several VENONA messages reveal important facts about Ethel Rosenberg. Number 1657, sent from the KGB’s New York residency to the Center (i.e, HQ) in Moscow on November 27, 1944, is worth citing in detail:
To VIKTOR [i].
Your no. 5356 [a]. Information on LIBERAL’s [ii] wife [iii]. Surname that of her husband, first name ETHEL, 29 years old. Married five years. Finished secondary school. A FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN [ZEMLYaK] [iv] since 1938. Sufficiently well-developed politically. Knows about her husband’s work and the role of METR [v] and NIL [vi]. In view of delicate health does not work. Is characterized positively and as a devoted person.
Notes: [a] Not available
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P.M. Fitin [head of KGB foreign intelligence].
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] Ethel ROSENBERG, nee GREENGLASS.
[iv] ZEMLYaK: Member of the Communist Party.
[v] METR: Probably Joel BARR or Alfred SARANT.
[vi] NIL: Unidentified.
. . .
[xi] ANTON: Leonid Romanovich KVASNIKOV [KGB’s New York rezident].
This KGB report establishes that Ethel Rosenberg was a trusted person as far as the Kremlin was concerned, a Communist Party member who was aware of her husband’s secret work for Soviet intelligence, as well as the roles of other agents who were part of Julius’ spy network. Code-phrases such as being “devoted” and “well-developed politically” reveal that Ethel was a committed Stalinist in whom the Soviet secret police placed trust.
That Ethel’s role in Soviet espionage went beyond sympathy was revealed in Message 1340 from New York to Moscow, sent on September 21, 1944. It discusses the possible recruitment of a new American agent:
To VIKTOR [i]:
Lately the development of new people [D% has been in progress]. LIBERAL [ii] recommended the wife of his wife’s brother, Ruth GREENGLASS, with a safe flat in view. She is 21 years old, a TOWNSWOMAN [GOROZhANKA] [iii], a GYMNAST [FIZKUL’TORNITsA] (iv) since 1942. She lives on STANTON ISTANTAUN] Street. LIBERAL and his wife recommend her as an intelligent and clever girl.
[i] VIKTOR: Lt. Gen. P. M. FITIN.
[ii] LIBERAL: Julius ROSENBERG.
[iii] GOROZhANKA: American citizen.
[iv] FIZKULITURNITsA: Probably a Member of the Young Communist League.
He we learn Ethel was a such a willing and witting member of the Soviet espionage apparat in mid-1940s America that she was setting up her own sister-in-law as a candidate for recruitment by the KGB. The observation that Ruth Greenglass had a “safe” flat indicates they had clandestine work in mind for her.
Moreover, it’s impossible to believe that Ethel was wholly unaware of what Julius was up to. As the head of his own Soviet agent network for years, Julius was recruiting and running spies for Moscow, several of them relatives and friends whom Ethel knew well. Julius had spy equipment such as cameras provided by the KGB to facilitate his espionage (see Message 1600, November 14, 1944, which discusses some of the clandestine tradecraft that Julius used). Ethel was a clever woman and it’s far-fetched to think she never noticed her husband photographing thousands of pages of classified U.S. materials in their not overly large apartment.
Then there’s the matter of Aleksandr Feklisov—whose actual account of the case hardly exonerates Ethel. The KGB spymaster in 1997 indeed stated that the Rosenbergs weren’t all that important to Soviet espionage, describing their execution as a “contract murder” by the American government.
That, however, was not how Feklisov described the Rosenbergs in his memoir, published in English in 2001. Although Feklisov makes no effort at being dispassionate—he considers the Rosenbergs to be heroes and includes a picture of him kissing their tombstone (!)—he adds much more detail about the matter. He admits to more than 50 clandestine meetings with Julius, whose betrayal of his own country Feklisov describes in glowing terms. (Here Feklisov’s original Russian-language memoir, published in 1994, is helpful.)
As for Ethel, Feklisov says that he never met her. This does not surprise, as Julius was already such a trusted agent-handler for the KGB that there was no need for Feklisov, who lived in the United States in constant fear of being caught by the FBI, to expose himself to additional danger by meeting with her. Who needed to when you had Julius to handle that? Besides, VENONA messages make clear that Moscow trusted Ethel as well.
What totally undermines the Meeropols’ case, however, is that Feklisov at one point refers to Ethel as a “probationer” (cтажёр in Russian). This word appears regularly in VENONA messages and was old school KGB-speak for agents, that is foreigners who worked wittingly for Soviet intelligence. That closes any debate about how Feklisov viewed Ethel Rosenberg.
The impulse behind the Meeropols’ desire to have their long-dead mother exonerated is human and understandable. In addition to the pain of losing both parents at a young age, there’s the added horror that Ethel could have saved herself by cooperating—after all, if she wasn’t doing anything wrong, why not talk to the FBI? Especially when your execution is pending. The awful truth is that Ethel Rosenberg, a committed Communist, loved Stalin more than her own children.
Nobody who understands Soviet intelligence and has read the relevant VENONA messages with open eyes has any doubt that Ethel Rosenberg was an agent of the KGB. She was witting regarding a large degree of her husband’s enormous treason, perhaps all of it. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were fanatical Communists in a manner we now associate with jihadists. The cause was their life; it mattered more than anything, even family.
David Greenglass was a traitor and a liar, but the truth is that the Justice Department when it convicted the Rosenbergs of espionage needed his testimony as cover. VENONA told them all they needed to know about Julius and Ethel’s secret life of betrayal, but such highly classified information could never be discussed in court. Hence the need for first-hand witnesses, sometimes of dubious credibility, wanting to save their own skin.
Greenglass was content to let his sister die to save himself. But that does not make Ethel Rosenberg innocent of espionage on behalf of one of history’s most murderous regimes. We can debate whether the Rosenbergs ought to have been executed—I suspect that will be debated until the end of time—but there is no debating that they were guilty of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. Ethel was a witting and willing member of that criminal conspiracy.
Today’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, successor to the KGB famed foreign intelligence arm, proudly proclaims both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as “greats” who served Moscow. It would be best if the Meeropols accepted that fact and moved on with their lives. It would also be nice if CBS presented this important case in a more historically balanced and truthful fashion.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.