Washington, D.C., January 31, 2008 - The National Security Archive, along with several leading U.S. historical associations, today is filing a petition in federal court in New York City for the release of grand jury records from the 1951 indictment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were accused of running an espionage ring that passed American atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, convicted of spying, and executed in 1953.
Supported by extensive declarations from experts, the petition describes the trial of the Rosenbergs as a defining moment in the Cold War, and argues that 57 years later, scholarly and public interest in these transcripts far outweigh any remaining privacy or national security interests in continued secrecy.
“This petition brings together scholars and journalists who have diverse and often divergent views of the Rosenberg case, Soviet espionage, and American counterespionage,” commented Tom Blanton, the Archive’s director. “What unites the petitioners is the opportunity to end the unnecessary secrecy and to open these unique primary sources to public and scholarly scrutiny.”
Supporting declarations point out that details of the Rosenberg grand jury proceedings have come to light over the years, yet significant questions remain unanswered about the case that the grand jury records are likely to address. The declarations variously point to questions about the scope and targets of the spy ring, the conduct of government prosecutors, the weight of the evidence, particularly against Ethel Rosenberg, and the involvement of other individuals.
Among the declarants are historian John W. Berresford, National Security Archive Director Thomas Blanton, University of Prince Edward Island Professor Bruce Craig, law student Jennifer Dillard, Yale University Professor John Lewis Gaddis, Library of Congress Manuscript Historian John Earl Haynes, Temple University Professor Allen M. Hornblum, Professor Ronald Radosh, New York Times reporter and historian Sam Roberts, Yeshiva University Professor Ellen W. Schrecker, George Mason University Professor Martin J. Sherwin, St. Joseph's University Professor Katherine A.S. Sibley, Marquette University Professor Emeritus Athan G. Theoharis, and historian Steven Usdin. In addition, Robert Meeropol, on behalf of the families of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, submitted a declaration in support of the release of the grand jury records.
In the words of petitioner Sam Roberts, “Few cases in American jurisprudence have stirred emotions, generated debate in and out of government and the judicial system, and have had as enduring and divisive a political impact as the prosecution of the Rosenbergs…”
A similar petition seeking the release of special grand jury transcripts from the investigation of Alger Hiss was granted in 1999 based on the significant public interest in filling gaps in the historical record. In 1948, Alger Hiss, a former high-ranking State Department official, was accused of passing secret information to Whittaker Chambers, a member of the Communist Party. Mr. Hiss eventually was convicted of perjury for lying about whether he had passed along secrets. The petition to unseal the Hiss materials resulted in the release of several thousand pages, including the testimony from a list of witnesses that included then-Congressman Richard Nixon, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, Harry Dexter White, Congressman Karl E. Mundt, and others. That release brought to light, for the first time, the fact that the future president made a second appearance before the Hiss grand jury to implore the grand jurors to do their patriotic duty and indict Alger Hiss, but not his accuser, Whittaker Chambers. Shortly after Nixon’s appearance, the grand jury did just that, triggering Hiss’ trial and conviction.
The petitioners include the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the American Historical Association, the American Society for Legal History, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, and New York Times reporter Sam Roberts. The petitioners are represented by David Vladeck of the Institute for Public Representation at the Georgetown University Law Center, who also served as counsel on the successful Hiss grand jury petition, and Debra L. Raskin, at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard in New York.
Petition and Memorandum
Petition for Order Directing Release of Minutes of Special Federal Grand Jury Convened in 1950-1951 that Pertain to the Indictment and Conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Memorandum in Support of Petition for Order Directing Release of Minutes of Special Federal Grand Jury Convened in 1950-1951 that Pertain to the Indictment and Conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
Selected Quotes from Declarations in Support of Petition to Unseal Rosenberg Grand Jury Materials
“The sensational court drama [that followed the indictments] is commonly considered the most infamous atomic espionage trial of the early Cold War era.”; “[T]hree central issues continue to fascinate students of the case: (1) To what degree did the information … assist in enabling the Soviets to build an atomic bomb?; (2) …was [Ethel] convicted on the basis of tainted evidence?; and (3) …[W]ere the defendants truly deserving of a death sentence?”
