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A new narrative of the famed case that finally solves its remaining mysteries, by the author of the bestselling Invitation to an Inquest
Walter and Miriam Schneir’s 1965 bestseller Invitation to an Inquest was among the first critical accounts of the controversial case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, famously executed in 1953 for passing atom bomb secrets to Soviet Russia. In Invitation the Schneirs presented exhaustive and damning ...
A new narrative of the famed case that finally solves its remaining mysteries, by the author of the bestselling Invitation to an Inquest
Walter and Miriam Schneir’s 1965 bestseller Invitation to an Inquest was among the first critical accounts of the controversial case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, famously executed in 1953 for passing atom bomb secrets to Soviet Russia. In Invitation the Schneirs presented exhaustive and damning evidence that key witnesses in the trial had changed their stories after coaching from prosecutors, and that the FBI had forged evidence. The conclusion was unavoidable: The Rosenbergs were innocent.
But were they?
Thirty years after the publication of Inquest, Walter Schneir was back on the case after bits and pieces of new evidence started coming to light, much of it connecting Julius Rosenberg to Soviet espionage. Over more than a decade, Schneir continued his search for the truth, meeting with former intelligence officials in Moscow and Prague, and cross checking details recorded in thousands of government documents.
The result is an entirely new narrative of the Rosenberg case. The reality, Schneir demonstrates, is that Rosenbergs ended up hopelessly trapped: prosecuted for atomic espionage they didn’t commit—but unable to admit earlier espionage activities during World War II.
As it happened, Julius Rosenberg was only marginally involved in the atomic spy ring he was depicted as leading—while Ethel, critically, was not at all involved. The two lied when the contended they knew nothing about espionage. Ethel knew about it and Julius had practiced it, but the government’s contention that they had stolen the “secret” of the atom bomb was critically and fatally flawed.
Only a few years ago, I would have been writing finis here to my search for truth in the Rosenberg case. This might have been the place for the observation that we now knew all we were ever likely to about the affair. But to borrow a phrase from my friend Grace Paley, there have been enormous changes at the last minute. Changes that have not yet been understood, even by those who inadvertently brought them to light. For when we first encounter a discovery that contradicts accepted beliefs, we often fail to grasp the implications of what we are seeing. But I am getting ahead of my story.
* * *
It all began with a phone call from Michael Meeropol, the elder son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, soon after the publication in 1997 of the book Bombshell, by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel. Michael was disturbed about some new material concerning his parents' case that he had found mentioned in the source notes of Bombshell, and he wanted my opinion about it.
As it happened, I had just started to read the book. Its main focus is on Theodore Hall, the young Harvard-educated physicist who while working at Los Alamos during World War II passed information on the atomic bomb to the Russians. But the book also deals with other atomic-espionage cases, including that of the Rosenbergs.
The authors of Bombshell are seasoned journalists, highly skilled, who have won frequent recognition for their work. But in addition to their own ingenuity and perseverance, they had one other advantage: money. Albright is the scion of a famous American publishing family, and he and his co-author were able to mount a prodigious research effort.
For their investigation, Albright and Kunstel enlisted a team of six researchers in the United States, and they themselves traveled to England several times to interview Hall and his wife. But the research to which Michael was referring in his phone call was done in Russia, where the authors spent several years as Moscow correspondents for the Cox newspapers.
In their own words: "To fill in the rest of the story, we have relied heavily on Russian intelligence and Ministry of Atomic Energy documents that briefly became available to researchers in Moscow during the post-perestroika period of 1991-1993, but that have since been reclassified and locked away by Russian authorities." Inasmuch as the authors began their book project in fall 1994, after what they claim was a brief open period, it is not obvious how they managed to gain access to these secret "Russian intelligence and Ministry of Atomic Energy documents." Suffice it to say that they did. Quite likely both their journalistic acumen and their financial resources played a part. Fortunately, they have provided some useful details about their sources in copious back-of-the-book notes.
As Michael described for me the new material that had captured his attention, I suddenly realized what an astonishing find the authors of Bombshell had made. They had learned that the original spy reports on the atomic bomb project received by Soviet intelligence agents decades ago are still in existence in an archive at the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. While the authors did not secure access to these original spy reports, they did obtain copies of a number of inventory records that describe some of the material that is stored in this unique archive.
According to Albright and Kunstel, the inventory records they procured disclose that in the period after Hiroshima, which occurred on August 6, 1945, Soviet intelligence received three separate reports on the American atomic bomb project: The first report probably contains material from Theodore Hall and possibly some other still-unknown person, and the second seems to be from Klaus Fuchs. As for the third, identified as "document No. 464," Albright and Kunstel comment: "This one corresponds to what Greenglass confessed he handed to Julius Rosenberg in September 1945."
