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Morton Sobell was born into a Jewish family in New York City on 11th April, 1917. He attended Stuyvesant High School, where he became friends with Max Elitcher. (1) In 1934 Sobell became a student at the City College of New York where he studied engineering. While at college he met Julius Rosenberg.
In 1938 Sobell and Elitcher found work at the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, where they shared an apartment. According to Elitcher, both men joined the local Communist Party of the United States group. In September 1941, Sobell left the Navy Bureau to study for a master's degree at the University of Michigan. Over the next few years they saw each other infrequently.
According to NKVD agent, Alexander Feklissov, Sobell was recruited as a spy in the summer of 1944. "Sobell... was deferred from active military service because he was a top specialist in his field... Sobell was involved in radar engineering and had access to other confidential documents inside GE. Rosenberg recruited him during the summer of 1944 and handled the first two deliveries of documents. Then, very quickly, as with all other members of the secret network, I stepped in to deal with Sobell. The young man I met was of medium height, with dark hair, regular features and expressive eyes. As soon as he spoke, I understood that he was a modest and good person. His simple way of dressing confirmed my impression. When I asked him if he could microfilm his own documents, he replied it was not a problem since he knew photography quite well. At our next meeting I brought him a camera with the necessary accessories and a small stock of film." (2)
In June 1944 Max Elitcher claimed he was phoned by Julius Rosenberg, whom he had known slightly at college and had not seen in six years. Elitcher later recalled: "I remembered the name, I recalled who it was, and he said he would like to see me. He came over after supper, and my wife was there and we had a casual conversation. After that he asked if my wife would leave the room, that he wanted to speak to me in private." Rosenberg allegedly said that many people were aiding the Soviet Union "by providing classified information about military equipment". Rosenberg said that Morton Sobell was "also helping in this". (3)
At the beginning of September 1944, Elitcher and his wife went on holiday with Sobell and his fiancée. Elitcher told his friend of Rosenberg's visit and his disclosure that "you, Sobell, were also helping in this." According to Elitcher, Sobell "became very angry and said "he should not have mentioned my name. He should not have told you that." Elitcher claimed that Rosenberg tried to recruit him again in September 1945. Rosenberg told Elitcher "that even though the war was over there was a continuing need for new military information for Russia."
Elitcher claimed that he rejected the idea of being a Soviet spy. A telegram from Stepan Apresyan dated 26th July 1944 gave details of Rosenberg's approach: "In July ANTENNA (Julius Rosenberg) was sent by the firm for ten days to work in CARTHAGE (Washington). There he visited his school friend Max Elitcher, who works in the Bureau of Standards as head of the fire control section for warships... He has access to extremely valuable materials on guns... He is a FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN (member of the Communist Party)... By ANTENNA he is characterized as a loyal, reliable, level-headed and able man. Married, his wife is a FELLOWCOUNTRYMAN. She is a psychiatrist by profession, she works at the War Department. Max Elitcher is an excellent amateur photographer and has all the necessary equipment for taking photographs. Please check Elitcher and communicate your consent to his clearance." (4)
After leaving the University of Michigan Sobell found work with the General Electric Company in Schenectady In 1946 Max Elitcher stayed overnight at the home of Sobell. They discussed their jobs and Elitcher told Sobell he was working on a new gunnery control system. Sobell unsuccessfully tried to get information from Elitcher on this new system. The following year, according to Elitcher, Sobell asked him if he "knew of any engineering students or engineering graduates who were progressive, who would be safe to approach on this question of espionage.
By 1947 Morton Sobell, a qualified electrical engineer, was employed on military work at Reeves Instrument Company in Manhattan. In July 1948, Max and Helen Elitcher stayed with Sobell and his wife in Flushing, while house hunting. One night Elitcher drove Sobell when he delivered a "35-millimeter film can" to Julius Rosenberg who was living in Knickerbocker Village. On the way back Sobell told him that Rosenberg had discussed Elizabeth Bentley, the Soviet spy who had provided information to the FBI.
Max and Helene Elitcher decided to buy a house close to the one owned by Sobell: "The Elitchers bought a house in Flushing, Queens, on the street next to the Sobells'. The two small brick houses were located back-to-back, with easy access through unfenced abutting yards. Max obtained a job at the Reeves Instrument Company, where Morton already was employed. The two men regularly drove to work together; the women shared a jointly purchased washing machine kept in the Sobell basement." (5)
On 16th June, 1950, David Greenglass was arrested. The New York Tribune quoted him as saying: "I felt it was gross negligence on the part of the United States not to give Russia the information about the atom bomb because he was an ally." (6) The New York Daily Mirror reported on 13th July that Greenglass had decided to join Harry Gold and testify against other Soviet spies. "The possibility that alleged atomic spy David Greenglass has decided to tell what he knows about the relay of secret information to Russia was evidenced yesterday when U. S. Commissioner McDonald granted the ex-Army sergeant an adjournment of proceedings to move him to New Mexico for trial." (7) Four days later the FBI announced the arrest of Julius Rosenberg. The New York Times reported that Rosenberg was the "fourth American held as a atom spy". (8)
As soon as he heard the news Morton Sobell, his wife, and two children, traveled to Mexico City and went into hiding. At the end of July, 1950, FBI agents visited Max Elitcher at work. At the time, several former classmates and other associates of Rosenberg's were being questioned and were under surveillance, so there is no reason to assume that Elitcher was regarded initially as an outstanding suspect. However, Elitcher crumbled under questioning and offered to inform on his friends if he was not prosecuted for spying. The FBI put him in touch with Oetje John Rogge, who was also representing David Greenglass.
Martin Sobell was found on 16th August, 1950. According to a statement later made by Sobell, he was kidnapped: "On Wednesday, August 16, 1950, at about 8.00 P.M. we had just finished our dinner in our apartment in Mexico City in the United States of Mexico, and while my wife and I were lingering over our coffee there was a knock on the door. My older daughter opened the door and three men burst into the room with drawn guns and bodies poised for shooting; these men did not ask my name, did not say what they wanted. I demanded to see a warrant, or some other legal process. No reply, except some vague charge... that I robbed a bank in Acapulco in the sum of $15,000,000 was made. Of course, I vehemently denied the charge. I insisted on calling the American Embassy but without being permitted to do so. They picked me up bodily and carried me down from the fourth floor to the ground floor. In the street I kept shouting for the police. A taxi was hailed and they opened the door; tried to force me into the taxi; when two more men came in and beat me over the head with blackjacks until I lost consciousness. I woke up in the taxi and I was stretched horizontally at the feet of the three men." (9)
Martin Sobell was handed over to the FBI at the Mexican border: "We stopped at the Mexican Customs on the Mexican side of the bridge, across the Rio Grande marking the border. No examination was made of my baggage.... When we reached the bridge... our car was flagged. We stopped and the front door opened. A man entered with a badge in his hand and stated that he was a United States agent and he remained in the car. When we arrived at the United States Customs I was directed to sign a card, arrested after they searched my baggage and myself. They handcuffed me and placed me in jail where I remained for five days, after which time I was taken to New York City."
