Retired KGB colonel decries Rosenbergs' execution Officer was connection between Moscow, spies

March 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MOSCOW -- A retired KGB colonel has for the first time disclosed his role as the human conduit between Moscow and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the two Americans who were executed for espionage in 1953 in one of the most celebrated spy scandals of the Cold War.

Alexander Feklisov, 83, said in an interview yesterday that the Rosenbergs were executed unjustly because while Julius Rosenberg did give away military secrets, he had not provided Russia with any useful material about the atomic bomb.

"He didn't understand anything about the atomic bomb, and he couldn't help us," Feklisov said indignantly. "And still they killed them. It was a contract murder."

Speaking in his apartment in Moscow, Feklisov said that his strong loyalty to Rosenberg and his own declining health had prompted him to tell his side of what happened 47 years ago. He said he had not received permission from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the successor to the KGB, to make his disclosures.

Feklisov, who said he would like to write a book about his role in the Rosenberg case, first discussed his relationship with the American couple in a television documentary that is expected to be broadcast on the Discovery Channel.

Feklisov, who met with Rosenberg frequently between 1943 and 1946, said the execution of Ethel Rosenberg was particularly unfair, since, he insisted, she had not actively spied herself.

Some, but not all, American historians now agree that Ethel Rosenberg's role in the conspiracy was a minor one. But there is no longer much doubt that her husband was stealing military technology and recruiting spies for the Soviet Union. Nor is there doubt that he was a member of an atomic spy ring.

In 1995, the U.S. intelligence community released documents that showed how a small team of cryptographers, known as the Venona Project, found the first clues that the Soviets had tried to steal the blueprints for the atomic bomb in World War II.

The Rosenbergs were convicted mainly on the testimony of Ethel Rosenberg's brother, David Greenglass (a low-level worker at the Los Alamos, N.M., atom bomb project) and his wife, Ruth, who were arrested for conspiracy and confessed.

Although Feklisov had the most direct contact with the Rosenbergs, he is not the first Soviet official to confirm that Julius Rosenberg stole secrets. But there have been some contradictory statements on the Soviet side about exactly what services were rendered.

Other retired KGB officials have confirmed that the Rosenbergs were spies but, like Feklisov, they denied that the Rosenbergs had provided any useful atomic secrets.

In fact, Feklisov confirmed what U.S. prosecutors had maintained during the trial: that Rosenberg had at least tried to steal details about the atom bomb. He gave him a rough sketch of a "lens mold," a bomb part that he had received from Greenglass. But Feklisov insisted that it was useless. "He gave us a childish scribble -- it was meaningless," he said.

There was no official comment in Moscow about Feklisov's revelations. "We do not comment on the Rosenbergs," Yuri Kobaladze, spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Service, said yesterday.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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