Thus, document No. 464 appears to corroborate David Greenglass's trial testimony that in September 1945 he gave to Julius Rosenberg a sketch and accompanying explanatory material of what Roy Cohn dramatically described in court as "the atom bomb itself." Of course, Michael understood all too well that the September episode had been central to the rationale used to justify the executions of his mother and father. And he was, no doubt, hoping against hope that I might have some alternative interpretation of document No. 464 that would not link it to David.
I suggested to Michael that he obtain from Albright and Kunstel a copy of any inventory records they had relating to document No. 464. He informed me that he had already done so and agreed to fax to me whatever he had received from them. The records that arrived consisted of two pages in Russian, the first a transmittal memo and the second a brief two-paragraph abstract, or synopsis, of the original report that is kept in the archive.
Even with my rudimentary knowledge of Russian, I was able to give Michael a quick answer. The abstract of the spy report bore a telltale sign that connected it unmistakably with David Greenglass: a reference to thirty-six high-explosive lenses in the atomic bomb. The figure "thirty-six" is an error that Greenglass committed consistently both in his statements to the FBI and in his trial testimony. The actual early model of the plutonium A-bomb had thirty-two lenses. Furthermore, the abstract mentioned that the thirty-six lenses were "five-sided," another detail that tied the report to Greenglass, who had mistakenly told the FBI that all thirty-six lenses were "pentagonal shaped." (In fact, twenty of the lenses were hexagon-shaped and twelve were pentagon-shaped.) I had to inform Michael that I felt certain that David Greenglass was the source for the spy report, identified as document No. 464, in the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy archive.
But not until later, when I had gotten a competent translation, was I alerted to the fact that the material Michael had sent me also contained some wholly new clues about his parents' case, clues that were both fascinating and baffling. The transmittal memo accompanying the spy report had been sent from Vsevolod Merkulov, who as head of the Ministry for State Security was in charge of foreign intelligence, to Lavrenty Beria, chief of the secret police of the Soviet Union and the overseer of that nation's entire atomic bomb program. Merkulov noted in his memo that he was sending Beria a fourteen-page report in English "on the construction of an atomic bomb" and a sample of "an electrodetonator of the bomb." The report and sample had been "obtained by secret agents" and pouched from New York. The memo was dated "27 December 1945." (For reproductions of the memo and the abstract of the report, along with a translation of their texts, see pp. 56-59.)
What was the meaning of the date December 27, 1945? I was stumped. And I found myself no closer to a solution when I carefully reviewed what I knew at that point: In August and September 1945, KGB foreign intelligence agents in the United States had received material on the American atomic bomb project from Hall, Fuchs, Greenglass, and possibly other unknown individuals. With the exception of the Greenglass material, everything obtained had been sent to the Soviet Union with reasonable dispatch. But according to Albright and Kunstel, who based their conclusion on the various inventory records they had reviewed, the Greenglass report arrived three months after the other data. In the text of Bombshell, the authors wrote:
... when NKGB chief Merkulov sent Beria the bomb design [of Hall and Fuchs] in all its intricate detail, Beria thought it looked too good to be true. Beria's doubts probably ballooned three months later, when Merkulov sent him another raw document that had been pouched from New York. Entitled "Notes on the Construction of the Atomic Bomb," it was a third version of how to design an implosion weapon. It was almost certainly the same muddled atomic bomb drawings that Sergeant Greenglass had passed to Julius Rosenberg during his September furlough in New York. Greenglass's design was not quite the same as the design Beria had approved, the one based on matching intelligence from Fuchs and from Lona Cohen's source in Albuquerque. One difference even Beria could grasp: The Greenglass version had "36 pentagonal lenses" in the outer layer of high explosives; Beria's approved bomb design had only thirtytwo such lenses (p. 164).
But why, I wondered, had the Greenglass version of the bomb arrived in Moscow months after the data from Fuchs and others when all of this material was presumably gathered by Soviet intelligence at about the same time? Albright and Kunstel offer no reason for this three-month hiatus that their diligent probing had uncovered, and no other person that I was aware of had picked up on it either. Therefore when Miriam and I discussed all the unknowns, we agreed that until I had an explanation to offer, it would be prudent to keep word of my finding to ourselves and not write about or share it with anyone else.
But where to seek an explanation? It was public knowledge at the time that Allen Weinstein, a historian, had a book in progress based on information from KGB spy files. Moreover, I had recently been told by a reliable source that Weinstein had confided that the KGB data he had obtained for his book did include material on the Rosenberg case. Perhaps this forthcoming work might yield the answers I was seeking.
Meanwhile, the significance of the date December 27, 1945, remained an intriguing mystery.