The trial of Morton Sobell, Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg began on 6th March 1951. Irving Saypol opened the case: "The evidence will show that the loyalty and alliance of the Rosenbergs and Sobell were not to our country, but that it was to Communism, Communism in this country and Communism throughout the world... Sobell and Julius Rosenberg, classmates together in college, dedicated themselves to the cause of Communism... this love of Communism and the Soviet Union soon led them into a Soviet espionage ring... You will hear our Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Sobell reached into wartime projects and installations of the United States Government... to obtain... secret information... and speed it on its way to Russia.... We will prove that the Rosenbergs devised and put into operation, with the aid of Soviet... agents in the country, an elaborate scheme which enabled them to steal through David Greenglass this one weapon, that might well hold the key to the survival of this nation and means the peace of the world, the atomic bomb." (10)
The first witness of the prosecution was Max Elitcher. According to the authors of Invitation to an Inquest (1983): "At the trial, Elitcher had to be led frequently by Saypol as he told a story that was vague and improbable. He claimed that Rosenberg and also Sobell had on a number of occasions invited him to engage in espionage activities and that they had continued these requests sporadically over a four-year period - despite the fact that he never had turned over a single scrap of information to them." (11) The New York Daily News reported: "Elitcher left trial observers with the impression that his must have been a masterpiece of equivocation and temporizing, since the first pressure was put to him in 1944... He was still resisting suggestions from Sobell and Rosenberg, he asserted... in 1948." (12)
The only evidence against Morton Sobell was Elitcher's story about the visit to see Julius Rosenberg in July 1948, when he was living in Knickerbocker Village. He described the "35-millimeter film can" that Sobell was carrying but he admitted that he did not know what, if anything, the can contained, nor had he actually seen Sobell deliver it to Rosenberg. Elitcher was unable to say if Sobell gave Rosenberg any information that was secret.
Morton Sobell did not take the stand at the trial. He later this had been a mistake: "I wanted to testify on my own behalf at my trial. I did not do so because my trial attorneys insisted that I should not, because (i) of the fact that the case that the prosecution had put in against me was so weak that my innocence was clearly established; and (ii) that it was so clear that I had nothing to do with any atomic espionage conspiracy.. that it would necessarily follow that I would be freed... I now know I should have insisted on telling my story." (13)
In his summing up Judge Irving Kaufman was considered by many to have been highly subjective: "Judge Kaufman tied the crimes the Rosenbergs were being accused of to their ideas and the fact that they were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. He stated that they had given the atomic bomb to the Russians, which had triggered Communist aggression in Korea resulting in over 50,000 American casualties. He added that, because of their treason, the Soviet Union was threatening America with an atomic attack and this made it necessary for the United States to spend enormous amounts of money to build underground bomb shelters." (14)
On the morning of Thursday, 29th March, 1951, it was rumoured that one of the jurors was uncertain about the guilt of Morton Sobell. Eventually, the jurors - the dissident vote among them resolved - returned to the courtroom. The jury found all three defendants guilty. Thanking the jurors, Judge Kaufman, told them: "My own opinion is that your verdict is a correct verdict... The thought that citizens of our country would lend themselves to the destruction of their own country by the most destructive weapons known to man is so shocking that I can't find words to describe this loathsome offense." (15) Judge Kaufman sentenced Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the death penalty and Morton Sobell to thirty years in prison.
Sobell's conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals early in 1952 by a vote of 2 to 1. Judge Jerome Frank, believed that the case against Sobell should not have been tried jointly with the Rosenberg atom bomb conspiracy and declared that he was entitled to a new trial. Later that year he was transferred to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. John Godwin has commented that Alcatraz was the place "to which the Federal government sent prisoners it particularly disliked." (16)
David Caute, the author of The Great Fear (1978) has pointed out: "He was not only convicted and sentenced to an incredible thirty years' imprisonment (of which he eventually served nineteen), he was also sent to the notoriously brutal Alcatraz federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. Sobell was one of the few Americans whose confinement equaled in rigor and protraction that of the Soviet political prisoners of the era." (17) Sobell was released in 1969 after serving 17 years and 9 months.
Sobell's Soviet case-officer, Alexander Feklissov, published The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999). He admitted that Sobell was a member of the spy network run by Julius Rosenberg. "The Rosenberg network included another agent, who is still alive as I write these pages. His name is Morton Sobell. I used to call him Morty, but his code name at the Center was Senya. Kvasnikov and I gave him another nickname that we thought appropriate because it really described him best: Coy." (18)
Morton Sobell eventually confessed to giving military secrets to the Soviet Union in an interview he gave to Sam Roberts of the New York Times in September, 2008. “What I did was simply defensive, an aircraft gun... This was defensive. You cannot plead that what you did was only defensive stuff, but there’s a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.” He also admitted that Julius Rosenberg was a spy but rejected the idea that his wife Ethel Rosenberg was a Soviet agent: " “She knew what he was doing, but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.” (19)
Sobell... At our next meeting I brought him a camera with the necessary accessories and a small stock of film.
In July ANTENNA (Julius Rosenberg) was sent by the firm for ten days to work in CARTHAGE (Washington). Please check Elitcher and communicate your consent to his clearance.
On Wednesday, August 16, 1950, at about 8.00 P.M. No reply, except some vague charge that I was one 'Johnnie Jones' and that I robbed a bank in Acapulco in the sum of $15,000,000 was made. Of course, I vehemently denied the charge.
I insisted on calling the American Embassy but without being permitted to do so. I woke up in the taxi and I was stretched horizontally at the feet of the three men.
When the car stopped in front of a building, they ordered me to get up; they told me to get into the building, but not to make a scene or they would plug me.... we went upstairs, and, we went into an office.
They sat me down and a slim, tall, dark man came over; he looked at me. I asked him what it was all about. He slapped me in the face and told me that they were the ones that were asking questions. At that point I discovered that my head was bloody and my shirt bespattered with blood.
However, they asked me no questions.... We spent in that building from approximately 8:30 P.M. till 4:00 A.M....
At 4:00 A.M. I was moved into a large four-door Packard and seated in the rear with two armed men, one on each side of me. At that moment, the same tall, thin man came to the door and spoke to my guards in English saying to them "If he makes any trouble shoot him."
The driver of the car, who apparently was the leader of the expedition .., told me that they were taking me to the Chief of the Mexican Police for further action. With a number of stops for one reason or another, we drove on until about 6:00 P.M. At that time... the leader tried to make a phone call or he did make one, and he told me that he was trying to get the chief of police. The same thing happened at about 10:00 P.M., and at midnight on August 17th, telling me that he was trying to make sure that the chief of police would be available.
At about 1:30 A.M. we arrived at Nuevo Laredo....
We stopped at the Mexican Customs on the Mexican side of the bridge, across the Rio Grande marking the border. They handcuffed me and placed me in jail where I remained for five days, after which time I was taken to New York City.
The prosecution case against Sobell was that he had agreed and conspired to supply defense data for the use of the Soviet Union (he was not charged with atomic espionage). He declined to take the witness stand and called no defense witnesses; although he pleaded not guilty, he seemed almost traumatized by his predicament. He was not only convicted and sentenced to an incredible thirty years' imprisonment (of which he eventually served nineteen), he was also sent to the notoriously brutal Alcatraz federal penitentiary in San Francisco Bay. Sobell was one of the few Americans whose confinement equaled in rigor and protraction that of the Soviet political prisoners of the era.
My appeals counsel have informed me that at every stage of this proceeding, since the trial, the United States Attorney has stressed in oral argument and affidavit, the fact that I did not take the stand in my own behalf, at the trial. It is highly inappropriate in this case that this fact be given any significance whatsoever, for the following reasons....
I wanted to testify on my own behalf at my trial. I now know I should have insisted on telling my story.
I am completely innocent of the charges made against me. The fantastic tale Max Elitcher told about a wild midnight ride to Julius Rosenberg's apartment is untrue... The balance of his testimony against me, which consisted in not a scintilla more than the insinuation by him of a reference to "espionage" in innocent and routine conversations I had had with him, is likewise untrue.
The only other testimony concerning me at the trial related to a trip to Mexico which I made with my family, which had nothing to do with espionage, and which only after the trial did I realize was given significance by court and jury out of all proportion to what the facts actually showed.... to make the record clear, I want to tell the whole story now.
