Spy case rests on family intrigue

Book: Ethel Rosenberg was convicted of espionage, but now the star witness, her brother, tells a reporter a different tale.

November 28, 2001|By Tom Blackburn | Tom Blackburn,COX NEWS SERVICE

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - David Greenglass was no James Bond. As spies go, he may have been the most lumpish, but veteran New York Times reporter Sam Roberts got a good book out of him anyway.

The news is that, 36 years after Greenglass got out of prison, changed his name and settled into what for an atomic spy can only be called outrageous normality, Roberts found him and got him to talk. The story is that, for Greenglass, it's still all about him.

In 1951, what he said put his sister in the electric chair and brought two families international notoriety. His sister was Ethel Rosenberg, the only woman ever electrocuted by the federal government. She and her husband, Julius, are the only Americans ever executed in peacetime for espionage.

To go back to the time Roberts recalls: Julius was the organizer, Greenglass the spy. Greenglass, an Army enlisted man, made molds for the A-bomb being invented at Los Alamos, N.M. He passed what he knew to the Soviets. Julius had recruited him and others for the communist cause. Sister Ethel? Well, she knew the cause and believed in it.

Greenglass got 10 years. Julius and Ethel got the chair because Greenglass and his wife became the government's star witnesses, and the Rosenbergs denied everything.

Ironies abounded, and Roberts meticulously sifts through them with his mastery of every document in the case. His book is titled The Brother: The Untold Story of Atomic Spy David Greenglass and How He Sent His Sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the Electric Chair.

Although the Rosenbergs are known to history as "atomic spies," the Soviets obviously got more from Klaus Fuchs, the emigre German who worked on the bomb and even held some of the patents. The Rosenberg ring's real contribution to Russia was an artillery proximity fuse Julius stole from his own job.

And the FBI knew much more about the spy ring than it told President Truman or the trial judge. It knew it had the real McCoy in Rosenberg from Soviet messages decoded by the Venona project. The project stayed secret for 40 years so the Kremlin wouldn't know who read its mail, but chasing spies was a search for evidence to match what the Kremlin's mail revealed.

FBI agents stood by in Sing-Sing to intervene up to the last moment if either Julius or Ethel decided to talk - and give the agency evidence it needed to take down other spies they knew about. It would have been nice, too, to confirm that Ethel deserved her sentence.

The whole case against her rested on the testimony of Ruth Greenglass, David's wife and an unindicted co-conspirator. Her story was that Ethel had typed David's notes to be passed on to the Russians. David, as an afterthought, confirmed his wife's story. David tells Roberts he assumed, at the time, that the FBI had other evidence against his sister.

Did he remember Ethel typing the material?

"I frankly think my wife did the typing," he replied, "but I don't remember." Not now, not during the trial.

Yet it's the typing Ethel may not have done - characterized by prosecutor Irving Saypool as striking "the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interests of the Soviets" that tied her to the conspiracy and put her in the electric chair.

Klaus Fuchs and another spy, higher than Greenglass in Los Alamos' scientific pecking order whom the government could never charge, lived out their natural spans. And since the Rosenbergs, the government has caught and imprisoned but not executed people whose treachery got other people killed.

The Soviets got the A-bomb, with perhaps some little help from the Rosenberg spy ring, possibly a little sooner than they would have had it on their own, but they never used it.

When Greenglass read of their first successful test in 1949, he recalled, "It never occurred to me to say anything like, `I helped them do it.' What the hell, I mean that was something in my past."

When his past caught up with him, he turned in his sister and brother-in-law. In his mind, he protected his wife and children as an average family man.

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