Federal court orders release of more Rosenberg testimony
NEW YORK — A judge has ordered the release of key secret grand jury testimony in the atomic spy trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, citing its value to historians in the debate over national security versus freedom.
The Aug. 26 ruling from U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein pertained to seven witnesses whose sealed testimony was taken in 1950 and 1952.
The Rosenbergs were convicted of passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union and were executed in 1953. Since then, decoded Soviet cables have appeared to confirm that Julius Rosenberg was a spy, but doubts have remained about Ethel Rosenberg’s involvement.
The judge gave the government two months to appeal.
In comments from the bench on Aug. 26, Hellerstein cited the importance of history in resolving tension between U.S. security and the “vigorous expression of the freedoms that make our society great.”
“Each generation has defined its own answer,” he said. “And each generation needs to explore the history of the past to understand fully the context in which these polar extremes come into clashes with one another. … So history of how we dealt with these problems in the 1940s and 1950s is a current history, and a history that is very important for us to understand.”
Federal prosecutors had already agreed to release the records of 35 witnesses who were either dead or gave permission for the disclosure. Last month, Hellerstein barred the release of the records of three living witnesses who objected, but reserved decision regarding the testimony of seven missing witnesses pending further efforts to confirm that they were either dead or would never be located.
In his written ruling this week, Hellerstein said the government had since confirmed that four of the seven witnesses were dead but officials had not been able to locate the other three or to determine if they were still alive. The government agreed to release the testimony of the four deceased witnesses but objected to the disclosure of the missing witnesses’ records.
Hellerstein, however, ordered that the records of all seven witnesses be unsealed, finding that the missing witnesses were “either indifferent to release or [lacked the] capacity” to object due to death or other circumstances. His ruling means testimony from all but three of the 45 Rosenberg witnesses can be public.
Georgetown University law professor David C. Vladeck, representing several historical groups, said the testimony would help reveal how the U.S. government responded to perceptions that its own citizens could be corrupted by the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War.
“This is terrific,” he said. “This was a huge deal for us.”
He said Hellerstein’s ruling also would help Americans understand how their government acted in the past in “very similar times” to the present.
Vladeck said he was also pleased that the judge ordered the release of secret grand jury testimony in another Cold War spy case, that of Abraham Brothman and Miriam Moskowitz.
The engineers were accused of spying and prosecuted for obstruction of justice. Brothman received a seven-year prison sentence; Moskowitz received a two-year sentence.
Of the eight witnesses who testified in the case, Moskowitz is the only one who is still alive.
A prosecutor told Hellerstein that Moskowitz called him on Aug. 25 to say she no longer opposed the release of her grand jury testimony.
Vladeck said that it was well known that Moskowitz refused to answer questions during her grand jury testimony but that the questions posed by prosecutors would give insight into the U.S. government’s approach in the case.
“You learn as much, sometimes more, from prosecutors’ questions,” he said.
Vladeck said the 92-year-old Moskowitz did not believe she had been treated fairly in historical accounts of the era.
Among those seeking release of the material in the Rosenberg and Brothman/Moskowitz cases were the National Security Archive based at George Washington University, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians and the Society of American Archivists.