My wife, daughter, infant son and I left New York in late June, 1950 for Mexico City. This was no suddenly developed plan. I had become dissatisfied with my work in the summer of 1949, but I couldn't very well leave then because I was in the middle of a big project at the Reeves Instrument Company, where I worked. I was in charge of the design and manufacture of a special radar computer known as a Plotting Board, and to have deserted it in midstream would naturally have prejudiced opportunities for future employment. During the following year I investigated several positions but couldn't find anything like what I wanted. I was really interested in getting into more basic research or an academic position.
My project was completed by June, 1950. At about the same time my datighter's school term ended, my wife's graduate physics course at Columbia wound up, and my own course I was teaching at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute... came to its summer recess. None of us had any special ties keeping us in the city, so we decided to go to Mexico... we had been planning and dreaming of such a trip for several years...
I wrote my employer for an indefinite leave of absence, applied for and obtained necessary visas from the Mexican consul in New York... and bought round-trip tickets at the American Airlines ticket office. On the way, I had the customs officials at Dallas examine and make a record of my foreign-made cameras, so I wouldn't have to pay duty on them when bringing them back into the country. In Mexico City, we rented an apartment for a month or two, where the family stayed all the time we were there.
There was one aspect of the trip, however, which differentiated it from a routine vacation. I was not alone, in mid-1950, in having become apprehensive over signs of political intimidation and repression in this country.... Although a scientist, I was not oblivious to political developments, and in fact, in common with many other scientists, saw a danger to my future in the oppressive atmosphere in which we had to work.
In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.
Through it all, he maintained his innocence.
But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.
And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.
In the interview with The New York Times, Mr. Sobell, who lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, was asked whether, as an electrical engineer, he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States and were bearing the brunt of Nazi brutality. Was he, in fact, a spy?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he replied. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”
Mr. Sobell also concurred in what has become a consensus among historians: that Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed with her husband, was aware of Julius’s espionage, but did not actively participate. “She knew what he was doing,” he said, “but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”
Mr. Sobell made his revelations on Thursday as the National Archives, in response to a lawsuit from the nonprofit National Security Archive, historians and journalists, released most of the grand jury testimony in the espionage conspiracy case against him and the Rosenbergs.
Coupled with some of that grand jury testimony, Mr. Sobell’s admission bolsters what has become a widely held view among scholars: that Mr. Rosenberg was, indeed, guilty of spying, but that his wife was at most a bit player in the conspiracy and may have been framed by complicit prosecutors.
The revelations on Thursday “teach us what people will do to get a conviction,” said Bruce Craig, a historian and the former director of the National Coalition for History, a nonprofit educational organization. “They took somebody who they basically felt was guilty and by hook or crook they were going to get a jury to find him guilty.”
The Rosenbergs’ younger son, Robert Meeropol, described Mr. Sobell’s confession Thursday as “powerful,” but said he wanted to hear it firsthand. “I’ve always said that was a possibility,” Mr. Meeropol said, referring to the question of his father’s guilt. “This is certainly evidence that would corroborate that possibility as a reality.”
In the interview, Mr. Sobell drew a distinction between atomic espionage and the details of radar and artillery devices that he said he stole for the Russians. “What I did was simply defensive, an aircraft gun,” he said. “This was defensive. You cannot plead that what you did was only defensive stuff, but there’s a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.”
(One device mentioned specifically by Mr. Sobell, however, the SCR 584 radar, is believed by military experts to have been used against American aircraft in Korea and Vietnam.)
Echoing a consensus among scientists, Mr. Sobell also maintained that the sketches and other atomic bomb details that the government said were passed along to Julius Rosenberg by Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, were of little value to the Soviets, except to corroborate what they had already gleaned from other moles. Mr. Greenglass was an Army machinist at Los Alamos, N.M., where the weapon was being built.
“What he gave them was junk,” Mr. Sobell said of Julius Rosenberg, his classmate at City College of New York in the 1930s.
The charge was conspiracy, though, which meant that the government had to prove only that the Rosenbergs were intent on delivering military secrets to a foreign power. “His intentions might have been to be a spy,” Mr. Sobell added.
(1) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 121
(2) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 132
(3) Max Elitcher, testimony at the trial of Julius Rosenberg and Morton Sobell (March, 1951)
(4) Stepan Apresyan, telegram to Moscow (26th July 1944)
(5) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 324
(6) The New York Tribune (17th June, 1950)
(7) New York Daily Mirror (13th July, 1950)
(8) New York Times (18th July, 1950)
(9) Morton Sobell, statement (18th August, 1950)
(10) Irving Saypol, speech in court (6th March, 1951)
(11) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 326
(12) New York Daily News (9th March, 1951)
(13) Morton Sobell, statement (September, 1953)
(14) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 268-269
(15) Walter Schneir and Miriam Schneir, Invitation to an Inquest (1983) page 153
(16) John Godwin, Alcatraz: 1868-1963 (1964) page 168
(17) David Caute, The Great Fear (1978) page 66
(18) Alexander Feklissov, The Man Behind the Rosenbergs (1999) page 130
(19) Sam Roberts, New York Times (11th September, 2008)
Morton Sobell was an American electrical engineer who stole information from his employer, General Electric, and passed it along to the Soviet Union. He was implicated in the same Soviet spy ring that included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
During World War II, Sobell worked as an electrical engineer for General Electric Company in Schenectady, New York. During that time, Sobell stole information about secret war-related projects, including anti-aircraft gun designs. After accusations of his espionage emerged in 1950, Sobell and his family fled to Mexico but were later kidnapped by armed men and returned to the United States, where they were turned over to the FBI. In 1951, Sobell was tried and convicted of espionage in connection with Julius Rosenberg and was sentenced to thirty years in prison. He was released after serving seventeen years and nine months.
Sobell maintained his innocence for much of his life and claimed that his conviction was a case of justice being subverted to serve political goals. In 2008, at the age of ninety-one, Sobell told the New York Times that he did in fact turn over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II. He currently resides in Bronx, New York.
Helen Sobell -- ex-husband was convicted spy
Helen Levitov Sobell -- whose former husband Morton Sobell was a co- defendant in the Rosenberg spy trial -- has died.
Mrs. Sobell died Monday in a Redwood City nursing home after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 84.
Mrs. Sobell was best known for her long and vocal campaign to free her husband, who was arrested in 1950 and later sentenced to 30 years in prison for conspiracy to commit espionage.
For 18 years, she traveled the world, speaking, coordinating volunteers and directing picket lines. At first, she campaigned to save the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of selling atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. They were executed in 1953.
Subsequently, she fought on behalf of her husband, who served his term on Alcatraz Island and later at Atlanta Federal Prison.
"We were both dealt a hand, and we made the most of it," said Morton Sobell,
who at 85 lives in San Francisco. "I didn't just go to prison and fade away. She was out there fighting."
Mrs. Sobell's activities, during the Joseph McCarthy period, brought her under the scrutiny of the FBI. Her daughter, Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, said the FBI had collected reams and reams of files about Mrs. Sobell, which the family later obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
"We knew we'd been followed. Our phones were tapped," Clemens said. "She had more pages of FBI records about her than all kinds of famous people."
In 1957, a Moscow spy testified that he had been directed by his superiors to hire Mrs. Sobell to spy for the Soviet Union, but that he had failed to carry out the assignment. At the time, Mrs. Sobell denied ever having anything to do with espionage and called the accusations "an attempt by government prosecutors to smear me and my husband."
She was born in Washington, D.C., in 1918 and contracted polio as a teen. She trained as a teacher.
In 1938, she married Clarence Darrow Gurewitz and had a daughter. During World War II, she worked at the Bureau of Standards as a spectrometer technician.
In 1945, she divorced Gurewitz and married Morton Sobell. They moved to Schenectady, N.Y., where both worked at General Electric. In 1947, they moved to New York City, where they later had a son. In 1950, she received a master's degree in physics from Columbia University.
That summer, the family fled to Mexico. It was there that Morton Sobell -- a former member of the Communist Party -- was arrested.
