What the FBI Knew: The Case Against the Rosenbergs From the Investigators’ Perspective

Posted in: Book Reviews

Howard Blum, In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies (HarperCollins 2018).

This summer marked the 65th anniversary of the deaths of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs, husband and wife, were indicted in 1950 for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, tried and found guilty a year later, sentenced to death, and ultimately executed in Sing Sing Prison in 1953.

The prosecution of the Rosenbergs is a candidate for the case of the 20th century. It unfolded during the Korean War, when Cold War tensions were high, and generated considerable controversy. Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass, provided critical testimony against the couple; Rebecca West wrote that “few modern events have been as ugly as this involvement of brother and sister in an unnatural relationship which is the hostile twin of incest.” The execution of the couple left their two young sons without parents and occurred against the backdrop of protests and counter-protests worldwide.

The reverberations from the case are still felt today. Earlier this year, “Angels in America”—which features the ghost of Ethel haunting Roy Cohn, one of the prosecutors in the case—was revived on Broadway.

The Debate Over the Rosenbergs’ Guilt

Many books have been written about the Rosenbergs. In the aftermath of the case, there was a serious debate over whether the Rosenbergs in fact were guilty. In Invitation to an Inquest, published in 1965, Walter and Miriam Schneir made the case that the couple had been framed. While “Inquest” received respectful consideration, other authors maintained that the guilty verdict was accurate and correct, even if the sentence—especially for Ethel—was excessive.

Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton made a comprehensive case for the couple’s guilt in The Rosenberg File in 1983. Subsequently, the release of previously classified or unavailable records—including materials from the Venona Project, a top-secret United States Army project started in World War II to decode encrypted Soviet diplomatic cables—established conclusively that Julius Rosenberg ran a spy ring for the Soviet Union for nearly a decade.

Radosh and Milton incorporated this material in a second, updated edition of their book. After its publication in 1997, was there anything left to say about the case? It turns out the answer is yes. David Greenglass agreed to collaborate with Sam Roberts and allow his side of the story to be told. The result was The Brother, published in 2001, a fascinating account of the case from the perspective of the man who chose his wife over his sister and her husband.

The Contribution of In the Enemy’s House

Now Howard Blum adds to our understanding of the case with In the Enemy’s House, which tells the story of the government officials who began investigating Soviet espionage during World War II and ended up leading FBI agents to the Rosenbergs during the Cold War. Blum renders this history as a buddy caper, focusing on the two men who pursued Soviet spies for years.

The pair is straight out of Central Casting—think of “The Odd Couple.” Bob Lamphere is an aggressive FBI field agent, with a temper inherited from his father, a miner in Idaho. Lamphere has no desire to follow his father’s footsteps down into the mines, so he goes to law school then joins the FBI. After an effective stint in Chinatown in New York, Lamphere is transferred to the Soviet Espionage Squad, where he chafes at the long hours of surveillance spent following around suspected spies.

Lamphere’s lot improves when he begins working with Meredith Gardner, a talented linguist adept at deciphering codes and solving puzzles. During World War II, Gardner leaves academia to work for the Army’s Signal Security Agency, where he analyzes encoded messages sent by Germany and Japan. After World War II, Gardner works on the Venona Project, patiently and diligently analyzing intricately coded Soviet messages.

During their first meeting, the reserved Gardner is noncommittal about working with the FBI agent. Lamphere persists, however, and eventually the combination of Gardner’s decrypted cables and Lamphere’s legwork puts them on the trail of Soviet spies in the United States.

Blum traces the path of the investigation from Klaus Fuchs, a German physicist who worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, to Harry Gold, a chemist in Philadelphia who served as Fuchs’s courier, to David Greenglass, who also worked at Los Alamos and provided atomic secrets to the Soviet Union through Gold, to Julius (and Ethel) Rosenberg. This part of the book is called “Dominoes” and details the legwork that led to each suspect and the confessions—at least by everyone except the Rosenbergs—that follow.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Insist Upon Their Innocence, Are Convicted at Trial, and Ultimately Are Executed

By the time the trail leads to the Rosenbergs, Lamphere is certain that Julius Rosenberg—referred to in the Soviet cables by the code names “ANTENNA” and “LIBERAL”—has been engaged in espionage for the Soviet Union. The Justice Department prosecutors were constrained in the evidence they could present at trial, however. The Venona Project was top-secret, and the government decided not to disclose its existence. Had the prosecution used the decoded Soviet cables as evidence at trial, it would have had to reveal the existence of the project in open court.

According to Radosh and Milton, the government initially planned to present a fairly complicated case that covered not just the acts of atomic espionage that Julius Rosenberg orchestrated with David Greenglass and Harry Gold, but also additional acts of spying by other agents that he ran.

With late pretrial developments in the testimony of both Greenglass and Gold, the prosecution decided to follow “a second, streamlined trial outline” prepared by Cohn. As Radosh and Milton explain, this resulted in the presentation of a case that was shorter and more straightforward for the jury but one “that would be vulnerable to later attacks by those who sought to show that the Rosenbergs had been framed.”

Although Blum does not discuss the trial in detail, he does highlight the most problematic aspect of the case: Judge Irving Kaufman’s sentencing Ethel Rosenberg to death, despite limited evidence of her involvement in the conspiracy. All along, Ethel was a pawn in the prosecution’s case. She was charged to induce the couple to reveal more about Julius’s spy network.

After the Rosenbergs were convicted, the FBI opposed her execution. According to Blum, Lamphere drafted a memo for Director J. Edgar Hoover arguing that while a death sentence for Julius might be correct (as long as it was accompanied by a statement that it would be reduced if he cooperated with the FBI), “[n]o purpose would be achieved by sentencing Ethel Rosenberg to death.” Hoover agreed that Ethel should not receive the death sentence.

The FBI’s views were communicated to Judge Kaufman, but he nonetheless sentenced the couple to death. A number of legal appeals followed; all were unavailing. As the execution date approached, Lamphere and Gardner, among others, hoped that the Rosenbergs would cooperate with the government in order to receive a lesser punishment. But Ethel Rosenberg, in the words of William P. Rogers, the deputy attorney general at the time, “called our bluff.”

No other defendant who was charged and convicted as part of the conspiracy received a death sentence. Morton Sobell, a co-defendant in the same case as the Rosenbergs, was given a 30-year sentence by Judge Kaufman. David Greenglass, who cooperated with the government, received a 15-year sentence. His wife Ruth, who played a minor role in the conspiracy and testified at the trial, never was charged. Harry Gold, who also testified as part of the prosecution’s case, already had received a 30-year sentence from a federal judge in a separate espionage case. Klaus Fuchs, who was arrested and prosecuted in Great Britain, received a 14-year sentence.

The Continuing Relevance of the Rosenbergs’ Case

After the Rosenbergs were convicted in 1951 and the wheels of justice turned inexorably towards their execution in 1953, their legal case became a political affair. There were protests worldwide, and some argued that the executions should not occur because they would damage the standing of the United States in its competition with the Soviet Union for influence in the Cold War.

While the revival of “Angels in America” closed on Broadway earlier this summer, the Cold War is still playing in the news today. Although President Trump’s administration has imposed sanctions on Russia and Congress is currently considering more stringent measures, he shows no sign of abandoning his public embrace of Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin. Ironically, it must be noted, one of Trump’s early mentors was Cohn, who helped convict the Rosenbergs and other Soviet operatives.

President Trump’s contacts with Russia currently are being scrutinized in a number of legal investigations and lawsuits. Although it is not possible yet to say what they will show, the Rosenbergs’ case serves as a reminder that the political cases litigated in United States courts have lasting international implications.

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