In 1950, David Greenglass testified to a grand jury against his sister, Ethel Rosenberg. He said she participated in a plot to give nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, allowing them to develop an atomic bomb. His testimony led to her execution, alongside her husband in 1953. But here’s the thing: he lied.
Last week, a federal judge ruled that Greenglass’s grand jury testimony, sealed for over fifty years, is too historically important to be kept secret, and ordered it released. Courthouse News Service’s Adam Klasfeld reports,
Secret grand jury testimony from the accusers of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg can emerge into the public domain thanks to historians’ dogged efforts to illuminate dark corners of the Cold War-era controversy, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
“The requested records are critical pieces of an important moment in our nation’s history,” U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein wrote on Tuesday. “The time for the public to guess what they contain should end.”
At the dawn of the 1950s, a federal investigation into the Rosenberg family for allegedly providing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union ignited a controversy that the couple’s deaths in the electric chair did little to extinguish.
Decade after decade, new generations of historians, reporters and other interested parties have turned to Federal Court to uncover more details.
Though the Rosenberg family’s defenders long insisted that they were unjustly tagged as spies, declassified Soviet cables seemed to confirm that Julius worked for Moscow. But Ethel’s participation – long doubted – has never been proven.
Some historians doubt that the new evidence, first revealed in 1995, showed the Rosenbergs played as key a role in Russia’s nuclear ambitions as prosecutors argued.
Cries of Ethel’s innocence intensified as her brother David Greenglass recanted his testimony against her seven years later in a New York Times interview.
In a book about Greenglass titled “The Brother,” reporter Sam Roberts wrote that Greenglass told him that he falsely testified against his sister because prosecutors had threatened to go after his wife Ruth if he refused.
Six years after the publication of Roberts’ book, the Washington-based nonprofit National Security Archives joined historians and a journalist in a bid to get the grand jury minutes of Greenglass and fellow government witness Max Elichter unsealed, filing a lawsuit in 2008.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein granted their petition in a passionate order on Tuesday.
“The historical significance of the Rosenberg trial is undisputed. Their crime has been called ‘The Crime of the Century,'” Hellerstein wrote, citing J. Edgar Hoover’s article in Reader’s Digest. “In sentencing the couple to die, U.S. District Judge Irving R. Kaufman blamed their treason for the Korean War and at least 50,000 lives lost because of it.”
Hellerstein continued: “The Rosenbergs’ name is infamous to a generation of Americans who grew up during the Cold War fearing the nuclear threat posed by the U.S.S.R. The Rosenbergs were the only American civilians executed for espionage activities in that period. Many continue to believe that Ethel was innocent, although intercepted Russian cables appear to confirm Julius’ espionage activities. Many historians, petitioners included, have spent countless hours documenting the Rosenbergs’ story. Many questions remain unanswered, and the public’s interest remains.”
Before he died on July 1, 2014, Greenglass fought to preserve the secrecy of the grand jury minutes. The government deferred to the family’s wishes.
“But neither his posthumous interest nor the interest of his family can prevent the unsealing,” Hellerstein’s order stated.
Noting that the Greenglass family has lived under assumed names for years, the judge added: “The government fails to explain how publicity arising from the release of David Greenglass’ testimony will prejudice people living under different identities, particularly since Greenglass himself publicly revealed much about his testimony over the years, apparently without repercussions for the family.”
Because no one has been able to determine whether another witness, William Danziger, is alive or dead his testimony will remain sealed “for the time being,” Hellerstein concluded.
The National Security Archives could not immediately be reached for comment after business hours.