Additional Rosenberg/Sobell Related CPUSA Fronts Over the Years
In the CPUSA newspaper, the "Daily World", June 11, 1976 (June 10th dateline), by CPUSA member Mike Giocondo and entitled "Probe of Rosenberg Judge Urged", a new CPUSA-front was announced. Named "Attorneys to Reopen the Rosenberg Case", and led by veteran CPUSA-sympathizer Marshall Perlin, the group's goal was to call "for an independent committee of inquiry to investigate these documents and others concerning Judge Kaufman's conduct in the Rosenberg-Sobell case." (Re: "these documents" i.e. those released under the Freedom of Information Act in response to a lawsuit "filed by Michael Meeropol and Robert Meeropol, sons of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg)."
"Michael Meeropol, in a brief statement at the press conference, that (sic) the new disclosures 'speak directly to the guilt or innocence of my parents'."
"Among those at the press conference were members of "the"
- National Lawyers GuildNLG- long-cited CPUSA legal front
- National Conference of Black LawyersNCBL - a marxist-oriented organization affiliated with Castro's Cuba AAJ
- National Emergency Civil Liberties CommitteeNECLC - a cited CPUSA front
- Center for Constitutional RightsCCR - a marxist/communist created offshoot of the NLG
A History of Punctuation
Punctuation captures the pauses and inflection of speech. Will we continue to use it in a digital age? Yes, Florence Hazrat argues, in a brief history of punctuation at Aeon:
The development of punctuation is messy and diffuse: individual writers’ habits, different shapes of marks that keep mutating from manuscript to manuscript, or simply pragmatic reasons of space all complicate a simple narrative. Rather than a neat evolutionary line, imagine punctuation developing as a rhizome, a horizontal mesh of practices, explorations and loosely understood conventions whose overlapping branches sometimes do the same thing but look different. Sometimes they disappear and return at later points elsewhere, or burst to the surface from obscurity and come to dominate the organism for various reasons.
By the late Middle Ages, the comma, the colon and the full stop had established themselves. The exclamation and the question mark joined their ranks, attesting to a need for emotional emphasis and clarification of intonation. What is perfectly clear in speech can become doubtful in its written form, in spite of question words and interrogative grammatical constructions.
The hope or necessity to clarify the meaning of words that came disembodied of vocal inflections or body language drove the advent of punctuation. A rare instance of known invention is the birth of brackets in De nobilitate legum et medicine (1399), a work on the competition for nobility between medicine and law: the Italian scholar Coluccio Salutati added half-angular, half-pointy brackets to the text written by his amanuensis, showing the care he took over the minutiae of written expression.
The parenthesis is the rhetorical figure of digression. It existed before the invention of the visual sign to mark it off from the main story. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian latinises a digression as interpositio in his book on rhetorical training, which, just as the Greek counterpart parenthesis does, draws attention to the physical image of something spatially standing between or beside something else. A syntactic mini-digression is thus ancient but it took some 1,500 years to crystallise those relationships between main clauses and adjunct through the semi-permeable walls of brackets. As writing needed to do more work in trade and political communication, more and more signs of punctuation were invented to facilitate faster and more accurate reading.
Speaking of punctuation, if you use periods in your texts, you’re the worst, according to Gen Z: “While older texters may consider the period an innocent symbol that a sentence has ended, digital natives consider it a triggering form of aggression.”
In other news: C. S. Lewis dedicated The Horse and His Boy to his two stepsons—David and Douglas Gresham. David was schizophrenic and died in a Swiss mental hospital several years ago. Douglas talks to First Things about Lewis’s later years caring for David: “For decades, despite a booming cottage industry of Lewis biographies and endless academic theorizing about the last years of Lewis’s life, Douglas kept to himself the fact that Lewis struggled mightily to help his mentally ill stepson. ‘We didn’t tell anybody,’ he told me . . . Douglas recounted some surreal stories. ‘I learned how to fight very fast I learned how to run very fast,’ he recalled. ‘I came out of the kitchen [at The Kilns] one afternoon, for example. . . As I walked out the brick arch doorway, there was a splash, and I was covered in gasoline. My brother was standing there trying to strike a match to throw at me. I kicked his wrist so hard I nearly broke it. The matches went flying, and I took off.’ Douglas told me that this sort of thing was not uncommon. ‘It was a difficult childhood for me,’ he said. ‘Jack tried his very hardest for David all the time. He tried to help in every way he could—he was kind and gentle and wonderful with him.’”
How and why did Morton Sobell become a spy for the Soviet Union? David Evanier tells the story: “On 11 March 2008, Morton Sobell, who was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, finally admitted to the New York Times, after five decades of denial, that he had spied for the Soviet Union. He implicated Julius Rosenberg in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets ‘classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb’. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison and served almost 19. The reporter, Sam Roberts, asked Sobell if, in fact, he was a spy. Sobell replied nonchalantly, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that. I never thought of it as that in those terms.’ This was the same insouciant Morty I remembered from the mid-1980s when I first met him.”
Cancel culture has “built-in limitations,” Tyler Cowen argues, and will prove weaker in the long run than most people think: “Fortunately, while ‘cancel culture’ and political correctness have become stronger and more influential over the last few years, these movements have built-in limitations. They will prove to be a durable element of American culture, but by no means a dominant one. How do I know? I don’t, of course, but consider which recent developments have most captivated young people and grabbed their attention. The first is the gaming ecosystem Fortnite, with about 350 million global users. The second is the short video platform TikTok, which now has 80 million active users in the U.S. alone. Both are huge worlds unto themselves, and both resist easy generalization. But it is safe to say that but they are not bastions of political correctness.” I’m not so sure, but let’s hope he’s right.
Lucien Freud was a terrible person, but was he a great painter? William Feaver’s new biography makes the affirmative case: “In 1995 the art critic David Sylvester caused a stir by suggesting in the Guardian that Lucian Freud – by then 73 and widely acknowledged as a major figurative British artist – was ‘not a real painter’. Freud, Sylvester wrote, lacked natural talent but had achieved his success through ‘a huge effort of will applied to the realisation of a highly personal and searching vision of the world’ . . . Feaver isn’t about to put Freud on the couch. Where he really excels is as a critic, nudging us away from Sylvester’s view of Freud as an idiot savant, a wode-covered savage strange to all artifice, to position him squarely in a sophisticated European painterly tradition. At their very best, the pictures Freud produced in the last half of his life bring to mind Dryden’s idea of fancy ‘moving the Sleeping Images of Things towards the Light’.”
Students game Edgenuity’s grading algorithm: “More than 20,000 schools currently use the platform, according to the company’s website, including 20 of the country’s 25 largest school districts, and two students from different high schools to Lazare told me they found a similar way to cheat. They often copy the text of their questions and paste it into the answer field, assuming it’s likely to contain the relevant keywords. One told me they used the trick all throughout last semester and received full credit ‘pretty much every time.’ Another high school student, who used Edgenuity a few years ago, said he would sometimes try submitting batches of words related to the questions ‘only when I was completely clueless.’ The method worked ‘more often than not.’”
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Morton Sobell, Soviet espionage, and Cold War mysteries
For those interested in Cold War history, one of the more surprising stories of 2008 was the admission by Morton Sobell that he and Julius Rosenberg had been Soviet agents during the 1940s.
Why did Sobell, now 91 years old, a former spy in the winter of his life, decide to tell the truth to Sam Roberts of the New York Times, after having proclaimed his innocence since his trial and conviction on espionage charges in 1951? Was he tired of lying on behalf of a discredited Marxist-Leninist ideology? (“Now, I know it was an illusion,” Sobell told Roberts. “I was taken in.”)