--Bruce Craig, Professor of History, University of Prince Edward Island and author, “Treasonable Doubt: The Harry Dexter White Spy Case”
“The release of the grand jury records would likely shed light on the actual importance of the information passed to the Soviets, thus resolving one essential question still surrounding the Rosenberg case.” Moreover, “the grand jury records will help clarify the actual extent of Ethel [Rosenberg’s] involvement in any espionage activities.”
---Katherine Sibley, professor, history department, St. Joseph’s University
“The grand jury records may reveal the scope of the Rosenberg spy rings, which extended beyond the atomic espionage for which they were executed. … The release of the Rosenberg grand jury records would be a boon to historians of Cold War intelligence activities.”
--John Lewis Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History, Yale University
“Few cases in American history have stirred emotions, generated debate in and out of government and the judicial system, and have had as enduring and divisive a political impact as the prosecution of the Rosenbergs. … These special circumstances … make a compelling argument that, after all these years, the routine and ordinarily legitimate rules for grand jury secrecy have been trumped by the compelling case for historical accuracy.”
--Sam Roberts, reporter, New York Times
“The grand jury records will likely clarify the government’s prosecutorial strategy against Ethel Rosenberg. While Ethel was probably aware of her husband’s espionage activities, the government had no evidence that she was directly involved with espionage. [In] order to pressure Julius Rosenberg to confess, the government prosecuted his wife and threatened her with the death penalty.”
--Ellen Schrecker, Professor of American History, Yeshiva University
“The unsealing of the Hiss grand jury records exposed the tainting of the grand jury process by political maneuvering … Discovering to what extent the politicization of justice occurred with the Rosenberg grand jury is of even greater significance and interest, for unlike Hiss who was only accused of perjury and spent years in prison, the Rosenbergs were ultimately executed for their alleged crimes.”
--Athan Theoharis, Professor Emeritus of History, Marquette University
“The Rosenberg spy ring may have divulged major military secrets that did not concern nuclear weapons, but were just as crucial and potentially dangerous. Grand jury witnesses may have provided more details on the Rosenberg spy ring that will help historians to understand the full extent of its assistance to the Soviets.”
--Ronald Radosh, Adjunct Senior Fellow, the Hudson Institute
“The Rosenberg grand jury records will add significant information to the current knowledge and understanding of the Rosenberg case in particular and of American communism and Soviet espionage in general.”
--John Wickham Berresford, Cold War Historian
“The Rosenberg case represents a major failure of U.S. counterintelligence. The grand jury transcripts could provide some additional information on the systemic failures that prevented the FBI from detecting a group of amateurs who manage to photograph tens of thousands of classified documents after Julius Rosenberg, Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant had been fired from government jobs because they were judged to be security threats.”
---Steve Usdin, journalist and author, “Engineering Communism: How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley”
“The Rosenberg case and the United States’ Cold War policies will always be the subjects of lively academic debate. The release of the Rosenberg grand jury records would advance this important debate and enlighten the public about the Rosenberg case, and more generally, about the development of the United States’ controversial Cold War policies.”
--Martin Sherwin, Professor of History, George Mason University
“[The] grand jury records are an important part of the historical record and their disclosure will shed light on the many unanswered questions that still surround the government’s prosecution of my parents.”
--Robert Meerepol, son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, on behalf of the Rosenberg descendents
”The records will likely provide new information on the extent of [Harry] Gold’s involvement in Soviet espionage. The records will also help to demonstrate the level of Gold’s psychological stability. These two issues have remained controversial, and the grand jury records will likely provide some of the best information to resolve the controversy.”
--Allen M. Hornblum, lecturer in geography and urban studies, Temple University
“A better understanding of the Rosenberg case … will materially affect historical understanding of the nature of American politics and the American government in the 1940s and 1950s. That understanding is in part blocked by the continued secrecy of the grand jury testimony.”
--John Earl Haynes, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress