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The Sobell Confession

Ronald Radosh & Steven Usdin

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’s piece was published on September 12, 2008. It reported that Sobell had “dramatically reversed himself” and “admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.” Sobell had also implicated Julius Rosenberg. Roberts asked “whether, 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,” and “was he, in fact, a spy?” Sobell answered: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that. I never thought of it as that in those terms.”

But Roberts reported no specifics about the Rosenberg ring’s espionage activities, stating that Sobell had downplayed the significance of anything Rosenberg may have given to the Soviet Union. “What I did was simply defensive,” he told the Times. “There’s a big difference between giving that and stuff that could be used to attack our country.” As for anything Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, had given to the Soviets through Julius’s network, Sobell claimed, “What he gave them was junk.”

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’ 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’s 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’s arrest and immediately started inquiring about booking passage on a Soviet bloc freighter. The jurors saw through Sobell’s claim that he’d 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’d 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’d 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. “Sure, I remember that time we got all the manuals and secrets from Langley Field from a safe at Columbia.” It was 1948 or 1949, he said, and the safe belonged to Theodore von Karman, at the time the world’s most prominent aerospace engineer, a man who shaped much of America’s postwar military strategy and who was trusted with some of the Pentagon’s most closely guarded secrets. Langley Field, near Hampton, Virginia, was one of the nation’s preeminent centers for military aviation design.

FBI files reveal that the material was removed from von Karman’s 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’s 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’s. Perl had the combination of his mentor’s personal safe, which contained classified material connected with von Karman’s role as chairman of the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board.

In 1951, a government informant, Jerome Eugene Tartakow, who shared Julius Rosenberg’s 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’s 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’s office, Perl had signed a receipt for a huge amount of classified material—35 test reports, a total of 1,885 pages—on such aerodynamics problems as a “comparison of hovering performance of helicopters powered by jet-propulsion and reciprocating engines, high speed wind tunnel tests … of the D-558 research airplane; and preliminary tests of the NACA 66-006 airfoil.”

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’s 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, “and gave it to the Russians on the platform.” Sobell’s recollection dovetails perfectly with Rosenberg’s boast to Tartakow.

As far as the KGB was concerned, the delivery couldn’t 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’t miss a beat when asked about his motives: “I did it for the Soviet Union.” 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’s 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’s 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 ’30s and ’40s, that meant dedicating oneself to Stalin and the Soviet Union.

Sobell’s 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’ 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 “one of [Tartakow’s] most dramatic tales.”

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’s account of what Julius had told him. The Perl story at first made him “concerned” since it was “the closest that they come in the entire book to a real live incident of espionage.” But Meeropol goes on to explain that the late Walter Schneir told him that “there was no system for checking out anything at that lab.” Meeropol also emphasized that no one had seen or known of Perl’s removing any documents from the building.

The absence of a witness led Meeropol to claim that Perl had removed nothing from von Karman’s 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’s ring.

Now, with Sobell’s 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’s 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, “I was aware that something was happening.” More specifically, he told Usdin, “At the time, I knew they were providing information to the Soviets.” Even so, Finestone hedged, stating that he’d 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’t 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 ’80s, had been Finestone’s 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“sheet music.”

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, On Doing 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’s 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: “I didn’t.” He explained that he’d 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’s response to mounting evidence against him and Julius Rosenberg was to hurl invective at anyone who questioned their loyalty. Max Elitcher’s 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’s efforts to rehabilitate Sobell and the Rosenbergs as Soviet patriots were, Sobell maintained, slanderous senile ravings.

The vehemence of Sobell’s 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’ 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 “top Air Force expert on aero-dynamics,” told these officials that “the 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.” The World-Telegram quoted NACA director Hugh Dryden as saying that “Perl was in a position to supply information which could fill out a bigger picture of a whole field of information.”

Sobell’s recent second confession finally clears up some of the few remaining points of contention about the Rosenberg case—what exactly Sobell contributed, whether he and his comrades gave the Soviets valuable information, and whether it is appropriate to dismiss their actions as youthful indiscretions in aid of a wartime ally. By confirming that he was one of the group who photographed material filched by Perl, Sobell demolished the lie that the Rosenberg ring stole only inconsequential data and engaged in mere “industrial espionage.” He also revealed that, while there is no evidence he engaged in atomic espionage—with which he is associated in the public mind because of his coconspirators—he was guilty of giving the Soviet Union secret data that advanced the capabilities of the Soviet military machine. He has thus put the last nail in the coffin of the arguments of the Rosenbergs’ apologists, who continue to insist that the couple were framed and executed by the U.S. government for their political ideas.

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