Did he no longer care about any embarrassment and pain he might cause for that dwindling legion of defenders who had proclaimed his innocence, and that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for more than half a century? (His stepdaughter told Roberts that Sobell’s confession “complicated history and the personal histories of the many millions of people, all over the world, who gave time, energy, money and heart to the struggle to support his claims of innocence.”) Did he want to set the historical record straight while he still could? Or did Sobell hope to preempt embarrassing disclosures in Rosenberg case grand jury testimony about to be released? (Ron Radosh, the leading historian of the Rosenberg case, believes Sobell broke his silence because, contrary to his public statements, the released testimony would make it “clear that Mr. Sobell had access to important classified military data, and was in a position to hand it over to the Soviets.”)
In the fullest account of the Roberts-Sobell conversation, it’s clear that Sobell remains conflicted about his dealings with the Soviets:
“I haven’t considered myself a spy,” he said. “Isn’t that funny? You use that word ‘spy,’ it has connotations.”
Was Julius Rosenberg a spy?
“He was a spy, but no more than I was,” Sobell replied. “He gave nothing, in the end it was nothing. The sketch was negligible and the government lied in presenting it as the secret to the atomic bomb. They never harmed this country, because what they transmitted was wrong.”
Further, Sobell argued he had passed information to a World War II ally, the Soviet Union, not then an American adversary—an excuse used by many on the Old Left to defend the Communist spies of the period. This, of course, ignores the fact that (as Radosh has tartly noted) the Rosenberg network commenced spying during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, prior to Germany’s 1941 invasion of Russia.
Yet Sobell’s attempts to downplay his and Julius Rosenberg’s culpability can be seen as signs of deep psychic conflict. Some of the Soviet atomic spies have been less repentant. Ted Hall, the Harvard-trained physicist perhaps most responsible for passing the design of the atomic bomb to the Russians, expressed little regret for his actions. (Hall deserves a special place in Harvard’s 20th century Hall of Shame alongside Nazi publicist Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl). After his death, Hall’s wife published a brief memoir in 2003 which included the following passage:
He [Hall] said that if he had then understood the real nature of Stalin’s dictatorship, he would not have had the stomach to share information about the atomic bomb with the USSR. However, looking back, he concluded that though he had been mistaken about some important things, ultimately his decision had proved right. In the early postwar period the risk that the US would use the bomb, for example against China or North Korea, was really serious. Hawks in the government seemingly had no comprehension of the danger this would involve for the whole world, and certainly no concern for the human lives they would have destroyed. If they had not been made cautious by the Soviets’ retaliatory power, enhanced to an unknown extent by the contributions of Ted and (far more importantly) [Klaus] Fuchs, there is no telling what they might have been capable of.
To his credit, Sobell appears ashamed of his “contributions,” and has refrained from claiming the moral high ground for his treachery. Instead, he has tried to minimize whatever damage he and Julius Rosenberg may have caused by passing classified military information, although the details they provided the Russians about American radar may have been used against U.S. planes in Korea and Vietnam.
Sobell’s confession was jarring to many Rosenberg defenders, as Roberts of the Times chronicled in his piece “A Spy Confesses, and Still Some Weep for the Rosenbergs.” It also prompted the Rosenberg’s sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, to acknowledge that their father, Julius, had been involved in espionage, although, they maintained, of a non-atomic sort. They continued to argue for their mother’s innocence and for prosecutorial misconduct in the case. (Certainly the executions of the Rosenbergs represented a failure of justice, as the death sentence was grossly disproportionate.)
Sobell’s admission also had to represent a chilling development for those last-ditch defenders of Alger Hiss, another Cold War figure accused of spying for the Soviets and convicted of perjury on a related charge in 1950. Hiss steadfastly maintained his innocence until his death at the age of 92 in 1996. Sobell’s confession suggested that decades-long protestations of innocence might not be indicative of anything.
There was some gloating, as well, by those who were proved right about the Rosenberg spy ring, and some attempted score-settling. In the New Republic, Martin Peretz went after Victor Navasky, former editor and publisher of The Nation, calling him “the cheerleader of the ‘everybody was innocent’ school in American sentimental thought about communism and its fellow-travelers” and challenging the Columbia University journalism professor to acknowledge that “innocence of the Rosenbergs is now exposed as false.” (Navasky on Sobell and Rosenberg: “these guys thought they were helping our ally in wartime, and yes, they broke the law, shouldn’t have done what they did, and should have been proportionally punished for it but the greater betrayal was by the state.”)
Cold War mysteries
While Morton Sobell confirmed what most Cold War scholars had already accepted—the existence of the Rosenberg spy network—there are still questions about the extent of Soviet espionage in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and how deeply the American military/scientific establishment was penetrated.
For example, nearly 350 Americans had some sort of covert relationship with Soviet intelligence in the 1940s, according to Venona Project decrypted Russian cables. Historians John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr have matched roughly half of the Venona code names with individuals. What more might we learn if more identifications could be made? How might that alter our understanding of U.S.-Soviet relations during the period?
Western scholars had some access to KGB and GRU archives after the fall of the Soviet Union, and much was learned about the clandestine links between the American Communist Party and Soviet intelligence. The rise to power of Vladimir Putin curtailed much of that research, although there have still been surprise revelations, such as the naming in 2007 of George Koval, “the spy who came in from the cornfields,” as a GRU agent who infiltrated the Manhattan Project.
And Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman’s just published “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation” makes the claim that an American scientist at the Los Alamos weapons lab betrayed the secrets of the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets in the 1950s. The authors do not name the alleged spy, but say that the FBI bungled its investigation of the security breach. (Nuclear weapons expert Robert S. Norris has suggested that the alleged spy was Darol Froman, a long-time Los Alamos scientist.)
No doubt the Russians could clear up more of these Cold War mysteries, but a Kremlin dominated by former KGB officials has resisted further transparency. It may take a recrudescence of glasnot, and the reopening of the Soviet-era archives, for the full historical story to be told.
Ronald Radosh and Steven T. Usdin: The Sobell Confession
[Ronald Radosh, coauthor of The Rosenberg File, is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a blogger for Pajamas Media. Steven T. Usdin is the author of Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley and “The Rosenberg Archive,” a historical timeline at www.wilsoncenter.org/cwihp/rosenberg.]
Three years ago, Morton Sobell gave an interview to Sam Roberts of the New York Times that surprised readers and stunned many who continued to believe that Sobell and his more famous codefendants, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were innocent victims of political persecution who had never spied for the Soviet Union.
Roberts&rsquos piece was published on September 12, 2008. It reported that Sobell had &ldquodramatically reversed himself&rdquo and &ldquoadmitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.&rdquo Sobell had also implicated Julius Rosenberg. Roberts asked &ldquowhether, as an electrical engineer, [Rosenberg] turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States,&rdquo and &ldquowas he, in fact, a spy?&rdquo Sobell answered: &ldquoYeah, yeah, yeah, call it that. I never thought of it as that in those terms.&rdquo
But Roberts reported no specifics about the Rosenberg ring&rsquos espionage activities, stating that Sobell had downplayed the significance of anything Rosenberg may have given to the Soviet Union. &ldquoWhat I did was simply defensive,&rdquo he told the Times. &ldquoThere&rsquos a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.&rdquo As for anything Ethel&rsquos brother, David Greenglass, had given to the Soviets through Julius&rsquos network, Sobell claimed, &ldquoWhat he gave them was junk.&rdquo
In effect, Sobell confessed to an ethical misdemeanor: passing along data of no consequence to an ally. This fits the current narrative of the Rosenbergs&rsquo two sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol. They, too, recently conceded that their father was a Soviet agent, but argued his activities were honorable because he only was helping an ally. Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Meeropols contend that their father was not responsible for any atomic espionage.
Julius Rosenberg was convicted on the basis of evidence that his ring had stolen atomic secrets, but the jury heard nothing to indicate what kind of information Sobell had given to the Soviets. He was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence. The most compelling testimony came from Max Elitcher, who told of driving to Sobell&rsquos home on Long Island in 1948, shaking an FBI tail on the way, and then accompanying his friend on a late night drive to Manhattan. Elitcher testified that the two friends, former roommates, drove to East River Drive in New York City and parked on a deserted waterfront street named Catherine Slip. Sobell took a 35 mm film canister out of the glove compartment. Elitcher told the jury he waited in the car while Sobell delivered the film to Rosenberg, a few blocks away.
The jury also must have been impressed by the fact that Sobell, who had never traveled outside the United States, bolted to Mexico with his family soon after Julius&rsquos arrest and immediately started inquiring about booking passage on a Soviet bloc freighter. The jurors saw through Sobell&rsquos claim that he&rsquod suddenly taken his family on a Mexican vacation.
Although the evidence clearly indicated that Sobell had been a member of the Rosenberg ring, neither the jury nor the public ever learned whether he&rsquod been an important spy or a minor player. Above all, there was no information in the public domain indicating whether what he gave the KGB had put American lives at risk. When he finally admitted his guilt to Roberts, Sobell was adamant that he&rsquod never harmed American national security.
Only in December 2010, in an interview with Steven Usdin, did Sobell reveal that he had indeed been a key participant in an espionage operation that provided an enormous amount of classified data to the KGB, information that was extremely useful to the Soviet military.
At 93, Morton Sobell is frail, and his mind comes and goes, but when Usdin asked if he could recall any specific incidents from his career as a Soviet spy, Sobell grinned from ear to ear and told a story from six decades ago as if it had occurred a month before. &ldquoSure, I remember that time we got all the manuals and secrets from Langley Field from a safe at Columbia.&rdquo It was 1948 or 1949, he said, and the safe belonged to Theodore von Karman, at the time the world&rsquos most prominent aerospace engineer, a man who shaped much of America&rsquos postwar military strategy and who was trusted with some of the Pentagon&rsquos most closely guarded secrets. Langley Field, near Hampton, Virginia, was one of the nation&rsquos preeminent centers for military aviation design.
FBI files reveal that the material was removed from von Karman&rsquos safe between June 26 and July 9, 1948, most likely over the July 4 holiday weekend. The job was done by a NACA (predecessor of NASA) scientist named William Perl, who had traveled from the government agency&rsquos offices in Cleveland to Columbia University, where von Karman worked. Perl, himself a brilliant aeronautical engineer, had been a trusted aide and friend of von Karman&rsquos. Perl had the combination of his mentor&rsquos personal safe, which contained classified material connected with von Karman&rsquos role as chairman of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.
In 1951, a government informant, Jerome Eugene Tartakow, who shared Julius Rosenberg&rsquos cell at Rikers Island while he was awaiting trial, told the FBI that Julius had bragged about the data Perl had taken from von Karman&rsquos safe. Tartakow told the bureau that copying the documents had kept four men using Leica cameras busy for 17 hours, working against the clock so Perl could return the documents before they were missed.
The FBI learned that during his visit to von Karman&rsquos office, Perl had signed a receipt for a huge amount of classified material&mdash35 test reports, a total of 1,885 pages&mdashon such aerodynamics problems as a &ldquocomparison of hovering performance of helicopters powered by jet-propulsion and reciprocating engines, high speed wind tunnel tests .&thinsp&thinsp.&thinsp&thinsp. of the D-558 research airplane and preliminary tests of the NACA 66-006 airfoil.&rdquo
The files that Perl borrowed were of major value to the Soviet Union. In addition to the tests and diagrams of a plane, they included virtually everything that von Karman was working on for the U.S. government. Some of the data pertained to the Lexington report, a detailed study of the feasibility of nuclear-powered aircraft.
Sitting in his apartment under a framed poster of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Sobell told Usdin how he, Rosenberg, Perl, and a fourth man he refused to identify had worked night and day over a weekend at an apartment used by the network. They had used Leica cameras to copy all von Karman&rsquos files. On Monday morning, Sobell recalled, he and Rosenberg packed canisters of undeveloped 35 mm film in a box that was so big one man could barely carry it, took a train to Long Island, &ldquoand gave it to the Russians on the platform.&rdquo Sobell&rsquos recollection dovetails perfectly with Rosenberg&rsquos boast to Tartakow.
As far as the KGB was concerned, the delivery couldn&rsquot have come at a better time. Stalin had ordered a massive crash program to improve Soviet military aviation, and Cold War tensions had long since put an end to all technological collaboration between the Red Army and the West.
Sobell didn&rsquot miss a beat when asked about his motives: &ldquoI did it for the Soviet Union.&rdquo He explained that his support for the USSR was not the result of deep reading of Marx or Lenin, nor was it sparked by the economic meltdown he and his peers experienced during the Depression. Sobell was a Red Diaper Baby. His parents were both Communists his mother led party meetings in the family&rsquos apartment when Morton was a toddler. When Morton was a college student, his father, a pharmacist, was happy to supply condoms for his Communist friends. One of Morton&rsquos uncles ran a Communist summer camp in the Catskills, and another worked as a secret courier, carrying messages between party officials in New York and their superiors in Moscow. It never occurred to Sobell to be anything other than a devoted Communist. In the &rsquo30s and &rsquo40s, that meant dedicating oneself to Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Sobell&rsquos story about the Columbia safe caper succinctly encapsulates some of the most significant conclusions historians have drawn from the flood of documentation about the Rosenberg case released over the last 20 years. The evidence indicates that Rosenberg and his comrades were motivated by loyalty to the Soviet Union, not opposition to fascism as their defenders claim, and that the Rosenberg ring provided vast quantities of technical data to the Soviet Union that helped it achieve near parity with the United States in the skies over Korea and Vietnam.
Ironically, the Rosenbergs&rsquo defenders have long argued that it was a slander on the memory of the late William Perl to imply that because he removed from a safe material he was authorized to see he had committed espionage. Indeed, the claim advanced by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton in their 1983 book The Rosenberg File that Perl had removed the contents in order to photograph them for the Soviet Union was met with derision. Michael Meeropol, for example, referred to the incident sarcastically as &ldquoone of [Tartakow&rsquos] most dramatic tales.&rdquo
Writing in the second edition of We Are Your Sons, a book he coauthored with his brother Robert, Michael Meeropol described his reaction to Tartakow&rsquos account of what Julius had told him. The Perl story at first made him &ldquoconcerned&rdquo since it was &ldquothe closest that they come in the entire book to a real live incident of espionage.&rdquo But Meeropol goes on to explain that the late Walter Schneir told him that &ldquothere was no system for checking out anything at that lab.&rdquo Meeropol also emphasized that no one had seen or known of Perl&rsquos removing any documents from the building.
The absence of a witness led Meeropol to claim that Perl had removed nothing from von Karman&rsquos safe and that the entire incident had been fabricated by the bureau in order to build a case against Perl for the purpose of pressing him to confess to being part of Rosenberg&rsquos ring.
Now, with Sobell&rsquos new confession, it is clear that Perl did remove documents from the safe and give them to Sobell and others to photograph, documents that proved to be of immense help to the Soviet Union early in the Cold War.
Sobell still refuses to identify the fourth photographer. The material was copied at 65 Morton Street in Greenwich Village in an apartment leased to Alfred Sarant. During the war, Sarant lived there with Joel Barr, both active members of the Rosenberg ring. When Rosenberg was arrested, Sarant and Barr fled, first to Czechoslovakia and later to the Soviet Union.
After the war, and before the FBI closed in on Rosenberg and company, Sarant sublet the apartment to several friends. During this period a man named Max Finestone moved in. FBI files refer to him as Rosenberg&rsquos last recruit, an assertion supported by recent leaks from the KGB archives. Finestone stonewalled the FBI, refusing to discuss his relationship with Rosenberg or admit to any connection with espionage. When Sol Stern and Ronald Radosh interviewed Finestone in 1978, he firmly denied knowing anything about espionage and complained about the direction of the questions he was asked.