To suddenly and unexpectedly unearth new information about the Rosenberg affair was an exciting event, and it set my mind racing. I tried to rethink some of the material about David and Ruth Greenglass that I had gone over so many times before. When Miriam and I first studied the Rosenberg trial record, it was immediately evident to us that the principal prosecution witnesses were the Greenglasses. On that there was general agreement. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruled: "Doubtless, if [the Greenglass] testimony were disregarded, the conviction could not stand." But it was also frustratingly evident to us then, as it was to me now, that the major accusations relating to atomic espionage that the Greenglasses had leveled against the Rosenbergs were essentially irrefutable. There was simply no evidence to prove or disprove their account. The Greenglasses told a story. The Rosenbergs denied the story. It was a classic he-said/ she-said situation.
Naturally I couldn't resist a glimmer of hope that this old and seemingly insurmountable impasse might now at long last be resolved with the help of the fresh clues I had stumbled on-especially the enigmatic date December 27, 1945, relating to David Greenglass's report on the atomic bomb. I knew that the only major untapped source of material on the case was the Holy of Holies of the Cold War espionage universe: the KGB intelligence archives. That Allen Weinstein was then preparing a book based on those hitherto-sealed archives was a fantastic stroke of luck for me, and I impatiently awaited its publication.
I had to wait for more than a year. * * *
Allen Weinstein is a historian who taught at Smith College and elsewhere. He is also a writer. His best-known book is Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case which, when it appeared in 1978, was widely acclaimed and catapulted him to national attention. It also precipitated a still-extant dispute between himself and then Nation editor Victor Navasky, whose request that he be permitted to check some of the book's documentation was denied by Weinstein. After about two decades in academia, Weinstein made a major career change, moving into a far different and wider arena: international relations. In 1985, he founded and became president of the Center for Democracy, a small but surprisingly influential Washington-based organization that operated throughout the world with the stated goal of promoting and strengthening the democratic process. In this capacity he had contact with many top governmental leaders, both in Washington and abroad; the Center maintained an office in Moscow, and Weinstein is said to have been an advisor to Boris Yeltsin while the latter was president of Russia.
One of the interests of the Center was the role of intelligence organizations in a democratic state, and Weinstein has made no secret of the fact that he had intimate connections with the American intelligence community. For example, he has recounted that in 1993, several high-level Russian intelligence officials "visited the United States as my guests. Their meetings included a private talk with then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey at my home ... and conversations with leading CIA and FBI counterintelligence officials at the request of those officials." In 1996, when a conference on the Venona decrypts was held at the National War College, it was jointly sponsored by the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and Weinstein's Center for Democracy.
Allen Weinstein's new book, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America, co-authored with a Russian, Alexander Vassiliev, finally appeared in early 1999. Reviews were somewhat mixed. Thus the Sunday New York Times praised the book unreservedly, while the daily Times complained that "readers less familiar with the record will find much of the material fragmentary, convoluted, badly shaped, dryly written and, all in all, an exercise to make the eyes glaze over." Another reviewer, in the online magazine Salon, used words like "dull" and "boring" and said the book's organization "is haphazard and difficult to track. Names, dates, facts and figures are sprayed at the reader like a sneeze." Even an otherwise laudatory review in the Journal of Cold War Studies criticized the book's "minimal background" and "absence of context."
The moment I obtained a copy, I eagerly skipped straight to the pages on the atom spies, particularly the Greenglasses and Rosenbergs. Surprise after surprise unfolded. Far from dull and soporific, I found what I was reading mind-blowing, enthralling, incredibly exhilarating, and then, ultimately, infuriating and sad.
I reread the pages over and over, amazed that none of the reviewers had comprehended their import. Then gradually I understood why. Nowhere in the book had Weinstein (who appears to have been the primary author) alerted the reader to the fact that he and Vassiliev had made important discoveries about the Rosenberg case. Moreover, the book prints material from the KGB files on the Rosenbergs and Greenglasses but doesn't include relevant excerpts from the Rosenberg trial record, to enable the reader to compare the two versions. Such a comparison would have revealed that the authors had come up with new evidence that contradicts key prosecution testimony in the government's atom spy trial.
I have no idea why Weinstein hid his light under a bushel. But while I was perplexed at this unique shortcoming, it would be fair to say that I was also delighted, because it meant that I would have a crack at explicating Weinstein's and Vassiliev's remarkable but still unexamined findings.
But first I had the responsibility of any researcher working with material from an unfamiliar source: to learn as much as I could about its provenance and authenticity. The KGB documents utilized in the book are identified by their file, volume, and page numbers in the Russian intelligence archives. Ordinarily, this would be sufficient information to enable me to determine whether a quotation or fact in the book was copied or interpreted correctly simply by checking it against the original source. But I was dealing here with data from archives that are barred to the public. For all intents and purposes, the extensive source notes in the book refer the reader to an invisible archive. Performing due diligence on an invisible archive is definitely tricky.
Excerpted from FINAL VERDICT by WALTER SCHNEIR Copyright © 2010 by Miriam Schneir . Excerpted by permission.
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