Rosenberg sons seek documents to clear mom's name 70 years after execution

Couple's aging sons file FOIA request to view secret papers held at National Archives, National Security Agency

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are pictured separated by a heavy wire screen as they leave federal court after being found guilty of espionage by a jury on March 29, 1951. File Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/UPI
1 of 2 | Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are pictured separated by a heavy wire screen as they leave federal court after being found guilty of espionage by a jury on March 29, 1951. File Photo courtesy of Library of Congress/UPI

June 20 (UPI) -- The aging sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- the infamous American couple executed for spying 70 years ago this week -- are demanding the U.S. government release all records related to the case in an effort to prove their mother's innocence.

In an online statement published on Tuesday's anniversary, Michael and Robert Meeropol -- now ages 80 and 76 -- called on National Intelligence Director Avril Haines to publicize thousands of documents held at the National Archives and National Security Agency.


Last year, the brothers filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the NSA to release as many as 200 boxes containing more than 500,000 classified papers about their parents' actions before they were put to death on June 20, 1953.

"We would like to know the full truth about our mother's case before we die," the brothers said in a statement. "On the 70th anniversary of our parents' execution, we call on Haines to follow her own wise counsel and direct the NSA and the National Archives to open these files to us and to every American."


The Rosenbergs were in their 30s when they were sent to the electric chair at New York's Sing Sing Prison following their convictions on federal charges of conspiracy to commit espionage.

UPI reporter Jack Woliston was among the witnesses to the execution.

The Rosenbergs were the first American civilians to be put to death for spying after they were accused of sending a rough sketch of the atomic bomb to Russia.

"Plain, deliberate, contemplated murder is dwarfed in magnitude by comparison with the crime you have committed," Judge Irving Kaufman said in sentencing them to death on April 5, 1951. "Millions ... may pay the price of your treason," he said.

The true depth of their involvement in the Soviet spy ring, however, was a secret that went to the grave as the Rosenbergs refused to cooperate with the government to save themselves, remaining closemouthed in a final act of defiance.

The Rosenberg's children, meanwhile, were orphaned at 10 and 6, and as they grew older began to have serious doubts about their mother's exact role in the crime, while acknowledging they have questioned and re-examined their own theories through the years.

In 1975, they submitted FOIA requests seeking documents on the case from 18 federal agencies, but they didn't think to include the NSA in the filing, and the case went cold for decades.


The NSA resurrected the case in 1995 with the release of the VENONA files, which contained a memo from the chief U.S. decoder of Soviet ciphers, who concluded he did not believe Ethel Rosenberg was a spy.

"It took us more than 20 years to realize that the NSA may not have released all accompanying materials to the transcripts of secret Soviet communications," the brothers said in the statement. "That realization prompted us last July to file two FOIA requests with the NSA and the National Archives to release all files related to our mother."

The remainder of the files still under wraps could show the Rosenbergs were framed, the brothers said as they sought to unseal additional materials and shed more light on their mother's involvement, believing prosecutors might have orchestrated perjurious testimony in her case.

The VENONA transcripts showed Julius Rosenberg had conducted military-industrial espionage for the Soviet Union in the 1940s, but the same documents contained exculpatory evidence that should have cleared Ethel's name, the siblings maintain.

"For instance, we learned that the KGB gave all its agents code names, but our mother was not given one," the statement says. "We have since had to grapple with the possibility that the U.S. government knew our mother was not a spy but charged, convicted, and executed her in a failed effort to pressure our father to cooperate."


Both men said they intended to "let the chips fall where they may."

"Though we grew up believing in our parents' innocence, as adults we adjusted our views as we learned more about the case," they wrote. "We came of age in the post-Watergate climate of the 1970s, when, like today, there was great concern about government secrecy and the over-classification of government documents. In 1975, we rode the wave of the strengthened Freedom of Information Act to file a precedent-setting FOIA request for files related to our parents' case."

Most notably, the brothers allege the judge presiding over the trial was in cahoots with the prosecution team led by late assistant U.S. attorney Roy Cohn, who later played the role of henchman in Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist efforts in the 1950s before being disbarred as a lawyer many years later for ruthless and unethical behavior.

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