But in February 2011, interviewed on the phone by Steve Usdin, Finestone admitted, &ldquoI was aware that something was happening.&rdquo More specifically, he told Usdin, &ldquoAt the time, I knew they were providing information to the Soviets.&rdquo Even so, Finestone hedged, stating that he&rsquod been only dimly aware of what his roommates were doing and had no idea of what kind of information they were giving the KGB.
This doesn&rsquot seem credible. Finestone knew that Sarant, Barr, Rosenberg, and their friends were engineers working on military technologies. Did he think they were giving the Russians copies of Chinese takeout menus?
Finestone must have at least guessed what was going on, and it is likely he was an active accomplice. The late James Weinstein, a well-known socialist publisher and editor in the 1970s and &rsquo80s, had been Finestone&rsquos roommate at Cornell University. After graduation, when both men were living in New York, Finestone suddenly told Weinstein he had to move out of his apartment quickly, and the two became roommates again. Weinstein remembered going to see Finestone at the Morton Street apartment and finding a table set up with photographic lights and Leica cameras. When he asked what it was for, Finestone told him it was for photographing&ldquosheet music.&rdquo
Another point must be made about the photography party Sobell remembers so fondly. The incident occurred long after anyone could argue that the Soviet Union was under threat from the Nazis or that the USSR was an American ally. In his memoir, OnDoing Time, Sobell wrote that after World War II he was convinced that war between the United States and the Soviet Union was inevitable, and that it would be the fault of the United States. Sobell&rsquos actions make it clear that in the event of this conflict, he would stand with the Soviet Union.
Asked in December when he stopped spying, Sobell replied: &ldquoI didn&rsquot.&rdquo He explained that he&rsquod continued to funnel secrets to the KGB up until shortly before he fled to Mexico in June 1950. That escapade ended when the Mexican police tracked Sobell down, whacked him on the head with a pistol butt, drove him to the Texas border, and turned him over to the FBI.
Sobell was tried along with the Rosenbergs. Following their execution, idealistic men and women around the world organized passionate protests and campaigns in a futile effort to get their codefendant liberated from Alcatraz. Having served 18 years in federal prisons, Sobell was finally released in 1969, still asserting his innocence.
For decades, Sobell&rsquos response to mounting evidence against him and Julius Rosenberg was to hurl invective at anyone who questioned their loyalty. Max Elitcher&rsquos sworn testimony that Sobell and Rosenberg had openly discussed their espionage activities was perjury, Sobell said. Decrypted KGB cables implicating Sobell and his comrades he insisted had been forged and/or grossly misinterpreted. A sentimental former KGB officer&rsquos efforts to rehabilitate Sobell and the Rosenbergs as Soviet patriots were, Sobell maintained, slanderous senile ravings.
The vehemence of Sobell&rsquos denials over so many years made his confession in 2008 all the more remarkable. Still, the Times story was less of a bombshell than it might have been because it provided a forum for Sobell to justify and minimize his spying. It reiterated lies that have long comforted the Rosenbergs&rsquo supporters and muddied the historical record.
In fact, there is no evidence that Sobell or other members of the Rosenberg ring ever withheld any information they thought could be useful to Stalin and the USSR. In the five years between the end of the war and the unraveling of the Rosenberg spy ring, Sobell had access to a wealth of classified military material, including detailed information about the characteristics and capabilities of every American bomber, designs for analogue and digital computers used to automate antiaircraft weapons, and specifications for land-based and airborne radars that were later deployed in Korea.
When the Cold War turned hot in Korea, this technology was used to kill American soldiers. High Air Force and NACA officials told the New York World-Telegram on July 9, 1953, that data stolen by Perl were probably used in the design of the Russian high-tailed MiG fighter jet that was deployed in Korea against American airmen. One unnamed source, described as a &ldquotop Air Force expert on aero-dynamics,&rdquo told these officials that &ldquothe unusual tail of the MiG was specifically a NACA development, as was another antiturbulence design feature which showed up on the MiG a surprisingly short time after the Air Force, with NACA help, had perfected it.&rdquo The World-Telegram quoted NACA director Hugh Dryden as saying that &ldquoPerl was in a position to supply information which could fill out a bigger picture of a whole field of information.&rdquo
Soviet Spy Morton Sobell Dies
Morton Sobell, the Soviet spy who was convicted alongside Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, has died. He served 18 years in prison for crimes that contributed to countless deaths, including those of U.S. servicemen.
(An interesting side-note: One of the names on the byline of Sobell’s New York Times obituary is that of a reporter who passed away in 2010. The obituaries of famous people are partly written in advance, and the writers sometimes interview their subjects for them, a job that must require a very sensitive kind of etiquette.)
All that Cold War stuff surely seems like ancient history to Millennials — and people such as Bernie Sanders, well more than old enough to know better — with their nostalgic and idiotic talk of “socialism.” But it isn’t ancient history: See Venezuela.
You know how this goes: “Oh, but we don’t mean that. We don’t mean authoritarianism and repression.” And maybe they don’t. But, historically, that has not been true of American progressivism as a whole. American progressives were happy to make excuses for Stalin and Mao, just as they were happy to make excuses for Castro, just as they are happy to make excuses for Maduro right now. Progressives — not all of them, of course that should go without saying — have been content, and even eager, to cooperate with tyrants and murderers over the years, believing that these are necessary evils in the campaign against the real enemy, which is the United States and the values it represents.
Sobell and the Rosenberg spy ring helped to put military technology — including nuclear weapons — into the hands of one of the most murderous ideological regimes in human history. That Sobell spent many years walking around in daylight after having done so is not obviously a testament to the rightness of our national priorities in matters of justice. If he’d been involved in the history’s largest cocaine-production ring instead of history’s largest corpse-production ring, he’d have done more time.
Morton Sobell was born into a Jewish family in New York City. He attended the City College of New York where he received a degree in engineering ΐ] and later married Helen Levitov (1918–2002). Α] He worked in Washington, D.C. for the Navy Bureau of Ordnance and in Schenectady, New York, for the General Electric Company.
After being accused of espionage, he and his family fled to Mexico on June 22, 1950. He fled with his wife Helen, infant son Mark Sobell, and Helen's daughter from her previous marriage, Sydney. Sobell tried to travel to Europe, but without proper papers he was not able to leave. On August 16, 1950, Sobell and his family were abducted by armed men, taken to the United States border and turned over to the FBI. Α] The FBI arrested him for conspiring with Julius Rosenberg to violate espionage laws. He was found guilty along with the Rosenbergs, and sentenced to 30 years. He was initially sent to Alcatraz, until the prison closed in 1963. He was released in 1969 after serving 17 years and 9 months. Β]
Secret prisons are operating in the United States today. Many Americans I speak with don’t believe this could possibly be true, and think that such human rights abuses only occur in foreign countries. But the reality is that the United States has a dark history of disproportionately punishing people because of their political views, a history that has largely been ignored or forgotten.
Today, under the ever-growing banner of national security and the “War on Terrorism,” that trend has continued in secrecy.
Let me be clear about the term “secret prisons,” though. I don’t mean facilities the public has absolutely zero knowledge about. After all, even Soviet gulags were known both within the country and internationally. Secret prisons are those that operate under a separate standard from traditional prisons. They reflect a parallel legal system for prisoners who, whether because of their race, religion, or political beliefs, are denied access to communications, deprived of their due process rights, and hidden from public scrutiny.
Here, then, is a brief look at that history, from institutions started in the 1940s to those that are operating today.
Japanese internment camps
Perhaps the most notorious use of this parallel legal system was the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. All Japanese adults were required to complete a questionnaire to evaluate their “Americanness,” and the final two questions directly assessed their loyalty to the United States.
Leading up to the internment, the government had begun using a “Custodial Detention Index” to identify and surveil political activists, including those in the Japanese community. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the FBI carried out arrests of many of these individuals and sent them to detention camps as well.
Around this time, Alcatraz was becoming a household word. The former military garrison was described as the “end of the line” and the nation’s most repressive prison. It housed the so-called “worst of the worst,” including gangsters like Al Capone. But Alcatraz was more than that. It was a new spectacle of retribution and secrecy. It was an island far removed from public oversight, both geographically and politically. Prisoner accounts detailed widespread brutality, and said that most torturous of all was Warden Johnston’s “silence rule,” which prohibited all communication by prisoners. It reportedly drove several prisoners insane.
Public perception of Alcatraz was that it housed violent prisoners unworthy of public consideration. It also housed some of the most controversial political prisoners of the era. Morton Sobell, for instance, was a co-defendant of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—who were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States—and the focus of public outreach and media efforts to secure his release. Rafael Cancel Miranda was an influential figure in the Puerto Rican independence movement. Like prisoners in the modern-day Communications Management Units I visited, Cancel Miranda was only allowed visits between glass and conducted in English. He was not allowed to see his children.
In 1963, USP Marion was created as a high-tech replacement for Alcatraz, and 500 of its prisoners — including Miranda — were transferred there. In 1968, prison officials began a behavior modification program at Marion called the Control and Rehabilitation Effort, with the Orwellian acronym of CARE. Prisoners characterized CARE as psychological attack sessions. When prisoners protested the beating of a fellow inmate in 1973 by organizing a work stoppage, prison officials created an even more extreme program at Marion called the Control Unit.
Over the years, the Marion, Illinois, prison became infamous for this Control Unit, which kept prisoners in solitary confinement on lockdown for twenty-two hours at a time. There were accounts of widespread brutality. National organizations called the “Marion Model” tantamount to psychological torture, but the Bureau of Prisons claimed that it was necessary to maintain safety.
Like Alcatraz, though, the Control Unit did not house prisoners solely based on their propensity for violence. As former warden Ralph Arron told Mother Jones in 1990, “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and the society at large.” After a prison-wide strike and then the murder of two guards at Marion in the early 1980s, the entire prison effectively became a Control Unit. Later, government officials called for an even more extreme facility, and the Supermax ADX-Florence was built in Colorado.
In the 1980s, a similar unit was created for women. The High Security Unit in the federal women’s prison in Lexington, Kentucky, was created to house political prisoners belonging to any organization that, according to the Bureau of Prisons, “attempts to disrupt or overthrow the government of the U.S.” The unit housed Susan Rosenberg, a radical activist who supported the Weather Underground and Black Liberation Army, and Silvia Baraldini and Alejandrina Torres, who supported Puerto Rican independence struggles.
The Lexington HSU existed belowground, in total isolation from the outside world and with radically restricted prisoner communications and visitations. The women were subjected to constant fluorescent lighting, almost daily strip searches, and sensory deprivation. The purpose of these conditions, according to a report by Dr. Richard Korn for the ACLU, was to “reduce prisoners to a state of submission essential for ideological conversion.” The Lexington HSU was closed in 1988 after protest by Amnesty International, the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights and religious groups.
Barrington Parker, the judge in this case, said that the prison units were illegal because they disproportionately punished political dissidents. “The designation of prisoners solely for their subversive statements and thoughts is the type of overreaction that the Supreme Court has repeatedly warned against,” he said in his ruling.
Communication Management Units
And yet the closure of the HSU was hardly the end of the story. Today, Communications Management Units, or CMUs, are the modern extension of the Bureau of Prisons’ history of operating pilot programs outside the confines of the Constitution. In April 2006, the Justice Department proposed new rules for “Limited Communication for Terrorist Inmates.” Proposals included limiting prisoner communication to one fifteen-minute telephone call per month, one six-page letter per week and one one-hour visit per month. During the required public comment period, civil rights groups protested that the program was inhumane. The backlash prompted the government to drop the proposal. Or so it seemed.
A few months later, the Justice Department quietly opened the first CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana. Two years later, they opened another in Marion, Illinois.
In October 2011, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons reported that federal prisons house 362 people convicted in terrorism-related cases. However, the government will not disclose who is housed in the CMUs, why they were transferred there or how they might appeal their designation. CMUs are intended to isolate prisoners with “inspirational significance,” to use the government’s language, from the communities and social movements of which they are a part. These secretive prisons are for political cases the government would rather remove from the public spotlight.
Even federal judges sometimes don’t know about the CMUs. Attorneys for environmental activist Daniel McGowan, sentenced in 2007 to seven years in jail for his role in two acts of arson, argued in court that if he was sentenced to prison as a “terrorist,” he could end up in a secretive prison unit. Judge Ann Aiken replied, “Now, defendants raise the specter that anyone with a terrorism enhancement is automatically doomed to a dungeon, so to speak, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. It’s a very emotional argument, but nothing more, because it’s not supported by the facts.” In a way, Aiken’s comments are true. The argument was not supported by facts, because it was incredibly difficult to learn the details of these prison units.
That’s still the case today. I was able to visit Daniel McGowan in the CMU, making me the first and only journalist to visit the facility. As I detailed in my book, Green Is the New Red, prison officials threatened to punish McGowan if I interviewed him, and later punished him for writing about the units for the Huffington Post.
Secret prisons aren’t only housed within the United States. Abroad, the CIA has operated “black sites” — facilities that were used to interrogate and torture people outside the scope of the American judicial system. The Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which has become synonymous with indefinite detentions and human rights abuses since it was opened in 2002, is likely the most famous of these. A 6,700-page government report details the scope of these operations and the CIA’s use of torture. But right now, the report is being kept hidden, even from members of Congress and government officials. As the New York Times noted, “the Justice Department has prohibited officials from the government agencies that possess it from even opening the report, effectively keeping the people in charge of America’s counterterrorism future from reading about its past.”
This notion of a parallel legal system has crept into local law enforcement as well. In Chicago, the police department is operating an interrogation compound called Homan Square. It is off the books, which means that Americans locked inside are not listed in police databases and cannot be found by friends and family.
As Spencer Ackerman reported for The Guardian, arrestees are denied access to attorneys, and some have reported police beatings. The facility is a nondescript warehouse on Chicago’s west side, where people are held in interrogation rooms for between 12 and 24 hours. Unlike at the police precinct, no one is booked and charged here, and lawyers are turned away at the door.
“It brings to mind the interrogation facilities they use in the Middle East,” said arrestee Brian Jacob Church, one of the so-called NATO 3 arrested in the leadup to mass protests in Chicago in 2012, who spent 17 hours in the facility. “It’s a domestic black site. When you go in, no one knows what’s happened to you.”
There is a common thread between all of these secret prison units, both foreign and domestic, past and current. They reflect the slow, steady dissolution of core constitutional rights in the name of national security.
When the CMUs were opened, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, testified before the U.S. Congress that they were for “second-tier” terrorism inmates. “We do not have to have them as restricted, but we want to control their communications,” he said. This benign characterization of these prisons is a chilling reflection of how, bit by bit, year by year, post-9/11 rhetoric of terrorism and national security have swelled into a form most Americans think can only occur in other countries.
If there is one thing that should be learned from history, from governments that have gone down this path, it is this: secretive prisons for “second-tier” terrorists are often followed by secretive prisons for “third-tier terrorists” and “fourth-tier terrorists,” until one by one, brick by brick, the legal wall separating “terrorist” from “dissident” or “undesirable” has crumbled.
This pattern is easier to identify when it occurs elsewhere or in history books. Restraint and reason have a way of surfacing with distance and time. The true challenge, though, is for Americans to shed this skin of exceptionalism we have worn, acknowledge that we, too, are vulnerable, and confront what is happening right now, at home.